Wynton Marsalis is a Pulitzer Prize and nine-time Grammy Award winner. He’s a musician, a bandleader and a composer as well as an arts advocate and an educator.
And he also was a kid once, growing up in 1960s and '70s New Orleans with FIVE brothers.
Heaven help his mother.
“Oh my, we drove her absolutely crazy,” the 52-year-old trumpet great said in a phone interview, “with all the running up and down, and the fights, and playing ball in the house, picking on our little brothers -- all the stuff that people do.”
Marsalis is the second of six sons born to jazz pianist Ellis Jr. and Dolores Marsalis. Three of his brothers are musicians, too -- older brother Branford (saxophone) and younger ones Delfeayo (trombone) and Jason (drums). His other brothers are Mboya Kenyatta, who is autistic, and Ellis III, a photographer.
“(We were) tearing up stuff all the time, and all the dumb games we would play and arguing about who won what games …” Marsalis said.
Their father proved to be a different story. The rambunctious brothers didn’t drive him as crazy.
“My father is very calm,” Marsalis said. “He’s a calming force, very practical, calm, easy-going and not complicated in any way.”
So, is Marsalis more like his mom or dad?
“I’m more like mom. I can be aggravated, but my father is never aggravated,” he said. “I’m always trying to do something, and I can get on your nerves when I’m trying to do something and you’re not trying to do that, too. Whereas my father … if you don’t really want to do something, that’s fine with him. He’s not really going to rock the boat."
The siblings have toned down their rivalry as adults.
“It’s really laid-back,” he said. “When we were younger, we used to play football and basketball against each other. It was me and Delfeayo versus Branford and Ellis. But we don’t really do all that (anymore). It’s much more laid-back.”
Not that they see much of each other anymore. Their busy schedules keep them apart. Marsalis said the family will reunite for the first time in a long time in November.
“Very seldom all of us are together,” he said. “My little brother Ellis -- I see him all the time because he comes to New York. Branford, I see him when he comes to New York. Delfeayo I don’t see that much, and Mboya, my little brother, is autistic, and I see him whenever I’m in New Orleans. He doesn’t travel that much. And Jason, I see him every now and then. But we don’t all get together.”
His family now, more or less, is the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which performs Friday at the Lied Center for Performing Arts as the Lied’s official opener for its 25th anniversary season.
The orchestra is in residence at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. Marsalis has served as the organization’s artistic director since its inception in 1987 and was named its managing director in 2012.
“We spend a lot of time with each other,” Marsalis said. “We are very close. We have the same type of family dynamic. We make a lot of group decisions all night. Our music is about the decisions we make, because we improvise. It’s all about choice.”
On Sept. 18, Jazz at Lincoln Center opened its new season with the world premiere of "Ochas," a three-movement suite blending jazz with the traditional folkloric music of Cuba.
Marsalis collaborated with the Cuban pianist and composer Chucho Valdez and rising Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez on a commission to create the piece. Marsalis called it “complex” because the suite was built around a dialogue between the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Cuban bata drummers, drawing on the rhythms and chants of the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion.
“It was a very rich, cross-cultural combination,” he said.
The piece was well received by audience members and critics, with The New York Times saying the conversation between jazz and Cuban music “made for an ambitious season-opening collaboration.”
“I never know how things are until I hear the tape, but people who knew about it were enthused about it,” Marsalis said.
In Lincoln, the orchestra will perform a traditional jazz program of Duke Ellington music, which Marsalis said “crosses generations.”
“It’s classic, so it’s not like it’s old or new,” he said. “And Duke Ellington’s music always makes you feel good. It’s good-feeling music.”