The son of pianist Ellis Marsalis, the younger brother of Branford and the older brother of Delfeayo and Jason (the Marsalis clan as a whole can be accurately called "The First Family of Jazz"), Wynton (who was named after pianist Wynton Kelly) received his first trumpet at age six from Ellis' employer, Al Hirt. He studied both classical and jazz and played in local marching bands, funk groups, and classical orchestras. Marsalis played first trumpet in the New Orleans Civic Orchestra while in high school. He went to Juilliard when he was 18 and in 1980 he made his first recordings with the Art Blakey Big Band and joined the Jazz Messengers.
By 1981, the young trumpeter was the talk of the jazz world. He toured with Herbie Hancock (a double-LP resulted), continued working with Blakey, signed with Columbia, and recorded his first album as a leader. In 1982, Marsalis not only formed his own quintet (featuring brother Branford, Kenny Kirkland, Charnett Moffett, and Jeff Tain Watts) but recorded his first classical album; he was immediately ranked as one of the top classical trumpeters of all time. His quintet with Branford lasted until late 1985, although a rift developed between the brothers (fortunately it was only temporary) when Branford finally quit the band to tour with Sting's pop group. By that time Wynton was a superstar, winning a countless number of awards and polls.
Marsalis' next group featured pianist Marcus Roberts, bassist Robert Hurst, and drummer Watts. Over time the group grew to become a four-horn septet with trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, altoist Wes Anderson, Todd Williams on tenor, bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Herlin Riley, and (by the early '90s) pianist Eric Reed. Marsalis really developed his writing during this era (influenced by Duke Ellington) and the septet proved to be a perfect outlet for his arranging. Although Marsalis had broken up the band by 1995, many of the musicians still appeared in his special projects or with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
In 1997, Marsalis' marathon Blood on the Fields (which was released as a three-CD set) became the first jazz-based work to win a Pulitzer Prize. Standard Time, Vol. 5: The Midnight Blues followed a year later. With the passing of so many jazz giants, Marsalis' importance (as a trumpeter, leader, writer, and spokesman for jazz) continued to grow. Standard Time, Vol. 4: Marsalis Plays Monk followed in 1999 to coincide with the popular PBS special. Then, as if eight proper recordings in 1999 weren't enough, Columbia and Marsalis released an amazingly affordable seven-disc set entitled Live at the Village Vanguard. Mid-2000 saw the release of Marciac Suite and Goin' Down Home. Two years later, Marsalis celebrated the blues on All Rise. Next up was his first effort for Blue Note, The Magic Hour, an album of original material released early in 2004. Later that year, the label released Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Marsalis' soundtrack to Ken Burns' documentary. Marsalis' second studio effort for Blue Note, the politically and socially aware From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, followed in 2007.
In 2008, Marsalis teamed up with country icon Willie Nelson for the live album Two Men with the Blues, which featured the duo performing over a two-night stint at Lincoln Center. The following year, Marsalis released the concept album He and She, in which he explored the theme of relationships between men and women. In 2011, he returned with the live album Here We Go Again: Celebrating the Genius of Ray Charles, which once again paired him with Nelson as well as vocalist Norah Jones. That same year, Marsalis, who had previously guested on guitarist Eric Clapton's 2010 album Clapton, again paired with the rock/blues master for the concert album Play the Blues: Live from Jazz at Lincoln Center. Also in 2011, Marsalis contributed the score to Burns' documentary Prohibition.
Over the next few years, Marsalis kept busy performing, as well as appearing regularly on television as a cultural correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning. He also joined the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) for Live in Cuba, a 2015 two-disc release featuring the ensemble's first-ever performances in Cuba. In 2016, Marsalis released The Abyssinian Mass, a recording of his 2008 composition commemorating the 200th anniversary of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church. An extensive work, The Abyssinian Mass showcased the connections between secular and sacred music and featured the JLCO along with Damien Sneed and Chorale le Chateau. In early 2017, The Music of John Lewis, a 2013 Lincoln Center concert celebrating the music of the Modern Jazz Quartet founder, was released and featured collaborator Jon Batiste. The concert compilation, United We Swing: Best of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Galas, appeared in 2018 and showcased Marsalis' septet alongside such guest luminaries as Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and more. Big Band Holidays II and the soundtrack album, Bolden, arrived in 2019, the latter of which found Marsalis supplying the music for the film based on the life of early jazz cornetist Buddy Bolden. 2020 saw Marsalis issue the dark and satirical epic Ever Fonky Lowdown, which featured the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, vocalists Camille Thurman and Doug Wamble, and narration by Wendell Pierce. ~ Scott Yanow, Rovi
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