Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis giving UNLV a jazzy jolt

What a horn-ography peddler.

Say that with respect.

One-time wunderkind Wynton Marsalis, 49, is now arguably The Grand Old (Middle-Age) Man of Jazz, an ambassador who trumpets the value of the music to the world as passionately as his trumpet plays it for his audiences.

Credentials? You’d need all of Friday Neon to hold them. Let’s settle for this: trumpeter, composer, bandleader, music educator and artistic director at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. Author of five books about jazz (including one of poems celebrating jazz luminaries). First recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for a jazz recording.

Statues of him in Marciac, France, and Massachusetts’ Berklee College of Music. … Sheesh. Showoff. (Joshing, dude.)

And guest performer, with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, on Saturday.

Got a minute, W.M.? What a cool cat.

Question: Obituaries for jazz have been written for years. Is it on the ropes?

Answer: It’s much better now than when I was coming up, in terms of the musicians who are playing and the awareness of it and its place in our culture, the knowledge of it. There are many more musicians who can play it. There was one time when we had trouble finding an acoustic bass player. There are a lot of great high school bands, and it’s much more international.

With the whole digitization of the music, it’s so much easier to get all of the great masterworks, and people are always looking at videos on YouTube of great musicians. Great books are coming out – look at the one Robin Kelley wrote on (Thelonious) Monk (“The Life and Times of an American Original”).

Q: Your recent book is “Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life.” Well, how can it?

A: Helping you prize individuality is one thing. When you know how a tenor saxophone should sound, but you know it’s Lester Young’s tenor saxophone or my brother’s (Branford), you can hear the difference in sound. To celebrate that helps you to identify your own creativity and your own uniqueness.

For America, it helps you understand who you are. We tend to devalue culture. We think it’s highbrow, and jazz is not. It’s not an elitist form. We are in a complex country. We have a complexity of cultures. The music helps you to focus that.

Q: Because clubs are important to jazz, fans worry that older patrons on fixed incomes or who are no longer big drinkers don’t spend money in them, which discourages clubs from booking jazz. Is this a legitimate concern?

A: You could’ve said that in 1975. I read an article from Downbeat from the late 1930s or early 1940s that asked, what will happen to jazz now that all the original masters are dying? And where are all the great jazz vocalists? There’s always cause for concern about the environment the music is in. In America, there is concern about the arts in general. We tend to think of it as something that’s boring and not worth participating in and it’s really too bad.

When they understand the value of our art form, then they make these things available. It could be a museum, it could be a symphonic orchestra, it could be a theater. All these things are part of civilization. Either you want these things to be a part of your life or you don’t.

Q: In Las Vegas, our main jazz radio station, listener-supported KUNV, changed from traditional to mostly fusion jazz, management complaining most listeners didn’t become members. That’s been repeated in other cities. Isn’t that closing off more outlets for jazz?

A: When everything becomes purely commercial, it becomes difficult to assess the meaning of anything outside of its commercial value. In New York, when WRVR went off the air, it’s not better for the music but people kept playing. It’s part of the reality we deal with. It’s hard to guilt people into wanting to support their art form. I’m not a fan of doing that. In difficult times, it’s harder for us to see culture as a solution when it is. It requires an understanding of what your culture is. We’re not an especially cultural people.

Q: Critics are divided on whether “fusion jazz” or “contemporary jazz” is actually jazz. What is your take?

A: If something doesn’t have a meaning, then it’s nothing. An art form can’t be everything for it to be popular. Jazz is an art form, it has meaning. There are things in it that mean certain things. Once you take things out of it, then it no longer has the same meaning and it is no longer of the same value.

Q: Should musicians take more of a cue from you to be jazz activists?

A: It’s up to each person to do what they want to do. I can’t put it on other musicians. I happen to like doing it. I love teaching and talking about it.

Q: You’ve taken heat from critics and musicians claiming you pontificate about jazz. Does that anger you?

A: I don’t mind being attacked for it. I’ve got very thick skin. In the early years it was a racial thing. That’s no longer a part of it. But I talk about rock and roll mythology, that it’s the mythology of the country. We need to adjust that. The people who are part of that are not going to embrace that. It’s a democracy. I have the right to state my opinion, and they have a right to state theirs.

Q: You’ve performed with jazz legends from Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan to today’s musicians. Do you consider yourself a generational bridge?

A: That I played with great musicians when I was younger like Dizzy Gillespie and Elvin Jones and Gerry Mulligan, it was a blessing. I don’t know if I’m a bridge, but I don’t believe in a generation gap. I believe in a continuum.

When I was 18, I never wanted to segregate myself from older people. Now that I’m older, I don’t want to segregate myself from younger people. It’s one human expression.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ or 702-383-0256.

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