Jazz musician, trumpeter, composer, bandleader, advocate for the arts, and educator, Wynton Marsalis has helped propel jazz to the forefront of American culture. His prominent position was solidified in April 1997, when he became the first jazz artist to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music for his work Blood on the Fields, which was commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center. He has served as the world-renowned arts organization’s artistic director as well as music director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (formerly known as the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra) since its 1987 inception.
At an early age, Marsalis exhibited seriousness about study, an aptitude for music, and a desire to contribute to American culture. Born on October 18, 1961, in New Orleans, Louisiana, he was the second of Ellis and Dolores Marsalis’ six sons. At age 8, he performed traditional New Orleans music in the Fairview Baptist Church band, led by renowned banjoist Danny Barker. Marsalis began studying the trumpet seriously at age 12, and gained experience as a young musician in local marching bands, jazz and funk bands, and classical youth orchestras. At 14, he was invited to perform the Haydn Trumpet Concerto with the New Orleans Philharmonic. In 1979, Marsalis entered The Juilliard School in New York City to study classical trumpet, but soon had the opportunity to sit in with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and pursue his true love, jazz. In the summer of 1980, he joined Blakey’s band, which inspired generations of emerging jazz artists to hone their craft during its more than 30 years of existence. In the years to follow, Marsalis was invited to perform with Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Clark Terry, Sonny Rollins and countless other jazz legends.
Marsalis made his recording debut as a leader in 1982 and has since produced a catalogue of more than 40 jazz and classical recordings for Columbia Jazz and Sony Classical, which have won him nine GRAMMY® awards. In 1983, and again in 1984, he won both classical and jazz GRAMMY® awards in the same year, the first and only artist to do so. Eight new recordings in his unprecedented Swinging into the 21st series, including a 7-CD boxed set of live performances from the Village Vanguard, were released in 1999. Signing to the legendary Blue Note Records in 2004, he released The Magic Hour, his first of six albums on the label. This was followed by Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, the companion soundtrack recording to Ken Burns' PBS documentary of the great African-American boxer; Wynton Marsalis: Live at The House Of Tribes (2005); From the Plantation to the Penitentiary (2007); Two Men with the Blues, featuring Willie Nelson (2008); He and She (2009); and Here We Go Again featuring Willie Nelson and Norah Jones (2011).
Not content to focus solely on his musicianship, Marsalis has devoted equal time to developing his compositional skills. Embraced by the dance community, he has received commissions to create major works for Garth Fagan Dance, Peter Martins at the New York City Ballet, Twyla Tharp for the American Ballet Theatre, and Judith Jamison at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. In 1995, Marsalis, with Jazz at Lincoln Center, collaborated with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center to compose the string quartet At the Octoroon Balls. This partnership was renewed in 1998, to create a response to Stravinsky's A Soldier's Tale with the composition A Fiddler's Tale. In 1999, Marsalis presented his most ambitious work to date, All Rise, an epic composition for big band, gospel choir, and symphony orchestra, performed by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Kurt Masur along with the Morgan State University Choir and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. A recording of All Rise, featuring the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra along with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Morgan State University Choir, the Paul Smith Singers and the Northridge Singers, was released on CD in 2002 by Sony Classical. Marsalis’ rich body of compositions also includes In This House, On This Morning, an extended piece based on the form of a traditional gospel service, commissioned and premiered by Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1992; Big Train, commissioned and premiered in 1998 by Jazz at Lincoln Center; and 1999’s Them Twos, his first symphonic work and the second collaboration between Jazz at Lincoln Center and the New York City Ballet. To mark the 200th Anniversary of Harlem’s historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in 2008, Marsalis composed a full mass for choir and jazz orchestra. The piece premiered at Jazz at Lincoln Center, followed by performances at the church. His second symphony, Blues Symphony, premiered in 2009 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, followed in 2010 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That same year, his third symphony, Swing Symphony, a co-commission by the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and The Barbican Centre, premiered with performances by The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis with the Berlin Philharmonic in Berlin, the New York Philharmonic in New York City, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Los Angeles (in 2011).
Marsalis’ commitment to improving people’s lives through music, and his contribution to the arts, paints a portrait of his character and humanity. He is internationally respected as a teacher and a spokesman for music education, having received honorary degrees from 29 of the nation's leading academic institutions, including Columbia, Brown, Princeton, and Yale universities. He conducts educational programs for students of all ages and hosts the popular Jazz for Young People concerts produced by Jazz at Lincoln Center, which spawned the first-ever comprehensive jazz appreciation curriculum for 4th–9th grades. His educational activities also include the annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival, which has reached more than 3,500 bands in North American and Australia, and the Band Director Academy. Marsalis writes, and is the host of, the video series Marsalis on Music, and the radio series Making the Music. He has also written six books: Sweet Swing Blues on the Road (W.W. Norton, 1994), in collaboration with photographer Frank Stewart; Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life (Da Capo, 2001), with Carl Vigeland; To a Young Musician: Letters from the Road (Random House, 2004), with Selwyn Seyfu Hinds; Jazz ABZ: An A to Z Collection of Jazz Portraits (Candlewick, 2005), illustrated by poster artist Paul Rogers; Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life (Random House, 2008), with Geoffrey C. Ward; and Squeak, Rumble, Whomp! Whomp! Whomp!, illustrated by Paul Rogers (Candlewick, 2012).
In 2001, Marsalis was appointed as a United Nations Messenger of Peace by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; he has also been designated cultural ambassador to the United States of America by the U.S. State Department through their CultureConnect program. In 2009, Marsalis was awarded France’s Legion of Honor, the country’s highest order. He also has been awarded the Congressional Horizon Award, the French Grand Prix du Disque, the Louis Armstrong Memorial Medal, the Netherlands' Edison Award, and the Algur H. Meadows Award for Excellence in the Arts, and has received countless plaques as well as keys to more than 50 cities. He has been inducted into the American Academy of Achievement, and was dubbed an “Honorary Dreamer” by the I Have a Dream Foundation. He also has received a citation from the United States House of Representatives for his outstanding contributions to the arts.
Marsalis serves on New Orleans mayor and former Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu's National Advisory Board for Culture, Recreation and Tourism, a group formed to assist plans to rebuild Louisiana’s tourism and cultural economies after Hurricane Katrina, and is a member of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, former New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin's initiative to help rebuild the city culturally, socially, economically, and uniquely for every citizen. He was an instrumental part of the Higher Ground Hurricane Relief concert, produced by Jazz at Lincoln Center, which raised over $3 million for the Higher Ground Relief Fund to benefit the musicians, music industry-related enterprises, and other individuals and entities from the areas in Greater New Orleans who were impacted by the storm. Marsalis donates his time and talent to non-profit organizations throughout the country, including From My Sister's Place (a shelter for battered women), Graham Windham (a shelter for homeless children), the Children's Defense Fund, Amnesty International, Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute, Food For All Seasons (a food bank for the elderly and disadvantaged), Very Special Arts (an organization that provides experiences in dance, drama, literature, and music for individuals with physical and mental disabilities), and the Newark Boys Chorus School (a full-time academic music school for disadvantaged youths). For his many achievements, Time Magazine selected Marsalis as one of America's most promising leaders under age 40 in 1995, and in 1996 Time celebrated Marsalis as one of “America's 25 Most Influential People.” He also was named one of "The 50 Most Influential Boomers" by Life Magazine.
In 1987, Marsalis co-founded a jazz program at Lincoln Center. In December 1996, the Lincoln Center Board rewarded the jazz department's significant success by voting it a full constituent, equal in stature with the ten other organizations on campus including the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera and New York City Ballet—a historic moment for jazz as an art form and for Lincoln Center as a cultural institution. Jazz at Lincoln Center has developed an international agenda with up to 500 events annually around the world. Under Marsalis’ direction, Jazz at Lincoln Center programming offers performances, lectures, film forums, dances, television and Peabody Award-winning radio broadcasts, recordings, and music publishing. In October 2004, thanks to efforts led by Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center opened its new home, Frederick P. Rose Hall, the first education, performance, and broadcast facility devoted specifically to jazz. As Jazz at Lincoln Center’s artistic director and as music director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis continues to spread the spirit of swing and raise awareness of jazz in the consciousness of the American public and the world.