Jazz Legend Wynton Marsalis Discusses Music and Race During Live Session with BYU Students

The hour-long virtual Listen Up! session was followed by an exclusive streamed concert

Internationally acclaimed musician and prolific composer Wynton Marsalis is known for his extraordinary talent, as well as his humanitarian efforts around the world. Along with other respected names within the professional music sphere, he has added his voice to the painful but necessary conversations about race relations in America. 

In 1987, Marsalis co-founded Jazz at Lincoln Center. He has produced more than 100 records, won nine Grammy awards, and was the first jazz musician ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

On October 28, BYU College of Fine Arts and Communications students were treated to an hour-long virtual session with Marsalis, followed by a free streamed public performance of his new work, the “Democracy! Suite,” performed with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Septet.

Although Marsalis considers himself a leader in the arts world, he said that when it comes to race relations, he speaks as a citizen. He shared his insights in three individual segments: the pandemic’s impact on the arts, race relations, and the world as viewed through the lens of his composition “Ever Fonky Lowdown.”

These segments were followed by questions submitted ahead of time from students and faculty members.

Pandemic’s Impact on the Arts

COVID-19 has taken a highly personal toll on Marsalis, who lost his father, Ellis, to the disease in April. The pandemic’s impact on the arts has also been devastating. “We are called upon to display humility in the face of something so huge,” he said. “We’re still going up the mountain.” In order to keep making art and to rebound from the cancellation of so many live events, he emphasized that musicians and artists must make an extra effort to connect with each other around the world. They must continue to create, set goals and serve their communities in new and creative ways.  

When asked if he had any advice for student musicians just graduating and heading out into the world, he said, “You will look back on this time in your lives. The things you learn now amidst adversity will serve you for your whole life. We need your industry and energy. Question things. Don’t complain. Jump into the fray and greet the world anew.” He added that perhaps the most profound verse of scripture for these times is Matthew 7:7, which encourages us to “ask, seek and knock.”

Race Relations

Listening and learning about racial issues requires a particular type of engagement with ourselves, Marsalis said. “You are part of the solution. You can’t be passive. Don’t sit and listen to the nonsense. There are spiritual and philosophical imbalances deep within our history due to racism. We need to attack it because it cripples our potential.”

Marsalis used jazz music as a metaphor for examining race within our democracy. Regarding the state of politics in today’s world, he doesn’t believe that either side devotes enough attention to the arts or to civic engagement. “Democracy is turbulence,” he said. “It demands participation and change. You have to be part of the dialogue.”

He then further broke down this metaphor into three distinct elements: improv, swing and blues.

Improvisation is a key element of jazz music. Marsalis compared this to the fact that our Constitution can be amended as our nation grows and evolves. We must be flexible and open to new ideas. “It comes down to ingenuity, individualism and creativity,” he said.

Swing refers to the idea that jazz requires give and take. Musicians must work to achieve balance within the ensemble by not playing too loud or too long. He pinpointed this as the most difficult concept to grasp both within the jazz world and in the real world. “It forces you to listen, to find common ground,” he said. “Your solo is part of a larger whole.”

Blues acknowledges difficulty in the world but does not give in to cynical thinking. “It’s optimism that isn’t naive. It’s the idea of ‘I’m gonna make this better,’” he said. “Cynicism offers no possibility for improvement.”

The Ever Fonky Lowdown

This work of satire is a new composition by Marsalis, a parable for 2020 featuring sly narrator Mr. Game, who guides listeners through a journey ranging from love and romance to betrayal and corruption. It shares an ultimately hopeful message about how to rise above difficult circumstances.

As a young man in 1986, Marsalis appeared on the show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Then in 1992, he and Fred Rogers both received honorary degrees from Boston University. Marsalis referred to Rogers as a “force of nature” and an example of the kindness the world needs right now. He suggested that we should seek to make more of an effort to understand each other, even though it may be difficult. “We want things to be easy,” he said, “but it isn’t easy to try to figure out what’s true.”