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Whether Classical or Jazz, Wynton Marsalis and His Horn Are at the Top of the Charts

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Even in the music-laced ambiance of New Orleans, Wynton Marsalis rates as a most extraordinary young man with a horn. At 14, he made his debut with the city’s Philharmonic. Two years later he was performing with professionals in the New Orleans Brass Quintet. But it was a 1979 recital at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts that turned him into the stuff of legends.

He opened that concert with an all-but-flawless playing of Hummel’s E-flat major Trumpet Concerto, then segued effortlessly into jazz for the second half of his program. “Everybody was amazed,” recalls Paul Randall, now principal trumpet with the New Orleans Philharmonic. “He had the discipline and control to play a concerto and the creative spirit to improvise in jazz.” Adds trumpeter Ronald Benko: “It wasn’t so much his daring, but that each half of his program was equally wonderful.”

That rare virtuosity has since been displayed nationwide on tour and through a quartet of hit recordings. On Feb. 28 Marsalis is slated to play consecutive classical and jazz segments on CBS’s Grammy Awards program. He is the first artist ever to be nominated simultaneously in both the classical and jazz categories.

A reserved and analytical 22-year-old, Marsalis may be the person who is least awed by his own versatility. He sees no giant chasm between jazz and classical, “just two different ways of thinking, like checkers and chess,” he says, and adds, “Once I asked Alvin Batiste, probably the greatest clarinetist I ever heard and the first black guy to play with the New Orleans Philharmonic, what he thought about playing classical music. ‘Hey man,” he told me, “just play music and try to understand it.’ ”

Wynton lives by this credo now, but it wasn’t always so. Though his father, Ellis Marsalis, is a jazz pianist and his five brothers took up a variety of instruments, music at first was nothing special for Wynton. His father’s employer, Al Hirt, gave the boy his first trumpet when Wynton was 6. “I never practiced,” he says flatly.

Still, observes his mother, Dolores, “Anything Wynton committed himself to, he went all out, but he never tried to do 100 things at once—just one at a time.” Music waited its turn after such things as basketball and the Boy Scouts until, at 12, he heard an album by jazz trumpet great Clifford Brown. “Nobody could go like that, I thought, and I’ve just got to learn how,” says Wynton. “I’d practice when I woke up, and practice after school.” Evenings, Marsalis played with every conceivable music group in New Orleans. Despite that heavy schedule, he graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School, with a 3.98 (out of 4.0) average and a National Merit Scholarship.

Then 17, alone and “scared stiff,” he headed north to the citadels of classical music: Tanglewood’s Berkshire Music Center and Manhattan’s Juilliard School. His musicianship was instantly recognized, but he found it more fulfilling to play in the clubs, latching on with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Herbie Hancock’s VSOP II group. “Playing with them was like walking on water,” says Wynton euphorically. He is annoyed by the tendency of classical musicians to put down jazz. “Beethoven did things with rhythms that are really hip, but there’s no way that can be compared with modern jazz. Jazz is in motion, which automatically puts it in another realm.”

He approaches his music with a priestly purity of his own. His 1982 LP, titled simply Wynton Marsalis, did as much as anything else to spearhead a revival of undiluted jazz. That and his two Grammy nominees (the Haydn, Hummel and Leopold Mozart trumpet concerti, and his jazz album, Think of One) each sold some 100,000 copies, astronomical figures for records in those genres. Marsalis also has formed his own group (in which older brother Branford is saxophonist), and his performing and recording gigs should keep him fully occupied for the next year.

He avoids showboating and doesn’t smoke, drink or do drugs. He “loves the vibes of women” but admits to no steady date. For the moment he has set up housekeeping with Branford in his renovated Brooklyn brownstone. “Long walks are a Wyntonian tradition,” says trumpeter Justin Cohen, “but they must always have a destination. He is a man of purpose.” The critics think he can be the greatest trumpet player ever, exceeding even his own idol, Louis Armstrong. Wynton Marsalis doesn’t dawdle.