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Wynton Marsalis: Jazzy Dad  

The Joy of Being a Jazz Dad

Marsalis. The name is as closely identified with jazz as Kennedy is with politics. The Marsalis family is comprised of no less than five accomplished jazz musicians, from the father of the clan, Ellis, through four of his sons, Branford, Wynton, Ellis III and Jason.

And although Branford came first, it's 48-year-old Wynton who currently stands on one of the greatest stages of swing, as the Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Marsalis co-founded the summer concert series in 1986 and helped turn it into a pillar of the arts institution, with its own three-venue complex (glimmering over Columbus Circle) and a $38 million annual budget.

As a youth growing up in New Orleans, Marsalis was a phenom on the trumpet, and at the age of 17, he was the youngest musician ever admitted to the prestigious Tanglewood Berkshire Music Centre. Juilliard soon followed, as did an illustrious career. In 1997, Marsalis was the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, and just a few months ago, his ascendance to the cultural elite was crystal clear when he led a six-piece band procession during a memorial service for Walter Cronkite, ending in front of both President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton. As jazz aficionados, both the president and former president paid tribute to Marsalis' mastery of the form.

In his career, Marsalis has made sure to not diminish the integrity of jazz while making it more accessible to larger audiences, both big (recently collaborating with Willie Nelson and Norah Jones) and small (working on a school music-appreciation curriculum tie-in with Disney's "Princess and the Frog"). In fact, Marsalis has always displayed an interest in little listeners, having played for countless school audiences, having a variety of youth programs at Lincoln Center that have reached some 50,000 participants, and having picked some of his most trusted musicians from their very ranks, including saxophonist Walter Blanding, whom he first heard when Blanding was a 15-year-old attending LaGuardia High School.

Marsalis has four children of his own, which makes him a bona fide NYC DAD. So it only makes sense that NYC DADS should sit down with the trumpeter to ask him questions about music and daddyhood. But not just that-NYC DADS will be heading over to listen to Marsalis and his group play live for a special performance in his Jazz for Young People series, on November 7th. The concert is classic Marsalis, entitled "Who is Mary Lou Williams?" it explores a leading lady of jazz, providing a great introduction to the music, as well as what promises to be a swinging good time. But more on that later (see below). For now, we present a conversation with Mr. Marsalis.

What are your most important memories of your father when you were growing up?
The dedication my father has to the music is something that always stays with me. He plays his heart out whether it's a gig for thousands or just six people in a club.

Did your father teach life lessons to you through music?
My father taught us to have integrity in whatever it was that we were doing - to be true to yourself and what you believe in.

Do you recall what it was like when your first son was born? Can you describe the feeling?
Becoming a parent changes your perspective on things and brings a new responsibility to your life. It's joyous.

What do you most enjoy doing with your kids in the city?
I love to take my kids on educational adventures through the city. I enjoy showing them the incredible architecture of New York, going to museums, or out to a meal and enjoying different types of cuisine.

What's been one of the greatest challenges about being a father?
One of the greatest challenges for any parent is to provide supportive guidance for your children but still allow them to be who they are and not who you want them to be. Letting them develop their own personality and exposing them to our culture and cultures around the world. Remembering to lead your kids and not be led by them is a big challenge we face in our society today. As adults it is our responsibility to stand by them through all the stages of growth and development and not abandon them at any point, especially when they are exploited at every turn by adults trying to sell them things.

What has been one of the most rewarding things about being a father?
The rewards are your own development as a person.

Would you say that jazz is like fatherhood in any way?
Everything in jazz can be applied to life and parenting. Jazz music allows you to be an individual and stay true to yourself while requiring your participation in a group. You can't just solo all the time you have to listen very carefully to swing with the band.

Jazz also tells us more about who we are as Americans, where we've been and where we're going more than any other indigenous art form. It is a music of communication.

Listening is an important skill to teach our little ones in this age of global communication. The telephone, radio, and computer have given us the tools to speak to one another. Now, the question is what will we say and how well will we listen. Jazz music teaches us respect, patience and attentiveness that are required to participate in today's worldwide conversation. It enables us to understand and enjoy the individuality of every person and encourages us to listen to one another with empathy.

Why should dads be aware of Jazz for Young People, and jazz in general?
Being aware of all of the arts will enhance your life whether it's going to a museum, opera, symphony, dance, jazz etc. The experience of coming to one of the family concerts at Jazz at Lincoln Center is being able to spend time together while enjoying the music and just having a good time. At these shows we try to encourage audience participation so the parents and kids are involved in different scenarios like call and response, riffs and more. They enjoy the music and learn about the cultural heritage of America.

Is there any fellow fatherhood advice you could impart to the younger NYC DADS who visit the site?
Just to have a good time checking out the music.

We're taking a special group of dads and their kids (six-years-old and over) to the Jazz for Young People concert series on November 7th, at 3pm. Entitled "Who is Mary Lou Williams?" the show features host Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Orchestra demonstrating how this leading lady of jazz "created a sum of musical moods that fully reflected the spectrum of jazz."The show will take place at the Rose Theater on 60th street and Broadway. If you are an NYC dad and you and your children would like to attend the event, email us at by November 3rd. Please give us your name and contact information, your child's name and age, as well as a short statement about what jazz means to you and/or your kids. There are limited seats available so NYC DADS will notify those who will be able to attend.