One of the magical things about living in NYC is that on an ordinary Wednesday night you can sit in an audience and hear one of contemporary jazz’s great musicians. Not play his instrument – no, that you can experience any place the musician may be touring. But sit in the audience and hear said musician share the story of his life – the story of his love of the very style and shape of music he has come to be known for playing.
I walked into the Great Hall last night, well aware of the way Wynton Marsalis has with a trumpet – having become the first jazz composer to win the Pulitzer Prize and notching up Grammy wins for both jazz and classical work. What I wasn’t aware of is his skill as an orator, as a story-teller. He took us back to the mid 60s when he grew up – telling us what he sees when he thinks back to that time. A huge presence in his life, like for many, has been his mother. But, as he’ll tell you over and over, in rhythmic, poetic fashion – naturally – you ain’t never seen no-one like Delores. Not on TV, not in the movies. When she’d tell you something, you’d listen, because she knew what she was talking about, he told us.
She taught him the basics of life, those fundamentals that are always under attack but always come back around, just like the mighty Mississippi River, near where he grew up.
Don’t be greedy.
Look people in the eye.
Be quiet, listen, they have something of value to say too.
Don’t eat that last piece.
Hold your head up high and be for real.
Marsalis strung together anecdotes, as if arranging notes in a performance piece. They relayed how his mother physically helped instill jazz in his heart. She took him and his siblings to the symphony, even though she didn’t want to be there – the same symphony he would go on to play in. But beyond that, her very essence moulded the man he became and the music he would go on to play.
So many times I felt myself hmmm‘ing in much the same way I would if I heard a song I liked. One time his mother took him and his brothers to a parade; he was 8, they were 4 and 5. As he held onto the hand of his 5-year-old brother, he could see his mother was taking some strain in carrying the younger sibling. After he’d repeatedly asked if he could help, she said to him: “The weight of something depends on how you feel about carrying it.” HMMM!
She taught him about the most important thing in life – your spirit. “The spirit is ephemeral. It’s omnipotent and transcendent. This I have seen, and this I believe. And that’s jazz,” he said.
Delores passed away last year, bringing her words into sharper focus for Marsalis. He spoke about how she understood how easy it was for the meanings of things to erode, how fast the mind can adjust to the absurd and the mediocre, and to rally against that. Pertinent words for these crazy times. Take care of your spirit and your soul, he learned from her. Jazz — music — expands the soul, and that’s what we can learn from Marsalis.
“She told me, your soul was actually the biggest part of your person. But it occupies a small space. And that space grew when it connected with other people’s souls. And I was just a boy — but I heard her,” he said, wiping away the tears.
And I heard him.