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Wynton Marsalis Bio


Wynton Marsalis

Managing and Artistic Director, Jazz at Lincoln Center

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 in American culture 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. In 2012, he was named Managing and Artistic Director of the world-renowned arts organization. He had served as artistic director as well as music director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (formerly known as the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra) since its inception. In 2011, CBS Television named him Cultural Correspondent.  Since July 1, 2014, Mr. Marsalis has served as the Director of Jazz Studies at The Juilliard School.

Musical Ingénue

At an early age, Mr. Marsalis exhibited seriousness about study, an aptitude for music, and a desire to contribute to American culture. On October 18, 1961, in New Orleans, Louisiana, he was born the second of six sons to Ellis and Dolores Marsalis. At age 8, he performed traditional New Orleans music in the Fairview Baptist Church band, led by legendary banjoist Danny Barker.  Mr. 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, Mr. Marsalis entered The Juilliard School in New York City to study classical trumpet but in the fall of 1979 he had the opportunity to sit in with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and pursue his true love, jazz music.  In the summer of 1980, he joined the band of acclaimed master drummer Art Blakey, which inspired generations of emerging jazz artists to hone their craft. In the years to follow, Mr. Marsalis was invited to perform with Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Sweets Edison, Clark Terry, Sonny Rollins and countless other jazz legends.

Acclaimed Musician, Composer, Bandleader

In 1982, Mr. Marsalis made his recording debut as a leader, and over the last two decades, he has 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, he became the first and only artist to win both classical and jazz GRAMMY® awards in one year, and repeated this feat in 1984. In 1999, he released eight new recordings in his unprecedented Swinging into the 21st series, which includes a 7-CD boxed set of live performances from the Village Vanguard.

Not content to focus solely on his musicianship, Mr. Marsalis has devoted equal time to developing his compositional skills. Embraced by the dance community for his penmanship, he has received commissions to create major compositions 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, and again in 1998 to create a response to Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale with his composition A Fiddler’s Tale.

In 1999, Mr. Marsalis presented his first symphony, 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.

Mr. Marsalis’s rich body of work includes Them Twos, his second collaboration between Jazz at Lincoln Center and the New York City Ballet in 1999; Big Train, commissioned and premiered in 1998 by Jazz at Lincoln Center; Sweet Release, a score for ballet written in 1996 for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and choreographed by Judith Jamison for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; Jazz: Six Syncopated Movements, from the 1993 Jazz at Lincoln Center collaboration with the New York City Ballet; Jump Start, a score written for dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp; Citi Movement/Griot New York, a three‑movement composition created in collaboration with choreographer Garth Fagan; and 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.  Mr. Marsalis signed to Blue Note Records and his debut CD on the label, a quartet recording entitled The Magic Hour, was released on March 9, 2004.  His Blue Note CD recordings include  Here We Go Again featuring Willie Nelson, Wynton Marsalis and Norah Jones (2011), Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis -Two Men with the Blues (2008), From the Plantation to the Penitentiary (2007), Wynton Marsalis: Live at The House Of Tribes (2005), The Magic Hour (2004) and Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004), the companion soundtrack recording to Ken Burns’ PBS documentary of the great African-American boxer.  Mr. Marsalis composed his second symphony, Blues Symphony, which was premiered in 2009 by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2010.   That same year, Marsalis premiered his third symphony, Swing Symphony, a Co-Commission by the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and The Barbican Centre.  The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis performed the piece with the Berliner Philharmoniker in Berlin and with the New York Philharmonic in New York City in 2010 and with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Los Angeles in 2011.

Mr. Marsalis co-wrote a composition called Congo Square with Ghanaian drummer Yacub Addy and dedicated the piece to Mr. Marsalis’ native New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.  The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, in collaboration with Yacub Addy’s group Odadaa!, premiered Congo Square on April 23, 2006 in New Orleans then performed the piece on tour from Florida to New York.

In 2008, Mr. Marsalis composed the extended work Abyssinian Mass, commissioned to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Abyssinian Baptist Church on West 138th Street in Harlem.  In 2013, Mr. Marsalis toured this work with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, gospel conductor Damien Sneed, and the 70-piece Chorale Le Chateau on an historic tour of American performing arts centers and churches.

In 2020, Blue Engine Records released The Ever Fonky Lowdown, Mr. Marsalis composition to directly address the irresistible cocktail of deception, racism, greed, and gullibility that subverts the global fight for human rights and corrupts the possibilities and promise of democracy in America and around the world.

In 2021, on the occasion of the U.S. presidential inauguration, Blue Engine Records released The Democracy! Suite, the follow-up to The Ever Fonky Lowdown. Composed by Mr. Marsalis during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis as a response to the political, social, and economic struggles facing the United States, The Democracy! Suite is a swinging and stimulating instrumental rumination on both the issues that have recently dominated our lives, as well as the beauty that could emerge from a collective effort to create a better future. The recording features a hand-picked lineup consisting of members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra,

Mr. Marsalis was an integral part of two major musical productions in 2013.  He served as Artistic Director of the Broadway musical “After Midnight,” and collaborated with Tony-winning composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim on “A Bed and A Chair.” “After Midnight” and “A Bed and A Chair” opened within weeks of each other and to critical acclaim.

Advocate, Educator, Cultural Leader

Mr. Marsalis’ commitment to improving people’s lives through music and his contributions to the arts paint 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 more than 30 of the nation’s leading academic institutions, including Columbia, Brown, Princeton, and Yale universities.

In 1987, Mr. 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 Mr. Marsalis’s direction, Jazz at Lincoln Center programming offers performances, lectures, film forums, dances, television and Peabody Award winning radio broadcasts as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Radio national radio program, recordings, and jazz education including programs for people of all ages and music publishing.  Mr. Marsalis regularly conducts master classes, lectures and concerts for students, including the popular Jazz at Lincoln Center Jazz for Young PeopleSM concerts that spawned the first-ever comprehensive jazz appreciation curriculum of the same name for 4-9th grades. Educational activities also include the annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival that has reached more than 3,500 bands in North American and Australia, and the Band Director Academy.

Mr. Marsalis donates his time and talent to non-profit organizations throughout the country to help raise money to meet the many needs within our society. From My Sister’s Place (a shelter for battered women) to 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) to the Newark Boys Chorus School (a full-time academic music school for disadvantaged youths).

He also has brought the spirit of jazz into the homes of millions of people through television programs such as Marsalis on Music, Ken Burns’ Prohibition, Jazz, and Unforgivable Blackness:  The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (PBS), the BET Jazz series Journey with Jazz at Lincoln Center, and with the radio series Making the Music for National Public Radio, which won a Peabody Award in 1996.  Mr. Marsalis released To a Young Musician:  Letters from the Road (Random House), published in 2004, and Sweet Swing Blues on the Road, a collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center photographer Frank Stewart.  In October 2005, Mr. Marsalis released Jazz ABZ (Candlewick Press), an A to Z collection of 26 poems celebrating jazz greats, illustrated by poster artist Paul Rogers.  In 2008, he released Moving to Higher Ground:  How Jazz Can Change Your Life (Random House) which he co-wrote with Geoffrey C. Ward.  In 2012, Mr. Marsalis released Squeak, Rumble, Whomp! Whomp! Whomp! (Candlewick Press), his second picture book with Paul Rogers and an exuberant work of 10 three-line verses featuring musical and everyday sounds.

In 2011, as part of an initiative to further integrate music and art into campus life to make cultural literacy an integral part of its curriculum, Harvard University appointed Mr. Marsalis to deliver six lectures over two years.

In 2013, HBO aired “Wynton Marsalis:  A YoungArts Masterclass,” an HBO Family documentary which followed three promising musicians working with Mr. Marsalis. The young virtuosos were selected by the National YoungArts Foundation for the chance to be mentored by Mr. Marsalis and perform alongside him at one of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Jazz For Young People concerts.  In 2014, “Wynton Marsalis:  A YoungArts Masterclass” won an NAACP Image Award, which celebrates the accomplishments of people of color in the fields of television, music, literature, and film and honors individuals or groups who promote social justice through creative endeavors.

Worldwide Recognition

 For his many achievements, Time magazine selected Mr. 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 the spring of 2001, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan proclaimed Mr. Marsalis an international ambassador of goodwill by appointing him a United Nations Messenger of Peace. 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.  Mr. Marsalis was instrumental in the Higher Ground Hurricane Relief concert, produced by Jazz at Lincoln Center, which has 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 Hurricane Katrina.    

In 2013, Mr. Marsalis was awarded The American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation’s Award, by the Russian Embassy, in recognition for his distinguished contributions to American-Russian cultural relations.   He was named to Fortune magazine’s first “The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” list in 2014.

As Jazz at Lincoln Center’s managing and artistic director, Wynton Marsalis continues to spread the spirit of swing and raise awareness of jazz in the consciousness of the American public and the world.