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If you like Wynton Marsalis's story, you might also like:
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recommended reading: The Sound and the Fury

Wynton Marsalis also appears in the video:
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Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Wynton Marsalis in the Achievement Curriculum section:
A Passion For Music
Pursuing a Career in Music

Related Links:
Wynton Marsalis Music On Jango
Wynton Marsalis

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Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
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Wynton Marsalis Interview

Pulitzer Prize for Music

January 8, 1991
New York, New York

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  Wynton Marsalis

How did you begin playing the trumpet? When did you get your first trumpet?

Wynton Marsalis: I got my first trumpet when I was six years old, from Al Hirt. My father was playing in Al Hirt's band at that time, and he got me a trumpet because my older brother Branford was playing the clarinet and the piano, so he didn't want me to feel left out. But, I wasn't going to feel left out, 'cause I didn't feel like practicing. So when they got me a trumpet, then I had to practice and I was like, "Oh, man!" I didn't actually start practicing until I was 12. But, the first time I ever played the trumpet in public, I played a piece called the Marine Hymn. You know the Marine Hymn. I can't even remember it right now, but everybody knows it. So, I played that at this junior recital the kids went to, and I sounded terrible. But my mother, she thought I sounded good. She said, "Oh, my baby sounds so good!" My first serious debut was just playing like little pop gigs around New Orleans, just playing horn parts.

But you didn't consider your debut with the Marine Hymn as an auspicious one. You wouldn't have foreseen what was to follow?

Wynton Marsalis: No, no.

I didn't want to get that ring around my lips from practicing the trumpet, because I thought the girls wouldn't like me. So I never practiced. You would have just thought, "Well, here we go!" As a matter of fact, when I was going into high school, when I was 12 -- in this particular high school they had eighth grade classes attached to the high school -- so the band director was all excited because my father was a well known musician in New Orleans. "Ellis Marsalis's sons are coming here!" Except he heard me play, and he said, "Are you sure you're one of Ellis's sons?" I was sad, man. I really couldn't play.

You weren't, and you aren't, the only musician in your family. How did that influence you? How did that affect you?

Wynton Marsalis: Well, it didn't have that much effect on me because...

I became serious about music when I was 12 or 13, and then I decided I would practice and study and try to get better. My older brother and myself, we always played together in bands. But, we never knew that we would be professional musicians because we looked up to our father. He still is much greater than us. He knew all these songs, he could really improvise and play jazz and the generation we grew up in, nobody could improvise or play. We had stopped playing blues, so really there was no way for us to figure we could learn how to play. He knew all the songs by George Gershwin, and Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the whole tradition of American popular music -- my father knew that. When we were growing up, we didn't listen to any of that kind of music. We had jazz recordings, but you listen to a recording of Miles Davis or Clifford Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, you're so far away from what that is, it just seems like another world. We didn't think we would be musicians. So, when we were actually living in our household, we just really looked up to our father. He wasn't working that much, so we thought, "If dad is not working, as much piano as he can play, then our chances of making it playing music must be zero, because we can't play."

What did you want to do? What were you like as a kid? What were you interested in?

Wynton Marsalis Interview Photo
Wynton Marsalis: I was like a devious kind of kid. I would do all kinds of dumb stuff. Like one time me and a friend of mine set fire to a man's house. But he wasn't living in the house, we weren't trying to kill anybody, we just did dumb stuff. We would throw rocks through windows of the train station and stuff. I would go around the corner and steal from the store. I liked to play ball. I was a mediocre ball player. Sometimes I could be good, not real good, I didn't have a lot of athletic ability, but I worked at it. I liked to play basketball and baseball and football. We played football in the street. I grew up in Ketter, Louisiana. And they still had the ditches on the side of the street. It's country. A railroad track separated the black people from the white people. I had fun growing up. I just liked to play around. And I would do my homework and study, but I liked to just generally have a good time. We had a woods and stuff around our house, kind of country. So I liked to go to different people's houses and eat whatever they were eating and just hang out. Go in the back with my friends and listen to Stevie Wonder records or whatever was popular at the time.

But I liked to tease people too. That was my best hobby. We would call it ribbin', or "playin' the dozens." That's where you talk about somebody's mama, or you talk about the kind of clothes they got on, or the way they look. You could talk about them so bad, we just would all have to start laughing. You know, somebody really talks about you real bad. I liked doing that and playing marbles. Playing all those little games like Monopoly and stuff like that. We had a good time.

I had five brothers, and we would do all kind of crazy things. We had rock fights, you know, you have to hide behind these little things and throw shells, and you'd be in pain if you got caught too! We'd go up on the levee in New Orleans. We lived about a block from the Mississippi river. And we'd go what we called "exploring." We'd just go around and see, ride our bikes. But you had to be careful. Because you go into some neighborhoods, they'd try to take your bike from you. I had a good time.

What were you like in school?

Wynton Marsalis: Well, I went to different schools.

From the kindergarten to the third grade, I went to an all black school. So then, everybody liked me. I was the funny (guy), I would crack all the jokes. It was different, like we were all the same. And, then from the fourth grade to seventh grade, I went to an all white school, except there were two or three black kids, so then that was totally different. So, whereas in the black school, everybody would like you. If you made good grades they said you were smart. In the white school, you were like the enemy or something, but not all. Some of the kids were cool, but a lot of them, their parents didn't have a lot of money, so it just was a very strange transition to make, in terms of school. Because at one end, you go form, when you do good, you were elevated, you were given credit. At the other, you always had a battle on your hands. It was always like a battle going on because I had a lot of pride when I was little, from my great uncle, and if somebody called me a 'nigger' or a name I didn't like, I was just going to fight, that just was my way. Well, these white guys, they weren't like what you see on TV -- all scared of black people. If you wanted to fight, that was cool with them, too.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

I learned a lot in the schools that I went to. It was a Catholic school, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and I had really good teachers. But from a social standpoint, it was really strange. But then we'd play on the ball teams. They had three black teams in this city, so if you could play ball, you played on the black teams. They had like seven or eight white teams, but they had one or two black people on the white teams -- every now and then, not that much. So I would play on the black teams, and we would always be teasing each other. I would know all the white guys, me and a friend of mine named Gregory Carroll, whereas the other guys on our team wouldn't know them. They were just like some more white people. So we would go up and play them and most of the time they would beat us, like in football. Sometimes in baseball, but we win in basketball. But it was funny, we would go and play, and I would know guys who were on the opposite team, and so it was just interesting, it was cool.

What kind of a student were you?

Wynton Marsalis: I was good, man. I made A's because I was studying because I always read all these books about the slaves, and people didn't want the slaves to get education. Also, my mother is very educated, she's smart. And my father, he would always talk to us like we were grown men, just in the content of his conversations. We never knew what he was talking about half the time. We'd just go, "Yeah, yeah, okay." Like you could ask daddy just something basic, "Daddy can I have a dollar?" And he would go into like a discussion! I believed in studying just because I knew that education was a privilege. And, it wasn't so much necessarily the information that you were studying, but just the discipline of study, to get into the habit of doing something that you don't want to do, to receive the information, and then eventually you start to like it. I always liked to read. My mother would make sure that we read. So, I would read a lot of books, and I would do good in school mainly because I hated to do bad.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

What books are special? Do you remember any books that motivated you, helped you?

Wynton Marsalis: When I was really young, I would read mainly junior books. I remember they would be books about basketball players in Indiana, like little high school competition books. I didn't read any classic books. I read books on Indians too. I did a whole biography series on different Indians, and I would read about their life story. And about states. The state of New Mexico, the state of Alabama, the state of Louisiana. And then I would read all of the black books. Like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Soul on Ice. My father had those books. But I would read a wide range of things. Mainly I liked biography -- to read about somebody's life, or to read about geographical locations. Australia was my favorite continent. I would read about the koala bear, and the marsupials, and eucalyptus trees. This is when I was seven and eight and nine. I'd say, "One day I'm going to go to Australia, I'm going to be able to hold a koala bear," and the kangaroos jumping up and down, and the Aborigines, and the didgeridoo. That kind of stuff.

As I grew older, then I started reading more books, collections of people, like Edgar Allen Poe. Then I'd read Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, and then I'd read Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. I'd just go from person to person to person. I really like William Faulkner. He's from the South. Just the poetry of his language and the type of people he is describing, it's like people that I knew. I like his writing, and I like Hemingway too, for the short sentences, just the style. It's like Lester Young's style in jazz. Whereas, William Faulkner, that style is more like Art Tatum, or Coltrane, like real virtuosic runs, or just long two-hour sentences.

I will read really anything. But I don't like science fiction too much. I never really got into that. My brother loved that. He would read all the Star Trek books.

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