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Wynton Center

Wynton Marsalis's horn virtuosity is well-known. But it's his gift as a sweet-talking, tough-minded businessman that's putting up his Jazz temple at Lincoln Center.


Suspended animation: Wynton's ebullient personality informs his playing -- and his new building.  

"Let the ass-whipping begin," Wynton remarked, a bit of opening commentary as he walked onto the 65th Street project courts. Nothing personal, Wynton said; with him, ass-whipping need not be adversarial. It can be more a statement of loving engagement with the material at hand, be it Mahler, "East St. Louis Toodle-oo," or a supposedly friendly game of one-on-one.

Still, it was probably a mistake, snickering when the musician started in about his jumper, how sweet it was. Somehow it seemed unlikely, unfair, creepy even, that Wynton -- only 40 but already into his second decade as the semi-officially anointed "most important musician of his generation," the only jazzman ever to get a Pulitzer Prize (for his symphonic-size Blood on the Fields), winner of both jazz and classical Grammys on the same night, one of Time magazine's "25 most influential Americans" -- might be good at basketball too.

But here they came, the jumpers raining down. "Money in the bank," Wynton noted, canning his seventh in a row, a bitch when you're playing winner's out, the way Win-tone, as he is sometimes known, likes to play. There was nothing to do but watch the perfect ball rotation and flawless follow-through, all that immaculate Apollonian form. Then again, a lot of things, nasty and nice, have been said about Wynton Marsalis since he arrived on the scene with his brother Branford back in the late seventies, a Jazz Messenger with an unbeatable New Orleans pedigree, formidable upper register, and decided lack of shyness in matters of cultural-aesthetic polemicizing. No one, however, through twenty years of workaholic touring and nearly 50 CDs, has ever knocked Marsalis's technique. Except now our contest had taken a critical, potentially calamitous turn. You see: When Wynton's got that J going, you've got to play him close. In such proximity, a defender's elbow might, inadvertently, come in contact with the jazzman's wry, moon-shaped face. That elbow might even bash into Wynton's lip. Hard.

"Uh," Wynton grunted, checking for blood.

"You all right?"

Wynton did not answer, only smiled, that chubby-cheeked best-boy-in-the-class smile, so down-home sincere, so full of you're-going-to-get-yours. In the face of such a smile, you can forget the business at hand. Like those scowly gym rats uptown. They took one look at the trumpeter's somewhat stumpy body and scoffed, "Hey, Winston, where's your flute?" But once Wynton unfurled the grin and canned a dozen or so in a row, those boys just shook their heads in genial surrender. That's the secret of Wynton's game. The way he does it, you don't even mind the ass-whipping.

This was a relief, because you don't want to be the guy who split Wynton Marsalis's kisser. Only the night before, in the claustrophobic kitchen-dressing room at the Village Vanguard, after playing three sets of (mostly) bop with Charles McPherson's quartet, hot on "Night in Tunisia," mournful on "Pork Pie Hat," Wynton had been talking about his lip, how sore it was. It happens to trumpet players, that puckered stress on the obicularis oris. During the thirties, Satchmo's own immortal chops were beat for years from hitting those high C's every night. But throughout a history that includes the classic lips of Roy Eldridge, Sweets Edison, Clark Terry, Rex Stewart, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Lester Bowie, and a hundred other bugle geniuses, never has so much been riding on singular embouchure.

So much was clear a couple days later, 100 feet above Columbus Circle, amid the swing of giant cranes and the hot blue blind of welding torches. They're building the new Twin Towers here, a pair of 80-floor, 750-foot-tall spires, on the former site of the squatty old New York Coliseum. The biggest construction project under way in post-September 11 New York, the $1.7 billion complex will include the new headquarters of AOL Time Warner, a five-star hotel, 200 or so condos (with Trump-priced penthouses), and a vast, no doubt brutally upscale shopping mall. Also there will be the new home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis, Artistic Director. And today, Wynton, hard hat over his close-cropped hair, has arrived along with other J@LC board members and officials to inspect the progress of their $115 million, 100,000-square-foot facility.

Whether it first arrived channeled through the singing horn of Buddy Bolden and soon became "the most abstract and sophisticated music anybody has ever heard, short of Bach," as Wynton contended, among several hundred other things throughout his near-omnipresent appearance on Ken Burns's nineteen-hour documentary Jazz, the music of Mingus, Monk, and Charlie Parker has never seen anything like what's happening here on Columbus Circle, where, in 1910, a new music then called ragtime made its New York debut at Reisenweber's café, with its $1.25 blue plate of fried frog.

Touted as "the world's first performing-arts facility built specifically for jazz," this joint, when it opens sometime in 2004, will have three separate performance spaces: the 1,100-seat, concert-style Rose Hall, named for the late, civic-minded Frederick P. Rose, who provided funds for the new planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History; the 600-seat, nightclub-style Allen Room; and a smaller "café" slated to accommodate 140 fans. Also in the plan are recording and rehearsal studios, plus a large jazz-education center. On square-footage alone, you could fit twenty Village Vanguards in here, the whole Cotton Club, several Five Spots, Slugs and Minton Playhouses, and still have hall space for strung-out musicians to fix in, not that any Wynton-fronted organization, however tradition-minded, is likely to condone such self-destructive habits.

Wynton has long been thinking about a "permanent home" for the music he first played marching through the Vieux Carré streets with Danny Barker's Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band. The topic often came up back in the eighties, during the semi-legendary conversations-plotting sessions Wynton engaged in with his great friends and mentors (some say Svengali figures): the combative yet pithy essayist Stanley Crouch and the novelist-philosopher Albert Murray, a longtime confidant of Ralph Ellison and Duke Ellington, who called the dapper 85-year-old Murray "the most unsquarest man in the world."

It was up in Murray's apartment on 132nd Street and Lenox, surrounded by "all these books, Faulkner, Hemingway, Malraux, most of which Stanley and Albert had actually read," Wynton says, "that I began to envision my life on a bigger scale than I previously thought possible . . . I mean, you go to the bathroom and there's a photograph of the Army Air Corps, 1943. There's about 200 uniformed officers, and Albert -- the only black guy in the picture . . . I knew a few things about music because my father was a musician. I'd grown up around jazz musicians. But I was just a kid, from New Orleans, with a New Orleans education, which is basically no education. This was something else altogether."

Amid much holding-forth on the issues of free will in Thomas Mann and the majesty of Louis's solo on "Potato Head Blues," conversation always came back to the future of jazz, how this priceless heritage would survive the dark ages of ascendent pop idiocy and fusion. The need for the establishment of a jazz canon and a place where the music could be preserved through both repertory performance and instruction was paramount.

Already involved with a Lincoln Center "Classical Jazz" series, Wynton was the logical point man. Armed with Crouch's social critique of how to play Establishment (read: white) organizations, that smile and country-boy manner (even though Kenner, where he grew up, is a New Orleans suburb), Wynton offered an undeniable package. He was, after all, the ultimate crossover artist, arguably the best single jazz and classical trumpet player in the world, a most presentable and courtly young black man who had performed Haydn's Trumpet Concerto with the New Orleans Symphony at 14 -- someone to whom race and class barriers simply do not apply. "That really amazed me," says one old-line Lincoln Center board member, "watching him play Purcell. I said to myself, 'This is a once-in-a-lifetime individual.' If we ever wanted to do something with jazz, he had to be the one."

"Look," Wynton told the blue-blood board of Lincoln Center, his voice so deep and smoky, the informality of his manner only adding moral authority, "I play classical and I play jazz and jazz is harder." There was no reason, Wynton said, no reason at all, that jazz, America's "greatest art form, a democratic triumph of order and beauty over chaos," shouldn't be accorded the same status as "European" Lincoln Center "constituents" like the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, and the New York Philharmonic.

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