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Wynton Center


Certainly that icon will be the jazz temple's most spectacular design feature, the 50-foot glass wall facing Central Park South that will rise above the bandstand of the Allen Room. It will be something new to see in this beleaguered, beloved city. Soon a guy and his girl will be able to stroll through the park, ride west in a taxi or hansom cab, incline their eyes, and look at what Wynton has called "this gleaming jewel, a beacon of civilization and American expression . . . one more beautiful vision of New York."

"They will see Wynton," says architect Rafael Viñoly, who invented the idea of the glass wall after reading No. 8 of the "Fundamentals."

"Wynton in the window, blowing his horn."

Sitting on the ledge that surrounds the fountain in the middle of the Lincoln Center campus, Wynton is contemplating what Albert Murray, in his book The Hero and the Blues, refers to as the epic "journey . . . the fundamental commitment" of the artist, a heroism "measured in terms of the . . . complexities of the obstacles it overcomes." In a few hours, he'll be inside Alice Tully Hall, leading the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, including Victor Goines, Wess Anderson, and Herlin Riley -- musicians Marsalis has known most of his life -- to play in a 75th-birthday-celebration concert for saxophonist Jimmy Heath. But now he is remembering when he first came to 66th Street, in 1979, to try out for Juilliard.

"I was nervous. My teacher thought I could make it. But you never know. I just wanted to do good on my audition, get a good scholarship. I didn't want to stay in New Orleans, the shit I had grown up around. The segregation. I thought it would be better in the North. As I found out, New York was a segregated town, too, in a different way. I performed all my music from memory. I played the Haydn Trumpet Concerto. I played the Brandenburg, played Petrushka, overtures from Beethoven, Mahler's Fifth. The common repertoire, what you have to know if you play orchestral trumpet."

Wynton would be out of Juilliard by 1980, touring with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers along with his brother Branford -- a whole other kind of education.

"That was exciting," Wynton says, ticking off, with his usual total recall, the various apartments he lived in during those early, wild times when he first made his name. "I lived at 137th Street near Lenox, 108th between Broadway and West End, 99th and Broadway, 20th and Park, Bleecker and Broadway, in Brooklyn . . . I loved Harlem, I loved Brooklyn. The musicians looked out for me. Art Blakey. John Lewis. Philly Joe Jones came and picked me up in his car. We'd pass a place and he'd say, 'There's where this musician lives, there's where to get the best suits, the really good Italian sausages.' He wanted me to know these things, thought it might be useful to me."

One of the dumber, more patronizing misconceptions about Wynton is that he arrived in New York a malleable Mr. Natural, a Willie Mays-Joe Hardy tabula rasa of the brass section, to be molded by the neocon-ology of whatever mentor he encountered. The fact is, Wynton has always had a sense of his own destiny, from the time Al Hirt, the Bourbon Street tourist macher his father was playing with, gave him his first trumpet at 6: "Trumpet playing is as old as dust, you know . . . Joshua didn't knock down Jericho with a saxophone. A trumpeter announces himself, a trumpeter is a priest, a shaman. It gives you power."

We were talking about "Psalm 26," the cut that both opens and closes Wynton's 1988 disc Uptown Ruler. Looking through a Bible as we sat beside the Lincoln Center fountain, I wondered what so interested Wynton about this particular Psalm of David. Well, he said, it wasn't this George W. riff about hating "the company of evildoers," how "I have not sat with the wicked." How else would you learn the ways of the wicked unless you sat with them? No, what mattered to Wynton was the phrase "but as for me." "But as for me, I walk in my integrity. Redeem me and be gracious to me. . . . My foot stands on level ground, in the great congregation," Wynton read aloud.

"But as for me . . . like in all this magnificence, all creation, one individual voice could still be heard. That really jumped out at me."

That's why, Wynton says, "you've got to work on your legend," something the jazzman did most notoriously in his long-running feud with Miles Davis. Wynton (named for Miles's onetime piano player Wynton Kelly) had been viciously attacking Davis, claiming the inventor of "the cool" -- an early influence on Marsalis's own playing -- was "tomming" by playing his Bitches Brew-style fusion. In retort, Davis said that Wynton was a "nice young man but confused" who should "mind his own fucking business."

"You're afraid of Miles," mocked Wynton's band members, betting him $100 apiece that he would not confront the irascible Davis when the two trumpeters played a festival in Vancouver, Canada. Taking the dare, Wynton jumped up onto stage right in the middle of Davis's show.

Wynton recalls: "Miles was playing the organ on a blues song, 'C.C. Rider,' when I got onstage. 'I've come to address the dumb shit you have said about me and my family,' I shouted. But Miles just keeps playing. Doesn't even look up. I had to say it again. 'I've come to address the dumb shit . . . ' Finally, Miles says, 'Come back tomorrow.' " Then we got into it, him telling me to get the fuck off the stage, which I eventually did. But as I was going, he picked up his horn and played. I guess he was trying to put me in my place, show me who was boss, but he played some sad shit. He had nothing left. That made me unhappy, to see a great player challenged like that and be without a response."

Not that Wynton regrets the incident: "No, man. Miles knew what was up. He knew the Oedipal deal, he'd done enough of it himself when he was young. Besides, it was fun."

Other incidents, generally falling under the rubric of "the jazz wars of the nineties," have been less amusing. In 1993, reports leaked of an "artistic decision" by JLC to hire "an entire band of guys under the age of 30." Given the JLC credo, firing people like altoist Jerry Dodgion, trombonist Art Baron, and baritone man Joe Temperly, who had played with Duke Ellington's band, was a strange, possibly illegal (and soon to be withdrawn) move that opened Marsalis up to accusations he was packing the band full of easily controllable crony-clones.

More inflammatory have been recurring charges of so-called reverse racism at JLC. In 1996, much was made of the fact that of all the musicians given "nights" at JLC, only one, Gerry Mulligan, who had already died at the time of the show, was white. What happened to Bix Beiderbecke and Bill Evans? critics asked. "Blacks invented jazz, but no one owns it," complained Whitney Balliett in an oft-quoted New Yorker piece.

Marsalis was floored by the criticism: "I'm thinking to myself, This is Lincoln Center and they're talking about no white people?" To this day, Marsalis discounts the race issue, saying it was "all about resentment, about me using my power as artistic director, which is what I was hired to do." Today (when five of the fifteen LC Orchestra chairs are held by whites, including saxophonist Ted Nash, trumpeter Ryan Kisor, and the thankfully still-extant 72-year-old baritone-sax player Joe Temperly), Wynton insists, "I just want to have the best players who I feel good playing with."

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