WASHINGTON POST – By Roger Catlin
Wynton Marsalis is a superstar in the jazz world: He has won nine Grammys, was the first jazz composer to win a Pulitzer Prize and has even graced the cover of Time magazine.
Like many superstars, he’s also divisive. Some critics contend that he’s more entertainer, or populist, than artist.
Critics, however, have not stopped Marsalis, who at 53 still retains the aura of the boy-whiz trumpet player and composer, from becoming one of the most recognized jazz artists in the world — and a tireless force for education. Last week, the Castleton Festival, in Rappahannock County, Va., welcomed the inaugural edition of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Summer Jazz Academy at Castleton — the 13th education program established by Jazz at Lincoln Center, which Marsalis co-founded in 1987 and where he still serves as artistic director.
Last week, 43 advanced students from North America, drawn from more than twice as many applicants, came to Castleton to embark on two weeks of intensive study drawn from techniques developed in the education programs at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Before this summer, Marsalis had never been to the hills of Castleton, but he knew its founder, Lorin Maazel, for more than 30 years.
“It was the 1980s. I was 21 years old,” Marsalis recalled, speaking by phone earlier this month from Skokie, Ill., where his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra was performing. “He was with the Pittsburgh Symphony, and actually I went on tour with him playing the Haydn Trumpet Concerto.”
At the time, Marsalis already had jazz and classical recording contracts with Columbia Records.
“I was playing classical concerts all around the country with a lot of different orchestras,” he said. “But I didn’t tour with a lot of orchestras.”
The two-week experience with Maazel — one of the world’s leading conductors — who would go on to conduct the New York Philharmonic, was a very positive experience, Marsalis said.
“The ease with which he conducted — I would watch the orchestra rehearse when they played their half,” he said. “The soloist generally played the first half, but I’d stay and listen…I got along with him, respected him, loved him. He was very supportive of me, also.”
In recent years, the two began working toward bringing the Jazz at Lincoln Center program to Maazel’s Castleton Festival.
The maestro’s death a year ago at age 84 didn’t slow plans for the Summer Jazz Academy, in part because of the support from Maazel’s widow, Dietlinde Turban Maazel, who has taken over as the festival’s director.
“I think everybody was dedicated to making it happen,” Marsalis said. “It was just a matter of having a will to do it. And he had the will to do it, and other people in the community felt they’d love to bring the feeling the maestro wanted.”
Both Marsalis and Maazel hoped to help Castleton take its place among “all of the great summer camps” — Interlochen, Milwaukee, Aspen, Brevard, Tanglewood. “[Maazel] had a funny thing he used to say when he was teaching young people,” Marsalis said. “ ‘We will not waste your time.’ ”
Marsalis’s student-camp experience included the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, N.C., as a rising sophomore and junior, then the Boston University Tanglewood Institute program as a senior, where he was the youngest musician admitted — at age 17 — and where he won the Harvey Shapiro Award for outstanding brass student.
“Those were great experiences for me as a musician,” he said. It was Juilliard from there, and before long Marsalis had joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. At summer music camps, in addition to the interaction with instructors and all the time spent practicing and playing, “you meet other musicians from around the country that are serious,” Marsalis said. “And you learn as much from them as you do from the teachers, really. The people you meet at musical camp, you’ll see for your entire life.”
Jazz, Marsalis said, “helps you focus your individuality through improvisation and helps you figure out how you fit in with other people through the art of swing. That’s two of our basic things: improvisation and swing. One teaches you about yourself; the other teaches you how to fit into the context of others. All very important skills for teenagers.”
Joining Marsalis as teachers at the summer camp at Castleton are trumpeter Marcus Printup, saxophonist Ted Nash, trombonist Vincent Gardner, pianist Helen Sung, guitarist James Chirillo, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Ali Jackson. The program culminates with two “Academy All-Stars” performances with Marsalis on July 25 and 26; a week later, Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will play a pair of concerts.
Castleton is Marsalis’s second Virginia residency with young musicians this year. In January, he worked with the Shenandoah Conservatory Symphony Orchestra in Winchester on his revised “Blues Symphony,” which was performed at Strathmore in February. “Blues Symphony” continues Marsalis’s catalogue of quasi-classical compositions, which have not met with universal favor, despite or perhaps because of their scale and ambition. (“Blood on the Fields,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a 3 1/2 -hour oratorio.)
But Marsalis has gotten used to the critics, and says: “It is what it is. I don’t fret over it.
“I think that you need that criticism. We’re all the same way as human beings. We compare ourselves to each other, and we do things. Until we get on a much higher level as a species and until we evolve to a higher level, we’re going to continue to do that.”
He added, “I try to concentrate on improving and making people happy with music and bringing people together and dealing with other higher levels of consciousness through music.”
Catlin is a freelance writer.
Jazz at Lincoln Center Academy All-Stars with Wynton Marsalis July 25 and 26 at the Castleton Festival. Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis Aug. 1 and 2 at the Castleton Festival. Tickets for all shows: $35-$200. Call 866-974-0767 or visit www.castletonfestival.org. (Note: the Summer Jazz Academy performances will stream live online at www.livestream.com/castletonfestival and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performances at www.jazz.org/live.)
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