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COVER STORY : The Pied Piper of Jazz : You can call Wynton Marsalis an accomplished musician, a great teacher or a respected bandleader, but his friends just call him Hoghead.

October 08, 1995|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

"Listen to this, man."

In the background, over the phone from his comfortable Manhattan apartment, Wynton Marsalis chuckles as he plays the piano.

"Now I'm gonna do some blues."

The piano chords move into the open rhythms of New Orleans style.

"I'm gonna sing you a chorus of 'Hoghead's Blues,' 'cause that's what my friends call me--Hoghead."

Marsalis' sweet, almost innocent-sounding tenor rings through the phone, singing in an ancient blues style:

" 'Cause I take my time. Take my time. Take my, I take my, I take my time. . . . Lord, I take my time. Oooo, gather 'round, listen to old Hoghead's rhyme.' "

The phrase concludes with Marsalis' cackling laugh.

"After that," he adds, "I start making up nasty rhymes: [Singing, again] 'Sweet as watermelon, ruby red, down to the rind.' "

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 10, 1995 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 9 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Delfeayo Marsalis-- An article in Sunday's Calendar section incorrectly identified Delfeayo Marsalis as a drummer. He plays the trombone.

Wynton Marsalis--trumpeter-composer-media star, the most popular jazz musician of the '90s--is funnin', something he's extremely fond of doing.

"I'm just here messin' with my partners and makin' up some blues to make fun of them," he says with a laugh.

Make no mistake about it, however, this carefree prankster is the same Marsalis who has received honorary doctorates from Princeton and Harvard and who has conducted hundreds of seminars and master classes. The same Marsalis who is the artistic director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program and who has received eight jazz and classical Grammys in the last decade and a half.

"Man," he replies, uninterested for the moment in such matters, "I'm gonna play another blues for you."

And so he does, his unpretentious pianistic technique in no way limiting the spirit, the enthusiasm or the sheer infectious rhythmic drive of his playing.

*

Marsalis' career has been energized by a similar drive since he began his recording career as a leader in the early '80s at age 21. Almost universally praised and admired for his playing, his composing and his persistent jazz advocacy, he has also been criticized by a small group of purists who accuse him of musical conservatism and racial bias. But there can be no question that he has almost single-handedly brought jazz back to a prominence it has not experienced in three decades.

Marsalis, who turns 34 on Oct. 18, is taking his game up a level, leaping into a cycle of activities that will propel him well beyond the jazz world. Here's the short list of what he's got on his overflowing plate:

* Tonight, he will kick off the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts season with an appearance at the Wiltern Theatre with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The program will include excerpts from his highly acclaimed oratorio "Blood on the Fields," as well as works by Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and others.

* This month, a Marsalis-hosted radio program, "Making the Music," premieres on National Public Radio. The 26-week series, airing locally at 11 p.m. Tuesdays on KPCC-FM (89.3) in Pasadena, will cover an amazing array of material, from New Orleans, the blues and swing music to Ellington, the jazz avant-garde and jazz singing. (Since Wynton's brother Branford already hosts "JazzSet," NPR now has what is surely the only brother act in the history of jazz radio.)

* Monday on PBS, the four-part series "Marsalis on Music" premieres with the trumpeter as host. A book and CD, expanding on the information in the programs, will be published the same day by W.W. Norton & Co. It is the second volume Marsalis has released within a year. (His first, "Sweet Swing Blues on the Road," a collaboration with photographer Frank Stewart, written in 12 chapters paralleling the 12 measures of the blues, chronicles the colorful images and sensations of a year in Marsalis' life in jazz.)

The series, which airs at 8 p.m. on KCET Channel 28, features Marsalis in a visually and aurally imaginative examination of the fundamentals of jazz and classical music that employs colorful graphics and computer animation, his own jazz band (featuring players from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra) and the students of the Tanglewood Center Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. In one episode, Marsalis is also joined by cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma.

Does all this activity bring the name Leonard Bernstein to mind?

It should. Think of the similarities: multi-hyphenate composer-performer-educator; talent that crosses genre lines; leadership of a musical ensemble in a large arts center. Nor would it be inaccurate to describe Marsalis' goals for the PBS series as consistent with those of Bernstein's classic "Young People's Concerts," broadcast on CBS in the '60s.

"I've seen almost all of the 'Young People's Concerts,' " Marsalis says. "I went and got all of the scripts, and the Bernstein Foundation was very cool. They said they felt what we were doing was great. So I'm trying to continue that legacy of education in music."

As with Bernstein and the "Young People's Concerts," "Marsalis on Music" presents the trumpeter in a far-reaching, expository role that clearly identifies him as a major new spokesman for the arts.

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