By Lara Downes
Wynton Marsalis is a colossal presence. This is not an exaggeration. The man is truly a living legend as a trumpeter, composer, educator, producer, artistic director, and arts advocate. For decades, his presence has defined the world of jazz, of American art and culture. But he's more than a presence. In every aspect of his work, he is actively, fully and deeply present. He doesn't just show up. That would be easy for someone so renowned and revered — just to let your giant presence fill up space and emit light and grace. Instead, he examines and commits intently to every thought, note, word and action, aware of the potential of all of those things as tools for improvement, progress and change.
The first movement of his Democracy Suite, composed last year, is called "Be Present." The piece is a musical exhortation to stand up and be counted, to participate in our democracy, to fight for the world we believe in. He positions the elements of jazz as metaphors for engagement in civic life: improvisation as freedom; swing as social responsibility. Most importantly, the active listening within music-making serves as a metaphor for the urgent need to listen to each other across ideological and political divides.
When you hear his music, you can't help but feel energized, awakened, and moved to accountability and action.
Wynton Marsalis has been present in my life for a long time, one of a handful of musicians who inspire me to work for change in the world. I watch him and listen closely, and try to learn something about knowing the power of every note, placing each one carefully into the world and letting it move someone, somewhere, to some kind of response. He says it best, here in our conversation: "You play to improve yourself, then the group, the audience, the culture ... you have to fight for your vision and dream of the world, and make that be the reality."
That is not easy. It's the work of a lifetime, and that's the whole point of being a musician, of being human, of being present.