Academic Ceremonies - May Commencement
Commencement 2013 Speaker
Doctor of Humane Letters
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on October 18, 1961 to Ellis and Dolores Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis is an internationally acclaimed musician, composer, bandleader, educator and a leading advocate of American culture. The second of six sons in a musical family, at age 8, Wynton performed traditional New Orleans music in the Fairview Baptist Church band and at 14 he performed with the New Orleans Philharmonic, New Orleans Symphony Brass Quintet, New Orleans Community Concert Band, New Orleans Youth Orchestra, New Orleans Symphony, various jazz bands and with the popular local funk band, the Creators.
At 17, Wynton became the youngest musician ever to be admitted to Tanglewood’s Berkshire Music Center, where he was awarded the school’s prestigious Harvey Shapiro Award for outstanding brass student. Wynton moved to New York City to attend Juilliard in 1979. In 1980 he joined the Jazz Messengers to study under master drummer and bandleader Art Blakey. It was from Blakey that Wynton acquired his concept for bandleading and for bringing intensity to each and every performance. In the years to follow, Wynton performed with Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Sweets Edison, Clark Terry, Sonny Rollins, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and countless other jazz legends.
At the age of 20, Marsalis’ debut recording of Haydn, Hummel and Leopold Mozart trumpet concertos received glorious reviews and won the Grammy Award® for “Best Classical Soloist with an Orchestra.” Marsalis went on to record 10 additional classical records, all to critical acclaim. Wynton performed with leading orchestras including: the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Pops, English Chamber Orchestra, Toronto Symphony Orchestra and London’s Royal Philharmonic. Famed classical trumpeter Maurice André praised Wynton as “potentially the greatest trumpeter of all time.”
In 1981, Wynton assembled his own band and hit the road, performing over 120 concerts every year for 15 consecutive years. With the power of his superior musicianship, the infectious sound of his swinging bands and an exhaustive series of performances and music workshops, Marsalis rekindled widespread interest in jazz throughout the world. Students of Marsalis’s workshops include: James Carter, Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove, Harry Connick Jr., Nicholas Payton, Eric Reed and Eric Lewis, to name a few.
Marsalis’ rich and expansive body of music places him among the world’s most significant composers. He has been commissioned to create new music for several choreographers and dance companies including: Garth Fagan at Garth Fagan Dance, Peter Martins at the New York City Ballet, Twyla Tharp with the American Ballet Theatre, Judith Jamison at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and Savion Glover. Marsalis collaborated with the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society in 1995 to compose the string quartet At The Octoroon Balls, and again in 1998 to create a response to Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale with his composition A Fiddler’s Tale.
With his collection of standards arrangements (Standard Time Volumes I-VI), Wynton reconnected audiences with the beauty of the American popular song. He re-introduced the joy in New Orleans jazz with his recording The Majesty Of The Blues. He extended the jazz musician’s interplay with the blues in Levee Low Moan, Thick In The South and other blues recordings. With Citi Movement, In This House On This Morning and Blood On The Fields, Wynton re-conceptualized extended form compositions. His inventive interplay with melody, harmony and rhythm, along with his lyrical voicing and tonal coloring asserted new possibilities for the jazz ensemble. The New York Times Magazine said, “Blood On The Fields marked the symbolic moment when the full heritage of the line, Ellington through Mingus, was extended into the present.” To date Wynton has produced over 70 records which have sold over 7 million copies worldwide including three Gold Records.
Marsalis extended his achievements in Blood On The Fields with All Rise, an epic composition for big band, gospel choir, and symphony orchestra which was performed by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Kurt Masur along with the Morgan State University Choir and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (1999). Marsalis collaborated with Ghanaian master drummer Yacub Addy to create Congo Square, a groundbreaking composition combining elegant harmonies from America’s jazz tradition with fundamental rituals in African percussion and vocals (2006). For the anniversary of the Abyssinian Baptist Church’s 200th year, Marsalis blended Baptist choir cadences with blues accents and big band swing rhythms in Abyssinian 200: A Celebration, performed by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Abyssinian’s 100-voice choir before packed houses in New York City (2008). In 2009, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra premiered Marsalis’ composition Blues Symphony. Marsalis further expanded his repertoire for symphony orchestra with Swing Symphony, premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic in June 2010.
In the fall of 1995 Wynton launched two major broadcast events: Marsalis On Music, an educational television series on jazz and classical music, and the 26-week National Public Radio series Making the Music. These entertaining and insightful shows were the first full exposition of jazz music in American broadcast history. Wynton’s radio and television series were awarded the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award. In 2011, Wynton was named Cultural Correspondent for CBS News. In this role, Marsalis provides insight into a broad range of cultural and educational developments on “CBS This Morning”, “CBS Sunday Morning” and “60 Minutes.”
Marsalis has also authored six books: Sweet Swing Blues on the Road, Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life, To a Young Jazz Musician: Letters from the Road, Jazz ABZ, Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life, and his most recent release, published in October 2012 by Candlewick Press, Squeak, Rumble, Whomp! Whomp! Whomp!..
Wynton Marsalis has won nine Grammy Awards® and in 1983 he became the only artist ever to win Grammy Awards® for both jazz and classical records, repeating the distinction again in 1984. Today Wynton is the only artist ever to win Grammy Awards® in five consecutive years (1983-1987). Honorary degrees have been conferred upon Wynton by over 25 of America’s leading academic institutions including Columbia, Harvard, Howard, Princeton and Yale. Time magazine selected Wynton as one of America’s most promising leaders under age 40 in 1995, and in 1996 Time celebrated Marsalis as one of America’s 25 most influential people. In 1997, Wynton Marsalis became the first jazz musician ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his oratorio Blood On The Fields. In 2005 Wynton Marsalis received The National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists by the United States government.
Wynton’s creativity has been celebrated around the world. He won the Netherlands’ Edison Award and the Grand Prix Du Disque of France. The Mayor of Vitoria, Spain, awarded Wynton with the city’s Gold Medal – its most coveted distinction. Britain’s senior conservatoire, the Royal Academy of Music, granted Mr. Marsalis Honorary Membership, the Academy’s highest decoration for a non-British citizen. The city of Marciac, France, erected a bronze statue in his honor. The French Ministry of Culture appointed Wynton the rank of Knight in the Order of Arts and Literature and in the fall of 2009 Wynton received France’s highest distinction, the insignia Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
In 1987 Wynton Marsalis co-founded a jazz program at Lincoln Center. Due to its significant success, in July 1996 Jazz at Lincoln Center was installed as the newest constituent of Lincoln Center - a historic moment for jazz as an art form and for Lincoln Center as a cultural institution. In October 2004, with the assistance of a dedicated Board and staff, Marsalis opened Frederick P. Rose Hall, the world’s first performance center dedicated to jazz. In 2012, Marsalis became the Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Under his leadership, Jazz at Lincoln Center has developed an international agenda presenting rich and diverse programming that includes concerts, film forums, dances, television and radio broadcasts, and educational activities.
Wynton Marsalis has devoted his life to uplifting populations worldwide with the egalitarian spirit of jazz. Immediately following Hurricane Katrina, Wynton organized the Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Concert and raised over $3 million for musicians and cultural organizations affected by the hurricane. At the same time, he assumed a leadership role on the Bring Back New Orleans Cultural Commission where he was instrumental in shaping a master plan that would revitalize the city’s cultural base. Wynton Marsalis has selflessly donated his time and talent to non-profit organizations throughout the country including: My Sister’s Place (a shelter for battered women), the Children’s Defense Fund, Amnesty International, the Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute, Food For All Seasons (a food bank for the elderly and disadvantaged), the Newark Boys Chorus School (an academic music school for disadvantaged youths) and many, many more. It is Wynton’s commitment to the improvement of life for all people that illustrates the best of his character and humanity.