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Wynton Marsalis meets the moment with jazz and a focus on the nation's founding principles


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Judy Woodruff: Trumpet player, composer, jazz ambassador Wynton Marsalis, one of the country's leading cultural figures, is again meeting the moment with music, this time pointing to the founding principles of our nation.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: It's called "The Democracy! Suite," a new composition by Wynton Marsalis, who's kept swinging through the pandemic, while linking his art form to higher human values.

Wynton Marsalis: In the way that we play jazz, we improvise, which means we have freedom.

We swing, which means we're forced to share that freedom. And we come from a blues esthetic and blues idiom, which means that we can look into the face of something that is tragic and not paint the fake smile on it and still be optimistic about the use of our will to come together and make things better for the future.

Jeffrey Brown: Marsalis wrote the suite amid the pandemic, and recorded it with members of the orchestra at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, where he is managing and artistic director.

Its first movement is titled "Be Present," something he, like all of us, is having trouble with, performing on a stage he's used to, but with no audience.

Wynton Marsalis: At first, it was really strange.

Jeff, we have put together concerts where we all record at home and we compile everything. That also was very unusual at first. But now we're acclimated to it.

Jeffrey Brown: Now you're acclimated to looking out from the stage and not seeing anybody there?

Wynton Marsalis: You don't want to get too used to that.

Jeffrey Brown: Marsalis famously grew up in the vibrant world of New Orleans jazz, surrounded by its traditions and ever-alive sounds.

Now even Mardi Gras' parades have been canceled. And the pandemic brought personal loss, the death from COVID of his 85-year-old father, Ellis, himself a pianist, educator, and patriarch of the musical family that includes saxophonist Branford.

Wynton Marsalis: My father, when he was alive, his observation at that point was that, if it happens to you, it's no more significant than anybody else. Many people are losing their loved ones.

And you will be a part of collective grief. And it's also part of the cycle of life. He accepted it like that. He was very large-spirited all the way to the end the way he lived. So I don't take away any bad feelings or anything left unsaid, and even though I was not able to be with him, that still hurts, but we all have a -- this is a tough time for everybody.

Jeffrey Brown: Marsalis has long found ways to address the current moment and the past that informs it.

His jazz oratorio "Blood on the Fields," set amid slavery, won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize, the first for a jazz composition. His new work includes a section titled "sloganize, Patronize, Realize, Revolutionize."

Wynton Marsalis: The melody of that song is the chant, "Black Lives Matters."

We have some sections where the horns improvise together. Like, the trumpet and the trombone play a solo and share space. If you take the way we share the space, the way we repeat what it is that we're playing, and the conclusions we come to, in the language of instrumental music, it's evocative of a feeling, of a deliberateness and, ultimately, of an optimism.

I want as much as possible to try to communicate to you all the holistic nature of this experience.

Jeffrey Brown: Marsalis continues to teach in top music schools and run his annual Essentially Ellington program for high school students around the country.

We joined him for that in 2011. Last year, in the time of pandemic, it was held remotely. And in a time of killings of more Black men and women and protests in the streets, young students had questions that went well beyond the music.

Student: In today's America, that we have reached a renewed period of civil unrest, do we, as musicians, specifically jazz musicians, hold the roles and responsibilities in regards to these movements today?

Jeffrey Brown: In answer, Marsalis points to the work of young musicians like Jon Batiste, who performed in the streets during last summer's protests. One of the new suite's movements is dedicated to him.

Wynton Marsalis: I love to see them active, because, in my class, at the beginning of every year, I always ask students, what does the United States Constitution do? What is it designed to do?

I'm always looking for them to say it's a document that's designed to level the playing field for everyone through a sophisticated system of checks and balances.

It's important for us, as artists, to be engaged with our way of life as jazz musicians, because that's the tradition of our music.

Jeffrey Brown: That's the question you ask in class, right? That's not a musical question, or is it?

Wynton Marsalis: Well, it's a musical question, because, when they don't answer it, I always say, if we don't know what our Constitution does, what chance do we have of figuring out what jazz is?

Jeffrey Brown: "The Democracy! Suite" is available on streaming sites and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Web site.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: Wonderful conversation, the one and only Wynton Marsalis.

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