Wynton Marsalis is a fascinating man. He is one of my favorite jazz players, but even more so, one of my favorite human beings.
Wynton is a man who understands the three dimensions of leadership. You can see it in this recent interview with Charlie Rose. They don't talk that much about his new album - From the Plantation to the Penitentiary .
Instead they talk Ideas - Wynton speaks as a moral philosopher describing the complex moral universe of an adult culture that takes advantage of young people through a music culture that is artificial and verging on the pornographic.
They talk about systems, organizational structure and institutions. Wynton speaks about New Orleans and the failure of large institutions to be effective in the relief after Katrina. He recognizes that individuals and smaller organizations have faithfully come to the Gulf to care for the people and their recovery.
They talk about relationships from the standpoint of Wynton understanding that younger jazz musicians are not to try to emulate him, but rather to be themselves, making their own contribution to the culture of jazz. He talks about the play of these younger players.
Wynton gets a lot of grief because he is outspoken about certain things. People think he is arrogant. He may be, but what I find here is a man who understands his place in the history of the world he lives in. He celebrates the traditions of jazz, and sets a high standard for what greatness means. His audience is not the fan in the music hall, but the great ones who came before him.
Having listened to jazz for almost forty years, I find Wynton Marsalis one of the few who are equal to the giants of yesterday. I'm speaking of Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. I think this is because he understands better than anyone else his indebtedness to the people that came before him who made jazz what we know it today. He honors them in his playing. He honors them in his philosophy that has guided his service to the culture of jazz.
It is for this that I find the leadership Wynton Marsalis fulfilling the three dimensions of leadership, and therefore becoming a leader of impact in the world of culture and society.
What specifically has he done to be an Impact Leader?
1. Ideas: More than any contemporary jazz musician he has focused attention on the idea and history of jazz. He does it in workshops, in interviews and in his concerts. He does it on his Saturday morning XM jazz radio show - In the Swing Seat. He is an man of ideas whose ideas are substantial. This is what Charlie Rose, a great lover and support of jazz, doesn't understand. His questions were simplistic as if the whole question of the morality of the entertainment culture bored him. Rose only wants to address it from the simplistic dualism of one person against another. Wynton is a person of depth and it shows in his answers that Charlie Rose hardly touches. It also shows in the perspective he presented to Congress on Arts Advocacy day. Read the transcript of his presentation.
2. Relationships: Following in the footsteps of one of his mentors, Art Blakey, Wynton has embraced young musicians who learn from him, and go on to produce some of the finest music anywhere. You can tell by the way his bands play together that they are a team, a family, a unit, not simply the backup group to a star. If you've never listened to Wynton Marsalis music, I suggest that you purchase the seven CD set called Live at the Vanguard. It is one of the best bargains in music you'll find. Wynton's groups remind me of The Modern Jazz Quartet whom I saw when I was in college. Four players; a piano, a bass, drums and a vibraphone; and a level of communication between them that was astounding. Four guys playing as one. This is what happens with Wynton's bands.
3. Organizational Structure: While many of Wynton's records will remain in print long after he has finished playing, it will be his work as the leader of Jazz at Lincoln Center that will ultimately be his legacy. People may be remembered for a great act of service or courage, but they are the exception. Lasting legacy typically must have an institutional basis if that legacy is to be sustained into the future. What Wynton has done to lead the effort to build a center for jazz in New York City at Lincoln Center is to establish an institution that will carry on his ideas for teaching young people about jazz, and its culture and history. From this place will rise young players who will understand their place in jazz's history, and will be able to build upon that foundation to continue to enliven the jazz that is created.
Wynton Marsalis, beyond having a successful music career, has mastered the three dimensions of leadership that are required to have an impact beyond the sound of his horn. And for all who love jazz, we should be eternally grateful.