As jazz has become more frequently considered "America's classical music," its roots have become a subject of interest for an increasingly broad audience. With one foot in the European classical tradition and the other in the sounds of Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and their successors, trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis has been a prominent figure in an ongoing movement that has brought jazz music to the forefront of American culture.
Marsalis was born into a musical family, in the musical town of New Orleans, on October 18, 1961, and was already demonstrating his proficiency on the trumpet in his early teens. His early musical experiences reflect the wide-ranging interests of his later years: during high school he participated in marching band, jazz band, funk groups, and classical ensembles. After finishing high school, Marsalis was accepted into the Juilliard School of Music. His virtuosity must have been apparent from the start; shortly after his arrival in New York City, he became a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and his own self-titled debut album was released soon after in 1982.
Marsalis became a household name in 1987, when he helped initiate the Jazz at Lincoln Center program. It was with this organization that Marsalis became the country's foremost jazz curator; in addition to performing some new works (including Marsalis' own), the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra recreated numerous legendary jazz works, often using transcribed charts and notated solos taken from surviving recordings of the original artists. Such musical resurrection infuses performances with what some might see as an odd irony: a tradition based on intuitive, in-the-moment improvisation, being faithfully re-executed note by note! At any rate, such projects aspire to raise jazz to the same arena of esteem as musical works of the classical tradition, placing both within the musical museum of the concert hall.
Other efforts have attempted a fusion of classical and jazz traditions. In 1997, he became the first composer to receive a Pulitzer Prize in music for a work of jazz orientation, his "epic oratorio," Blood on the Fields. Composed in 1994, this musical commentary on slavery garnered wide praise from the press (it was named one of the top ten highlights of the musical year by Time magazine). In 1998, Marsalis contributed to a musically ecumenical undertaking by the Lincoln Center ensembles entitled MARSALIS/STRAVINSKY. Commissioned jointly by the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center and Jazz at Lincoln Center, Marsalis' A Fiddler's Tale retold the story of Stravinsky's Le histoire du Soldat. In Stravinsky's original, a soldier on his way home from duty sells his soul to the devil; in Marsalis' recasting, which takes inspiration from Stravinsky's appropriation of early twentieth century jazz idioms, a musician sells his soul to a record producer.
In addition to jazz and "crossover" projects, Marsalis is respected as a performer of classical repertoire: In Gabriel's Garden, recorded with the English Chamber Orchestra, included J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, and Mouret's Rondeau (Marsalis' recording of which was chosen as the new theme music for PBS' Masterpiece Theater) are both notable releases. A subsequent release, Classic Wynton, rendered music from the Baroque to Contemporary, including a previously unreleased recording of twentieth century composer Alan Hovhanhess' Prayer of Saint Gregory.
The 1990s saw Marsalis also heavily involved in educational efforts, including frequent demonstrations at public schools; he won a Peabody Award in 1996 for his video series, "Marsalis on Music." Such efforts prompted one national magazine to identify him as among the 25 most influential people in America. His massive 2002 work for chorus, orchestra, and jazz band, All Rise, included such diverse elements as a massive fugue for strings and traces of Cuban and Argentine rhythms.