At Montclair State University, Wynton Marsalis imparts notes of wisdom
By SHANE PAUL NEIL
For Montclair Local
Communication, Wynton Marsalis says, is the “challenge of life.”
“I think I’m telling you something, but you’re not hearing me,” Marsalis told a student from Montclair State University’s Cali School of Music when he visited the campus this week. "Have you ever gone out with somebody? The first date is great. On the third date, you never want to go out with them again. And the thing is, they didn’t want to go out with you after the first date.”
It was one of several times the jazz great bridged his philosophies of life and music during a three-day visit, part of the school’s ongoing Cali Immersive Residency Program, through which 11 top-rated artists or ensembles are spending time with MSU students in the 2021-22 academic year. The Harlem Quartet, Trevor New and Voces8 are among those also included in the residency.
The reason Marsalis brought up the example? Because communication is key when playing with an ensemble. The student wasn’t quite hearing what his bandmates were doing as they improvised, Marsalis said. The subtle cues were being missed.
For the students who took part in the sessions, the opportunity to work with Marsalis was “truly special,” Assistant Professor Oscar Perez, coordinator of Jazz Studies, said.
“He is the embodiment of artistry, education, and an inspiration to anyone lucky enough to spend time around him,” Perez said.
Perez called Marsalis “perhaps the most legendary classical and jazz performer, composer, producer, band leader and educator in the world.”
“He lives a life based on the principles of jazz, and has a unique talent for communicating that to the masses,” Perez said. “I am thrilled our students will have an opportunity to meet and learn from him — this will be a special week in the history of our school, for sure.”
The three-day program featuring Marsalis consisted of a brass masterclass and a discussion on composition and arrangement on Tuesday, Nov. 9; a masterclass for all Cali School students on Wednesday; and a “behind the scenes” discussion that was ticketed and open to the public on Thursday.
During the brass masterclass, Marsalis listened and critiqued horn players’ performances. In the discussion on composition and arrangement, he worked with a complete ensemble, helping the students with improvisation and communication. The behind-the-scenes discussion centered on Marsalis’ own work, and his musical and life philosophies.
Marsalis isn’t new to the art of teaching music. The trumpeter has been director of the Juilliard School’s jazz program since 2014, and has more than a dozen honorary doctorates.
Marsalis, in his instruction, often reached back to the lessons of past musical greats to provide insight on how students could improve. In conversation with trumpeter Tanner Deyo during the brass masterclass, Marsalis advised: “I want you to be more extreme in your approach to lyricism.” He told Deyo to listen to Maria Callas, one of the most renowned opera singers of the 20th Century. “Check out what she expresses, the way she expresses and how extreme it is.”
Marsalis wasn’t shy about playing his horn during the events, often playing along with the students to offer real examples of the guidance he offered.
Following the discussion on arrangement, students Nico Martin and Derick Campos, who were members of the ensemble Marsalis worked with during the session, spoke to the school’s director, Anthony Mazzocchi, about their experience.
Campos said the experience “unlocked something for me that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.”
“I love how genuine he is, too, because obviously, he made us all nervous, but he’s not trying to do that,” Campos said.
Mazzocchi said it had been one of the only times he’d been in Cali School’s Jed Leshowitz Recital Hall with more than 200 people, “and not one person was on their phone. Everyone was in the moment.”
Marsalis, in the sessions, often drew out the means and methods of better musicianship from the students themselves. It seemed nearly every interaction began with a question: “How could you have performed better?”
"I don’t use this word lightly, but Wynton Marsalis' visit to this school was transformative in every way,” Mazzocchi said. “His level of humility and humanity that came through was profound and the students came away learning just as much about life as they did about music — and that’s exactly what we were trying to do here."