time he was able to hold a trumpet. Not so. “Mama took us to see classical orchestras play a few times, but I didn’t know anything about classical music. I couldn’t get into it. Daddy always played jazz, but I didn’t like that either. I liked them [the musicians his father played with] but I didn’t like the music. And I didn’t understand his dedication to it. The funk bands I knew used to pack the house; I played in a funk band when I was a teenager. But whenever daddy played, there would only be 10 or 15 people around.
“Jazz musicians were strange to me. I liked Earth Wind and Fire, and Parliament; I was used to people in shiny suits and costumes and stuff. The people on the covers of my daddy’s jazz albums looked funny to me. They were dressed normal and looked all serious.”
Then one day when Marsalis was 12 years old, he came home from his summer job and decided to try something. “I came home from work one day and put on one of my daddy’s John Coltrane records. I didn’t like it.” And for most of us, that would have been the end of it. Went there, tried that, didn’t like it. But something was happening that Marsalis didn’t quite understand. “I played it again. I still didn’t like it, but I kept playing it. There was something about it, something about the sound that I couldn’t get away from, something that compelled me to keep playing it and playing it and playing it. And then I started listening to other people. That’s when I started to realize I wanted to be a jazz musician. I had always played, but now I wanted to be good. I wanted to play like ‘trane, like Miles [Davis], and everybody else I was listening to.
“[Jazz] helped me understand life and my place in it. Music is like that, it’s spiritual. It goes beyond emotion; music can take you to a whole different consciousness. My whole approach to everything changed, not just playing. I remember playing a Hayden concerto when I was about 14. I began to appreciate all different kinds of music. Jazz taught me how to listen. I didn’t just have to hear the same beat over and over again. I could listen to five, ten minutes of music and appreciate it, it didn’t just have to be a [popular] hook.”
Now, almost 30 years and one Pulitzer Prize in Music later, Marsalis is jazz. He plays it, composes it, teaches it, and it’s always in his head — at any moment he’s liable to surprise you with a riff on his trumpet, which is never far from him, or break out into spontaneous scatting, tapping his foot to a mental rhythm. “I just want people to be aware of jazz, to make the music available through recordings and broadcasts, and to produce more jazz musicians who can play,” he says. “There’s not any one thing