On TV Portrait, Wynton Marsalis Puts Students in Touch With Their Musical Heritage

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

COMMERCE vs. education - that's the tug of war influencing the music young people are exposed to. Or at least that's the view of young trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis. So Mr. Marsalis has decided to throw more weight on the side of education - by finding time to give lectures at high schools and colleges amid his busy concert and recording schedule.

``I'm just trying to give [youngsters] criteria to be more objective in their understanding of American musical culture, because a lot of propaganda is involved,'' says Marsalis in a Monitor interview. ``You know, $5 billion is made every year off the sale of records, and at least $1 billion is put into publicity, I'm sure. Those who are trying to make more billions are not concerned with any kind of cultural education; they never have been.''

Marsalis's message about music, as well as his trumpet playing, is being featured on PBS's ``Great Performances,'' Friday (9-10 p.m., check local listings). In a program titled ``Wynton Marsalis: Blues and Swing,'' the eight-time Grammy winner talks with students about jazz and its place in American culture, putting a strong emphasis on respect for its roots and illustrating his points with footage of his quintet performing in concert.

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Marsalis comes across as just a regular guy - but he's also dead serious. He really wants to give young people alternatives to the Top-40 radio that inundates them daily. Will they go for it?

``I don't know,'' says Marsalis. ``But the choice will be there. I don't tell them what the music should mean to them. I just tell them that music is a medium for expression. It has a history and tradition. Music - and culture, in general - allows us to see ourselves through the eyes of our most enlightened people, the artists of each generation.''

Although Marsalis isn't much older than his students, he's adopted a warm, almost parental attitude toward them. ``Kids want to be led by adults,'' he says. About what teens are listening to on their own Marsalis has little to say. ``I don't really listen to it; so I don't know,'' he explains, laughing. ``In other words, I would rather speak on what I know about.''

So Marsalis sticks to the masters of American jazz he knows and loves, people like Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and, of course, the great band leader and composer Duke Ellington.

``Duke Ellington represents Bach,'' says Marsalis. ``His place is like Bach's place in European music. Bach consolidated a lot of the tradition of the music - polyphonic composition, thematic unity, fugal writing, violin pieces, solo recitatives. He laid out a big foundation; so every European composer that came after him had to deal with his music.

``Now in our music, it's Duke Ellington. The problem is: we haven't recognized it. When Bach was alive, musicians like Handel and Vivaldi knew who Bach was, but a lot of the young people called him an old fogy - `Oh, he's not hip; he's not going for the trend of the day.' We have to educate them.''

A longer version of ``Wynton Marsalis: Blues and Swing'' is being released by CBS on videocassette, and Marsalis's latest album, ``Majesty of the Blues,'' is due out in April.

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