Wynton Marsalis. (Frank Stewart / November 22, 2011)

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As the seconds pass before Wynton Marsalis picks up the phone in his Portland, Ore., hotel room, the mind sends a decree to the body: Be on guard.

And have the recorder running too, because a few choice quotes are bound to be in the offing. Marsalis, the man often heralded as the ambassador of jazz (or jazz czar, or Ronald Reagan of jazz, or whichever title you prefer), isn't known for grunting one-sentence responses in interviews. He is known for expressing sharp opinions — sometimes, apparently, at the volume of a John Coltrane solo.

A story a few years ago in the British newspaper the Independent declared that it "doesn't take much to annoy Wynton Marsalis" — the "much" in question ranging from musical styles to politics.

Another recent article reports that the trumpeter "almost explodes with rage when he talks about hip-hop" and describes "his gruff holler getting louder and angrier" as he dissects the subject.

Maybe those reporters were thin-skinned, or maybe Marsalis' comments were perfectly in character for a man who has both exalted and divided the jazz community for decades. But when a raspy voice finally comes on the line from Portland, it sounds sedate, even warm.

"Oh, just call me Wynton," he says casually when asked for the best way to address him.

For the first few questions, he offers short replies: Yes, he's played before at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, where he'll stop again March 14 with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Yes, it's a beautiful venue. Yes, one of his favorites in the region.

Marsalis gets more verbal — while remaining genial — when the names of the composers who will be the focus of his Segerstrom show come up. The orchestra will play a series of selections that night from two 20th-century giants, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and Marsalis, whose work has touched on classical as well as jazz, makes a ready comparison.

"Basie and Ellington, that's like Bach and Beethoven," he says. "If you like European classical music, you like Bach and you like Beethoven. If you like jazz, you like Basie and you like Ellington."

Marsalis' definition of liking jazz may not always mirror that of other people. He's been a critic in the past of fusion styles — including, sure enough, hip-hop jazz — and over the course of the conversation, he outlines the fundamentals of what he considers the music's true form: a swing beat, improvisation and blues flavor.

He points out that he doesn't dislike other genres simply because they're not jazz. But he's keen on using the right terminology.

Even if you don't accept Marsalis as Dr. Jazz, however, there's at least some reason to trust him as an authority. With the Lincoln Center in New York, he has promoted the genre for more than a quarter-century through tours, recordings and educational programs.

He's won nine Grammys and served as a cultural correspondent for CBS. AllMusic.com proclaims him "the most famous jazz musician since 1980."

At Segerstrom, though, he won't necessarily be in the spotlight. He didn't choose Ellington and Basie for the program — the venue made that request — and his orchestra will play the original bandleaders' arrangements rather than his own.

But whoever gets top billing doesn't always matter to Marsalis. For him, jazz is bigger than any one person.


When Marsalis expounds on the implications of jazz, the delivery sounds like a speech suited to the Oval Office as much as the Hollywood Bowl.

"Well, first, the fact that you can improvise against a ground rhythm is like [how] our Constitution can be amended," he says in response to a question about how jazz mirrors cultural identity. "And, in fact, there's a complex series of checks and balances in that improvisation — like the softest instrument, the bass, unamplified bass, is forced to play on every beat with the loudest instrument, which is the drums. It's like the two parties having to negotiate a deal with each other."

Like a trumpeter improvising on a theme, Marsalis keeps building: The journey from the beginning to the end of a tune is like driving cross-country; choruses stacked on top of each other are like skyscrapers; the soloist is like the citizen who balances his own interest with that of society's. He sounds like someone who would work well with American documentarian Ken Burns, which, come to think of it, he has.