Playing with a jazz great

For musician Wynton Marsalis, jazz represents “the commonality of the American experience.”

Marsalis and Timothy Dwight Master Robert Thompson held a “musical conversation” in front of a full house at the United Church on the Green Thursday afternoon. The event, which was free and open to the public, featured Marsalis — a well-known American jazz artist and the recipient of nine Grammy awards and a Pulitzer Prize in Music — combining a discussion of his musical predecessors with performances on the trumpet.

Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis plays as a part of a “musical conversation” with Elis at the United Church on the Green.
Sergio Zenisek
Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis plays as a part of a “musical conversation” with Elis at the United Church on the Green.

The composer of the celebrated 1997 oratorio “Blood in the Fields” and producer of more than 60 studio albums, Marsalis came to Yale on a Chubb Fellowship, an endowment established in 1936 that brings politicians, diplomats, activists and artists involved in public service to Yale..

Donning amber sunglasses and a polka-dot tie, Thompson praised what he perceived in Marsalis’ art as those “high moments, the creative life, brilliantly seized and indelible.” Glenda Gilmore, the acting chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale, called Marsalis “a historian of the African American experience” in her introductory speech.

Marsalis began by giving an overview of the great jazz musicians of the past century, philosophizing about the blues — calling it “the lifeblood of all American music that’s good” — and briefly introducing his audience to the music theory and time signatures of the two genres. After playing solo selections from the repertoires of early jazz artists Buddy Bolden and King Oliver, Marsalis enlisted the help of an audience member.

“Anybody play the piano?” he asked. “Somebody want to play some chord progressions for me?”

Tony Aiardo, a professional pianist, vocalist and songwriter, quickly volunteered to play alongside Marsalis.

“It was just an incredible experience,” Aiardo said afterward while handing out business cards to a throng of attendees.

Thompson then asked Marsalis about swing music and early modern jazz, receiving a spoken and musical response that showcased Marsalis’ knowledge of the history of the genre and his skill with the trumpet. While discussing Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Marsalis performed short excerpts from Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and attempted to replicate Dizzy Gillespie’s fast-paced playing style, eliciting exclamations from his audience.

As the sky darkened outside, visible through the church’s grand colonial windows, Marsalis and Aiardo collaborated on an upbeat finale that had listeners enraptured — closing their eyes, nodding and clapping to the beat. With the last note fading into the room, members of the audience gave an extended standing ovation to the two musicians.

Alana Moreno ’11 said she was impressed with Marsalis’ masterly ability to evoke vivid emotions using only the squeals and growls from his instrument. A jazz lover and former trumpet player herself, she noted that Marsalis held a particular significance for her.

“He’s kind of tied to my childhood because I grew up listening to jazz music with my dad,” she said. “It was wonderful to see him in person.”

Deborah Brown, an employee at the Yale Bookstore, said she spoke the simple yet universal language of Marsalis’ music.

“When he talked about musical notes and so on, it was like Greek,” she said. “But when he started playing, I understood.”

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