Wynton Marsalis has been the central figure in jazz for the past two decades. Since 1980 he has released more than 50 improvisational and classical recordings, composed ambitious pieces for instruments, voice and dance, and headed the high-profile Jazz at Lincoln Center program. He has also become the leading public advocate for the centrality of jazz in American culture.
His outspoken eloquence for his view of the jazz tradition most prominently in Ken Burns' massive PBS-TV documentary "Jazz" has also made him hugely controversial. His pronouncements that the styles that emerged from jazz since the 1960s free jazz, jazz-rock fusion, the avant garde are not really jazz at all infuriate many musicians and critics. To them he is a counter-revolutionary, with a selective and backward-facing vision. Still, even his harshest critics acknowledge that Marsalis is a musician with impeccable technique and a vast knowledge of the source music.
In a telephone interview sandwiched between a photo shoot and his next appointment, Marsalis seems neither saint nor ideologue. The familiar voice is unfailingly polite and informal. He seems interested in having an actual conversation in the time slice meted out by the brisk machinery of modern fame.
He has a clear idea of what constitutes jazz. "It is a combination of different elements," Marsalis says, "a shuffle rhythm, walking bass, the blues, an improvised, coherent solo, a certain percentage of African or Afro-Cuban music and romantic elements taken from the American popular song.
"There are no hard and fast rules, but it's like lemonade. Take enough lemons out and it becomes something else. In any case, it requires judgment."
While some including curmudgeonly critic and frequent liner-note writer Stanley Crouch have hailed him as the savior of jazz, Marsalis says: "I don't think about it one way or the other. I try to be as truthful as I can be, based on what I know. But it's just a point of view, an opinion, and there are lots of other points of view. I believe in the democratic process, in letting other people express their point of view. You have to like that, whether you agree with them or not."
As for those who hate him, he is equally unmoved. "There is nothing that you can do about that. You just have to have a good time in the world.
"You never come into contact with that, you are not treated like that in public. It's all played out in the press. If you and I went into a club, everybody would be nice no matter what they thought."
He compares such animosity to sports fans whose abstract hatred of a rival player dissolves if confronted by the living person. He concludes, "You can't be overly sensitive to talk. I always say talk saves a lot of behind."
The performance in Richmond will showcase Marsalis' own compositions, including a new ballet composed for Alvin Ailey's dance company. He views his commitment to the audience seriously. "We're there to play for people. People take their time, two or three hours, to come from somewhere else and listen to the type of music we play," Marsalis says. "It's important to honor that, how sacred it is. And to be grateful for it.
"It's both a huge effort and a great release," he adds. "Like making love you have to be dedicated to it, or it shows."