Each Sunday, Wynton Marsalis and Geoffrey and Diane Raines Ward meet for breakfast at the Wards’ home. Over coffee and homemade biscuits, they talk about everything from politics to the weather, but the most important topic is jazz.
At 10:45 a.m. August 26 in the Amphitheater, Marsalis and Ward will conclude the season’s morning lectures and the week’s lecture theme, “America’s Music with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center,” in a conversation about jazz moderated by Chautauqua Institution President Tom Becker.
Marsalis, a renowned jazz trumpeter and composer, is the managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Ward is an acclaimed historian and the author of many articles, books and documentary scripts. Additionally, both men co-authored a book called Moving to Higher Ground, dedicated to Diane Ward.
“We’re going to talk about jazz and American culture,” Ward said. “Wynton wants to talk about American values, I think, and how American culture and jazz culture reflect one another. I imagine we’ll tell some stories.”
He said they will give the final touch on topics that have been discussed throughout the week, including the negotiation of music and jazz as a form of racial integration.
Marsalis said he and Ward would be discussing their individual processes, including Ward’s involvement with the “Jazz” documentary, which Ward convinced Ken Burns to direct, and Marsalis’ work with Jazz at Lincoln Center, which he co-founded in 1987.
The two met on the set of “Jazz,” which aired in 2001 as a 10-episode PBS special series. Ward is the writer of both this documentary and its companion book, Jazz: A History of America’s Music. Marsalis served as senior creative adviser for the project and was featured in the final episode, “A Masterpiece at Midnight.” He was also a contributor to Ward’s book.
American culture and history will be key topics of their onstage conversation. Marsalis emphasized the importance of seeing jazz history under a single umbrella of different styles and innovative artists rather than as separate segments, “as if people are disconnected with each other.”
“[When] you learn the history of something, you feel like a person who did some innovative thing or some notable thing in 1925 is dead in 1945,” Marsalis said. “That person is still alive.”
Marsalis and Ward agree that through the role jazz has played in integration, it illustrates the idea of American opportunity. During his Tuesday morning lecture, Ward talked about the inclusiveness of jazz; that “jazz is the living definition of integration.”
During his Monday morning lecture, Marsalis also talked about the connection between race and jazz. He said he believes jazz breaks down these barriers and speaks a distinct truth about American society. Marsalis sang “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” and as the audience joined in he demonstrated how music can create a sense of community.
“Jazz rewards individual skill and collective action,” Ward said. “It doesn’t work if everyone isn’t playing for everyone. You have to swallow your ego. Everyone agrees on the tune, chord and rhythm. … Jazz represents Americans at their very best. The only thing musicians have to ask is, ‘Can you play?’ Race has no role.”
The concept of race, however, plays a major role in the history of jazz.
Marsalis has been playing the trumpet from the time he was 6 years old. He learned the fundamentals of jazz, including the notes that transformed him into a world-renowned trumpeter and composer. He said learning the history of jazz was a sign of his level of interest in the art.
“To know the history of anything that you like is an indication of your engagement with it,” Marsalis said. “To know the history of the thing is to demonstrate interest, and there is no higher level of elegance or love of the thing.”
At the age of 9, Ward became interested in jazz when he heard “West End Blues” while laying in a hospital bed, ill with polio. He has been a jazz enthusiast ever since.
“Jazz has rhythm and form,” Ward said. “It seems magical and mysterious to me. I play nothing. I can’t read music or carry a tune, but I’ve loved it since I was a kid. … A lot of people find jazz intimidating. It’s not. It’s an accessible part of our birthright.”