GARFIELD PARK-It’s not every day that someone can say they got musical advice from a jazz great.
But that’s exactly what Providence St. Mel freshman Jessica Bailey got when Wynton Marsalis visited the West Garfield Park school on Tuesday.
Marsalis spoke to students during a morning assembly, peppering his speech with colorful anecdotes about life and music. “Practice, practice, practice” is what Bailey, an aspiring soprano singer, gleaned from his hour-long speech.
“If you are serious about your craft, if you are serious about your art; if you are serious about whatever you’re doing, you practice,” the 14-year-old said. “It kind of made the phrase ‘Practice makes perfect’ more real to me.”
Surprising advice from the Grammy award winner, who, at first, did not like the trumpet. Marsalis’ first trumpet came when he was six years old as a Christmas gift from a musician who performed with his father, jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis. But the younger Marsalis didn’t take a shine to it right way because he thought trumpet players had “ugly lips” – a turnoff for girls.
“I didn’t see not one trumpet player my whole life whose lips weren’t ugly, and I told my daddy I can’t practice this because they make your lips look ugly,” Marsalis quipped.
His father sternly told him he had no choice but to play the instrument, but his conversion came after he realized girls liked musicians.
“So I said OK. Their lips are ugly, but if the girls like them then I’m going to practice. That’s the truth. I am not lying,” Marsalis said to audience laughs and applause.
Marsalis, 50, has won countless awards during his career, including a Pulitzer Price for Music for Blood on the Fields (1995), an opera about slavery. He admitted his musical chops were not innate, but honed and developed through practice, a task he once considered arduous. And when teachers told him to practice, he thought they really didn’t know how to instruct.
“The teacher that I wanted to study with was going to show me how to get good without practicing,” he said to audience laughter.
But Marsalis soon realized that the more he practiced the better he got. Practicing then became fun.
“Once you’re serious, you’re serious,” he said. “It doesn’t make a difference if you are not doing it to win an award. You are not doing it for somebody to say that you are good. You are doing it just for the love and joy of doing it.”
For that reason Marsalis gave an impromptu demonstration on improvisational jazz, when students asked him how he knew what to play when improvising. Marsalis said improvising is like talking.
“When you’re improvising, you start with an idea and you expand on it just like you’re talking. You can play around with the ideas,” he said.
To illustrate Marsalis tooted the Happy Birthday song on his trumpet, first playing the harmony then speeding up the riffs. Then he slowed it down. Marsalis said the faster pace styling is called Bebop and the slower pace is called New Orleans style jazz.
“It is like when you are playing ball,” Marsalis, an avid basketball player, said. “You know how you take somebody one way and you go back the other way and they’re still over there and you are over here …. That is how it is when you’re playing. There are a lot of ways you can improvise.”
Several St. Mel students who talked with Marsalis described him as very personable. Marsalis often joked with the students during the discussion.
“You felt comfortable around him because of the manner that he carried himself,” said Adam Harris, a 16-year-old junior. “He made it seem like … you were his friend and his was yours.”
Mariah Byrd, 15, was impressed that Marsalis, as accomplished as he is, still wants to learn more. Marsalis talked to students about his wanting to get better on the trumpet and to play with greater clarity.
“By him saying that he wants to do more, learn different cultures and different music, gives me hope that I could be good at what I do…I still learn more,” the freshman said.
Marsalis offered one last piece of advice for the kids-that the world is in their hands.
“The country needs you,” he said. “We are in rough shape, and we need our young people. We need them to look way past us. You have to think up what you want [the world] to be like and you got to make it that way.”