Soon after being hired by jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, saxophonist Walter Blanding, a green kid at the time, got a glimpse into the bandleader’s heart.
“So I’m still kind of scared,” he says. “I’m young. I’m trying to fit in. I’m the youngest guy in the band. I’m trying to get to learn the music and all of this, and we get on an airplane ... I happen to sit next to Wynton, and one of the security guards, a policeman with gun and badge and everything, he gets on the plane, and he walks right up to me, and he puts his hand on my shoulder and says, ‘Sir, we found something in your bag. You’re going to have to come with us.’
“My heart jumps out of my throat. I’m like, ‘Are you sure it’s me?’
“‘Yes, I’m sure. You have to come with us.’’’
Blanding, just discovering how deep the pit in his stomach can get, slowly starts to get up, when the cop and Marsalis break out laughing. Between guffaws, Marsalis explains that he put the cop up to the prank in return for giving him an autograph.
Traveling with the Grammy-winning trumpeter, Pulitzer Prize–winning composer, executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and ambassador of swing, you’d better be on your toes at all times.
“First off, people don’t realize he’s a really funny individual,” says drummer Ali Jackson, who’s known Marsalis for almost 20 years. “His viewpoint on the world comes from an intellectual side and a street side. He’s a very unique cat.”
“He’s been like a beacon for me. He sets a benchmark for seriousness, especially in our music,” he says. “Playing with him in a small group, you see where his work ethic comes from, deep within. Wynton, I’ve never seen him run away from work.”
Bassist Carlos Henriquez echoes that sentiment, recounting how the band members will be on their Playstations while Marsalis retires to the back of the bus to tend to Jazz at Lincoln Center by phone.
One night in British Columbia, though, Henriquez and Jackson prevailed on Marsalis to relax with them at a jazz club. “We had a real good time,” Henriquez says. Still, they ended the evening by giving some young kids a music lesson at three in the morning.
“It’s always a learning experience, from everyone in the band, not just Wynton,” says pianist Dan Nimmer, the youngest band member at age 24. “That’s part of being in his band. It’s always a growing process, and learning as much music as you can—not just jazz.”
Marsalis’ standard of excellence, his level of professionalism and his mission to spread the gospel of swing all feed into that educational process, too.
“He has a very competitive nature,” Blanding says. “He demands so much from himself first, and also from others. So working with him, it’s challenging.”
“We all have the same commitment toward the music like he does,” says Henriquez. “Culturally and musically, we have to continue the legacy.”