Internationally acclaimed musician, composer, bandleader and educator Wynton Marsalis returns to Nevada County Friday — his third visit since 2001 — with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
To date, Marsalis has produced more than 70 records that have sold over seven million copies worldwide, including three gold records. His recordings consistently incorporate a heavy emphasis on the blues, an inclusive approach to all forms of jazz from New Orleans to modern jazz, persistent use of swing as the primary rhythm, an embrace of the American popular song, individual and collective improvisation, and a panoramic vision of compositional styles from ditties to dynamic call and response patterns.
Saxophonist Ted Nash, who has a familial connection to Nevada County, has been a part of Marsalis’ band for 15 years. Nash spoke this week with Union freelance writer Tom Kellar about jazz and his longtime collaboration with Marsalis.
TK: I’m sure readers of The Union will be interested in your connection to this area. Can you speak to that?
TN: Well, about 17 years ago, my two daughters moved there and I didn’t know anything about the area at all. I remember the first time I came and visited, I was fairly charmed by the community. I started coming to visit about eight to 10 times a year to see my daughters and I’ve always enjoyed the vibe there. It’s kind of funny because I was staying at a bed and breakfast there visiting my daughters and the woman who owned the house worked for an arts organization and through that connection we were able to put on a jazz festival there. I don’t know if you’re aware of that?
TK: No, I wasn’t living here then, but please tell me about it?
TN: The woman I was renting the space from told me to come down and meet everyone in the arts organization, so I did and was told that “there had always been an interest in jazz here, but it was tough because the location is far from other cities where touring bands come and so we often get ignored. It’s a small community, but there’s a great interest in art and culture in this small town and it’s beautiful.” Then they asked me if I would be the artistic director of a jazz festival and I said sure. So I put together this jazz festival at the Veterans Hall for two nights and I brought out several musicians from New York, including Wynton Marsalis, and we also had some local musicians play and we did education, we put together a high school all-star band and we did some clinics and it was like a three-day thing.
TK: How did Wynton fare during his first visit to our area?
TN: It’s kind of funny because Wynton doesn’t like to fly and so he ended up hiring two drivers to bring him all the way out for the three days and had them drive him all the way back, so it took up a whole week, but that’s the kind of dedication he has for education and trying to bring music to different places. It was very successful, we sold it out. Julie Baker was one of the people who got involved in the very first visit, she opened up her in-laws’ house to Wynton and me and a couple of other people who stayed there and her art gallery was used as a pre-concert reception area. We had a really good time, there was a nice connection with Julie, long before her involvement with the Center for the Arts. Wynton was saying, “This is what I’m talking about, a community coming together.”
TK: So the next Wynton Marsalis sighting here was a long time in coming.
TN: Yes, we played the Veterans Hall a couple of years ago and it just was one of those concerts with a lot of electricity and enthusiasm from the audience and Wynton’s response was “This is one of the best gigs we’ve done on the tour so far,” it just had that kind of feeling and we were all really excited about it. When the opportunity came up two years later to return to Grass Valley, we said absolutely, we want to be there and be part of the vibe of the community.
TK: Your personal history is that you moved from Los Angeles to New York City at a young age?
TN: My father and uncle were both jazz musicians when they were in their 20s and settled in Los Angeles, having very successful careers doing commercial music and at a certain point I thought I was going to do that as well, it seemed like a natural thing to do. But I was so drawn to playing jazz and performing in the artistic side of the music, that I decided to go to New York, where I felt a very strong concentration of energy in jazz. I’m glad I went. I would have had a very different type of career had I stayed in LA. I probably would have made more money, but it’s so gratifying to be improvising and creating and being in an environment that’s creative and I’ve met some wonderful people and made some great music.
TK: Can you talk about becoming a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra?
TN: When the early ‘80s arrived, I had been in New York about four or five years. Wynton really hit the scene hard and became famous very quickly, won a lot of Grammy Awards, headlined a lot of festivals, and I would buy his records and think this guy is one of the people I would really love to play with, but thought it would never happen, that it was just a fantasy. We laugh now about how we missed the opportunity to know each other in our early 20s, because we are about the same age, we’ve got kids who are about the same age, we’ve got fathers who are musicians and now that we do know each other very well, we think we missed a lot of years when we could have been really digging music together and getting to know each other personally, because we really do have a great chemistry and our understanding of the world is kind of similar. But that didn’t happen in the early ‘80s. It was more than 10 years later that I began subbing in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and even when I did that, he (Wynton) wasn’t there often or wasn’t in the band. It was a little bit different situation then. The band as it is now, started in 1998, but before that it was kind of put together concert to concert and sometimes Wynton would be out front playing solos and I was still very shy about trying to talk to him and he didn’t know much about me, or who I was. I was working with Marcus Roberts, primarily playing clarinet with him, and Wynton came down to listen and then asked if I would come and play with him and I did some gigs with his band on clarinet and then when a position opened up in the Jazz Orchestra, I of course said yes and for 15 years have been a band member ever since.
TK: Sounds like it’s been a good run.
TN: It’s been great and Wynton and I were just laughing about their being a period in the middle when we just felt like there wasn’t a lot of support out there, people didn’t really seem to understand jazz, we were doing a lot of travelling and the band felt like it was getting a little bit stale. Then he decided to let members of the band, write music for the band and he started writing music for the band and I started writing music for the band and we started doing bigger projects and new music and even though part of what we do is of a repertory nature, now we have so many talented writers we have forged our own sound and own direction based upon the people in the band. This has become a new energy for us and night after night we’re excited about the band.
Tom Kellar is a freelance writer in Grass Valley.