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Inside the Music

Marsalis in Minneapolis: Getting in the Swing of Things

Wynton Marsalis, trumpet
Wynton Marsalis | Photo © Piper Ferguson

At the Grammy Awards in February 1984, the biggest story was the record eight awards picked up by Michael Jackson, whose Thriller was topping charts on its way to becoming the bestselling album of all time—but unprecedented things were also happening in other genres, as 22-year-old trumpeter Wynton Marsalis became the first musician ever to win classical and jazz Grammy Awards in the same year.

Marsalis won at least one Grammy in each of the next four years and hasn’t slowed down since, notably achieving another unprecedented feat in 1997 when he became the first to win the Pulitzer Prize for a jazz composition, as the award had previously been given only to classical compositions. Today he remains a leader in the jazz field, celebrated as a performer, recording artist, artistic leader of Jazz at Lincoln Center and its resident large jazz ensemble, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and an overall advocate of American music and culture. 

History in the Hall

On September 23 and 24, Marsalis makes more history at Orchestra Hall as he and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) perform together with the Minnesota Orchestra for the first time. Marsalis has come to Minneapolis many times before—making his local debut in April 1982 at First Avenue, and taking his first bow at Orchestra Hall in March 1984—and he has brought the JLCO to Orchestra Hall three times since 2009, but always performing on its own without the Minnesota Orchestra.

One reason why the JLCO and the Minnesota Orchestra have never shared a stage is the issue of what they would play together; there simply isn’t much music scored for the combined forces of a symphony orchestra and a 15-piece jazz ensemble. Furthermore, the two groups have different performance practices. A symphony orchestra is usually led by a conductor standing in front of the ensemble, but the JLCO typically operates without one, as Marsalis drives the action from his place in the trumpet section. In addition, the jazz performance style is a mixture of written-out, rehearsed and improvised music, while classical orchestra musicians are trained to strictly stick to their written parts.

Marsalis has bridged the two worlds by composing Swing Symphony, a work of sweeping scale for jazz ensemble and symphony orchestra that is a celebration of American music and the many ways it has been influenced by the rhythms, harmonies and philosophy of swing. At over an hour in duration, it is one of the longest 21st-century compositions the Minnesota Orchestra has ever performed, surpassed in length only by John Tavener’s Ikon of Eros, Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos and Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings Symphony.

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis | Photo © Piper Ferguson

An American journey

Swing Symphony demonstrates the full breadth of Marsalis’ talents as a composer, performer and advocate of American music. Dating from 2010, it encapsulates not only the history of jazz, but music in many styles that are touched by swing, from ragtime to the present—often presented through the lens of Marsalis’ personal connections with his musical mentors. He explains that Swing Symphony “focuses on Afro- and Anglo-American music” and unites “diverse instrumental techniques, musical personalities, song forms, dance grooves and historic eras.” Although most of the symphony’s score has the parts for each instrument written out exactly as they are to be performed, some passages in both the jazz ensemble and symphony orchestra parts call for musicians to improvise, making each performance unique. 

Swing Symphony, Marsalis’ Third Symphony, was co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic and London’s Barbican Centre. It premiered in Berlin on June 9, 2010, with Marsalis and the JLCO joining the Berlin Philharmonic and conductor Sir Simon Rattle. In 2018 the JLCO and Marsalis recorded it with the St. Louis Symphony under the baton of David Robertson. This month’s concerts mark the first time it has been performed in Minnesota.

Learn more about Marsalis, the JLCO and Swing Symphony, including Marsalis’ detailed description of each movement and its influences, in the program notes for this concert—and come to Orchestra Hall to experience this one-of-a-kind work in person. A limited number of tickets are available for the Season Opening concerts on September 23 and 24 featuring the Minnesota Orchestra, Marsalis and the JLCO with William Eddins as conductor.