Listening, literature and community engagement: Wynton Marsalis on music education

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis

“But, overall, I think the main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe. That’s what music is to me—it’s just another way of saying this is a big, beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is. That’s what I would like to do. I think that’s one of the greatest things you can do in life, and we try to do it in some way. The musician’s is through his music.” —John Coltrane

One of my earliest introductions to jazz music was on The Cosby Show. In episode 6 of season 4, Dr. Heathcliff “Cliff” Huxtable and Clair Olivia Huxtable, Esq. dine romantically to the sounds of a John Coltrane rendition of Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mooda song which, according to Ellington, was written in Durham, NC. In previous episodes, we see Dizzy Gillespie portray music teacher Mr. Hampton and see a poster of Miles Davis in Theo Huxtable’s room—both in season 1. One other poster caught my eye in Theo’s room; namely, that of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

Wynthon Marsalis is a composer, bandleader and educator. He is a 9-time Grammy Award winner, the first jazz musician ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music and the only artist to win Grammy Awards for five consecutive years for musical contributions. Marsalis currently serves as the Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and tours with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

In his own words

After a lively and engaging performance at UNC’s Memorial Hall on February 10th, I got a chance to speak with Mr. Marsalis about the current state of music education. He offers the following suggestions to music educators:

1. Help kids develop their ears

“Teachers need to reflect in their teaching. Music is all hearing. They can’t be afraid of the oral method.” In Moving to higher ground: How jazz can change your life, Marsalis writes, “Jazz musicians have to listen and communicate. You have absolutely no idea what the other musicians are going to improvise, so you’re forced to listen” (p. 22). He continues, noting that people follow the music as it is being born, which requires “each person to listen and speak with the same intensity.” Marsalis believes that this development of the ears will help connect students to the spirit of the arts, which he believes is the absolute essence of humanity.

2. Use the literature

Marsalis explains, “The literature is the most important thing, because literature is what you’re playing. And literature doesn’t mean just what’s written. It’s what you teach them. I have a list of 50 essential songs people should know. If you have students, and they don’t know any of your folk music… they don’t know any gospel music… they don’t know any blues… they don’t know any popular songs—and I’m not even dealing with jazz… just all music. If you teach kids, and they don’t know any of that music—they don’t know any American music—you’re not really teaching them anything.”

He continues, “You got Duke Ellington; you got Eric Copeland. You got certain great titans. They should be trying to learn—or prepare to learn—their music. Kids go out to play basketball or football… and they’re 9. They play with the same rules… these are 8-year-old kids… 9-year-old kids. They don’t have to have boundaries. I always make the point to people that play music that when we were 12 and 13 years old, we were butchering Beethoven’s music and butchering Haydyn’s music. It doesn’t make a difference how good you play it; it’s that the literature is going to teach you how to play it. Then, when you’re 14 and 15, you can play.”

3. Build community

Marsalis notes, “The third thing I would say for teachers in this era is that it’s important for bands to be community. You need to play a lot more performances. That three or four performances a year for parents—and brothers and sisters who are forced to go to the concert—no… we’ve been doing that for 30 years… 40 years. It hasn’t yielded anything. You’ve got to get out in malls; you’ve got to get out in picnics, parks, prisons, parades and old folks’ homes. Be in a place where kids can understand the impact of their music; not just some solo competition or football game where nobody is really paying attention to what you’re playing… or the Christmas concert or Easter concert. You’ve got to make it be a part of the overall life.”

Moving to higher ground

Marsalis’ push for a focus on listening, literature and community engagement is by no means isolated to my conversation with him. According to Arts, rhetoric, and swing: The writings of Wynton Marsalis, one of Marsalis’ goals is to shift the paradigms of educational systems so that students can more readily engage in creative, artistic, communal and scholarly pursuits.

In a forthcoming article, Reshaping American Music Education in the 21st Century, Marsalis discusses aims and purpose in music education and the role that stakeholders play. Visit and for updates and more information.

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