Questions for: Wynton Marsalis

February 9th, 2011 by Katherine Bell

The renowned musician and founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center reflects on his leadership role, and how leading a band is like running a company.

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The Responsibility Project

Wynton Marsalis grew up in a family of New Orleans jazz musicians and received his first trumpet as a sixth birthday present from bandleader Al Hirt. At 14 he debuted with the Louisiana Philharmonic; at 17 he moved to New York, where he attended Juilliard, joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, assembled his own band, and began a prolific composing and recording career. In 1987, Marsalis founded Jazz at Lincoln Center.

HBR: Why did you pick the trumpet?

Wynton Marsalis: I got a trumpet for my sixth birthday, but I didn't practice it. And then the summer I was 12, I started listening to John Coltrane, and I wanted to play. There was so much racism when we grew up, and that’s part of what inspired me; I wanted to represent my humanity. The work ethic I developed at that time — I still have that.

How did you learn to lead?

I was always a leader on teams. I called the plays in football, pitched baseball, played point guard in basketball. The guys would always ask me, “Man, what do you think we ought to do?”

When I was young I was too harsh on the musicians. The people who played with me taught me how to be better. I learned to have a clear direction. If you are wishy-washy or you lack heart, they can’t follow you. It’s exactly like leading on a horn. I play fourth trumpet, following Ryan Kisor. He’s young, but a great lead player. He lets you know what he’s going to play before he plays it. If everything’s falling apart, he comes in. You can depend on him.

How is leading a band like running a company?

You have to know what your people can do. The ones who need to be challenged, you give them challenges. The ones who need to be carried, you carry them. The ones you need to let go, you let them go. A leader has got to have a certain kindness but certain meanness, too.

What’s your theory on talent versus practice?

You can become proficient at anything. If you’re a boxer, you can practice four million hours and become proficient to a certain point, but if you don’t have the talent, you won’t be the one to beat. You can’t practice the ability to make connections or have a deep, spiritual insight. To be great, you need courage to speak out and endurance to deal with what is given to you. Ornette Coleman got beat up for playing his music, but he played it. That’s not something you can practice your way into.

How do you hire musicians?

I look for four things: First, individuality. Do they have a unique sound? Second, knowledge of the music. Third, do they respond well to pressure? And fourth, do they want to be a part of us?

Do you think about how somebody will fit into the group?

People with difficult personalities can survive in our world. If they can play, we embrace them and we work with them. But that doesn’t mean they become less difficult.

Do you need to be alone to compose?

I grew up in a big family with a lot of noise. I like distraction. As a matter of fact, if I’m composing, I’ll turn the television on. It makes me concentrate more deeply on what I’m doing.

Why did you decide to take on such a big management role with Lincoln Center?

My overall goal is to raise the level of artistic consciousness in our country, so that we become a country of the arts. To the day I die I want to work on that. I could go out and play and make much more money and have a much better time, but the work we do is important work. And I’ve learned so much doing it.

What’s been the biggest challenge in building a major cultural institution from scratch?

Getting the level of financial support that the music deserves. That would be number one. We’re constantly trying to find money to do arts programs. And when you have financial strain, you start to make decisions that are not the most prudent best-quality decisions. I’m not saying that we have done that, but it’s a pressure.

You’ve been criticized a lot for taking a conservative approach to jazz.

I like being critiqued. I always knew I was original.  If anything, the criticism made me more determined to go in my own direction. You have to assess criticism and then make your own decisions. You have to say, “We’re going this way.” That’s what steels your leadership—you survive and become a better leader. If you can’t take it, you’re not the leader.

How much do you think about what the audience wants to hear?

I always think about what the audience wants to hear—and what they need to hear. What do I have to give people to bring them into the feeling of this music? The audience has got to really want to be there. Shakespeare had the right equation. He gave you sexuality and skullduggery and backstabbing, and then he gave you artistry, too. The high and low.

What can leaders learn from listening to jazz?

If you hone your listening skills so that you can follow the development of a solo, you can listen more empathetically to people when they talk and hear underneath what they’re saying. You can feel their intention.

What has composing taught you about creativity?

Celebrate your traditions as you innovate. As you come up with new things, always reach back. Offer everything you have all the time.