Tonight’s Benny Carter Centennial kicks off Jazz at Lincoln Center’s fall/winter season, which boasts a lineup that’s sure to have aficionados mobbing the Allen Room each week. Artistic director Wynton Marsalis took time out from the festivities for a quick chat with Vulture about this year’s lineup, his plans for a Civil War opera, and what it’s like being the only jazzman anyone’s ever heard of.
So the new season kicks off tonight. Does it feel like the first day of school?
We put a lot of love into every program we do. It’s like a meal that you improvise with. You see what you have and you come up with a new spin, but you don’t know how the specific spices are going to be working together. It’s always a surprise.
Anything you’re particularly excited for?
One thing we’ve been excited about is Benny Carter’s music across time. We play pieces of his that are amazing. The first piece was written in the thirties, and the last was arranged a few years ago. We play them at the end of shows on the tour this summer. We just look at each every pther time and say “Yeah, man.” A 93-year-old guy wrote that! That a guy that age can write something with that clarity and power. Wow.
You’re hoping to be that prolific at his age?
If I could just put my lips together when I’m 93. I don’t know! I don’t know that you can think of achieving something like that.
What about young musicians — are there any you’ve been excited to see rise through the ranks in recent years?
There are so many great young musicians out there. A piano player named Jonathan Batiste from New Orleans. A saxophonist named Francesco Cafiso. And we have some great guys in our orchestra who can really play.
Speaking of which, it seems like the orchestra tours constantly. Do other audiences react differently from the ones in New York?
Only a Japanese audience reacts differently because they’re very quiet. The concert starts on time and everyone is so quiet. You think that they don’t like the music. They do, they’re just quiet.
Is there a production you’ve always fantasized about?
I’m going to write an opera on the Civil War. It’s germinating in the back of my mind. I always think about the Civil War and how a hundred years later, the civil-rights movement took place in a lot of the same ways — though to a very different degree. It’s a story of states’ rights and the idea of being a republic.
You’re the guy in jazz whose name everyone knows. How does it feel to be the biggest celebrity in jazz?
You only live in the world you live in. I don’t have a problem with someone coming up to me and saying something, because I like people. Some people don’t like people. I’m not that kind of person. I go to parties and you have to ask me to leave. —Jocelyn Guest