Marsalis has long considered himself as a musician rather than as a saxophonist. In his mind, there is a big difference between the two in that a musician is someone that knows what it takes to make a song reach its highest potential, even if it means not playing as fast as one can or as many notes as is possible. “For the instrumentalist, the instrument is the center of their life; for a musician, the music they play is the center of their life,” Marsalis explains to iRockJazz. “In order to play music and communicate with people you have to have something in common with people. Most people don’t spend eight hours a day or four hours a day in a little cubicle working on complicated devices to play on stage. ”
Marsalis spent his childhood playing in funk bands as part of the horn section and grasped the concept of knowing his role. This method of thinking led him to lend his instrument saxophone to some of the biggest recordings of the late 21st century, such as Shanice’s pop smash “I Love Your Smile” and Public Enemy’s iconic anthem “Fight the Power.” “First of all, I don’t go up there playing jazz solos. I employ jazz sensibilities and it’s unique and it’s different in the way it sounds, but I understand my role in that situation.”
Many jazz artists have elected to stay in their lane, not venturing far away from the realm of jazz. Marsalis’s ability to do well outside of jazz draws from his multi-tiered interests, which not all jazz musicians have. As a member of a musical family, expectations are high, especially when you grow up in a region rich with musical history that has a storied reputation for extractive musically-inclined progenies. “That’s what it means to grow up in New Orleans,” Marsalis tells iRockJazz. “I can name off the top of my head 12 families where there are 3rd and 4th generations of musicians coming from them.” Indeed, with a town that’s home to the Alcorn’s, the French’s and the family of rising star Trombone Shorty, the Marsalis’s had plenty which to live up. Although he, along with his dad and three of his six brothers, have excelled at their respective instruments, Marsalis and his family have refused to let music be the end or be all of their everyday existences. “We had a house of four – four out of the six –rambunctious-assed boys. Wynton was a national merit scholar and had scholarships and free rides to Stanford and all these other places. It’s hard to do that if all you’re doing is playing music all day. I was on the debate team, and Wynton and I played sports.”
Being well-rounded at a young age helped Marsalis keep himself from being consumed by what he feels are unnecessary, unwritten restrictions and regulations that many jazz musicians become enamored with: getting wrapped up in the science of jazz and establishing theories, hypotheses and systems that will make them stand out from their contemporaries. Marsalis’s openness to working with other artists also comes from an exchange of musical ideas between him and a group of four friends during high school. Together they’d share an open dialogue about music of all sorts and had a literal exchange of music between them. “Because I went to white schools I learned about Led Zeppelin and King Crimson and Elton John,” Marsalis explains, “but they didn’t want to hear no James Brown or Aretha Franklin. And I’d go home and [my brothers] didn’t want to hear no Elton John or King Crimson. So there were five of us and we would sit around and learn music together.” They’d all take turns introducing each other to Jimi Hendrix, King Crimson, The Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder, a critical component to Marsalis’ approach to music and an approach that’s made him a unique player for over thirty years.