At age 50, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, FDR became president and Irving Berlin wrote "God Bless America." Not quite 50 -- his birthday is Oct. 18 -- trumpeter Wynton Marsalis can look back on a life of accomplishment.
He has won a Pulitzer Prize and nine Grammys, released more than 40 jazz and classical recordings, written many compositions (including symphonies and ballet scores) and five books (most recently "Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life"), and led the creation of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the world's largest not-for-profit arts organization devoted to jazz, with a posh home in New York and a year-round program of more than 450 events.
Artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center since 1987, Marsalis is arguably the most famous living jazz musician, sometimes controversial and still baby-faced.
In a phone interview earlier this month, he was invited to reflect on his life and his legacy. But he's all about forward motion. Just back from his first trip to South Africa, he'd been up since 4:30 that morning. He was thinking about a lecture he would soon deliver at Harvard on social dance. He was tweaking his latest compositions, "Blues Symphony" and "Swing Symphony," and getting ready to tour with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO), which comes to Orchestra Hall on Sunday in what's billed as a "50th birthday celebration."
"This is a golden period for the band," Marsalis said. "The concert will be heavily weighted toward music I've written. We'll play a lot of my music, and music by guys in the band [plus] an eclectic mix of stuff I like -- Blue Note, Monk, Ellington."
Marsalis leads the orchestra but plays fourth trumpet, sitting in the back row with the rest of the trumpet section. He tried conducting but other members talked him out of it.
Asked to choose a few of his own recordings that are especially meaningful, he demurred at first. "It's not possible to do that. Like people say about their kids." But he settled on two: "All Rise" (2002) and "The Majesty of the Blues" (1988).
Recorded Sept. 13, 2001, two days after the terrorist attacks, "All Rise" was the "most difficult," he said. "There were no planes, no transportation, no reason not to cancel." Composed for chorus, symphony orchestra and jazz big band, it's a 106-minute monster in 12 movements, a nod to the 12-bar blues.
JLCO was in Los Angeles to perform and record with the L.A. Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen. "Our producers were being driven all over the country," Marsalis recalled. "Choirs came together from different coasts. Our road team drove from L.A. to Kansas City to pick people up. [Drummer] Herlin [Riley] was injured, so my little brother Jason came in, learned all the music, and played. A lot of people went out of their way to make it happen." For those who heard it live in Los Angeles, the music was cathartic.
To Marsalis, "The Majesty of the Blues" is about bringing the generations together.
"It's such a radical departure from how things are thought about in our culture. We're always saying, 'How can the next generation separate itself from the generation before?' That record -- really modern music, with Herlin playing all creative stuff, and the great Marcus Roberts -- doesn't sound like anything in the history of jazz. I was saying, 'We don't have to fight. We can get together.' That's what we do when we sit down at the table with our family."
In South Africa, Marsalis learned something about "The Majesty of the Blues" that surprised him. The second half of the album includes a lengthy sermon about jazz written by Stanley Crouch. Critics have claimed it ruins the record. "A lot of people in South Africa told me they love that sermon," Marsalis said. "They use it in their wedding ceremonies."
Marsalis has long been known for taking a hard line against diluting or commercializing jazz. When you have him on the phone, you almost have to bring up the P-word. People call him a purist. Does he think he's a purist?
"I'm sure that I am one," he said, "in that I would not want you to drink polluted water. I'd rather be known as a purist than an impurist. If it means, 'Do I have integrity about the music I play?' then yes, I do, and it's unapologetic."
There's a "60 Minutes" program from 1995 in which Marsalis tells Ed Bradley, "I was always paranoid about not ever being able to play good enough." Does he ever feel that way now?
"I still wonder if I play good enough," he confessed, "but I play different now because I'm running out of time."
If he quit today, how would he define his legacy? "I used to say that I have the best jump shot of any music educator," he said. "Now I'm saying that I didn't drive my kids crazy. Although I did get my 15-year-old up at 5:30 this morning to clean the kitchen. He was supposed to do it last night."
Finally, how does it feel to be facing 50? "Good. It feels like some more."