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Originally published Monday, October 23, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Wynton Marsalis puts Seattle jazz kids to the test

"When I tell you something," said jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, wearing a suit and tie Saturday afternoon at the Paramount Theatre, "it's...

Seattle Times jazz critic

"When I tell you something," said jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, wearing a suit and tie Saturday afternoon at the Paramount Theatre, "it's with love, like you were my own son or daughter. Don't take it as negative, but I am going to tell you something."

With those words, Marsalis — Pulitzer-prize winning composer, leader of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, trumpet virtuoso in classical music and jazz — opened what was billed as a one-hour master class. With characteristic passion and humor, and an inbred sense of thoroughness, Marsalis carried on for more than two hours, until the crew finally started clanking around backstage, getting ready for his Saturday-night concert.

That is Marsalis' way. He has been doing workshops for kids nearly as long as he's been playing. Ron Carter — the educator, not the bassist — drafted Marsalis for the first one when Marsalis was still a sideman with Art Blakey.

"I thought he was joking," said Marsalis in a phone interview last week. "I was 18. He said, 'They'll listen to you quicker than they'll listen to me.' "

Too true. Since then, the 45-year-old musician has become a sort of bandmaster to the nation, giving clinics, classes and lessons whenever he tours. He first met his drummer, Ali Jackson — who assisted with this class — in just that way, when Jackson was 12 years old.

Playing on the big Paramount stage for an audience of 700 students, parents and educators, 14 kids from three different groups participated Saturday: a trio from Washington Middle School, a four-trumpet septet from Garfield High school and a quartet from Cornish College of the Arts. As one group took the stand, the other two sat on stage and watched.

Middle-school bassist Nick Bissiri got the first dose of Marsalis "love," after the Washington trio played a tasty blues with a repeated vamp.

"The blues is like apple pie, or a hamburger," Marsalis explained, prowling the stage. "It's an American form. But it can't be just any apple pie. That gets boring. You have to play that vamp like it's the last thing you're going to do on Earth."

Jackson beat out the time with a simple quarter note, "hooking up" with Bissiri, then asked the trio to play again.

The music came alive.

Moving on to pianist Richelle Tanner, Marsalis said, "Y'all are playing like you were taking a test or something. You need to be more exuberant. Playing music is like having a spirited debate."

Marsalis stooped over Tanner as she played, whispering, trying to tease her out of her shyness. Tanner's braces flashed through a smile, as she added a flourish to a phrase.

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"I know it's hard," he said, talking to the kids in a way that made it obvious he remembered what it was like to be their age. "It's like learning to dance. You get out there and you think everybody is laughing at me. But they're still going to be laughing — but you'll be out there dancing."

"The thing about Wynton is that he's not just talking about music," observed Garfield band director Clarence Acox. "He's talking about life lessons. Like when he told them, if you have a problem, go to an older person, not someone your own age."

Acox had arranged a trumpet quartet of a Jackie McLean tune, "The Three Trumpeteers," with a section featuring simultaneous solos. Marsalis tore it apart — lovingly, mind you — then put it back together again, piece by piece, offering an object lesson in how each instrument plays a role.

Coaching the trumpet players on their breathing, urging them to push their phrasing past the orthodox eighth notes of hard bop, he had every kid staring at him with rapt attention.

"We sounded a lot better at the end," said trumpeter Tomo Berry. "The way he talks about the music, it just makes you want to play with more energy."

With the Cornish kids, Marsalis appropriately raised the level of the dialogue — and the stakes — considerably.

Over the years, Marsalis has led a one-man crusade against amplifying the bass. Cornish bass man Michael Catts felt the full fury of that crusade, as Marsalis railed at "the basic stupidity" of bass amps, comparing them to a viola player in a string quartet showing up with a microphone.

At a reception later on, Catts was sanguine.

"Everything he said was in a good spirit," he said. "I was impressed with how he really followed through on everything."

Indeed. Marsalis schooled Cornish pianist Reshard Radford with an insightful demonstration of how jazz pianists since the '60s have modeled their "comping" (accompaniment) exclusively on snare drum patterns. His piano demonstration precisely foreshadowed the delicious rhythmic diversity his ensemble would showcase in their own concert that night.

Marsalis left the kids on a philosophical note.

"We live in an era of pure sell-out," he said. "You might as well do something intelligent — that has not been done recently."

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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