The American Prairie Reserve, based in Bozeman, MT, is an organization dedicated to preserving America’s prairie ecosystem. Every year, APR presents the Ken Burns American Heritage Prize to an individual it believes epitomizes the celebration of the American Spirit. This year’s recipient (postponed from last year due to the pandemic) was trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and Director of Juilliard Jazz.
Burns, who directed and produced the 2001 10-part Emmy-nominated PBS series, Jazz, introduced Marsalis in a virtual ceremony on May 4. He quoted the author Albert Murray, who once described the full measure of a jazz artist this way: “You’re looking at a pioneer, you’re looking at an explorer, you’re looking at an experimenter, you’re looking at a scientist . . . because it is the creative process incarnate.”
Accepting the award, Marsalis said he was “deeply appreciative to receive this prize from an institution I respect bearing the name of a genius I admire, and on behalf of a music that defines us at our best.” Jazz, he added, consists of three key elements: improvisation, swing, and the blues.
He also embraced the word, “rewilding”, an expression used by the APR to describe the restoration of an area of land to its natural uncultivated state. “I love the term ‘rewilding’,” he said. “It sounds like something benign and dangerous, safe and reckless, well-behaved and unruly. It is truly New Orleans. Rewilding introduces you to the better self you forgot. It is a nourishment and a healing.” Burns responded: “Leave it to the jazz musician to define rewilding better than the ecologists could.” Marsalis and pianist Dan Nimmer performed an inspiring jazz interpretation of the Woody Guthrie classic, “This Land is Your Land.
At a brief Zoom session with Marsalis and Burns following the formal presentation, Marsalis was asked by Jersey Jazz about the future of jazz and the young rising stars who are emerging today. “I tell them it’s hard out here,” he said, recalling that he remembered when bassist Christian McBride “was 16 years old. Now he’s teaching at Jazz House Kids.”
He also singled out some of the many exceptional young jazz artists who graduated from or are currently attending Juilliard. Among them: pianists Isaiah Thompson and Joe Block, saxophonist Emmanuel Wilkins, and trumpeter Summer Camargo. Thompson, Block, and Camargo have recently been featured in the pages of Jersey Jazz as part of the magazine’s Rising Stars series. “Joe Block,” said Marsalis, “is for real, man,” and, “Summer, she can play.” — SANFORD JOSEPHSON
PHOTO BY PIPER FERGUSON