America’s greatest living jazzman, Wynton Marsalis, came back to Boston Sunday night and demonstrated why jazz is America’s greatest living art form.

Celebrity Series

Marsalis, playing with his quartet at Boston Symphony Hall under the auspices of the Celebrities Series, drew a packed house of 2,800 Bostonians on a chilly winter night to hear masterpieces from half a century of classic jazz.

Marsalis could not look more relaxed as he rested comfortably on stage, looking more like a banker than a jazzman, in a beautiful gray suit, red tie, and pocket square. If he is a banker, his vault doesn’t contain cash; instead, it is a repository of the greatest jazz pieces of the last 70 years.

Marsalis sees himself not just as a performer but as a preserver of a great tradition, one whose lineage he can personally trace back a century through the players with whom he has performed.

Marsalis is almost shockingly effortless in his playing, his touch cool and sure as his elegant appearance. No histrionics, no drama. Just music history, opening up for an enthralled audience of dedicated jazz fans.

At one point, Marsalis whispered something to his pianist, Dan Nimmer, and quietly wandered off the stage, only to reappear moments later in the belly of the orchestra section of the audience, where he performed his trumpeting to the fascination and acclaim of those seated around him.

“I always wanted to see what it is like from out there,” Marsalis said of his brief walkabout.

Dedication to his Art

The artist’s dedication to the quality of the music he performs came through most clearly in a story he told about working with Sarah Vaughan.

Marsalis was 21 and performing with her at Symphony Hall. He took it upon himself to play for her an obscure Ellington song—after all, Marsalis pointed out, Ellington had composed more than 2,000 pieces.

“Sassy” Vaughan schooled the young Marsalis when she pointed out that there was a section of the piece in which he had no idea of the chord changes.

She sat down at a piano and said, “I haven’t played this since 1947.” Vaughan then performed the piece flawlessly from memory, and when she got to the part that Marsalis had played less than perfectly, she told him “You must learn things thoroughly.”

Those four words sum up Marsalis’ entire approach to jazz. Over a lifetime of learning, teaching, and performing, he has indeed mastered his craft thoroughly, as has his supporting cast, which in Boston included Abdias Armenteros, Carlos Henriquez, Dan Nimmer, and Obed Calvaire.  

The youngest of the players, Calvaire, was just 20 and a junior at The Julliard School of Music.

“You know all these nuances perfectly, and at your age,” Marsalis teasingly chided him. “Shame on you.”

Let’s put it this way: If you’ve never seen Wynton Marsalis live, then shame on you, too.