At 10 a.m. Wednesday, November 10 the excitement inside Leshowitz Recital Hall was palpable. Scores of students from the John J. Cali School of Music – along with a contingent of television cameras – waited in anticipation of a master class to be conducted by jazz legend Wynton Marsalis.
By 11:30, cheers, applause, relief and joy were in the air, and the lives of several Jazz Studies students were forever changed.
Marsalis – having acted over the course of the class as teacher, coach, cheerleader, fellow musician, entertainer and philosopher – was leaving the stage along with a transformed MSU Jazz Combo. The event was one of four that Marsalis participated in, providing the pinnacle for this fall’s new Cali Immersive Residency Program, a reimagined professional residency program of 10 rotating ensembles and solo artists.
“Seeing me as an individual, and seeing everyone as an individual, to me is so beautiful,” said Nico Martin, jazz combo member and a junior majoring in Jazz Studies with a focus on alto saxophone. “I’ve never experienced that with anyone I’ve ever worked with and I’m so blessed to finally feel what that’s like.”
The jazz combo’s tenor saxophonist Rodrigo Romero, who arrived at Montclair State from Peru last year, said simply, “It was wonderful. Such a great experience!”
The class began with the five members of the combo (percussionist Zack Perez, guitarist Derick Campos and acoustic bassist Nathan Perrucci, in addition to Martin and Romero) playing “Bolivia” by Cedar Walton.
After they concluded, Marsalis began by complimenting the group’s “very expressive” and “well rehearsed” playing as well as the members’ clear collegiality. “You all play like you like each other!”
He then asked, “Now, what can we do better?”
Bit by bit, Marsalis gently but precisely deconstructed the group and put them back together, with the ultimate message that they needed to listen to each other and the audience.
“First, we gotta play for people,” said Marsalis, directing attention to the assembled crowd. “Play for them. That will correct a lot of things.”
Senior and drummer Zack Perez admitted that the encounter with greatness was “very nerve-wracking,” but noted that the master class structure of performing, learning and adjusting in real-time was apropos for the musical genre. “That’s just a part of jazz. I love that about it. You feed off of each other’s energy.”
Ultimately, “We pulled through today. It came out great,” Perez said with relief, adding, “It was fun.” Perez had reason for this assessment: Toward the end of the master class, Marsalis told him: “You will get exponentially better because you have the right attitude. You’ve got sparkle and shine.”
“He teaches from a place that is not selfish,” said Jazz Studies Program Coordinator Oscar Perez.
“The thing about Wynton is his humanity,” said Cali School Director Anthony Mazzocchi. “He goes straight to being a human being. He’s talking to them about integrity and honesty and communication.”
Marsalis also shared that philosophy with a brass master class this week as well as a composition and arranging discussion, and Mazzocchi is planning to pursue that angle further with Marsalis on Thursday, November 11 during the sold-out public event that closes his residency: “Behind the Scenes with Wynton,” a Cali Conversation.
Noting Marsalis’ place in the firmament of jazz superstars, Oscar Perez told the students attending the master class: “We are now a part of that legacy.”