Back to the Basics: Wynton Marsalis, the Young Lions and Preserving Jazz Traditions


Jazz music developed in the early 20th century in New Orleans, Louisiana, by African American and Creole musicians. The jazz genre is influenced by several genres, including ragtime, blues, marches, musical theater, etc. Some of the early hallmarks of the genre include improvisation and underlying harmonies. Over the decades, the jazz genre has developed into several different styles/aesthetics, including swing, bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, modal jazz, free jazz, fusion, and avant-garde. While some musicians and jazz listeners enjoy the more modern jazz music styles of the late 20th century, others prefer the traditional jazz style.

Wynton Marsalis and the Young Lions

In the early 1980s, a new generation of young jazz musicians began to find inspiration in the “golden age” of jazz, or traditional or New Orleans jazz. The most notable of these young musicians in the jazz artist Wynton Marsalis. Marsalis is a trumpet player who openly expressed his disappointment in the current jazz styles, which leaned more towards the avant-garde and fusion styles that became popular in the 1970s. Marsalis also passionately advocated for the return to traditional jazz values and studying the recordings of jazz masters. This movement back to traditional jazz by Wynton Marsalis in the 1980s led to Marsalis and his peers being named the “Young Lions.” This group of artists became advocates for highlighting and performing the traditional jazz style.

Wynton Marsalis and Other Young Lions

The Jazz at Lincoln Center

In 1988, the Jazz at Lincoln Center program was launched with Wynton Marsalis as the program’s artistic director. The program was created and dedicated to advancing jazz music through performance, education, and preservation. As the artistic director, Marsalis organized the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, which has offered a series of jazz concerts and educational events since the early 1990s. These events are also often devoted to the repertoires of prominent jazz figures. The performances at the Jazz at Lincoln Center also often feature more traditional jazz performances and little fusion and avant-garde jazz performances, something the Jazz and Wynton Marsalis have been critiqued for in the past.

Performance by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra dedicated to the artist Miles Davis and his work.

Sources: African American Music: An Introduction

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