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Wynton and Willie and the Blues

by Penne J. Laubenthal

The Marsalis family and Willie Nelson and I go way back. I have been a fan of Ellis, Wynton, Branford, and the rest for several decades. I have followed Wynton’s skyrocketing career with fascination and delight, but my musical association with Willie dates back even further. In the early 70s  Willie was the troubadour of choice during my first marriage, and my husband and I played Red Headed Stranger all day long every weekend until we wore out the eight track tape. Years later when another relationship ended, my erstwhile partner left me a match book folder on which he had written “You were always on my mind.” The lyrics “Maybe I didn't treat you /Quite as good as I should have /Maybe I didn't love you /Quite as often as I could have /Little things I should have said and done /I just never took the time /You were always on my mind” could not have been more appropriate. Willie and I have been down a lot of roads together. And he is on the road again.

When I read that Willie had teamed up with another of my heroes—Wynton Marsalis—to record Two Men with the Blues, I was ecstatic.  On July 12, NPR conducted an interview with Wynton and Willie on All Things Considered about their collaboration. Wynton praised his older colleague saying “He has an incredible work ethic. He doesn't complain about anything; he's serious about what he's doing; he's professional; he gets to his job. He's a man of deep integrity, so he's strengthened my own integrity and my understanding of how to relax when dealing with other people."

The two men, both southerners (Willie is from Texas and Wynton is from Louisiana) and both seasoned artists, have a lot more than just history in common, they have a language in common—the language of music. When the two rehearsed for the first time in preparation for the concerts in The Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton observed that those connections to the music allowed them to communicate ideas without speaking a word. Each musician knew instinctively when a line or phrase was right or wrong, and they played it over and over until they both knew it was right. "We're all part of the same root," Wynton said. "It's like eating barbecue: Texas people barbecue; Louisiana people barbecue catfish. We taught them what to do with a catfish. We don't have to come together to do that, you know?”

Each of these two talented musicians has extended his considerable influence far beyond the world of art. Each of them has reached out to those who have suffered terrible catastrophes. Willie, long renowned for his benefit concerts, headlined an all-star concert at Austin Music Hall in 2005 to benefit the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. Tsunami Relief Austin to Asia raised an estimated $120,000 for UNICEF and two other organizations. He continues to be politically active in a number of organizations.

Wynton has been tremendously influential in the restoration of New Orleans, emerging as one of the most notable New Orleans civic leaders in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a number of public speeches and television ads, he tried to increase public awareness of the importance of rebuilding New Orleans, urging people to visit Louisiana as soon as possible. He also organized a large benefit called Higher Ground at Jazz at Lincoln Center for musicians and others in New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina. Wynton was also one of the participants in Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.

Willie, the winner of ten Grammy awards including the Lifetime Achievement award in 1999, recently celebrated his 75th birthday in April of this year, and he shows no signs of slowing down. My brother-in-law, blues musician Billy C Farlow, has fond recollections of playing at several of Willie’s infamous Fourth of July picnics in Texas as well as at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin. Speaking of Texas, as one might expect, Willie was a strong supporter of Kinky Friedman (as was I) for governor in the 2006 Texas primary. Kinky lost his bid for governor, but his voice was heard (how can one not hear Kinky’s voice?).

I am especially happy to announce that Willie’s voice and the sounds of his guitar “Trigger” continue to be heard, and when Willie’s music is paired with the incomparable jazz riffs of Wynton Marsalis, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

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