Jazz great Wynton Marsalis still loving what he does

Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis

Jazz fans are in for a treat Friday night when Wynton Marsalis stops by the James L. Knight Concert Hall for a show to remember as part of the Arsht Center’s Jazz Roots concert series. The Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy winning composer/trumpeter is bringing his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) to Miami to perform a wide range of compositions and arrangements by such icons of the genre as Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Chick Corea.

We spoke to the New Orleans native before the trip:

What can we expect from the show?

We come to entertain. We feature many different soloists and different styles. It’s a very high level of playing. We took a lot of original music that never got the big band treatment. I think a highlight for some folks could be [saxophonist] Ted Nash’s “Presidential Suite” — it’s based on the subject of freedom.

Do you all have a favorite song to play live?

Not really. We improvise a lot. A lot depends on the night. Maybe we’ll have a fantastic drum solo or you’ll hear something on the flute or the trombone or the bass. Everybody’s got their thing. They’re serious.

The JLCO sounds like a well-oiled machine.

We’ve all been at this a long time. I’m used to it. It’s not a thing I don’t know how to do. You got your routine. You get your stuff ready. You do your sound check. The gig is so much fun; you’re so concentrated. There’s a surprising lack of dysfunction between us all. I’ve played before with guys you can’t wait to get away from, but with these cats, we laugh when we get down to the end of the night.

How do you like playing in Miami?

There’s great culture there. Great musicians. A great tradition of talent coming from there.

Last fall, President Obama awarded you with the National Humanities Medal. How did that feel?

You know, I have a lot of respect for this country. I’ve traveled up and down this great nation for many years. Any award makes me happy. I love recognition from anywhere — someone I taught back in the ’80s or from an elementary school. I’ve been very fortunate.

What is something readers may not know about you?

[Laughs] Probably that I was the slowest kid in my neighborhood. They called me ‘step’ because I was always a step too slow. I’m serious. I can talk fast, but no running for me.

Tickets for Friday’s 8 p.m. show: