Wynton Marsalis has in one swoop become the world’s most prominent jazz journalist. The 50-year-old trumpeter, composer, bandleader, winner of multiple Grammys in multiple categories, author of several books on jazz (all but one co-written), artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, world-traveling ambassador of the American experience, holder of uncountable awards, degrees and honors, an esteemed lecturer and educator, is the CBS network’s new cultural correspondent.
Marsalis has previously been a frequent guest on the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes. His first broadcast as cultural correspondent is scheduled for January 16, 2012 — the Monday celebration of the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There is scant precedence for an artist of Marsalis’s stature to sign on with a media giant such as CBS in the capacity of news commentator. The late Dr. Billy Taylor (who died Dec. 28, 2010) is the only jazz musician who has served in a similar role, first in 1958 as musical director of the NBC tv series The Subject Is Jazz (produced by the then-new National Educational Television
network), and after 1981 as an on-air correspondent of CBS News.
Leonard Bernstein, arguably Wynton’s most comparable predecessor as an acclaimed creator/performer/activist/celebrity with strong connection to Lincoln Center, famously produced television lectures for the CBS show Omnibus, starting in 1954 (the program later transferred to ABC and NBC), and Young Peoples’ Concerts for CBS — but these were not news shows. Since the 1950s, jazz musicians have sometimes hosted televised performance shows — think Eddie Condon to David Sanborn. But taking the role of journalist, critic or commentator is something else.
Wynton Marsalis has been seen and heard analyzing music and airing his opinions on Ken Burns’ Jazz, among other documentaries. He may be a valuable cultural correspondent by virtue of who he is and what he knows more than for any investigative activities or neutral perspective. But then, news reporting and opinion sans agenda are not crucial to broadcast news.