Mark O'ConnorWynton Marsalis and I are the same age (46 at the time of this writing) and we both came to national attention on recordings in the early ’80s, so I had known of Wynton and his music all of my adult life.

I did not meet Wynton until 1996, on a very interesting and auspicious occasion. The setting was the 100th Olympiad, at the rehearsal for the Closing Ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, in which both Wynton and I had starring roles. I came to the first rehearsal for the finale, featuring everyone involved on stage at once. I took my position at stage right. Wynton was clear on the other side of the big stage when we made eye contact and smiled. While I stayed in my place, Wynton came all the way over to my side of the stage to greet me, and he hugged me. I was blown away by his affection and sense of camaraderie.

During the two full days of Closing Ceremony rehearsals, much of it taking place on Olympic stadium field, Wynton and I would play our instruments towards one another in a kind of conversation and interaction, getting to know each other with our phrases and sound. Calls and responses again and again, just passing each other in the hallways out on the field while we were in each of our parade floats, standing atop of them and playing our acoustic instruments while the P.A. was off. All of the electric keyboards and electric guitars were silent and suspended many times during the day while folks on the gigantic stadium field listened to Wynton and me play our phrases back and forth as our floats passed each other by.

The next time I met up with Wynton was in 1997. I was working on an album called Liberty!, which also served as much of the soundtrack to the documentary series on PBS about the Revolutionary War. I had incorporated beautiful duets I’d arranged for James Taylor and Yo-Yo Ma for the project. I had a third duet idea, one with trumpet and violin. Of course, I had Wynton in mind for the trumpet part. My executive producer was not so hot on the idea, and said that I did not need it for the project. I said phooey and flew to NYC to meet Wynton for lunch at a sushi restaurant.

While eating, I pulled out a five-page part at the table, consisting of a duet I had just written based on an old theme from the 1700’s, called “Brave Wolfe.” He looked at it and suggested that we try it out.

“Where?” I said. But Wynton simply got out his trumpet in the middle of the restaurant to play some of the passages.

“Do you have a rehearsal studio?” I asked.

“It’s fine here,” Wynton said. So we played through the music — and got some free sushi out of the deal — right there in midtown Manhattan!

Wynton liked the music. He commented that the only problem was when to record it, timing being a little tricky, as he was booked to the hilt. Similarly, I was not able to pre-plan any session for this either. He suggested that I come over to the studio where he was working and, after his own album session had concluded, we could tack on another hour for this duet.

I said, “Great. When?” His response: TONIGHT!

So, under the cover of night, we recorded our first performance together. The next morning I dropped off the master at Sony Records, and said that this is a new track for the Liberty! album. The rest is history.

Mark O’Connor

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra take the stage on July 1 at 7:30pm as part of SummerFest 2008. Get set for jazz at its finest!