When jazz great Wynton Marsalis rolled into town last Thursday morning, he had little time to unwind before Saleem Ghubril whisked him off to visit with 75 Pittsburgh high school students.

They were among the City of Pittsburgh high school bands invited to play before the jazz trumpeter — who listened intently then offered practical advice and guidance about their performances. Nothing like hearing it from the best.

Besides being known as a brilliant musician, composer and bandleader, Marsalis was the first musician to ever win a Pulitzer Prize and he is highly acclaimed as an educator.

That’s what attracted us to him,” says Ghubril, executive director of The Pittsburgh Promise who invited him to town for their gala. “He is not just a great jazz musician but also a great educator.”

The lucky students who gathered at the Hill House in the Hill District, with its rich legacy of jazz, are not likely to forget their morning with the special guest instructor anytime soon.

Jamming with Wynton Marsalis. Just another day in the life of these high school students. Photo by Joshua Franzen.
Jamming with Wynton Marsalis. Just another day in the life of these high school students. Photo by Joshua Franzen.

Marsalis spent 90 minutes listening to three jazz bands—from Perry High School, Allderdice High School and CAPA—perform just for him. While he made comments, jammed a bit and gave some practical pointers, “he really imparted wisdom and leadership,” says Ghubril.

One question he posed: “How do you play for all the people around you to shine?”

In other words, “How do you play together? The trumpet has to control volume so the flute can be heard,” says Ghubril.

Marsalis offered advice to the students in other areas as well, including a warning: “Ignorance expands,” said the trumpeter and author of six books. “Ignorance has power. Don’t be ignorant!”

For Ghubril, “It was very touching to observe a master artist coaching aspiring artists, not only how to play their instruments better but how to be better people.

“He absolutely commanded respect. He’s at the absolute top of the jazz heap of the world so he had the rapt attention and he took full advantage of it to help them become better people.”

Wynton Marsalis and His Small Group rocking it at The Evening of a Million Possibilities. Photo by Tracy Certo.
Wynton Marsalis and His Small Group rocking it at The Evening of a Million Possibilities. Photo by Tracy Certo.

Later that night, Marsalis spoke at a pre-dinner reception at the Wyndham Grand (which could have been dubbed the Wynton Grand that evening) then performed for nearly an hour for 1,000 people at the Night of a Million Possibilities Gala.

It was quite a day for supporters of the college scholarship program, especially the Keepers of the Promise, a group 185 strong which had the idea to hold the gala and feature a big draw like Marsalis.

The gala raised $1.2 million for the Pittsburgh Promise, contributing to a total of $8.8 million that included new funding announced that evening.

As Ghubril joked from the podium, “We’re going to have an event every night.”

Packing the hotel ballroom, guests included speakers PNC CEO Bill Demchak and his wife and board member Debra Kline Demchak, with board member Kiya Tomlin, long-time supporter Franco Harris, and Ghubril.

The highlight of the evening was the rousing performance by Marsalis  who spoke eloquently in support of youth and education before bringing the house down with his band.

Of course, the kids got in on the act, too. Also performing with great enthusiasm that evening was the CAPA Jazz Combo, the Pittsburgh Allderdice String Quartet, and both the Pittsburgh Allderdice and Pittsburgh Perry Marching Band Drum Line.

Photo of Wynton Marsalis by Joshua Franzen.
Photo of Wynton Marsalis by Joshua Franzen.

The total money raised to date for The Pittsburgh Promise is now $194 million with $56 million to go to achieve the $250 million goal. That will sustain the promise of college scholarships to students in city schools for at least through the class of 2028. The goal was set as a result of UPMC’s 10-year, $100 million commitment along with grants from many foundations, businesses and individuals.

The following added to the $8.8 million in new funding:

  • The Pittsburgh Foundation for $5 million
  • The Beacon Foundation for a $1 million challenge grant
  • The Hillman Foundation for an additional $750,000
  • BNY Mellon for an additional $500,00
  • An anonymous friend for $280,000
  • The Ruttenberg family and their American Textile Co. for $100,00
  • Promise Board Chair Franco Harris and his wife Dana for $100,000
  • Dr. and Mrs. Richard Hunt for an additional $50,000

Since 2008, The Pittsburgh Promise has sent 7,000 youth from Pittsburgh city high schools to post-secondary education, for a total of $90 million. Many of those students, Ghubril pointed out, are now employed throughout the region.

Tracy is the founder and Editor at Large of NEXTpittsburgh which she started in March 2014 and sold in December 2020. She is passionate about making Pittsburgh a better place for all and connecting people to do the same.