He was given a place to stay, then treated to New Orleans food. The conversation was all about New Orleans. He found out that his host, an activist in the civil-rights movement, had even written a book about Creole ships.
"That's the way we are. We don't go to other places and assimilate. I've been away from New Orleans for 20 years. But I'm still in New Orleans," Marsalis said over breakfast at his hotel. "So, will we ever come back? People who ask that don't really know who we are. We never left."
He stopped again.
"Cities come back," he concluded. "New Orleans will come back."
The Pulitzer- and eight-time Grammy-winning trumpet maestro and composer is deeply involved in seeing that it does.
Though Marsalis now lives in New York — he was visiting Japan in his role as the musical director for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra — he's planning to kick off a tour in New Orleans in April and is on two committees helping to organize efforts to revive the city.
"We have to use all of our expertise," he said. "We need to organize. We haven't done that so well. You've got 300,000 people. What can they do to help rebuild their city? That's a lot of people. What can you do to help?"
His own answer to that question is simple.
"I can't build houses. You wouldn't want to live in one of them, anyway," he said. "But I'll be a part of every committee I can be a part of. I'll do anything I can do. Raise national awareness of what's going on, try to speak on behalf of people who don't have a voice and are going to be left behind. As artists, that's the main thing we can do."