Wynton Marsalis was halfway through an explanation of whether he thinks his hometown, New Orleans, will ever really come back from the devastation of last summer's Hurricane Katrina when he stopped and shifted direction. He got stranded in Chicago, he said, on his way to Japan for a week of workshops for kids. With nowhere in particular to go, he just naturally hooked up with another New Orleans native living there.
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."
In between his daily workshops and concerts with the Lincoln Center musicians, Marsalis used his free time in this city just south of Tokyo to work on his latest New Orleans project. He intends to unveil the ambitious new composition in April.
The work is called "Place Congo," after a square in New Orleans where, in colonial times, different groups of African people would gather to play music, dance and sell goods on Saturdays and Sundays.
"There was a remarkable festive atmosphere that is generally characterized by the music starting slow, and getting faster as the day wore on," Marsalis said.
But the story of the square is not a happy one.
Seen as a potential threat, the gatherings were gradually suppressed after New Orleans became part of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase. Eventually, they were banned altogether and the square renamed after a Confederate general.
"There's two stories about Congo Square," Marsalis said. "One is the need for meeting and gathering and joy and celebration, even under duress. And the second part is how you dismantle that."
So completely was Congo Square dismantled that today even its location is a matter of debate.
"Nobody knows exactly. There's contention over where it is," Marsalis said. "There's an area that's set aside that's called Congo Square, but that's not necessarily the place. That's how our whole city has dealt with our Afro heritage. That's how our whole country deals with it."
But Marsalis, who won his Pulitzer in 1997 for "Blood on the Fields," another work inspired by New Orleans and slavery, said he chose the story of the square because he believes it is an important part of New Orleans' history.
"There is a lot of our heritage that is gone now," he said. "Maybe some of New Orleans will disappear forever because of the floods. But through music, we can evoke it. We can bring it back to life. That's the message I want to convey."
The Marsalis family has deep roots in the New Orleans jazz scene.
His late grandfather, Ellis Sr., a pianist who was active in the civil-rights movement, owned a motel in suburban New Orleans. His guests included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and musicians such as Ray Charles.
Marsalis' father, Ellis Jr., is also a prominent pianist and music professor, and his brothers share the gift. Brandon plays the sax, Delfeayo the trombone and Jason the drums. Marsalis' first trumpet was handed down from none other than Al Hirt.
Even so, Marsalis said that as a teenager in the 1970s, he never felt predestined to be a jazz player.
"We didn't like that kind of music," he said. "We listened to James Brown."
He said that changed when he went to New York to play with Art Blakely's Jazz Messengers and study at Julliard. While he was away, his appreciation for his own roots grew deeper.
"I love New Orleans," Marsalis said. "It's not like something I had to find when the city went under water. I write all my music about New Orleans. All of my records, they have something about New Orleans. Everything I'm about is about New Orleans."