Marsalis: Black athletes see great gains

When the New Orleans Saints made it to the NFC Championship for the first time, Wynton Marsalis cheered as loud as anyone. The Saints are his team.

Marsalis, 45, and a New Orleans native, is one of the country's foremost jazz and classical musicians, a composer, and a jazz historian. He is musical director of New York's Jazz at Lincoln Center. In 1997, Marsalis became the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize in music — for the jazz oratorio "Blood on the Fields," which dealt with slavery.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Marsalis became an outspoken supporter of the city's rebuilding effort and organized a benefit at Jazz at Lincoln Center to raise money for musicians and others affected by the storm.

Marsalis spoke with ESPN.com about several subjects, including the integration of music and sports.

Historically, is there a parallel between integration in music and integration in sports?

Music became integrated before sports, on the airwaves and at off-hours jazz sessions. African-American jazz musicians began to go to Europe [in the 1920s]. In America, movement toward integration [in music] began in the later 1930s. [Sports integration came a decade later.] Also, the foundation of American music in the 20th century was African-American music. In sports, African-Americans [added] variations to sports that already existed.

Who has made greater gains, African-American entertainers or athletes and why?

Definitely athletes have made much greater gains. You never think of anyone in the music industry achieving the type of status of a Michael Jordan or a Tiger Woods. Sports are very big. The entertainment [industry] is a more complex equation. Athletics is a competition. Art is about your identity. It goes much deeper into the soul. Sport is entertainment but it's also a competition, which eliminates a lot of gray areas. In terms of public perception, art is almost all gray area.

What did the success of the Saints this year mean to New Orleans? Long-term, is the city's success tied to the team's success?

The team meant a whole lot to us. It gave us something to cheer for. It raised the flag at a tough time. The city has always loved the Saints, even though they were not a winning team. The city's success is going to require a concerted, intelligent effort — the same sort of effort [Saints Coach] Sean Payton demonstrated. It's going to require [effort] from the president, the mayor and the governor to help one of America's great cities. So far, they haven't shown us.

Who is the African-American athlete you admire most - past or present - and why?

Jack Johnson [the first African-American heavyweight champion from 1908-15]. The audacity, the nerve he had to walk into a fight with [former heavyweight champion] James Jeffries and see all those [white] fans [taunting him]. To do something like that. …

Charles Barkley said parents — not athletes — should be role models. Let's include entertainers in the discussion. Agree or disagree and why?

I agree with him. There is always a lot of pressure on [athletes] under extreme circumstances to push themselves beyond the limit. They are subject to all kinds of [public] abuse. They are paid a lot of money because they generate a lot of money, but that doesn't mean they are required [to be role models].

You were an Eagle Scout, you won a Pulitzer Prize and you are an esteemed musician and composer. Don't you think you're a role model for some kids?

If they look at my personal life [they'll] see I have three children and have never been married. [But] my personal life is my own.

Imagine you're a star athlete. Name the sport and your dream moment.

Football. My team is down by 36 points with 20 seconds left in the game, and I dive for a ball that's going out of bounds.

What is your our all-time favorite sports moment, either as a participant or fan?

Tiger Woods winning [his first] Masters. I loved that. It was a good moment.

George J. Tanber is a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.