At 4 AM on June 28th, Frank Stewart and Andre Bragg picked Wynton Marsalis up on their way to Toronto, the first stop on the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s recent Canadian mini-tour. Though the rest of the Orchestra members will get on flights to Toronto in the afternoon, Wynton chose to drive, again. In fact, he opts to drive instead of fly whenever feasible, and if you have seen the Orchestra play a show in North America since 2002, Andre Bragg and Frank Stewart were the ones that got him to that concert.
BRAGG: I started [driving] back in ’92. My very first out-of-town bus trip was up to Syracuse, New York. I took American University’s volleyball team up for a tournament. The first thing I noticed when we got to the university was, I saw quite a few brothers walking around that didn’t go to the college, and I remember thinking, you mean DC isn’t the only place where brothers got it bad? I was a young man myself, so I had never seen that type of sadness outside of DC.
As a bus driver, before I started working for the company that I currently work for (I’ve been with them since 2011), I had half-a-dozen Canadian trips. This new company—because I’m one of only a handful of drivers with a passport—has sent me numerous times.
In the morning, the car stops twice. The first time, around 7 AM, Andre and Frank get something to eat. The second time, Wynton does. They don’t normally stop twice, but they have ample time to get to the border. When Wynton returns, at 9 am, they fall into a familiar rhythm. Usually, Wynton begins to work on music—a symphony or an arrangement for the big band. This drive is no different. Bragg drives, Frank sleeps, Frank wakes, Wynton looks up, and they begin to speak again.
BRAGG: I started hanging out with these two in 2002, when I joined the family. It was the tour when Raymond Murphy [the JLCO’s current tour manager] had been called back to the reserves, right after September 11th.
FRANK: Raymond had to get the next thing smoking out of the city and we had a Winnebago then that was parked by Giants stadium. It took me half a day to find the machine to even get back on the road.
BRAGG: His commander gave him a 48-hour notice to be on post in Norfolk Virginia. He called me in January. When Raymond called me, I said sure. It was a slow season. Raymond said, “I’m just looking for somebody who can come out and not make me look bad. Somebody I could trust.” He said it’s a good job with Frank and Wynton, great people, I don’t think they’re going to get on your nerves. Come on out, man, with your personality, you should be okay. I said alright [laughing].
FRANK: In the beginning we were out here eight months a year. We’d be in 30 cities in 30 days, a week off, back out.
Just as soon as they begin talking they stop again. The car crosses the Canadian border. Frank Stewart and Wynton worked on a book in 1994, Sweet Swing Blues on the Road, and Frank has been Jazz at Lincoln Center’s staff photographer ever since. They begin to joke with each other about their first trips together.
FRANK: Boy, we have had some raggedy Winnebegos. One time we didn’t have the heat on. It was like an igloo. We had to have blankets on. We were going to California. Then, we had one where the suspension was messed up, and every time you’d get over 60[mph] it started shakin’.
BRAGG: Because Winnebegos are strictly summertime vehicles. It took me a while to get used to Frank’s driving. We were coming through a snowstorm one time and I was in the back asleep. The next thing I know, we were not going forward. I wake up and Frank is sliding all over the highway—
FRANK: It’s nothing but black ice—
BRAGG: Trucks had already slid off the highway—
FRANK: Everywhere you look, trucks were jackknifed. You never see [Bragg] animated and his eyes were as big as I’d ever seen them. He was yelling, “Take your foot off the break! Take your foot off the break!” Then I said, “I don’t have my foot on the break!”
WYNTON: They start arguing as the van was sliding.
FRANK: I was handling it.
BRAGG: He was handling it alright [laughing]. Downshift to transmission, that’s how you drive.
WYNTON: The last time we were subject to Frank’s driving, he was going over Independence Pass [in Colorado]. We had no idea where we were.
BRAGG: Frank tore through there like a NASCAR driver—
FRANK: We couldn’t even see.
WYNTON: The Lord held on to us that night. Because we could’ve been dead.
FRANK: When we got there, they were like, I’m glad you didn’t come through Independence Pass. I said, “We came through something last night.” It turned out we came through the Pass.
BRAGG: We went back through a couple of days later in the daylight and we were looking around like, “Frank, we were hauling ass through this?”
FRANK: We kept saying, “I’m glad we aren’t on Independence Pass.”
BRAGG: We’ll never forget that one… We’ve criss-crossed America, and I’ve enjoyed my time with these two. We have traveled many of thousands of miles together.
WYNTON: Frank actually admitted that he loved Bragg once. It shocked me.
They laugh together, Wynton starts writing again, Frank and Bragg switch seats, Andre sleeps for a while, wakes, the car is silent, they are animated again, and then it stops, until the next ride.
Photo credits: Wynton Marsalis by Frank Stewart for Jazz at Lincoln Center; Andre Bragg by Simeon Marsalis; Frank Stewart by Simeon Marsalis
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