Wynton wears crisp suits, reads sheet music and is the musical director of New York's Jazz at Lincoln Center. Willie wears crumpled jeans, wings it onstage and runs his concert venue, Willie's Place, out of a truck stop in Abbott, Texas. So what exactly do these music legends have in common? The blues, of course. Wynton Marsalis, 46, and Willie Nelson, 75, are the two men on the new CD "Two Men With the Blues," a live recording culled from two concerts they played at Lincoln Center last year. "I like playing with Wynton," says Nelson, "because you know the piano player won't show up drunk, and whatever comes out of it, it'll be worth the listen." They are playing venues including the Hollywood Bowl and "The Tonight Show" between breaks on Nelson's tour and Marsalis's Lincoln Center duties. Recently, the two chatted with NEWSWEEK's Lorraine Ali in Nelson's second home—his airbrushed, tricked-out tour bus:
ALI: Your collaboration has been described as "a summit meeting between two American icons."
NELSON: I like the way they put that.
MARSALIS: I'm not an icon, he is.
NELSON: I thought an icon was one of those things on your computer screen. I'm not one of those.
MARSALIS: OK, I say this modestly—this is a historic event. It's not a big surprise to have Wynton and Willie playing together, but to have this much attention for it, that's a surprise.
But the attention makes sense: both of you are highly respected, and Willie, you can't go anywhere without being recognized.
NELSON: I'm offended if I don't get recognized. I say, "Hey, man, don't you know who I am? Perhaps you didn't realize."
MARSALIS: My son always says, "I want to repudiate you, Dad, but nobody knows who you are. When I have to explain who I'm repudiating, it's not really worth it."
Willie, I imagine you as an off-the-cuff player, but with Wynton, there's the whole issue of keeping time. Is that a problem?
NELSON: Well, it's a little different than when we just go up there and wing it for four hours and play requests. This has to be exactly right, especially because Wynton and the guys are reading off pieces of paper, and I'm just up there trying to remember words. These guys have a lot more to do and think about than I do. For me, it's a free ride on top of their rhythm and rockin'.
MARSALIS: He'll come in with a phrase, and we'll think, "Uh-oh, he ain't gonna make it fit." And then he'll collect it on the back end. It's like somebody jukin' or fakin' on a basketball court. They take you this way, then come back that way. He'll come in perfectly on key, on time, and we're, like, "Damn!" It's so natural and true.
Do you see yourself as an odd couple?
MARSALIS: No. As musicians, we like a lot of the same things.
NELSON: Louis Jordan's "Caldonia."
MARSALIS: Yeah, that's right, or "Saturday Night Fish Fry." See, we came up on the same sounds.
Music aside, personality-wise, how is it working together? Is one of you …
NELSON: On drugs?
That's not exactly where I was going.
MARSALIS: We really follow each other. I think we're gracious that way. There's no crazy soloing over one another.
NELSON: We [Nelson and his harmonica player] can't play anything more than they [Marsalis and his quartet] can play. There's only so many chords, and they know 'em better than we do. Honestly, I don't read music that well. Or I don't read well enough to hurt my playing, as the old joke goes.
MARSALIS: And it's not like we need to translate. We're coming from the same American experience. The songs he picked to play—"Bright Lights, Big City," "Basin Street Blues"—we don't need an arrangement for those. The grooves we play are shuffle grooves, swing. We grew up playing that music. There wasn't one time where we had to stop and say, "Willie, what do you mean?" We are together.
NELSON: Even though some of us may not look all that together.
I heard you two barely rehearse.
MARSALIS: Willie doesn't do two or three takes. Just once, and then, "That's good, gentlemen." That's how we play. We record live.
NELSON: If you can play, then what the f––– do you want to rehearse for? Just play.
Willie, you still tour like mad. How different are the shows with Wynton?
NELSON: Honestly, it's a lot easier for me to come out and work with Wynton and his guys, because in my shows I'll go out and play for two hours or more. With Wynton, they've already played for an hour and a half before I come out. I come out and do the last 30 minutes, and all of a sudden I've had a great night.
Wynton, was there any sort of intimidation factor in working with a legend like Willie?
MARSALIS: I've been around musicians all my life. My daddy was a musician, and we played all kind of gigs. I played with philharmonic orchestras when I was 22 years old. That's intimidating! This man is natural. He makes you feel at home. When he comes to rehearsal, there's not 65 people around him, scurrying to make it all right.
NELSON: Send in the dogs to clear the place out first.
MARSALIS: It's not like that. He's very approachable.
NELSON: We used to work in clubs where we had to build up the crowd. We'd hop from table to table, have a drink with everybody, hoping they'd show up tomorrow night. By the time you made your rounds you're about half drunk.
MARSALIS: How could you not love this man?