Simeon Marsalis’s Jam Is Literature, With a Nod to His Jazz-Genius Father

Like his dad, the jazz legend Wynton Marsalis, Simeon Marsalis is a teacher—but his craft is writing. He's now a professor at Rutgers-Newark, his alma mater.

Simeon Marsalis

Simeon Marsalis teaches jazz literature to the diverse student body at his alma mater, Rutgers-Newark. Photo: Courtesy of Lawrence Sumulong

Simeon Marsalis bears a familiar surname courtesy of his father Wynton Marsalis, the famed musician, composer, and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Simeon, 33, grew up in New Rochelle with his mother and stepfather, spending summers on tour with his father. Basketball took him to the University of Vermont, where he was a point guard (“the only position I was tall enough to play,” he laughs) and a religion major. His 2017 novel, As Lie Is to Grin, a finalist for the first-novel prize awarded by the Center for Fiction, covered some of the same territory Marsalis traversed as a young Black man exploring his identity amid a complex stew of racism, privilege and history.

He joined Rutgers-Newark (where he received his Masters of Fine Arts) as assistant professor of jazz literature in 2023. “The faculty have been so impressed by Simeon’s charisma and talent since he was our graduate student that we couldn’t resist inviting him back into our community as soon as he completed his degree,” says Rigoberto González, distinguished professor of English and director of the MFA program. “He is a perfect fit for the values we hold dear at Rutgers-Newark: dedication to service, commitment to mentorship, and dynamic teaching.”

When did you fall in love with literature?
I became a reader of literary fiction in my senior year of high school. There was a teacher named Adam Morrison who refused to teach to the test and said, “I’m going to give you three book projects this year.” The first one I wrote was about [Emily Brontë’s] Wuthering Heights. But the book that really did it for me was Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.

You went to Vermont on a basketball scholarship, right?
Yeah. I wanted to be a scholarship athlete because I wanted to feel like I paid my own way through college, which was very important to me.

Vermont is overwhelmingly white. What was that like for you?
It was culture shock. I was pretty disillusioned. Then I went to an American fiction class and read John Cheever’s The Swimmer, and really enjoyed how he manipulated time. I said, You know, I think I could do something like this.

Now you’re 10 years out of college and teaching college students. Do you see them grappling with the same issues you did?
I’m on a very different campus than the one I learned on. But I think the underlying question of how to be inside of an academic institution and stay true to yourself is something that they deal with. Writing the novel helped me consider community and what it meant to me.

How do you build community in your current role?
At college, I wasn’t involved in much campus activism—on the basketball team, they wouldn’t let you. In Newark, I joined the union, I try to communicate more with students. I think about existing in the university differently now as a faculty member than I did as a student.

No one knows New Jersey like we do. Sign up for one of our free newsletters here. Want a print magazine mailed to you? Purchase an issue from our online store.

Read more Arts & Entertainment articles.