Wynton Marsalis: Mr. Freeze

Wynton Marsalis is loved and hated in roughly equal measures. He’s been called the greatest living jazz trumpeter. He has also been labeled a neo-conservative who seeks to narrow rather than expand the vocabulary of jazz; who may even be hastening its demise.

One thing no one can argue with is his CV. The term ‘over-achiever’ seems desperately insufficient. Trained in classical trumpet from age 12, within six years he was playing in bebop giant Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. In 1984, two years after he began recording as a bandleader, he won Grammys in both jazz and classical categories. He has scored ballets and written jazz suites, and, in 1997, won the Pulitzer prize for his three-hour oratorio Blood on the Fields. He is also a committed educator, regularly conducting master classes for students of all ages. As the artistic director of the New York-based Jazz at Lincoln Center he also presides over the Jazz For Young People concerts. He has played a major role in lifting the profile of jazz in the past decade, in the flourishing of jazz schools and the proliferation of horn-toting young lions.

And yet to some his efforts symbolise jazz’s swansong. Pianist Keith Jarrett – perhaps the only musician who can compete with Marsalis’s dual achievements in jazz and classical – has said of the Lincoln Center programme: “It reminds me of setting up a museum. That’s what you put in museums, things that are finished. So maybe it is finished.”

Jarrett has a point. Where Marsalis’s forbears took an expansive view, showing how everything can be absorbed into the jazz language, Wynton tends to treat it as a style for which the rules have been cast in stone. He has no time for rock rhythms, rap rhymes, electronic samples, programmed sounds or any of the other elements experimenters have boldly tried to bring into the jazz vocabulary. His early recordings seemed to imagine that it was still the mid-60s, the era of Miles Davis’s last great pre-electric quintet, and he has gone on to recast himself in even earlier eras, with tributes to jazz giants like Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, and Jelly Roll Morton. For his own compositions, he is less likely to seek inspiration from the streets of the 21st century than from New Orleans parade traditions, the black church service, or the history of slavery. As critic Jon Garelick wryly noted of his recent suite Big Train: “It’s symptomatic that Wynton would write a programmatic piece about trains for a series called Swinging into the 21st”. Garelick has suggested that by concentrating on interpretation of old forms rather than the creation of new ones, Marsalis is turning jazz into what we otherwise think of as “classical”.

Marsalis doesn’t sidestep the debate. As he likes to point out, jazz is the most democratic of art forms; like the American constitution, it’s there to be argued and amended, which he does as eloquently in speech as on his horn. I toss him a quote from Max Roach, the brilliant drummer who helped create bebop. “From Jelly Roll Morton to Scott Joplin right up to hip hop, it’s all in the same continuum. Hip hop is related to what Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker did…”

“I strongly disagree with almost everything he says”, he pitches back, his easy New Orleans lilt bellying the force of his opinions. “He’s the great genius of drumming, but… he’s from another whole generation, he don’t have no understanding of what they’re playing.” Unlike Roach, Marsalis sees hip-hop as a symptom of decline.

“I’ve taught thousands of kids and I’m very familiar with what they know and what they don’t know. I think it is an example of what happens when you have a lack of education and you fail to identify the objective with your music and teach it to your kids. Even in a decline there’s some relationship to the thing that comes before it. So on the one hand, yes, it’s a continuum because they do come out of this tradition, but on the other hand it’s not a continuum because the knowledge of the music and anything that requires you to have an in-depth understanding of the music is not present.

“All the intellectual firepower is being spent trying to justify the decline and pretend it’s not a decline, it’s actually a ‘modern statement’”. He gives a hollow, staccato chuckle. “They’re wasting a lot of time. But eventually you’re gonna see it’s a dead end street.”

But isn’t it at least as much of a dead end street to recreate the music of Duke Ellington, as Marsalis will do when he performs with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orcherstra in New Zealand this month? Where is the innovation in that?

“Well firstly, we don’t recreate his music, we play it. That’s the first thing I have to stress, because I see that written all the time and I have to laugh at it. Then the whole question that jazz is about innovation is another misconception. Jazz is not about innovation. Nothing can be about innovation or it won’t survive. Jazz is about originality. You can have a whole bunch of musicians who are influenced by Charlie Parker, none of whom can be credited with the innovation of Charlie Parker but who are great jazz musicians nonetheless. You have a whole generation of trumpeters who are influenced by Louis Armstrong, none of whom are innovators. It would be impossible to have an art form in which everyone who plays is an innovator. The ultimate goal is originality, to play with a personal voice, because it’s something that everybody can achieve. Innovation comes to those who are touched with that type of genius, and to place that requirement on every person who plays your art form means you are depleting your field. Like if I told you to be a physicist you’d have to be Einstein. You’re not going to do that, but you could be a great physicist. And in jazz music, while Louis Armstrong was doing all his great things Kid Ory was playing too, so was King Oliver and many other musicians. Do we say that what they play was of no value because they weren’t Louis Armstrong? They speak in languages that have been invented by other musicians. It doesn’t make them less.”

Marsalis suggests that while critics down-value the work of great original musicians simply because they may not be innovators, they fail to notice true innovators who are playing right in their ears. “The last person I’ve heard whose style is wholly innovative is Marcus Roberts [a pianist who played for several years with Marsalis’s group] I don’t think you could think of anybody else who sounds like that, or uses forms the way he uses them, or who can play in two or three time [signatures] at one time. But he is not recognised, which happens a lot of times.”

And what of Wynton himself? Innovator or otherwise, his elegant tone, outstanding control, razor-sharp articulation and inside-out comprehension of anything he plays all add up to one outrageously good musician. As the late Miles Davis – who often sparred with Marsalis, mocking his preservationist attitudes – was heard to growl: “Wynton plays perfect, like Fats [Navarro] or Brownie [Clifford Brown], he’s a hell of a trumpet player. We’re not talking about his mouth, his vocal cords, we’re talking about his musicianship. He’s a motherf—er.”

If anyone is capable of reinvesting the compositions of Duke Ellington with the vibrancy that Ellington’s own orchestra once gave them, Marsalis is the man. Critics and musicians can argue about whether the result is jazz or an ossified, classicised version of it, but it is hard to deny that it is superb music, performed as well as you’ll ever hear it.

Funnily, the only time in our conversation that Marsalis seems at a loss for words, is when I ask what Ellington’s music means to him. “It’s a lot of fun to play, and there’s a lot of it.” Beat. “It’s very diverse.” Two beats. “It’s just fun, man”. What sort of demands does it make on you? “None, really.” Beat. “It demands that you play with a uniqueness of personality and that you play with a lot of hustle, because the musicians that played it played on such a high level. But it’s very unpretentious music. All you have to do is play it.”

Tags: jazzwynton marsaliskeith jarrettduke ellington

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