A life in music: Wynton Marsalis
On inauguration day in Washington earlier this year, the Wynton Marsalis Quintet played a private party at the White House in honour of President Obama. The two men are the same age, but long before Obama came to prominence, Marsalis had been a national figure and so while he says “as a liberal and a Democrat I, of course, feel that things are better in America”, he is experienced enough to know that change, particularly in the areas he cares about most, might not come as quickly as he would like.
As well as being the best known figure in contemporary jazz, Marsalis has also long been a doggedly effective advocate for the arts in education in general and for jazz’s centrality to American history and experience in particular. He says: “Cultural education is just as bad as it’s ever been. The level of knowledge is the same as when I started out 25 years ago. It’s difficult in this country to do things that have meaning. Things aren’t set up that way. Will there be a dramatic difference in the arts under the new administration? We’ll have to see. We still tend to think of science and math as the meal, athletics as the dessert, and the arts aren’t even really on the table. There is an idea that a mind is wasted on the arts unless it makes you good in math or science. There is some evidence that the arts might help you in math and science. But, more importantly, the arts tell you who you are. And they make your life better. They are fun.”
Marsalis’s version of jazz history asserts a classical line that goes back to his native New Orleans: Bolden, Bechet, Armstrong, Ellington, Basie, Parker, Coltrane. But while few question the credentials of his pantheon, many have complained that he too easily dismisses post-1960s developments in jazz and that his wariness of the avant garde leaves jazz as a backward-looking form. And his views do carry a unique weight. He was the special advisor to Ken Burns’s comprehensive television history of jazz that assumed Marsalis’s canonical stance. And his position as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Centre (JALC) provides him with a powerbase at the most influential jazz institution in the world.
In 1987, Marsalis was involved in setting up a few summer concerts under the Lincoln Centre banner. By 1996, he was the artistic director of the newly formed JALC, which, although it had no permanent home, was granted equal status to other Lincoln Centre companies such as the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet and the New York Philharmonic. By 2004, JALC had moved into its spectacular new premises on Columbus Circle in New York. There are not only three venues, two of which feature jaw-dropping backdrops through fifth-floor glass walls of Central Park and the Upper East Side, but the institution also houses large education and archival resources. Here is where the official version of jazz is being made.
One observer characterised the ambitious project, which suffered significant teething problems and turnover of senior staff in its early years, as like giving a new driver a Lamborghini, putting a camera on him and broadcasting his efforts on nationwide TV. “As an organisation we did have to grow up fast,” says Marsalis. “But our aim was very simple. We wanted to invite an audience to celebrate all parts of the tradition of our music. And how can you be too ambitious for what is the primary art form of this country?”
Next week, Marsalis will bring his Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra to the Barbican in London for a concert performance and to launch a biennial residency. From the summer of 2010, Marsalis and the JALC organisation will both perform and engage in education projects, masterclasses and jam sessions at the Barbican and elsewhere in east London. As interesting as the work they will do is the company they are keeping. The other orchestras in the scheme are the New York Philharmonic, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel and the Leipzig Gewandhaus.
Barbican director Nicholas Kenyon brought Marsalis and his orchestra to the Proms in 2004. “Over the last 20 years, classical music has come out of its box,” Kenyon says. “We no longer say there are these great orchestras and there are the rest. Jazz at Lincoln Centre, in its field, is as great an ensemble as the New York Philharmonic. Marsalis has played the Haydn Trumpet Concerto as well as anyone has ever played it, but, as with someone like Yo…#8209;Yo Ma, the question of fencing off areas of music doesn’t really exist any more. There is no question that the music the JALC orchestra do is key to the music of the last century. It’s not about replacing the centrality of the western canon, but just expanding it a little and acknowledging that other things rightly belong in it. There is a category of musicians that, as well as having superhuman musical skills, have this very clear sense of what use their musical talents ought to be put to. We see people like Gergiev and Simon Rattle coming through the Barbican. I would put Wynton in the same category.”
Marsalis was born in 1961 and brought up in and around New Orleans, where his father, Ellis Marsalis, was a well-known jazz musician and teacher. The second of six brothers – four of whom became professional musicians – Wynton was playing traditional New Orleans music in a church band by the age of eight, and by 12 was studying the trumpet seriously and playing jazz, classical and funk music.
The classical strand saw him performing the Haydn Trumpet Concerto with the New Orleans Philharmonic at only 14, but he says he was always aware of the primacy of jazz. “I’d been around jazz musicians forever, so I was aware that they were talking and playing at a very high level and that jazz had an engagement with the culture and a depth of feeling. I knew the historical knowledge jazz musicians had was very different from the general knowledge.”
But funk music was the most lucrative. “We played to literally thousands of people. When me and my brother would go to see our daddy playing, there’d be 30 people in the audience. I was only 14 or 15, but I realised something was wrong. He sat in with our band once at some school dance and was asked if he knew the music. He said: ‘It doesn’t make no damn difference, it’s not going to be that hard. Just play it.’ So we started to play, and he just fell in and started killing on it. But at least I knew this music wasn’t A Love Supreme. A lot of my friends didn’t know A Love Supreme even existed.”
While at high school, Marsalis began to play small jazz gigs with some musicians from the local college. “I got paid $40, not the $100 I was used to from the funk gigs. But I wasn’t going to turn it down, I wanted to play jazz.” But he also played traditional jazz in parades, more funk gigs, lounge sets at the Sheraton hotel, the Messiah on his piccolo trumpet in church, and classical work such as Cheetham’s Scherzo and Malcolm Arnold’s Brass Quintet with the symphony orchestra brass section.
It was classical music that won him a place to study trumpet at the Juilliard School in New York in 1979, but by the time he arrived he already knew he didn’t want a classical career. “I had to figure out how to survive in New York, and most of my time was occupied in getting an apartment and getting money. A lot of older jazz guys looked out for me and found me gigs and places to stay.” Marsalis played in the Broadway production of Sweeney Todd, in Latin clubs, and also with the Brooklyn Philharmonic.
“I learned a lot. And part of what I learned was the prevailing ignorance in the critical community about jazz. Older musicians had resigned themselves to this culture that was so commercial and lacking in appreciation. Consequently, I knew things needed to be changed, but I had no idea whether I could change them.”
In New York, Marsalis had met the jazz writers and historians Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray, and says that this was when he began his real education into the history of the music. Crouch and Murray’s view, that through jazz the whole of American culture could be understood and that the black American experience was at the heart of that culture, made Marsalis aware that, through jazz, he could deal with race, history, culture, economics and art. Armed with these ideas he was launched on to the most spectacular jazz career of the past 40 years.
He was already sitting in with legendary jazz drummer Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers band while at Juilliard. The following year, he left Juilliard to join the band full-time. In 1982, Marsalis – backed by what was, for a jazz musician, an unprecedented publicity blitz by Columbia records – released his eponymous debut album, which quickly sold more than 100,000 copies. In 1983, he picked up Grammys for both the Haydn Trumpet Concerto and his jazz album Think of One. In all, he has won nine Grammys, as well as a Pulitzer prize for his 1997 oratorio Blood on the Fields
This meteoric success brought an equally swift backlash. “At a certain point in my early 20s, I started to get pressures that didn’t come from playing. Older guys were angry about all the publicity and the money and the girls. It wasn’t that there wasn’t publicity and money and girls. But I knew, and they knew, that my playing didn’t merit this attention if compared to their playing. But in relation to my generation, my playing did deserve attention.”
By the late 80s, Marsalis’s music was self-consciously exploring what he called “the rudiments” of jazz. And his increasingly outspoken pronouncements were ruffling feathers. He had a rumbling feud with Miles Davis, who Marsalis felt had made poor artistic and career decisions. “Without me, you’d be all ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’,” countered Davis. And Marsalis’s engagement with the question of race in jazz saw him criticised for marginalising white jazz artists – despite his championing of, say, Bix Beiderbecke – and also for dismissing elements of contemporary black music. It is a theme he has often returned to, most recently in his 2008 book, Moving to Higher Ground, in which he claimed that “the average black person has no idea and no understanding of the rich legacy of African-American arts and doesn’t know that there is something to know. Common knowledge has led us right back to the minstrel show by way of rap music and corrupted church music of people hip-humping while singing about Jesus.”
“I never minded giving my opinions,” he says. “They are just opinions, and I had studied music and I had strong feelings. I was happy for my opinions to join all the other opinions. But you have to be prepared for what comes back, especially if you don’t agree with the dominant mythology.”
When Marsalis began to construct what would become JALC, he gathered around him people who shared his views, such as Crouch and Murray, and they endured their share of criticism both for their programming policy and administrative failings. Adrian Ellis, a Welshman, is the executive director of JALC. He said when he arrived in post in 2007 he anticipated “a struggle, to put it crudely, between neocons and avant gardists. But, in fact, while the culture wars hadn’t gone away entirely, it was more smouldering about historical issues rather than intense fires. We are so much larger than any other jazz organisation, we have an obligation to the totality of the music, and our output is much broader than our critics might believe. Wynton has long been an advocate for a view that could be summarised as ‘all jazz is modern’. We attempt to embrace both the legacy and the future of jazz so the history of jazz is present in what is currently being played. But while we carry a weight of responsibility for the music, we don’t carry all of that weight, and most of our musicians play in innumerable other contexts. In fact the musicians move much more fluidly along the spectrum of avant gardism than the critics seem to manage.”
Marsalis says within JALC “the music is the real thing, not the talking about the music. It’s important to debate these things and it’s more than barbershop banter. But here the music is above all that.” He cites the work of the JALC library and its ongoing project to chart historical jazz arrangements, the organisation’s shaping of the national educational curriculum, and its sponsorship of school band competitions as areas he is keen to draw on during the London residencies.
“I’ve been to Brixton. I’ve been to Peckham. I’ve played ball down there and hung out. The people are a little different to here because it’s a different culture, but playing and jamming is not different. And we’ve taught a lot of classes over the years in the worst social areas. We have experience. But anyone is disadvantaged if they don’t have access to information.”
He says his schedule of composing, recording, performing and his JALC duties mean he is overworked. “But it’s not work I don’t want to do. I don’t find it hard. I practise, I work on stuff. That’s what I do. I’ve always had fun. That’s an important part of it.
Colleagues says that Marsalis is “essentially a happy guy. He’s not a tortured soul. There’s a basic optimism and spring in his step.” “It all comes back to the music,” he says. “If you lose the music you have lost everything. There is no amount of money that would make up for losing something so important. I am having a wonderful time; the places I’ve been, the people I’ve worked with, the chance to play and maintain and celebrate all the great music. Why give up something that rare? That’s the mistake earlier jazz musicians made. Papa Jo Jones, who played in Basie’s orchestra, used to carry around a baby’s pacifier in his pocket. When he was in a bar after a show people would sometimes come up to complain about the money or the audience or other players or whatever. And he’d take this pacifier out of his pocket and say, ‘You want this? Because you’re messing up my good time.’ If you are having a good time, don’t mess it up. I’m having a good time.”
Marsalis on Marsalis
When I was 19 or so, Wayne Shorter told me “Notes are like people. You have to go up and greet each one.” Well, I thought he was crazy. But now I understand what he was saying. You have a relationship to notes, scales and chords, and the more intimate that relationship is, the richer the music you make. There are as many approaches to harmony as there are people. Furthermore, two people will relate to each other in one way, which changes when you introduce a third. Adding a fourth may ruin the vibe, and so on. Harmonies are like that. You may be great with the first six or so, but that seventh chord kills your solo. You can be very technical and scale-oriented about harmony or you can find pungent blues melodies that cut through harmonic barriers and still sound good. It’s like playing tennis: you might be great on grass but terrible on clay and mediocre on asphalt. Now, imagine 80 other surfaces and you will understand why the so-called avant-garde movement that started in the early 1950s and still sees itself as the cutting edge was so eager to consider playing through harmonies old-fashioned and obsolete. Some time ago, the tenor saxophonist Frank Foster was playing a street concert from the Jazzmobile in Harlem. He called for a blues in B-flat. A young tenor player began to play “out” from the first chorus, playing sounds that had no relationship to the harmonic progression or rhythmic setting. Foster stopped him. “What are you doing?” “Just playing what I feel.” “Well, feel something in B-flat, motherfucker.”