A Gentlemen With a Mean Horn

Wynton Marsalis fingers a cornet. America’s wunderkind from New Orleans is a modest, mellow and articulate fellow, and he’ll be 25 next month. What’s more, his fifth CBS jazz record, J Mood, is in the stores, and he’s in the mood to chat.

We’re in temporary quarters smack in the center of a not-quite-middle-class black neighborhood in Brooklyn, and Marsalis feels comfortable here. His space is cluttered with tools of the trade – five trumpet cases, four mutes, seven mouthpieces laying about, nine trumpets in view, some with gold plating, others with brass bells, many made for him by “a guy named Monette in Chicago.”
All of this is surrounded by bicycles, jars of peanut butter, Thomas Mann’s “Joseph and His Brothers,” Billy Joel cassettes, “The Poetiques of Music” by Stravinsky, Auto Week magazine and striped tennis socks on an unmade bed.

Marsalis is thoughtful, sincere, his moustachioed face framed by round wire glasses. The kid has been responsible for spearheading a revival on what he calls undiluted “swing and thoughtful form-based improvisation: jazz.” And in only six years before the public, he has zoomed to the top. He is the only person in history to win, two years in a row, jazz and classical Grammys. In 1983 “Think of One,” and trumpet concertos of Haydn, Hummel and Leopold Mozart won the honors; 1984 was for Hot House Flowers and Baroque music. In 1985 his jazz album,, won two Grammys as well.

He has a “Wynton Marsalis Day” in his hometown, he’s trumpeted with The Muppets and dined at the White House. He’s had Bill Cosby on “The Tonight Show” call him “the young man he’d like his own daughter to marry.” He’s won dozens of prestigious international awards. What’s more, Marsalis is every mother’s dream – clean cut, doesn’t smoke, drink or take drugs – and he performs in ties and suits even at the dinkiest jazz clubs. With his mastery of both European values and Afro-American repertoire, and a Juilliard degree, he is a role model for other young musicians; he is professional, gentlemanly, intellectual.

Marsalis comes across as being laid back, but his voice has fervor and urgency. He is openly critical of the avant-garde and extremely intelligent “I’m opposed to plugged-in electronics and fake mish-mash of rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, country, reggae and fusion, all in the name of jazz,” he says. He’s ruffled the feathers of former buddies, trumpeter Miles Davis, saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman, who “may have sold out.” Snarls his once-pal Davis, “Who does Marsalis think he is? The savior of jazz?”

Perhaps that is what many music watchers indeed believe. He is the one person dedicated to maintaining what he calls “aesthetic and artistic levels of music,” and to retaining its integrity. He sees the past two decades, for the most part, as being overwhelmed by trends, losing sight of the music itself.

“It is not because of lack of talent, it’s lack of proper education. It is essential that young musicians know the differences. They need to have ears like antennae, soaking in everything with deep concentration. They must link into ideas and structures, putting the explosion in the ‘60s’ into real context.
“People who think it is more difficult, intellectual or technical to play classical music are as off-base as saying that jazz is more emotional’ than classical. Just listen to ‘Bartok’s Music for Strings,’ ‘Percussion and Celeste,’ or the voice of [soprano] Kathleen Battle. Listen to the sophistication in jazz; this requires more understanding of composition for the performer than a classical musician playing Bach. Jazz is the classical music of our century.”

It’s not surprising when Marsalis won his first jazz Grammy, he dedicated it to [Trumpeter] Louis ‘Pops’ Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, [saxophonist] Charlie Bird Parker – all the guys who gave an art form to the American people that cannot be limited by enforced trends or bad taste.
“Jazz went away for awhile,” he continues, “and everything changed. Nobody can say all music has the same value, any more than if someone believes in democracy, he can’t believe in communism.”

Certainly Marsalis has remained staunch. Indeed, when his brother, the saxophonist Branford Marsalis, along with pianist Kenny Kirkland, who had played in his group for four years, went on an extended tour with Sting, it was a blow. “They left for more money, a higher public profile, and, to me, at least, less of a chance to develop their true musicianship.”
Kirkland has been replaced by Marcus Roberts, “one of the best young jazz musicians in the country,” and the quintet is currently a quartet, sure to set off another explosion with “J Mood.” Like its predecessors, it is destined to sell several hundred thousand copies. No matter who disagrees with his views, he has stayed right there on top since the outset.

Talking to the young is vital to Marsalis. He fits in campus lectures and a hectic on-the-road schedule. “There is a lot to tell young people, the climate today sadly fosters racial stereotypes,” he continues. “Racism enters into question whenever Negroes claim a copyright on something of substance. When we’ve made innovations, whites have come along and imitated them. Why, at the Grammy Awards, is there a category called “soul gospel’ [supposed to be black] and another, just plain “gospel” [supposed to be white]? This is nonsense when you understand musical roots.

“As Americans we have to remember the main thing about democracy is that our society allows us to maintain our own persona yet function equally with people of different backgrounds. Being American must be inherent in our art form, in our music. You could hear Manhattan when Charlie Parker picked up his horn. You could feel the textures of [Duke] Ellington, the nobility in Armstrong. They fed the soul.”

by Leslie Rubenstein
Source: San Francisco Examiner

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