A star too soon

BARELY 28 years old but already ten years into his professional career, the New Orleans born trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is regarded by many as a modern master. This is greatly premature; for as good as he appears to be, the adulation of Marsalis suggests a stature equal to the best trumpeters in jazz history, including Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. He has named all of these men, and one or two others, as influences on his playing, but at this point Marsalis is not nearly as complete a musician as any of them, and probably won’t be for some time to come, if ever.

He is certainly very good. A brilliant technician, he appears to have a deep curiosity about musical history in general and trumpet style in particular, often dotting his solos with smears, growls, toots, and other musical effects associated with jazzmen of years past.

Like many serious musicians he comes from a musical family, his father the New Orleans pianist (and longtime Al Hirt sideman) Ellis Marsalis. Wynton began fooling with the trumpet only at age 12, yet two years later was advanced enough to perform the Haydn Trumpet Concerto with the New Orleans Symphony, and at 17 was named Outstanding Brass Soloist at the Berkshire Music Festival at Tanglewood. Scarcely a year after that he had dropped out of Juilliard to go on tour with drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

In 1982 Wynton Marsalis became the first jazz musician ever signed by a major label (Columbia) as both a jazz and classical player. The company’s decision paid off, at least artistically, when Marsalis won two Grammies in 1984, one for his second jazz album, Think of One . . ., the other for his classical album Trumpet Concertos. So far he has appeared on a handful of classical recordings and made seven jazz albums, including Hot House Flowers, the obligatory jazz-with-strings item, and Live at Blues Alley (possibly his best), recorded at the Washington club late in 1988.

Marsalis is also a highly articulate spokesman for jazz itself; in his Grammy Award acceptance speech he denounced commercialism in music and, in January 1989, he appeared on Nightline, discussing the blues with Ted Koppel. In person, elegantly attired and businesslike, he sets an excellent example as well: his is the antithesis of the disheveled, raucous, and even antisocial performance ethic passed off as creativity by many avantgardists and fusion players of the 1960s and ’70s.

Yet something very important is missing from Marsalis’s makeup, and despite the high quality of some of his more recent performances—for instance, the JVC New York Jazz Festival in June—it is difficult to overlook the detached nature of the man himself, the impression that he really doesn’t have any feeling for the music he plays. Since his emergence as a leader after 1982, the trumpeter has surrounded himself with a variety of enthusiastic young musicians, among them pianists Kenny Kirkland and Marcus Roberts, bassists Bob Hurst and Reginald Veal, drummers Jeff Watts and Herlin Riley, and several energetic saxophonists including his brother Branford Marsalis and Todd Williams on tenor and Wes Anderson on alto. Not quite as advanced as their leader, they nonetheless leave the listener with the suspicion that they are much more involved with the music than is Marsalis himself.

It is tempting to compare the young trumpeter with other celebrated Wunderkinder in the arts, precocious talents like James Dean or Truman Capote who appeared almost out of nowhere, already brilliant stylistically, to wow the folks at an early age. But jazz, as a spontaneous improvised music, demands from its performers a high degree of emotion in addition to technique, or else the music has no fire, doesn’t swing or stimulate. Pianist Gene Harris, about to take an all-star big band on a European tour, recently remarked in an interview that “music is supposed to make people happy, make them smile.” He was not referring to Marsalis, but the comment applies here because even in live performances, the glassy brilliance of his playing conveys little joy or warmth. One is left, instead, with the odd impression of a performer standing in the wings watching himself perform on stage.

The reason for this may have something to do with Marsalis’s background, with the duality of his career thus far. In 1945, Dizzy Gillespie was himself 28 and just about ten years into the business, yet he had already played with a dozen of the most interesting bands in jazz, including those of Cab Galloway and Earl Hines, and had begun an historic partnership with saxophonist Charlie Parker. Miles Davis had already toured with the legendary be-bop band fronted by singer Billy Eckstine, had worked with Parker, and was well into his “Birth of the Cool” period. One could look at Armstrong’s early years, or Roy Eldridge’s, and find the same thing: the rough-and-tumble existence of last-minute backstage “head” arrangements, frenzied after-hourjam sessions lasting until the following afternoon, dicey jobs in clubs whose gangster owners demanded their requests be played, spitball battles on the bandstand during the performance and alarm clocks set to go off in suitcases during 6 A.M. bus rides—in other words, total immersion in the jazz life in addition to the music. By contrast, Wynton Marsalis’s experience is far less intensive, certainly less colorful, and to a great extent rooted in another type of musical existence altogether.

Marsalis, to be rated with jazz giants of the past, must communicate as they have a true passion for the music, and not just dazzle with a virtuosity decorated with eclectic sound effects from trumpet history. He has stated that it is more difficult to become a good improviser than to be a good classical musician, and perhaps the classical part of his background has left him less comfortable with the notion of having a good time with the music he plays. Not the synthetic fun of Louis Armstrong’s later period, with showbiz smile, handkerchief, and arms akimbo, but the genuine enthusiasm of the true believer, the intensity that gives jazz its fire and its heart.

The celebrated vibraphonist Red Norvo once said that some musicians wound up playing the wrong instruments. In Wynton Marsalis’s case, it would be ironic if this talented young man, who has helped bring much-overdue attention to jazz during the 1980s, should wind up playing the wrong music. And this is something only time will tell.

by Tony Outhwaite
Source: National Review (Vol. 41, Issue 25, page 49)

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