Blowing up a storm

At New York’s Columbus Circle the world’s first purpose-built jazz complex is taking shape. When the $128m Frederick P Rose Hall opens in autumn 2004, one glass-walled concert space will have the Manhattan skyline over Central Park for a backdrop. Yet the soundtrack to construction of this temple to jazz is the rock and rap from builders’ radios. The irony would not be lost on the trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, though he insists that “jazz doesn’t rely on being popular to be significant”. As artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Centre, his vision is behind its new home and he has, according to Loren Schoenberg, executive director of the Jazz Museum in Harlem, “turned around jazz’s absence from American cultural life”.

Yet Marsalis was once described by the veteran US critic Nat Hentoff as the dogmatic “pope of jazz”. While record companies drop successive jazz musicians as unprofitable, jazz aficionados have long cried that Marsalis’s “back to basics” veneration for past masters is killing innovation.

At 41, Marsalis is the most famous living jazz musician, named in 1996 as one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential Americans. While many jazz players have been classically trained, he is rare in straddling both worlds professionally. He belongs to America’s “first family” of jazz: his father is the pianist and teacher Ellis Marsalis; his brothers include saxophonist Branford, trombonist and record producer Delfeayo and drummer Jason.

But at 14 Wynton performed the Haydn trumpet concerto with the New Orleans Civic Orchestra. Hearing the 21-year-old in London, the French classical player Maurice André pronounced him “potentially the greatest trumpeter of all time”.

In 1983 Marsalis became the only instrumentalist to win Grammy awards in the same year for jazz and classical recordings. He has released more than 40 CDs and in 2001 was named a UN Messenger of Peace for his worldwide touring and education programmes.

His success spurred others and made him a symbol both of a “renaissance” of jazz in the 1980s and of its apotheosis in some eyes as America’s artistic gift to the world, and one whose prime source had been African-American genius.

When his jazz programme became a full constituent of the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts in 1996, the music gained equal status with the “high” arts. His jazz oratorio, Blood on the Fields, won the Pulitzer prize for music in 1997 – the first time for a non-classical composition. With his Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra, Marsalis has helped define a “classical jazz” canon.

Following last summer’s televised concert at the BBC Proms, they are touring the UK this month, culminating in a concert at London’s Barbican with the Lincoln Centre Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, formed in 2001.

Marsalis’s reputation was built on his virtuosity. Yet even this divides critics. For the US jazz writer Stanley Crouch he is “the greatest trumpet player since Booker Little, Don Cherry, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, and the most rhythmically intricate and original since Dizzy Gillespie”. Others are ambivalent. “Technically, he’s brilliant,” says the British jazz trumpeter Ian Carr, associate professor at London’s Guildhall School of Music and author of Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography. “But the most important thing about music is feeling; Miles could move people to tears.”

Marsalis’s feud with Davis, whose autobiography conceded the younger man was a “hell of a trumpet player”, won him few friends. When he jumped up, unbidden, beside Davis in Vancouver in 1986, Davis stopped his band and told him to “get the fuck off the stage”.

More recently Marsalis was attacked over his creative consultancy of Ken Burns’s TV series Jazz: A History of America’s Music, shown on BBC2 in 2001, for its neglect of jazz since 1970. The pianist Keith Jarrett challenged him in the New York Times to a “blues standoff”, saying, “for a great black player… I’ve never heard Wynton play the blues convincingly”. While friends cite his charm and humility, others find him dogmatic, and worry about the power of his patronage.

In his Lincoln Centre apartment, overlooking the Hudson river, Marsalis rails against a “jazz establishment” as “racist, ignorant and disrespectful of musicians”. Yet when not parrying perceived attacks he is softly spoken and thoughtful. To the criticism that his playing lacks danger, he replies, “They said Charlie Parker didn’t play with the soul Johnny Hodges had, that Art Tatum was a cocktail pianist and Duke Ellington was trying to imitate European music and wasn’t a jazz musician like Count Basie. When you have a degree of sophistication you open yourself to a certain kind of criticism.”

His exasperation at being labelled conservative and neo-classicist may hint at a tension between the jazzman in shirtsleeves at his breakfast table after jamming into the small hours and the corporate mover who strides into his office an hour later. “What makes me happy”, he confesses, “is to play jazz in a club with good musicians, to teach, and to have a good time – go out with the opposite sex. I don’t aspire to things outside that.”

All Rise, his 12-part millennial composition for choir, jazz and symphony orchestras, which premiered in 1999, is now out on CD, conducted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Esa-Pekka Salonen. It draws inspiration from such composers as Bartók and Stravinsky, as well as African-American music from gospel to jazz. Salonen describes it as “Mahlerian in spirit… It flips in and out of cultural traditions – American, Latin, folk – with astonishing fluency.” The recording was made with the LA Philharmonic days after September 11, 2001.

Despite the suspension of US air travel, a concert also went ahead at the Hollywood Bowl on September 13, with excerpts relayed on CNN. “We all agreed – we’re musicians,” says Marsalis. “That’s what we do.” For Salonen, the piece was therapeutic: “Its basic philosophy is of the world’s cultures being shared property and that art has the power to unite. It felt like discovering an elemental truth.”

Marsalis also describes jazz as hope. “There’s a strain in western thought that says we started in the forest primeval and we destroyed it. But jazz starts in the blues and the blues goes from Revelations to the Garden of Eden. I’m from that blues tradition. It’s what I grew up with, what my father loved.”

Wynton Learson Marsalis was born in 1961 in New Orleans, the cradle of jazz. The second of six brothers, he was named after Miles Davis’s pianist, Wynton Kelly. His father’s family were “Creoles of colour” – French-patois-speaking descendants of racial intermarriage – though his mother, Dolores Ferdinand, was the one with music in her family.

While Wynton’s first love was sport (he still plays basketball), his father’s bandleader gave him his first trumpet at six. At eight he was in the guitarist Danny Barker’s church marching band, but insists he was no prodigy. He began trumpet lessons at 12, according to his elder brother Branford because “someone told him black cats couldn’t play classical music”.

That was part of the equation, says Marsalis, who was in the first integrated generation after the post-war civil rights protests. “We grew up with such stifling prejudice: unlike people who were segregated, we had to deal with it every day. But to want to prove something is not enough impetus to make you want to practise. I wanted to know how to play, and mostly I wanted to be like my father.”

Jazz had been overtaken in popularity by rock ‘n’ roll, Motown and funk. “I knew my daddy was struggling, but everyone was struggling in our neighbourhood.” Yet when Ellis considered giving up playing to drive a cab, his wife dissuaded him. “That was an important point in my life, in understanding the relationship between a man and a woman.” Ellis taught jazz and carried on playing. “He worked hard, but he never complained. I’d hang with him at night; he’d get home at 2 o’clock and be up at 5.30.” Ellis later became director of jazz studies at the University of New Orleans.

Wynton has an autistic brother, Mboya. “It had a devastating effect on my mother,” he recalls. “We were country people and we’d never heard of autism.”

For Wynton’s peers classical music was white people’s music and “jazz was for old people”. At 13 he joined a funk band with Branford, The Creators. “I was always working. But you play your horn so loud.” He spent the money on trumpets. At school he became the only African-American in the New Orleans Civic Orchestra, and at 17 won a four-year grant to the Juilliard School of Music, the top classical conservatory in the US.

He arrived in New York in 1979 with a bouncing afro and a brilliant reputation, but deprecates his early playing. “People who had heard there was this kid from New Orleans said, ‘If this is the kid we’re waiting for, we’re in trouble’.” He dropped out of Juilliard in 1980 to join the drummer Art Blakey’s hard-bop Jazz Messengers, a legendary training ground.

After touring Japan and jazz festivals, he formed his first ensemble in 1981-85, a quintet including Branford. He already had recording contracts with Columbia Jazz and Sony Classical and his first jazz album as leader, Wynton Marsalis (1982), sold a remarkable 100,000 copies. Grammys followed, including one for Black Codes from the Underground (1985).

His style was influenced by 1960s Miles Davis, but he scorned Davis’s 1969 move into jazz-rock fusion as a “let-down”. Davis in turn talked of 1980s neo-bop as “warmed-over turkey”. Marsalis says, “I was critical of Miles because he loved to be critical of everybody too. But never did I undermine his greatness as a jazz musician when he was playing jazz. He himself said he wasn’t interested in playing jazz anymore.”

Marsalis was hurt when Branford broke up the quintet to play with the pop musician Sting. “But as I grew older I understood that was the best thing for him,” he says. Branford played jazz-rock on TV, became a consultant to Columbia Jazz and now has own record label, Marsalis Music. The brothers are often assumed to be rivals but Wynton says they still play well together. For the saxophonist Greg Osby, who knew both in the early 1980s, Branford loves hip-hop and rock, heavy metal and funk, whereas Wynton has “stayed on track”.

He delved deeper into early jazz. He was influenced by Albert Murray’s book Stomping the Blues (1976), which stressed jazz’s African-American roots. Stanley Crouch, who became a mentor, says Marsalis knew of Davis and the saxophonist John Coltrane “but he hadn’t checked out [Louis] Armstrong or [Thelonious] Monk or [Ornette] Coleman or Ellington. They were shocking to him.”

Like his peers, Marsalis had thought Armstrong an Uncle Tom. “Coming out of the black power era, you saw Louis Armstrong on TV smiling or doing ‘Hello Dolly’,” he says. “But we’d never listened to his early recordings.” He came to see all jazz as modern. “Musicians believe in a separation between the old and the new – post-Charlie Parker, or everything before. But once I discovered it wasn’t the case, I felt an artistic responsibility to learn more, to be comfortable with my own playing.”

With a quartet in 1985-88, then a septet in 1989-94, Marsalis explored the “rudiments” of jazz on such albums as Standard Time and The Majesty of the Blues, which drew on the New Orleans funeral tradition. He alienated many with his pronouncements, summarised in his 1988 New York Times article, “What Jazz Is and Isn’t”. (Davis first met him with the words, “So, you’re the police, huh?”) For Marsalis, “real jazz” comprises swing rhythm, the “blues ethic”, improvisation and, usually, circular form. Yet he says there’s no hard and fast definition. “Jazz is a matter of percentages: at what point is lemonade water with lemon in it? There’s no equation, but you kind of know.”

Ian Carr finds Marsalis “dictatorial and over-orthodox: he has fixed ideas of a pure, righteous way of playing. But jazz has never been pure; almost anything can be included, and it’s still jazz.” Geoff Dyer, author of the book on jazz But Beautiful, says Marsalis raised awareness of the rich heritage of “American jazz as black classical music”. But as [trumpeter] Lester Bowie said, “What about the innovation? If you retread what’s gone before, even if it sounds like jazz, it could be anathema to the spirit of jazz.”

Marsalis is at pains to raise standards of musicianship and opposes a loose definition that embraces almost any improvisation. “Why is jazz the only art form that has no meaning, no pedagogy?” he says. “How am I going to teach my students? If whatever you’re playing, that’s jazz, how are you going to get better? It doesn’t mean Louis Jordan or King Curtis can’t play, but they play a different style of music. What’s wrong with that?” Yet Carr objects that till the 1970s, jazz was avant-garde all the time. Then “people started to try to fix it”. Marsalis also led a move away from Miles Davis’s rock star image and the informality of T-shirts back to jazzmen in suits. “Our music has a tradition, and we’ve chosen to affirm who we are,” he says.

Jazz at Lincoln Centre began as a week of “classical jazz” concerts in 1987, and became year-round in 1991. For Loren Schoenberg, who has led the orchestra, it is the most accomplished big band since Ellington’s in the 1950s. Though they commission new work, their repertory has led some to see them as a museum band. “I don’t try to be faithful to the recording, or the letter of the score,” Marsalis objects. “There’s something in the sound you’ll never recreate.”

Early jazz is played using the innovations of later musicians. But he attacks a philosophy that tells kids their job is to move jazz forward, “as though there’s nothing important enough to preserve. I teach my students ‘you can’t move jazz anywhere: settle for first-class musicianship’,” rather than feeling bad about not being “one of the five innovators in the next 100 years”. Even detractors acknowledge his talent for communicating, as in his 26-part radio series Making the Music and TV series Marsalis on Music, both broadcast in the US in 1995. He ranges from masterclasses at Juilliard to primary schools, and is known to be generous with trumpets. “I’m a grassroots worker,” he says. “My father was a teacher. I love kids too.”

Marsalis, who has never married, has three sons: Wynton Jr, 14, and Simeon, 12, from a 1983-91 relationship with Candace Stanley, a computer scientist; and Jasper Armstrong, six, with the actor Victoria Rowell. His eldest sons live nearby, in New Rochelle, and his youngest in Los Angeles. Though Wynton Jr plays piano, Simeon the clarinet and Jasper piano, trumpet and drums, their father says, “I don’t know if they’ll be musicians; I don’t try to push them.” All stay with him (“we have jam sessions”), or join him on his 10-months-a-year touring schedule, about which he wrote a book, Sweet Swing Blues on the Road (1994). As for present relationships: “I never talk about what I do.”

Although he demonstrated affinities between jazz and classical music on TV with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, in some ways, he says, they are opposed: “With a symphonic piece you’re trying to make written music sound as though you’re improvising, whereas a great jazz improviser is making spur-of-the-moment-solos sound as though they wrote them out.” In 1987 he said: “It is harder to play good jazz well than classical music. Jazz is the classical music of our century.” Professor Paul Gilroy, chair of Afro-American studies at Yale, and a former DJ in Britain, is critical of Marsalis’s role in “turning jazz into a classical music. The idea that culture progresses from a folk to a classical form comes from Goethe and Hegel,” he says. “The effect is a disciplinary force policing creativity.”

Many of Marsalis’s compositions attempt such fusion. They range from the gospel-inspired “In This House, On This Morning” (1992) to “At the Octoroon Balls” (1995) for string quartet. He has also writ ten for ballet, film and opera, collaborating with Twyla Tharp, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the soprano Kathleen Battle and the New York City Ballet. Judith Jamison, artistic director at Alvin Ailey, was struck by Marsalis’s spontaneity in composing, “a trumpet in one hand and the other hand on the piano”. His polyrhythmic music, she says, is complicated and precisely mathematical “but that doesn’t sterilise its vibrancy”.

The New York Times reviewer thought All Rise’s 100 minutes “[could] be prized on intellectual grounds, but remain difficult to love”. While Village Voice critic Gary Giddins deemed Blood on the Fields (1994) “hubristic”, the Guardian’s John Fordham found it achieved Marsalis’s ambition “to rejuvenate the tradition… and resoundingly confounded his detractors”.

Sung by a cast led by Cassandra Wilson, it was set on a plantation. “I had people in my family who were one generation out of slavery,” says Marsalis. “It still resonates in our culture.” He sees hip-hop as a “new minstrel show”, a caricature, with “rappers, calling each other niggas and bitches”. He objects to a “basic racism behind it; the youth are fooled, and a lot of money is being made”.

Marsalis is negotiating a deal with another record label. In A Fiddler’s Tale (1998), his companion piece to Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale, the devil is a record company executive. “They always want you to sell out. I don’t want to appeal to an 18-year-old. I don’t want to be a star or make $20m and I don’t want to play any race card or go in a club that has a line of bouncers not letting people in. I don’t want to be part of that.”

Jazz at Lincoln Centre has been dogged by allegations of cronyism and biases against hiring white musicians, older players or women – which Marsalis denies. “We have the most integrated hiring practices of all the arts,” he says. Greg Osby points out “Wynton has championed white musicians in jazz”. The Village Voice complained, “Where are the women?”: though it uses substitutes, the band has no permanent women members. “The Lincoln Centre Jazz orchestra is 16 jobs,” says Marsalis. “People are not going to give them up. But every night we have women play with the orchestra, and it’s not because there’s pressure on us.”

He attributes such criticisms partly to his being of the first generation of African-Americans to enter such an institution at the top, rather than on the “guilt grants” of the 1970s. Yet jazz, for him, “teaches us what can happen when we come together; the ultimate story is integration, and recognition of the humanity of people regardless of their race”.

He bridles at being seen as an establishment figure. “The establishment in terms of Afro-American culture is rap. If you’re into what they do, and wear your hair like them, you’re ok; if you don’t, you stand alone.” There are, he adds, “always economic resources for celebrating depravity as ‘cutting edge’ or ‘angry’ and the nature of the Afro-American. But if you’re intelligent and forceful, you get presented like a pariah. That’s not how I’m treated by people whose kids I’ve taught; they want to know you can’t be bought out, or sold out, or scared out.”

In jazz, Marsalis believes, “knowledge is considered bad, as cutting down on your ‘naturalism’. It’s a race equation: on the plantation, knowing how to read wasn’t good. The more you know, you’re a threat to something.” Crouch sees Marsalis as having “taken the power of the critics away because he knows more about the music and, being a musician, is taken far more seriously.”

Because jazz is so ignored, says Schoenberg, “there’s tremendous envy of people who make it big. But Wynton has been a mentor to a generation of players.” For Carr, Marsalis is a consolidator. Marsalis does insist, however, on jazz rooted in American blues. Yet Dyer feels European jazz is now more forward-looking. For Gilroy, the time has passed when Americans could exercise a cultural copyright on jazz: “It’s become a world phenomenon, enriched by its travels.”

Those close to hm say Marsalis has mellowed and they call for a truce in the “jazz wars”. Osby once derided Marsalis as a “young old man” but changed his view of the “studious perfectionist. Wynton is broader in his taste than people give him credit for, but he can’t bite the hand that feeds him.” The Lincoln Centre relies on corporate sponsorship from the likes of Cadillac and Philip Morris. This month Coca-Cola pledged $10m for the new jazz centre, and although Marsalis has said there are no strings, others sense implicit curbs.

Yet his curatorial role may complement other approaches. “Without experiments the art form dies,” says Salonen. “Wynton is not narrow-minded, but the number one jazz orchestra in the country can’t be a laboratory of alchemists: the wildest invention has to seep into the big institutions.” The trumpeter insists that “to preserve something doesn’t mean you keep it from developing”, and aims to both preserve and further what he sees as jazz’s democratic spirit. But he doesn’t “live in the world of my critics. To me, the serious thing is the music.”

by Maya Jaggi
Source: The Guardian

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