For Wynton Marsalis, jazz is substance — and democracy

Pondering last weekend’s U.S. presidential debate, Wynton Marsalis expressed surprise that anyone would be startled by the low level of discourse on display.

Sunday’s town hall-style debate was notable for its vulgarity, vitriol and overall lack of class (at one point Donald Trump referred to Hillary Clinton as “the devil”).

In Marsalis’s view, this merely reflects a contemporary American culture gone downhill in recent years.

“A pipeline of pornography and trash has formed the mainstream of our culture since, well … it really started to decline in the 1970s,” he said from his hotel in Eugene, Oregon.

On Saturday, the 55-year-old trumpeter leads the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for a concert at Farquhar Auditorium. Over the years, Marsalis and the 15-piece ensemble have offered a handful of first-rate performances in Victoria. The last was at the TD Victoria International JazzFest in 2011 (the Victoria Jazz Society is producing this show).

One of the world’s most famous jazz trumpeters, Marsalis is a Grammy- and Pulitzer-prize-winning musician who serves as manager and artistic director for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

In 1997, he was the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize — an indication of his stature in American culture — for his three-hour jazz oratorio Blood on the Fields. The composition relates the story of two Africans who are captured, shipped to America and sold as slaves.

Jazz at Lincoln Center’s mission statement declares: “We believe jazz is a metaphor for democracy.” The notion is that jazz is improvisational; it celebrates freedom and encourages personal expression.

On the phone, Marsalis confirmed that, for him, jazz is indeed a metaphor for democracy. But he added: “We’re less about spectacle and more about substance.”

He follows politics closely. He encourages his students at New York’s Juilliard School to follow suit, to vote and to take an active role in politics.

Marsalis believes the vulgarity running rife though the American presidential contest is symptomatic of what’s happening in society. He said it reflects a widespread acceptance of crudity pumped out by pop culture. It mirrors a sensibility fed by an “unbelievably huge” pornography industry. “So OK, you hear [Trump] say something so ridiculous that it becomes: ‘I don’t believe he said that.’ Well, why? Everything we’re seeing is about that. Why are you shocked he’s saying something when every record put out in the last four years is saying it? And 70 per cent of your videos are telling people that.”

A bona fide star, Marsalis nonetheless takes pains to allow his fellow musicians an equal share of the spotlight. Aside from achieving a high musical standard, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is notable for its air of dignity and civility during concerts. “We live in an age of spectacle. You have to stay focused on things of substance and value,” Marsalis said.

For this concert, pianist Dan Nimmer (who left the tour because his wife had a baby) is replaced by pianist/composer Helen Sung. Marsalis said the orchestra’s mixed program will likely include Sung’s arrangement of a McCoy Tyner tune, a movement from saxophonist Ted Nash’s The Presidential Suite and at least one Thelonious Monk song.

It’s a versatile group — Marsalis deems it “probably the most versatile ensemble that ever existed.” Over the years, the orchestra — founded in 1988 — has performed everything from classic Ellington, Gershwin and Coltrane to music by Pakistani and Ghanaian composers.

“But one thing is we play jazz. So when you come hear us, you’re going to hear improvisation. You’re gonna hear swing and you’re gonna hear the blues.”

In 1999, Marsalis debuted his first symphony, All Rise, for big band, gospel choir and symphony orchestra. It was performed by the New York Philharmonic and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

He’s now completing The Jungle, a six-movement orchestral composition about New York City. Celebrating the 175th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic, it will have its world première on Dec. 28 at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

“Ooof! I’m working on it right now,” Marsalis said, good humouredly. “I don’t know if it’s the finishing touches. But I’m putting touches on it.”

by Adrian Chamberlain
Source: Times Colonist

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