Horns of Plenty

Wynton Marsalis on TIME, October 22, 1990)

Miles Davis is onstage, but the young man in the dark blue Versace jacket couldn’t care less. He is concentrating on the one thing other than a trumpet mouthpiece that is capable of riveting his attention to the point of near obsession: a basketball hoop. For some reason, there is a basket in the open backstage area of New York’s Jones Beach Theater, and Wynton Marsalis is pumping balls into the net from every angle. Suddenly, he dribbles out 30 ft. from the goal and announces, “I bet $100 I can sink one from here.” A stagehand snaps up the wager. Marsalis flexes his knees, rises up on his toes and sends the ball arcing through the misty night sky. Swish! Amid scattered applause and shouts of “Aw right!” from fellow musicians, a voice calls out, “Wynton, you are one competitive dude!” The young man grins. “No, I’m not competitive,” he says in his soft-spoken New Orleans accent. “I just like to play.”

Good thing Marsalis is not competitive. Otherwise, God help the competition. From the time he first appeared on a public concert stage with the New Orleans Philharmonic at age 14, Marsalis has been blowing away would-be rivals and leaving music professionals flap-jawed at his technical virtuosity. In 1984 he burst into national prominence by winning Grammys in both the classical and jazz categories, the first of eight such awards he has collected. The unmistakable sound of his horn, whose fat, breathy tone can sing, shout, growl and whisper like a human voice, has thrilled audiences from New York City to London to Tokyo. He has appeared on TV shows ranging from Johnny Carson’s to Sesame Street. And he is now breaking into movies with the release next week of Tune in Tomorrow, starring Peter Falk and Barbara Hershey, for which he wrote the score and in which he played a cameo role. In short, in the 11 years since he launched his professional career, Marsalis, who turns 29 this week, has become a full-fledged superstar.

But the most significant thing about Marsalis’ career is not his personal success. It is the fact that, largely under his influence, a jazz renaissance is flowering on what was once barren soil. Straight-ahead jazz music almost died in the 1970s as record companies embraced the electronically enhanced jazz-pop amalgam known as fusion. Now a whole generation of prodigiously talented young musicians is going back to the roots, using acoustic instruments, playing recognizable tunes and studying the styles of earlier jazzmen, from King Oliver and Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Moreover, with major record labels rushing to sign them up, many of these so-called neotraditionalists are starting to enjoy commercial success, and some are on the road to real wealth.

Among these budding stars are trumpeters Terence Blanchard, 28, Roy Hargrove, 21, Philip Harper, 24, and Marlon Jordan, 20; pianists Marcus Roberts, 26, Geoff Keezer, 19, and Benny Green, 27; saxophonists Branford Marsalis, 30, Christopher Hollyday, 20, and Vincent Herring, 25; guitarists Mark Whitfield, 24, and Howard Alden, 31; drummer Winard Harper, 28; and organist Joey De Francesco, 19. At the superstar end of the scale, of course, sits young Harry Connick Jr., 23, the slicked-back New Orleans-born entertainer who started out as a jazz-piano player but has crossed over into show business as a Sinatra-style crooner and bandleader.

What all of these musicians have in common is that, almost to a man, they are passing through career doors that were opened by the success of Wynton Marsalis. “Young men can now make a living playing straight-ahead jazz, and Wynton is responsible for that being possible,” says Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies of Rutgers University. Says George Butler, the executive producer at Columbia Records who signed both Marsalis and Connick: “Wynton has played a major role in the popularity of this music today. This is probably the most propitious time for this music since the ’50s and early ’60s.”

Butler has been on the cutting edge of the new jazz age. But with Marsalis’ success, other major labels have joined what amounts to a feeding frenzy on young talent. Although they had virtually abandoned straight-ahead jazz by the early ’80s, most major record companies have now established active jazz divisions. Many of them have also begun digging into their vaults and reissuing hundreds of classic jazz recordings.

Thus not only are the companies making money on jazz but the music is reaching a younger, far larger audience than ever before. At the same time, public interest in the music is being fed by the spread of jazz-education programs, the airing of jazz shows on PBS and some cable networks, and a spate of feature films glorifying the jazz mystique (‘Round Midnight, Bird, Mo’ Better Blues). As a result, people are beginning to get the message that jazz is not just another style of popular music but a major American cultural achievement and a heritage that must not be lost.

Preaching that message has been Marsalis’ burning mission throughout his career. On talk shows, in interviews, at schoolroom seminars, he tirelessly proclaims the “majesty” of the jazz tradition and inveighs against those who, in his view, are selling it out to the forces of “commercialism.” His particular bete noire has been his early idol Miles Davis, whom Marsalis once accused of being “corrupted” by his move into fusion, sparking a bitter public feud between the two men.

Such outspokenness has led some observers, like jazz critic Leonard Feather, to feel that “Wynton talks a bit too much.” Even Marsalis admits that the shoot-from-the-lip style of his early years went too far at times: “I was like 19 or something, man — you know, wild. I didn’t care.” He has since become a less strident and far more articulate advocate for the cause. Says pianist and composer Billy Taylor, 69: “Wynton is the most important young spokesman for the music today. His opinions are well founded. Some people earlier took umbrage at what he said, but the important thing is that he could back it up with his horn.”

Marsalis’ roots, like those of jazz, go back to the steamy, sensual city of his birth. Scholars bicker over exactly where and when jazz was born, but there is no doubt that its first identifiable players — like the legendary trumpeter Buddy Bolden — appeared in the dance halls, honky-tonks and bordellos of New Orleans around the turn of the century. In the hands of such men as King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet, the story goes, the music thrived until the closing of the red-light district in 1917 sent many of the Crescent City’s best players up the Mississippi in search of work. There they gave birth to the brash, vibrant Chicago sound, which helped lay the groundwork for what would eventually become the swing style that reigned during the Big Band era.

The great divide in American jazz took place after World War II, with the emergence of the bebop movement, spearheaded by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie (“Bird”) Parker. By the ’60s, bebop had largely given way to experimental avant-garde styles. When fusion took over in the ’70s — although some musicians were still playing earlier styles — many jazz fans began to bemoan the death of a great American tradition.

Back in New Orleans, however, the purer jazz forms had refused to die. During the ’60s, some of Louis Armstrong’s aging contemporaries launched a “revival” of the old style, centered mainly around Preservation Hall, a former French Quarter art gallery where the musicians initially played for tips. At about the same time, a group of younger, more modern musicians came of age. Among them was a gifted pianist and teacher named Ellis Marsalis.

In 1974 he helped found a jazz program for the fledgling New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, a part-time public high school for students pursuing artistic careers. During his 12 years there, the elder Marsalis turned NOCCA into a fertile breeding ground for future jazz stars. Like a Renaissance master turning out a whole school of fine painters, he trained a virtual Who’s Who of the younger generation: Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard, Marlon Jordan, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, saxman Donald Harrison and flutist Kent Jordan, to name a few. But the most remarkable crop of Marsalis pupils was his own sons: Branford, Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo, 25, and drummer Jason, 13. (Another son, Ellis III, 26, is a computer consultant in Baltimore; Mboya, 20, is autistic and lives at home with his parents.)

Sitting in an armchair in the green-carpeted living room of his modest wood- frame house, Ellis, 55, sees nothing unusual about the way he brought up his boys. He never urged them to become musicians, he says, but made sure they were exposed to music and got top-level training once they showed an interest. “It wasn’t any messianic thing. They had lots of teachers.”

The one who really pushed the boys to succeed was their mother Dolores, 53, a handsome, strong-willed woman whose strict Roman Catholic education gave her a sense of order that she tried to impart to her children. “It was very important for me,” she says, “that they would have some aesthetic thing that they could express themselves through.”

A close, almost symbiotic relationship between Wynton and Branford marked their childhood and continued into their young manhood. Wynton, extraordinarily disciplined and driven by an insatiable desire to excel, was a straight-A student who starred in Little League baseball, practiced his trumpet three hours a day and won every music competition he ever entered. Branford, older by 13 months, was an average student, a self-described “spaz” in sports and a naturally talented musician who hated to practice. Yet both brothers deny that there was any rivalry between them. “Our personalities were formed to each other,” says Wynton.

When Wynton entered NOCCA at 15, his musical development shifted into high gear. Tom Tewes, the school’s founding principal, recalls that he was a “brilliant student, always at the top.” Says Arlene McCarthy, a New Orleans attorney and former NOCCA student: “Everybody knew he was destined to do so much in music.” For all his current stress on roots, Wynton showed little interest in the New Orleans jazz tradition while growing up there. His main exposure to jazz came from listening to his father’s modern quintet play at Lu and Charlie’s, a restaurant on the edge of the French Quarter. He never heard any of the older musicians playing at Preservation Hall — neither, in fact, did his father have any real contact with that world. The closest Wynton came to performing jazz in those years was working with Branford in a funk band called the Creators. Wynton used most of his pay — $75 a gig — to buy the small piccolo trumpets he needed to play baroque music.

It was on the classical stage that Wynton first made his mark. In addition to playing at NOCCA-sponsored concerts and recitals, he became a regular performer with the New Orleans Civic Symphony, the New Orleans Philharmonic and the Philharmonic’s touring brass quintet. Composer and conductor Gunther Schuller vividly remembers the time Wynton showed up at New York City’s Wellington Hotel in the summer of 1978 to audition for the Tanglewood Music Center, of which Schuller was artistic director. After impressing the judges with his virtuosity on the Haydn trumpet concerto, Wynton offered to play Bach’s extremely difficult Second Brandenburg Concerto. “While he was warming up,” says Schuller, “he concealed himself behind a pillar, so I leaned over to see what he was doing. He was pumping the valves and talking to his trumpet, saying, ‘Now don’t let me down.’ He knocked off the first three phrases flawlessly. We were overwhelmed by his talent.”

He entered New York City’s elite Juilliard School the following year and immediately began sitting in with bands at local jazz clubs. Pianist James Williams, 38, recalls the time that Marsalis, sporting an Afro and long sideburns, showed up at McHale’s and sat in with drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. “Really, we were very excited,” says Williams. “We all knew he was going to be great.” Marsalis knew it too. “He wasn’t arrogant; he was just so self-assured,” says McCarthy, who was by then studying at Barnard College. “He knew that by meeting the right people he would make it.” Sure enough, Blakey asked Marsalis a few months later to join his band.

But the young man still had a lot to learn. Stanley Crouch, a New York City- based writer and jazz critic, befriended Marsalis shortly after he joined Blakey’s group, and was astounded at how little he knew about jazz history. “He didn’t know anything about Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk,” says Crouch, 44. “His dad had tried to make him listen to Louis Armstrong, but he had this naive idea that Louis was an Uncle Tom.”

Crouch set to work on Marsalis’ jazz education, lending him records, taking him to clubs and engaging him in all-night gab sessions. He also introduced the young trumpeter to writer Albert Murray, whose 1976 book, Stomping the Blues, was a seminal work on African-American music. Murray, now 74, took Marsalis to museums and bookstores and got him reading “everything from Malraux and Thomas Mann to the Odyssey and the Iliad.” In particular, he filled him in on the life and works of Duke Ellington, whom Murray considers the “quintessential American composer.”

^ Columbia’s George Butler first heard Marsalis with the Blakey band while scouting New York City jazz clubs for young talent. “Here was an 18-year-old playing with the maturity and facility of men twice his age,” he says. “He was the ideal person to appeal to a young marketplace and revive the larger audiences that had been into acoustic jazz in the ’50s.” Butler promptly signed the new artist and devised an unheard-of marketing strategy: simultaneous record releases in both the jazz and classical idioms. Marsalis’ first Columbia jazz album won a 1983 Grammy nomination. The following year he hit pay dirt: double Grammys, one each in the jazz and classical genres. “From that point on,” says Butler, “his career just blossomed.”

Butler also claims some credit for the clean-cut image that set the trumpeter apart from scruffy rockers and fusionists. Back in his Jazz Messengers days, Marsalis would go onstage in tennis shoes and overalls. “But once we started to talk about appearance,” says Butler, “Wynton began to epitomize what jazz musicians ought to look like.” Indeed, sartorial elegance has become de rigueur among the new generation of jazzmen.

Columbia made sure that its star stayed visible. The company assigned him to high-powered publicist Marilyn Laverty, who represented rock star Bruce Springsteen, and she soon generated reams of press clips. Wynton is the first to admit that Columbia’s salesmanship had a lot to do with his popular success, but claims not to take it seriously. “It has nothing to do with artistic merit or substance,” he says. Adds brother Delfeayo, who has produced more than a dozen albums for Columbia and other labels: “Sure, Wynton has the hype. He created the hype: he was cute and articulate, and he could play his ass off. But people shouldn’t confuse the hype with the music.”

Precisely. Wynton’s musicianship, already on a world-class technical level when he first hit New York, has continued to develop and mature. Though his early influences — Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard and pre-fusion Miles Davis — are still discernible in his playing, he is increasingly forging his own sound. Since leaving Blakey to form his own band in 1981, he has released a total of 12 jazz albums, and he has enough material in the can to fill eight or 10 more. On the classical side, he has done five recordings, and is now working on a baroque album with soprano Kathleen Battle.

Marsalis’ prolific jazz output runs the gamut from soothingly sensual (Hot ! House Flowers, 1984, with a string ensemble) to cerebral (Black Codes from the Underground, 1985) to fiery and aggressive (Live at Blues Alley, 1988). His latest effort, The Resolution of Romance, a set of standard songs featuring his father on piano, is a return to the very essence of jazz — a melody with a beat. The forthcoming sound-track album for Tune in Tomorrow, set in the Crescent City, features sonorous Ellingtonian orchestrations with a spicy New Orleans accent. In addition to recording, Wynton plays some 120 live performances a year at venues ranging from cramped basement clubs like New York City’s venerable Village Vanguard to the cavernous Hollywood Bowl to Lincoln Center, where since 1987 he has served as artistic director for the annual Classical Jazz festival.

The fullest measure of Marsalis’ musicianship comes from other musicians — particularly the veteran jazzmen he so admires. Trumpeter Doc Cheatham, 85, calls Marsalis “one of the greatest young trumpet players around. He’s at the top level on his horn and improving every day.” Bass player Milt Hinton, 80, says Marsalis “stacks up miles ahead of” such past greats as Armstrong and Henry (“Red”) Allen in mastery of the instrument. “But he doesn’t yet have as much creativity blues-wise and dirt- and funk-wise as they had because he hasn’t had to live it.” Marsalis’ main limitation — one he shares with the entire youth brigade — is the lack so far of a truly original creative voice. Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, 73, puts it succinctly: “You don’t see no Charlie Parkers coming along.”

Saxophonist-composer-bandleader Gerry Mulligan, 63, is particularly impressed by Wynton’s developing skills as a composer and his “sensibilities as a bandleader.” Those sensibilities were sorely tested in 1985, when Branford jumped ship to join Sting’s rock group. That not only destroyed a band style based on the tight interplay between the two brothers, but also sparked press articles that turned the breakup into a bitter public row. The dust has settled, but relations remain cool between them. “He didn’t kill nobody, you know,” shrugs Wynton.

In the aftermath of that derailment, which launched Branford on a highly successful career of his own, Wynton has assembled a group of young players (pianist Eric Reid, 20; drummer Herlin Riley, 33; trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, 23; saxophonists Todd Williams, 23, and Wes Anderson, 25) remarkable not only for their musicianship but also for their loyalty to his leadership. Says Anderson: “Wynton is someone who can guide us. He’s one of the shepherds of this music.”

Meanwhile, Wynton found a shepherd to help guide him back to the source: New Orleans clarinetist Michael White, 35. Unlike Marsalis — unlike most blacks of his generation — White took an interest in the city’s old-time musicians, learned to play their style and eventually became a regular with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The two men started bumping into each other at airports and music festivals a few years ago and developed a close friendship.

When Marsalis decided to include a New Orleans-flavored suite on his 1989 Majesty of the Blues album, he asked White to come up and record with him, along with other members of White’s Original Liberty Jazz Band: trombonist Freddie Lonzo, 40, trumpeter Teddy Riley, 66, and banjoist Danny Barker, 81, a veteran of the famous Cab Calloway orchestra. (Marsalis as a little boy had actually known Barker and played very briefly in a children’s marching band organized by the banjoist.)

Marsalis has since performed with these “homeboys,” notably at a Hollywood Bowl tribute to Armstrong and at Lincoln Center’s Classical Jazz festival, where they played such 1920s-vintage New Orleans numbers as Armstrong’s Cornet Chop Suey and Jelly Roll Morton’s Jungle Blues. For Marsalis, who had brashly declared in one of his early interviews that “there is no jazz in New Orleans,” that was quite a turnaround. He now regrets what he calls his youthful “ignorance” and is delving into that city’s musical legacy — particularly the blues — with a vengeance.

He is learning his lessons well, applying them not only to his playing and composing but also to a whole music-centered philosophy about American life and culture. Sitting in the sparsely furnished living room of his Manhattan brownstone, with three Louis Armstrong statuettes peering down from the mantelpiece, he confidently mingles allusions to Picasso and the Iliad with appreciations of Duke Ellington and childhood anecdotes. The hardwood floor is littered with the toys of his two sons, Wynton Jr., 2, and Simeon, six months; their mother Candace Stanley, 28, is doing postgraduate work at New York University. (Marsalis has put the four-story house on the market for $950,000 and is planning to move his family to New Orleans.)

His glasses give him a scholarly look, partially offset by the sweat pants, T shirt and basketball shoes he favors when not onstage. He speaks softly, occasionally offering an impish smile or raising his eyebrows to make a point. He sips hot tea as he talks. Like most of today’s young players, he stays away from alcohol, cigarettes and drugs.

Marsalis sees jazz as a metaphor for democracy. “In terms of illuminating the meaning of America,” he says, “jazz is the primary art form, especially New Orleans jazz. Because when it’s played properly, it shows you how the individual can negotiate the greatest amount of personal freedom and put it humbly at the service of a group conception.” He points to Ellington as the jazzman who best embodied the “mythology of this country” in his music.

Over and over, Marsalis’ conversation returns to a key concern: education. His antidote for what he considers the cultural mediocrity that reigns in America today is to promote jazz-education programs throughout the U.S. “I know this music can work,” he says. “To play it, you have to have the belief in quality. And the belief in practice, the belief in study, belief in your history, belief in the people that you came out of. It is a statement of heroism against denigration.”

Marsalis does more than talk about education. When he is touring, he always makes time to visit local schools and preach the jazz gospel. He stays in touch with many of the students he meets, offering them pointers over the phone, inviting them to sit in on his gigs and sometimes even giving them instruments. “Lord knows how much effect he’s had on kids around the country. He’s to be praised for that alone,” says Steve Backer, executive producer of RCA’s Novus jazz label and an active recruiter of young talent.

“Whenever he came to New Orleans, he’d pick me up from school, we’d play basketball, then have a trumpet lesson,” recalls Marlon Jordan, whose recording debut, For You Only, was released last year. “He had a definite effect on me, and it will be there until I die.” Trumpeter Roy Hargrove points to a Marsalis master class at his Dallas high school as a major turning point for him. “He’s incredible. He really knows how to communicate with people and make them understand the tradition,” says Hargrove, whose Diamond in the Rough album has won high praise from jazz critics. Marsalis considers such proselytizing part of his legacy: “I’m just passing on the stuff that people like ((Harry)) ‘Sweets’ Edison, Art Blakey, Max Roach and Elvin Jones told me. I mean, I’m acting on a mandate from them.”

The availability of a talented pool of young musicians results in large part from the jazz-education programs that have proliferated around the country during the past two decades. The International Association of Jazz Educators, founded in 1968, has helped start jazz-studies programs at more than 100 U.S. colleges, and many high schools are including jazz in their music curriculum. New York City’s Jazzmobile, founded 25 years ago by Billy Taylor, runs weekly workshops attended by as many as 400 kids.

The generally younger audiences attracted by Marsalis and his colleagues are of course nowhere near the size of the enormous market that routinely sends pop records over the million mark — and probably never will be. Nonetheless, acoustic jazz has become a steady, moneymaking enterprise for many record companies. For one thing, jazz is a low-overhead business: production budgets range from $25,000 to $85,000 an album, in contrast to $150,000 for rock records. That means the companies can start to make profits on as few as 30,000 sales. (Marsalis’ sales range from 52,000 for Live at Blues Alley to more than 400,000 for Hot House Flowers.)

The movement is also a lifesaver for club owners and festival producers, promising them new audiences and exciting artists at a time when older, long- established stars are disappearing from the scene. George Wein, who produces the Newport, JVC, Boston Globe and New Orleans festivals, calls the advent of charismatic young players like Marsalis “not only good for jazz but absolutely necessary.”

As for the artists, none are earning in the pop-star category, but many are doing quite well. Marsalis, whose band commands fees ranging from $2,000 to $40,000 a night, is already worth several million dollars. “There is a general misconception that you can’t make money playing jazz,” says his manager, Ed Arrendell. “But Wynton and other top players can do tremendously well. A popular jazz artist can expect to gross well over a million a year.” Of course, they must also pay substantial band-related expenses; Marsalis claims such charges drive his net income far under $500,000. The take of the sidemen is much lower — typically ranging from $40,000 to $60,000 a year — but that still puts them in the top 20% of U.S. income earners in a profession that traditionally reduced its practitioners to a hardscrabble existence.

Which is exactly what irks a number of older musicians, who feel that the % youngsters are getting it all on a silver platter without the hard knocks and dues paying that their predecessors went through. “They’re getting a place in jazz history that they have not deserved or earned,” says bassist Ron Carter, 53. “I mean, at 19, 20, how much can you really know?” Many veterans complain that record companies are passing them over in favor of the young guns.

In fact, some observers predict hard times ahead for some of today’s highly touted youngsters. “A lot of them are going to fall by the wayside,” says Lorraine Gordon, owner of New York’s Village Vanguard. Arrendell agrees: “The record companies are on board only as long as they’re making money. I think there always will be a demand for jazz. But the artists they sign and keep are the ones who sell the most records. Some guys are going to see their contracts not renewed.”

But then jazz has always been a high-risk profession: King Oliver and Charlie Parker both died broke. What seems certain now is that this great American cultural tradition is far healthier than it has been in decades. In the hands of people like Wynton Marsalis and hundreds of other talented musicians, young and old alike, its future seems assured.

Just what that future will sound like is hard to say. “Maybe people will develop new voices again,” muses guitarist Howard Alden. “But with the knowledge of the traditional background, it will have more depth.” Saxophonist David Sanborn, 45, a top-selling fusion artist, thinks that many of the current acoustic players may start experimenting with more high-tech sounds. RCA’s Backer foresees an eclectic middle ground. Says he: “The significant artists of Wynton’s tradition will continue to be important in the ’90s, but they will coexist alongside more probing, experimental artists.”

Whatever the dominant trends turn out to be, Wynton will not be following them; he will be pursuing his own ambitious agenda. “I have every intention of coming up with something that’s going to be significant,” he says. “As my understanding of form becomes more sophisticated, I’ll be able to illuminate more clearly how our country should be represented in music.” His ultimate aim? “To find a place in my heart for a real, true expression. Something that is obvious to anybody who listens to it; you know, something moving — and touching.” It is a goal that his musical forebears — from Bach to Bird — would surely understand.

by Thomas Sancton
Source: Time

« Previous Entry

Next Entry »