Jazz at the Center

When Wynton Marsalis received the Pulitzer Prize recently for his three-and-a-half slavery oratorio, Blood on the Fields, he was the first jazz composer ever so recognized (Duke Ellington was specifically rejected by the board). But Marsalis – whose success at 35 as a composer, popularizer, teacher and institution-builder is unrivaled — is still an angry young man, albeit a charming and eloquent one.

Sitting in his living room overlooking the Hudson River forty-eight hours after the Pulitzers were announced, Marsalis explained that jazz musicians have three major problems: First, we play too loud and we don’t play together; second, the sound on the albums is not good; third is the critical element.”

A considerable portion of Marsalis’s last complaint derives from what he feels are problematic qualifications among many jazz writers. Although jazz is America’s only indigenous high art form, it is also the most underappreciated and lacks a firm foundation for writers to establish consensus critical criteria. Classical music writers derive their credentials from study in generously endowed university music departments; rock writers, from the multibillion-dollar industry and the media conglomerates underwriting it. But jazz writers have neither dedicated degrees nor a secure home in the capitalist food chain What’s more, they are often plagued by an ambivalent relationship with jazz musicians wing to a complicated interplay of race and power.

Fan magazines like Down Beat and JazzTimes frequently lack the resources to pay full time professionals; and newspapers, even in the great metropolises, often have no one on staff with deep knowledge of the subject. On tour, Wynton, the purist Marsalis, is frequently asked, “Why did you quit your gig with Jay Leno?” or “What was it like playing with the Grateful Dead?” (Polite answer: “That was Branford.”) Nevertheless, Marsalis notes, such writers have historically been in a position of greater authority firm those covering classical music, art or drama. That has led producer Orrin Keepnews to term j criticism “a bad idea, poorly executed.”

While Marsalis admires the work of noted jazz historians Gunther Schuller, Dan Morgenstem and Martin Williams, who happen to be white, he is bitter at what he deems paternalism among even serious and knowledgeable white jazz writers. “They are cultured, intelligent men, but they’re always dispensing from above. It’s a type of white attitude to what they perceive to be the experience of being black. One I associate with the 1950s kind of informed white man who has black friends. The other I associate with the 1960s informed white man who is in favor of the Negro cause.”

Packed inside Marsalis’s bitterness are a set of issues that have riveted not only jazz criticism but much of our cultural conversation. Marsalis is the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, one of the few important cultural institutions in America run by a black man and staffed by black majorities. Controversial critic Stanley Crouch and polymath intellectual Albert Murray (both black) have been instrumental in helping Marsalis shape his program according to a deeply contested vision that sees jazz as having emerged from the black American experience, but “we are dealing with cultural, not racial factors xplains Murray. “There is no relationship between physiognomy and the music. That talk is sheer bullshit.”

The Marsalis/Crouch/Murray vision has come under considerable attack for several years.
Some of the criticism emanates from right-leaning writers fighting a rear-guard action behalf of the old days, some from left-leaning ones who see the jazz series as codifying conservative canon. Indeed, conservative white writer Terry Teachout, in Commentary, and biographer James Lincoln Collier attack Marsalis and company for allegedly using the program to try to blacken” out whites’ contribution to the history of jazz. Collier, a man for whom race seems to pose a problem, has written that as late as 1929 “many blacks, perhaps the majority, however much they might deny it, truly felt they were inferior Marsalis refuses to dignify the attack with a response, noting that it would insult the white musicians in the Lincoln Center Jazz orchestra, as well as composers like Gerry Mulligan, whose work is in the repertoire. “Virtually everything in the jazz world until now has been run by white people,” adds the saxophonist and conductor Loren Schoenberg. “Now that you have one program that is not run by white people, it is making people very nervous Gary Giddins, a white critic at The Village Voice Who has tangled with Marsalis on several issues, calls the racist critique “absurd and invalid and suggested that Marsalis may be trying to overcompensate for the fact that black players and black composers were undervalued in the past.” Other jazz writers, notably The Nation’s Gene Santoro, have attacked the Lincoln Center program for the “neoconservatism” of its approach to the canon. That argument strikes this listener as largely a matter of taste: Jazz and jazz criticism ought to be healthy enough to accommodate conflicting visions.

Less than twenty years ago, jazz critics, like jazz musicians, were arguing exclusively with themselves about a musical form that had lost all connection with its audience. Melody had all but disappeared, and Miles Davis, jazz’s Picasso, had given up entirely. Today at Lincoln Center young players are again being apprenticed and educated, and casually integrated audiences are sitting and swinging together. They are doing so to the musical arrangements of a man universally acknowledged to be a master musician and perhaps the most ambitious composer alive. If this is “conservatism,” it’s of a kind sorely needed by a nation that chews up and spits out its great black artists. Our culture has little that is more deserving of conservation than the legacy of Armstrong, Ellington and the great canon of American jazz.

By Eric Alterman
Source: The Nation (v264: n18. p8(1)

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