Jazz Families Bridge The Generation Gap

During the early decades of jazz it wasn’t at all unusual to find fathers and sons playing together in the same bands and indulging in familial give-and-take – mature musicianship and on-the-job know-how versus youthful innovation and first-time exuberance. In the black neighborhoods of New Orleans and the other cities where jazz flourished early, only the holier-than-thou looked down on music as a profession. It was an honorable route out of the black ghetto, in many cases the only route.

But as jazz spread beyond the neighborhoods that nurtured it, the music’s evolution sped up to a dizzying pace. The difference of a generation, father to son, became synonymous with the vast difference between swing and be-bop, be-bop and free jazz. Few fathers and sons were able to bridge these distances, at least not on the bandstand.

In recent years, jazz hasn’t been changing at such a feverish rate, and younger musicians have set themselves the task of learning ‘‘the tradition’‘ whole, from New Orleans parade music to the latest refinements in free improvisation. Fathers and sons who play jazz have a lot to talk about again, and two jazz clans, the Freemans of Chicago and the Marsalises of New Orleans, have been doing some of their talking on records. In both cases, sons who are spectacular musicians (the saxophonist Chico Freeman, the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis) have focused national attention on their fathers (the saxophonist Von Freeman, the pianist Ellis Marsalis), both of whom were legends in their home towns but had had little national impact.

The 21-year-old trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has already worked with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and with Herbie Hancock in addition to making his own first album, ‘‘Wynton Marsalis,’‘ for Columbia. His father, Ellis, remains practically unknown outside New Orleans. Chico Freeman, who is now in his early 30’s, has made 10 albums under his own name. His father, Von, has made three albums and is rarely heard away from his home turf, the south side of Chicago. Now the Freemans and the Marsalises (including Wynton Marsalis’ older brother, the saxophonist Branford Marsalis) have recorded an album for Columbia. Quite naturally, it is titled ‘‘Fathers and Sons.’‘ Each family gets one side of the album, and each family makes music that simply obliterates any remaining traces of a jazz generation gap.

The musical relationships within the two families are somewhat different. Ellis Marsalis developed his personal piano style during the 1950’s and early 1960’s, and one can still hear traces in his playing of various pianists who were influential then – Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner. He inspired his sons to learn the fundamentals of be-bop, probably the most difficult of all improvisational styles to master because of its whiplash rhythmic displacements and harmonic complexity. Wynton Marsalis learned be-bop so well that he actually sounds more comfortable playing a standard jazz repertory (pop standards, blues, and 1960’s modal tunes) than he does in freer improvisations.

Von Freeman is an utterly original tenor saxophonist whose playing belongs to no particular era and who has subsumed his influences so thoroughly, one can only guess at what they might have been. His sour-mash tone and penchant for tumbling helter-skelter across bar lines are as reminiscent of Chicago blues saxophonists such as J.T. Brown as they are of any jazz players, but his harmonic and rhythmic sophistication place him in the first rank of jazz. His son Chico grew up in the long shadow cast by John Coltrane, and although he developed a truly formidable technique and a clipped, urgent delivery, Chico Freeman began his professional career as a Coltrane disciple.

But on a recent album for India Navigation, ‘‘The Outside Within’‘ (1981), Chico Freeman used conventional jazz instrumentation (saxophone with piano, bass and drums) to fashion a firmly rooted yet thoroughly modern music of impressive depth and vitality. His new album, ‘‘Destiny’s Dance’‘ (Contemporary), uses a somewhat larger group, including Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, and is not as intimate or as weighty as the extraordinary ‘‘The Outside Within.’‘ But it is a fine record. Chico Freeman seems determined to combine the structural and emotional clarity of older modern jazz forms with the freedom and overt emotionalism of newer music. He has become one of the very best of the younger tenor saxophonists, a player capable of holding his own even in his father’s company.

Well, almost. Von Freeman stamps his personality on the Freemans’ side of ‘‘Fathers and Sons’‘ so indelibly that on at least two out of four selections, Chico Freeman takes on some of his father’s mannerisms – the billy goat tone, the crazily angled, jerry-built phrasing. He is struggling to project his own identity, and this familial and musical tension makes the music tremendously suspenseful and exciting. When Chico Freeman finally breaks free into his own style on the composition he contributed to the date, ‘‘Tribute to our Fathers,’‘ it’s a cathartic moment.

Wynton Marsalis is 10 years younger than Chico Freeman, and his playing is somewhat reminiscent of Mr. Freeman’s mid-1970’s work – awesome technique, command of a number of idioms, and a youthful goget-‘em attitude that has not yet been tempered by sobering experience. On his first album, ‘‘Wynton Marsalis,’‘ the young trumpeter shows off his gorgeous sound and sure-footed phrasing, at times recalling Fats Navarro without the bittersweet emotional undercurrent. His interactions with his saxophonist brother, Branford, who is a year older, are models of intelligent group improvisation. And the pair’s father, Ellis Marsalis, directs the flow of the music from his piano bench with authority and a strutting verve that one is tempted to attribute to fatherly pride.

‘‘Fathers and Sons’‘ is a joyous record, and it is an important record. If jazz is truly an American classical music, as many of its supporters argue, it follows that jazz musicians, whatever their age, should be able to perform the same traditional repertory with equal skill and verve. On this album, two fathers and their sons, virtuosos all, do just that.

By Robert Palmer
Source: The New York Times

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