Marsalis Aims for Pride and Purity

When I was a child, my music teacher told me I could best learn the names of the notes on the lines of the staff by keeping in mind that Every Good Boy Does Fine. After all these years, I finally am able to visualize that paragon of exemplary musical behavior climbing up the staff. He is Wynton Marsalis, who may be the most self-disciplined jazzman in the history of that volcanic art.

Indeed, Marsalis has discipline to spare, having become so accomplished at classical music that in 1984 he won Grammy awards for both his jazz and classical recordings. And when he takes time out from practicing and composing, he does not let his mind slow down. Marsalis told a Los Angeles Times interviewer last year that he was reading four books at once: Ralph Ellison’s “Going to the Country,” John Chernoff’s “African Rhythm and African Sensibility,” C.A. Diop’s “Cultural Unity of Black Africa” and Thomas Mann’s “Doctor Faustus.”

In a club or concert hall, Marsalis invariably wears impressively subdued, and expensive, suits and ties. “I think serious musicians shouldn’t look like they’re playing street football.” He is also the author of an exceptionally compelling plea that jazz be taken seriously, especially by the people from whom it originally came. “Why We Must Preserve Our Jazz Heritage” appeared in Ebony last year. In it Marsalis declared:

“Jazz is something Negroes invented and it said the most profound things not only about us and the way we look at things, but about what modern democratic life is really about . . . Jazz has all of the elements, from the spare and penetrating to the complex and enveloping. It is the hardest music to play that I know of and it is the highest rendition of individual emotion in the history of Western music.”

Marsalis brings that message to schools, as when in May of this year, he directed six young black trumpeters and saxophonists in a classroom in the South Bronx. To kids who were slouching, Marsalis said, “Sit erect, with some style and some pride.” He smiled. “Lift your horn with some dignity.”

The son and student of Ellis Marsalis, a pianist and fabled teacher in New Orleans, Wynton has been serious about his horn since he was 12. Five years later, he was doing very fine, both at jazz and at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood where he was chosen an outstanding brass player. After Juilliard, Marsalis acquired a strenuous postgraduate education in improvising while with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Blakey makes the drums sound and feel like an onrushing forest fire, a dangerous ambiance for which Juilliard is not able to prepare even its very best students. Marsalis survived coolly.

In recent years, with the proceeds from his sturdily selling Columbia LPs and performance dates in this country and abroad, Marsalis has made enough money to endow scholarships at various schools, and he plays a lot of benefit concerts. In every way he is, as he intends to be, a role model for young black musicians. Not only with regard to self-discipline but also on matters of musical integrity. He has no patience with attempts to fuse rock music and jazz, and he fired his brother, Branford, from his band when Branford chose to join Sting on a tour. Branford was not being true to jazz.

Wynton Marsalis’s music is undiluted jazz. The sound (or rather, sounds) of his trumpet are never “brassy” or clattering. Mostly mellow and singing, his lines are unfailingly clear, cohesive and subtly surprising. That is, you think you know where they’re going, but somehow they’ve circled around behind you. And he swings, fluidly, like a bicyclist riding with his hands in his pockets.

And yet, something’s missing. I didn’t have quite the word for what isn’t there until I heard a concert at this year’s JVC Jazz Festival in New York. It was called “Wynton Marsalis Salutes Dizzy Gillespie on His Seventieth Birthday.” Marsalis wore a white suit that made Thomas Wolfe’s seem in memory to be rather baggy. In honor of Dizzy, he opened the evening with a series of Dizzy’s demanding compositions, which he executed with aplomb. Marsalis also introduced one of his own pieces, “The Source,” dedicated to Gillespie. Between numbers Wynton spoke at some length, telling us at one point, in reference to Dizzy’s works, that “we all know civilization is an act of will. Things we enjoy come from an act of human effort.”

At intermission, I went upstairs to Dizzy’s dressing room with Jonah Jones, an often luminous trumpet player, and an admirer of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy.

“You know,” Dizzy said of Marsalis, “he told me last night that he’s studying all my records. He’s getting them from collectors. And when he’s done, he says, there’ll be nothing of mine that he’s missing. He’ll know why I sound like I do.”

Dizzy smiled in appreciation of Wynton Marsalis’s diligence. “Of course,” he added, “how definite a style he will create for himself, from all he knows, well, that’s something else. But there’s no reason it won’t come.”

“Can he study how to bring joy into his playing?” I asked Dizzy. “That’s what’s missing.”

Dizzy laughed heartily, and said nothing.

“That’s age,” said Jones. “He hasn’t experienced enough.”

When the concert continued, Dizzy appeared in a tieless though festive shirt, a shapeless pair of pants, exuding a great deal of delight. Just about everything he played made you feel good, and even the pauses between notes were alive with the excitement to come. In one number, the four-man trumpet section, pausing while Dizzy, in a cadenza, celebrated all those years of being Dizzy, laughed out loud in pleasure.

Wynton Marsalis is only 26. I suppose it is possible to learn joy. But I remember Clifford Brown and others who had it when they were younger than Wynton. Well, Wynton says, “I’m not even close to what I’m gonna be.” But what does he have in mind?

By Nat Hentoff
Source: Wall Street Journal

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