Marsalis and Rituals of Jazz

According to the media buzz, Wynton Marsalis is one of jazz’s new traditionalists — you know, those nicely-dressed young men who disdain rock-and-roll and play the sort of jazz college kids in the ’60s used to adore. In fact, the 29-year old trumpeter (who performs in Shriver Hall this evening) is widely credited with having singlehandedly sparked the movement.

It’s not a portrait Marsalis entirely agrees with. Although he doesn’t mind the attention — “Believe me, I’m grateful to get any publicity,” he laughs, “even when it’s bad” — he feels this portrait often leads people to the wrong conclusion about the motives behind his work.

Admittedly, Marsalis feels a certain empathy for jazz prodigies. After all, he was one himself, having both performed with the New Orleans Symphony and become a member of Art Blakey’s jazz group while still a teen-ager. Moreover, he was a tremendously successful prodigy, with multiple Grammys and a lucrative recording career.

Still, it irks him to read reports insisting that his interest in jazz education is only to encourage similar success stories. “A lot of times it’s being made to appear that since I play jazz, the young musicians feel they can make money playing jazz,” he explains over the phone from his New York home. “But that’s not why I would wake up at 8, 9 in the morning for all these years, going to high schools and elementary schools.

“It was to try to give them something to aid their cultural education.”

He’s not talking about some celebrity music appreciation course, either. Although it’s important that young people are made aware of musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, what Marsalis has in mind runs a great deal deeper than knowing the names and listening to the records. What he wants, more than anything, is to convey a sense of what he calls “the rituals of jazz.”

Why? Because without a sense of that tradition, even the most talented young musicians will have a hard time capitalizing on their ability. “In a time like ours in which a lot of the rituals that produced the great jazz musicians are no longer around, you have to use your intellect to figure out how to play,” he says. “It’s not something that is just going to dawn on you because you have some natural ability.

“Now, when the rituals were together, they didn’t have to figure ++ out so much how to play. Like Louis Armstrong. He didn’t have to really figure out how to play, because he knew. He heard the greatest trumpet players, playing the greatest music — King Oliver, Bunk Johnson, Freddie Keppard, Buddy Petit. All these guys, they were playing jazz music.

“The same with any of the greats. Roy Eldridge heard Louis Armstrong; Clifford Brown heard Fats Navarro and Dizzy, and Roy Eldridge. Miles Davis was the same way.

“Whereas when I grew up,” he adds, “I went to hear Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis, and they would be playing funk tunes or rock. That really makes a big difference in the way you teach a young kid. Because now they have an environment where the art form itself, the fundamentals, are in question.”

Nor are jazz rituals the sort of thing that can be gleaned from a record collection, particularly with younger listeners. “A recording doesn’t mean anything to you if you’re 13 or 14,” he laughs. “That’s just an artifact, something people used to do.” Even as a musician gets older, recordings by themselves make poor teachers, he says. “All you figure out is just whatever musical things occur to you to think of, like the chord changes or the rhythm.”

What a jazz musician really needs, he says, are three things. First, there’s the proper intellectual attitude. Says Marsalis, “What I look for is an intelligence and a humility. If those things are present, even if they don’t have that much musical talent, they can learn how to play.”

Then there’s having a feel for the blues, because jazz is based on the blues. Unfortunately, this is a relatively rare thing to find in a young musician. “I don’t expect to hear any blues in any of their playing,” explains Marsalis, “because there’s no way for them to learn how to play blues unless they come out of the church.”

Finally, it’s important that an aspiring jazz musician understand the function of the music. Jazz is derived from African music, and as such holds on to what Marsalis calls a “functional purpose.” And that, in his view, is what makes the jazz tradition so different from the European classical tradition.

“When you repeat those pieces,” he explains, “you’re trying to figure out, why did Beethoven write this? How did Bach want this? But when you play a jazz piece by Jelly Roll Morton, you’re not concerned with how he wanted it played. You’re trying to figure out what the function of this music is, and how can you fulfill this function.”

Marsalis’ group, for example, includes Morton’s “Jungle Blues” in its repertoire. “We don’t sound anything like they used to sound playing it,” he says. “And we’re not trying to sound like they sounded. What we’re trying to do is learn how to play that group improvisation the way that they did.

It’s also the sort of thing musicians in other cultures have been doing for centuries. To illustrate further, Marsalis picks up a copy of “Music of Africa,” by Kwabena Nketia, and turns to a passage about music instruction.

“He says,” reads Marsalis, “ ‘Instruction tends to be designed as part of the process by which an individual, during his entire lifetime, assimilates the traditions of his culture, to the extent that he is able to express himself in terms of that tradition.’

“Just that one sentence there is a big indictment of almost all popular culture. Because it’s not dealing with the mythology of America at all. It’s a total trend mentality. So the thought of lTC learning a tradition, that’s not on anybody’s mind, except the tradition of whatever they’re doing.”

But there can be no progress without a sense of tradition, argues Marsalis. “When you’re a part of a tradition, it gives you information,” he says. “You have to find your personality through the flow of the tradition. Even if you never rise to the level of originality that the other musicians rose to, at least you’ll be reaffirming the things they stood for.

“Even if you never rise to the level of somebody like Duke Ellington, so as long as you’re constantly reaffirming the same elements, maybe you’ll pave the way for another musician to have the chance.”

Someone like Wynton Marsalis.

by J. D. Considine
Source: Baltimore Sun

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