MARSALIS: Jazz meets classics

LINCOLN Centre, New York City, June, 1983. Wynton Marsalis, a 21-year-old trumpet player was sharing the bill with Miles Davis, a man whom Marsalis had admired at one time, but whose own playing has deteriorated over the years. Davis came out to the cheers of the converted. His band droned through an hour of mushy jazz-rock rhythms while he filled the air with trumpet notes, most of them unmemorable.

Marsalis’s band, which contained three members of Davis’s great quintet of the late ’60s, came on stage and immediately blew away memories of the previous set. The situation was dramatic, not just because it represented a changing of the musical guard, but also because the two men had been waging a feud in the music press. Davis had taken a flippant Wynton Who? stance. Marsalis lashed back by telling Jazz Times that Davis’s best music was behind him.

“What I said was true, but I shouldn’t have been saying it,” Marsalis says now from a hotel suite on the other side of the continent (he appears at Plazazz through Feb. 11). “I was young then.”

Young then ? Marsalis turned 22 in October, and already he’s accumulated a long list of credentials: appearances with the New Orleans Philharmonic at ages 14 and 16; a best-selling jazz record at 19 which brought him a Grammy nomination for best solo instrumentalist; first artist, at 21, to simultaneously release a jazz and classical album, both of which received glowing reviews.

On stage, dressed in suits and ties, he and brother Branford, 23, appear dignified in a timeless way they could have stepped out of the 1950s. At their hotel suite, dressed in sneakers and caps and surrounded by McDonald’s milkshake containers (“I don’t drink that stuff,” Wynton says, “but my brother lives on it.”), they look like a couple of youngsters on a lark. Wynton is fidgety, restless, like someone who hates being in one place too long.

Branford vacates and Wynton talks about his career. He learned both jazz and classical forms early because his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, exposed him to both. He said when he was just making his name, older musicians encouraged him, but now that he’s established there are those who begrudge him his success.

He says the reciprocal attitudes of jazz and classical musicians have prevented a proper fusion of the two. “Each group, the classical people and the jazz people, build up their own prejudices to shield themselves,” he says. “The classical people say to play jazz you have to be illiterate The jazz people say if you’re literate you don’t have soul.”

However, he says, the jazzman’s laments that most classical musicians cannot play jazz is true. “They classical musicians learn how to play music by looking at it,” he says, “and that’s not playing music. You can’t look at music. You’ve got to hear music.”

By Marke Andrews
Source: The Vancouver Sun

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