Marsalis: The Jazz Missionary

A decade ago, the doomsayers were proclaiming the death of jazz.

In a music world saturated with rock cliches, in a marketplace newly dominated by musically unsophisticated teenagers, the cynics argued that jazz had no place.

What’s more, they insisted-often convincingly-that the crushing dissonance of ‘‘free jazz’‘ in the ’60s and the heavy rock influence of

‘‘jazz-fusion’‘ in the ’70s proved that acoustic jazz had forever lost its way.

Clearly, the doomsayers hadn’t reckoned with Wynton Marsalis, a brilliant trumpeter from New Orleans who has proved the skeptics dead wrong. Since vaulting onto the national jazz scene roughly a decade ago, Marsalis has done more than just become the rare jazz musician who attains pop-star status.

Thanks to a missionary fervor that inspired a new generation of listeners (even while alienating some critics and musicians who found Marsalis opinionated and presumptuous), Marsalis, more than anyone, has made jazz a vital music for an uncommonly wide range of listeners.

If you doubt it, consider that, today, dozens of young jazz artists are enjoying recording contracts with major pop labels, a phenomenon unprecedented in jazz (Harry Connick Jr., Marcus Roberts, Roy Hargrove and Christopher Hollyday are but the most well known).

Further, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York this year established a jazz department to stand alongside its venerable symphonic, opera and ballet wings. Not since Duke Ellington began his series of Carnegie Hall concerts in 1943 has jazz been accorded such critical, symbolic respect

(perhaps it’s no surprise who Lincoln Center chose as artistic director of its jazz department: Wynton Marsalis).

Closer to the grass roots, uncounted neighborhood clubs in Chicago, New York, Boston and other major cities have found that booking jazz groups draws large, young crowds that once turned out only for louder, less sophisticated rock bands. Locally, spots such as the Bop Shop, Green Mill, Oz and dozens more prove the point almost every night of the year.

Though no single artist could claim to have accomplished all of this, Marsalis provided an inspirational spark.

Because of the galvanic effect he has had on music in America, and because of the release this year of his landmark CD trilogy, ‘‘Soul Gestures in Southern Blue’‘ (Columbia), which confirmed his arrival as a mature and singular voice in jazz, he holds just claim to being the Tribune’s Artist of the Year.

From Marsalis’ point of view, too, 1991 has been a year like none other.

‘‘Man, I’ve been going nonstop all year long-going, going, going,’‘ says Marsalis, speaking recently during a rare, mid-morning moment of repose in Washington, D.C. That Marsalis already has done a television interview and a high school workshop on this day verifies the pace he has been keeping.

Says his manager, Edward Arrendell, ‘‘I wish he’d just slow down for awhile. I figure, if he took a few months off, I’d get to take a breather, too. But Wynton’s always saying: ‘How come I don’t have any gigs, man? I wanna play.’ ‘’

Perhaps Marsalis is just making up for the less auspicious early days of his still relatively young career. A decade ago, when he arrived in New York for a brief stint at the Juilliard School, jazz was not exactly at its commercial highpoint.

‘‘It’s changed a lot since then,’‘ says Marsalis, who first won acclaim as sideman in the bands of drummer Art Blakey and keyboardist Herbie Hancock before breaking out on his own.

‘‘We were fighting just to play jazz, on any level,’‘ adds Marsalis.

‘‘The whole philosophy of playing jazz was shocking to a lot of people. Everybody, it seemed, was bowed down before the altar of rock music.

‘‘So that was the struggle, and that was the source of a lot of the problems in the beginning, and it was rough.

‘‘Even after I was signed (by Columbia in the early ’80s), a lot of things the record company did I didn’t like. I was left out there (unpromoted) because I wouldn’t bow down to rock music.’‘

For Marsalis, the low point came in 1983, ‘‘when I was about 23 years old, and my band with my brother (saxophonist Branford) had broken up. I was in Rochester, N.Y., and I was depressed, because I didn’t really know what direction I would go in, especially from an aesthetic standpoint-because my band was my life at that time, and it was coming apart.’‘

Dissatisfied with his record label, searching for an artistic direction, even ‘‘broken up from my girlfriend, I was really going through it,’‘ recalls Marsalis, who hardly seemed poised to succeed, let alone to inspire a generation of listeners and performers.

But Marsalis found his answer precisely where he had centered his life since adolescence: his horn. Armed only with his instrument and a still-fledgling reputation, he became a zealot for what might roughly be called ‘‘traditional’‘ or ‘‘New Orleans’‘ jazz, spreading its gospel wherever he could find an audience.

‘‘I started going to schools, to work with the kids, and that’s where it all really happened,’‘ says Marsalis.

‘‘I would get up at 8 or 9 in the morning to go into these schools. And I would have my manager call the schools-they sure wouldn’t call me-to see if I could come there and speak to the kids.

‘‘And that’s where I started to meet all these (then-unknonwn) young musicians, like Harry Connick, Roy Hargrove, Marlon Jordan, Marcus Roberts, Mark Whitfield-most of them kids I knew when they were in high school.

‘‘I’d constantly send them tapes and records.

‘‘And that kind of thing means a lot to kids, especially the young players. Like when I was in high school, I met (trumpeter) Clark Terry, and, later, he sent me a postcard!

‘‘And I met (saxophonist) Sonny Stitt, and he told me that one day I would be great. Well, that gives you confidence for years, man.

‘‘I thought: ‘Man, Sonny Stitt said I was going to be great! So even though I don’t sound good now, he must know what he’s talking about.’ ‘’

Those high school sessions, and others by Marsalis’ followers, made it possible for kids who heard nothing but rock on radio to ‘‘learn about jazz,’‘ says George Butler, who signed Marsalis at Columbia. ‘‘And when they got out of school, voila, we had a (jazz) audience ready-made.

‘‘Then we marketed the young performers with the same zeal with which you’d market a rock or pop performer.’‘

With the commercial success of Marsalis’ compact discs (and his unprecedented win of Grammys for both jazz and classical records in 1984), the revolution was on. Marsalis-articulate, handsome, chicly dressed-became sought after for TV interviews, featured on national magazine covers.

‘‘All the publicity I got, even though a lot of it might have been negative, I think also attracted these young musicians to the jazz life,’‘ says Marsalis.

Indeed, at the very moment Marsalis began his ascent, the criticisms began to fly. Marsalis, his critics argued, was too deeply steeped in music of the past, too far from the contemporary edge of jazz.

‘‘But jazz music is perpetually modern,’‘ argues Marsalis, who recently turned 30. ‘‘People don’t understand that the history of jazz music is not supposed to develop like European music. For some reason, everybody seems to take for granted that you’re supposed to have some new trend in jazz every year, to stack on top of everything else.

‘‘But jazz evolves through a certain type of individuality of the performer. In other words, when we play New Orleans music, it doesn’t sound like when the older musicians played it, but it still has that same joy and that same type of optimism.’‘

Though Marsalis’ critics rarely were appeased with his verbal explanations for his fascination with the roots of jazz, his 1987 recording ‘‘Majesty of the Blues’‘ made his point more forcefully than any speech could have. Here, particularly in the title cut, Marsalis was exploring the most fundamental forces of jazz-blues scales, incantatory ostinatos, fervently arched melodies, pitches constantly bent sharp and flat-while creating a music as lean and bracing as anything in jazz of the late ’80s.

Little wonder the piece became Marsalis’ calling card, the central composition in virtually every set this listener heard Marsalis play in recent years. The fierceness of its expression, the uncanny use of historic ideas freshly redefined, proved Marsalis had mastered the challenge his critics long had accused him of failing: he had found his own voice.

Little wonder, too, that the ‘‘Majesty of the Blues’‘ album contained a track sardonically titled ‘‘Death of Jazz.’‘ As if addressing his critics, Marsalis had created a funeral march that ironically affirmed the viability of the New Orleans march-form roughly a century after it first appeared. Jazz, Marsalis seemed to be saying, was very much alive, despite the dead ends of the ’60s and the ’70s.

From 1987 onward, Marsalis began recording the music that would be released this year as ‘‘Soul Gestures in Southern Blue.’‘ Lest anyone think that ‘‘Majesty of the Blues’‘ was a fluke, the new, three-CD set explored New Orleans moods, rhythms and textures with a depth only hinted at in ‘‘Majesty.’‘ Now Marsalis was creating incredibly atmospheric tone poems such as ‘‘Thick in the South,’‘ with its lazy, rolling tempos, and ‘‘Levee Low Moan,’‘ with Marsalis’ weeping blue notes set against rhythms swaying as gently as the waters of the Mississippi.

As these recordings attest, and as Marsalis’ melodically inspired performance last August at the Chicago Jazz Festival reaffirms, he had found a lyric vein that, in retrospect, he had spent roughly the past decade seeking. The deep-blue melodies, church-like harmonies and oft-sultry tempos all pointed to Marsalis’ hometown, the birthplace of jazz and the foremost inspiration of Marsalis’ art.

Yet for all his artistic accomplishment, as well as the commercial success that has sprung from it, Marsalis remains the outspoken advocate for jazz as he sees and hears it. Ask what the death of Miles Davis means to him, for instance, and you will hear the fiery passion that kept Davis and Marsalis at odds, at least esthetically, through the years they knew each other.

‘‘Man, I was sorry he was dead,’‘ says Marsalis, ‘‘but, actually, he made things more difficult for me, because I was trying to build jazz up and represent it, which he had represented so magnificently when he was serious.

‘‘But, unfortunately, by the time I came around, he had bent over so far for rock ‘n’ roll that he was a hindrance.

‘‘Like I would go to jazz festivals and he would be there playing rock music or funk or something, and he was always saying something negative about jazz music. So he could always be held up by the opponents of jazz as some great example.

‘‘He was like a great general who goes over to the other side.’‘

It’s critical to note, of course, that the arrival of Marsalis has not meant that all is right with the world of music, or that Marsalis believes it is.

Record companies that tried to emulate Marsalis’ success by similarly engaging young musicians, for instance, often have signed artists hardly ready to lead their own bands, let alone record them. And the labels’ recent fixation on young players has left many older, far more accomplished players out in the cold. (The glorious exception to the rule has been Marsalis’ father, Ellis, whose sublime pianism was long overdue for a recognition only made possible by Wynton’s fantastic success.)

As Marsalis knows full well, the first battles may be won, but there are many more to be fought.

‘‘The American band system is in trouble, arts education is in trouble, and not just because we don’t have any funding, but because we don’t attach importance to developing cultural and esthetic understanding,’‘ says Marsalis. ‘‘A lot of our culture is based just on commercial considerations, and not really on the important relationship of this music to who we are.

‘‘So, with things like the jazz program at Lincoln Center, we’re trying to change things, to really establish a base to get pertinent imformation about the music out to a wider range of people,’‘ adds Marsalis.

Ever the target, Marsalis has been criticized, too, for his efforts on promulgating jazz.

‘‘I’ve heard all this talk about the Lincoln Center program meaning that jazz is becoming a museum-piece, and that insults me,’‘ says Marsalis,

‘‘because I’ve heard great European orchestras play great music in Lincoln Center, so why can’t jazz musicians do the same there?

‘‘Still, I’m a perpetual optimist, but I’m not naive.

‘‘I know we have a long road to go.

‘‘But we don’t have anything else to do with our time,’‘ says Marsalis with a big laugh, ‘‘so we may as well contribute to glory of jazz.’‘

by Howard Reich
Source: Chicago Tribune

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