Marsalis Turns a Page in His Career: The trumpeter turned author packs bookstores to plug his latest release, which isn’t available on CD
“Remember what I told you, now. Take a deep breath and blow.”
It was a moment too good to have been scripted. Wynton Marsalis, a jazz artist viewed by some members of the New York media as a difficult, thorny personality, seated at a table in a little bistro next to Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, gently giving an impromptu trumpet lesson to a 14-year-old.
The boy placed the mouthpiece of the horn to his lips.
No, no,” Marsalis said. “ Think before you blow.”
The boy paused a moment, frowning in concentration before once again raising the horn. This time, a soft, sweet tone emerged, continuing for a long time before it finally faded away.
Marsalis listened closely, nodding appreciatively, a slight smile on his face.
“That’s it. Now remember how that feels, and play long tones like that every day for at least 15 minutes.”
“Yes sir,” the boy said. “Thank you, Mr. Marsalis.”
“Wynton,” Marsalis said. “Please, just Wynton.”
The lesson took place Saturday evening, at the close of a multifaceted appearance to promote “Sweet Swing Blues On the Road,” a just-published collection of Marsalis essays about the jazz life, with photographs by Frank Stewart. The boy, like so many young musicians an avid Marsalis fan, had come to the signing with his mother. The spontaneous lesson began when Marsalis discovered that the youngster had brought his instrument along.
“I do this all the time, wherever I go,” Marsalis said. “There’s this one boy in Germany who has a beautiful tone. He’s been coming back to see me whenever we tour Europe. I tell him a few things to work on, and he does it until we come back the next year.”
Earlier in the presentation, Marsalis had discussed the book, read a few excerpts, answered some questions from the crowd of 150 or so, and played a few musical examples on his trumpet. In the audience, the presence of his brother, tenor saxophonist and “Tonight Show” bandleader Branford Marsalis, made for some good-natured bantering between talented and successful siblings.
Marsalis appeared perfectly at home in the polite and easygoing give and take of the session. The audience, mostly white, with a wide range in age and style, seemed fairly knowledgeable about jazz and warmly respectful of the trumpeter-author. Many of the queries echoed question-and-answer experiences described in the book. Marsalis fielded them with the same lithe intellectual quickness he brings to his improvisations.
“How do you measure good jazz?” said a man with a beard.
“If it swings and has some blues, that’s a start,” Marsalis replied.
“How do you feel about players like Kenny G?” asked a young man, smiling at the anticipated response.
“He’s very good at what he does,” Marsalis said, without a touch of guile. “But he’s playing pop music, not jazz.”
Marsalis sat at a round table for the book signing, adding personal salutations whenever asked, producing an elegant autograph filled with graceful loops and precise lettering. When the line of purchasers ran out, a Book Soup employee brought another stack of books to be signed for future buyers. Marsalis cordially agreed, autographing everything placed in front of him.
It was a quite different image of Marsalis from that advanced by a number of jazz observers -mostly in New York-who have generated ongoing exchanges about his alleged attitudes toward white musicians, his handling of the Lincoln Center Jazz Program, his distaste for what he describes as uninformed jazz criticism and what his critics view as his “pompous” manner.
“The problem,” Marsalis explained, “is that most of the jazz press is looking in the wrong direction. Instead of celebrating the fact that I’m trying to bring out Duke Ellington’s music to the public, it’s concerned with whether I’ve programmed enough white musicians.”
Marsalis was referring to charges in some New York media that personnel changes he made in the Lincoln Center Jazz Ensemble were in fact the result of racial bias. Marsalis has repeatedly denied these accusations and continues to justify the personnel choices as musically legitimate.
“But I can deal with (these accusations). I even kind of like some of the give-and-take. What I don’t like is when your personality starts to get assaulted with things that aren’t true. Like that you’re arrogant, and you don’t want to talk to people. That’s b.s., man. Look around. Look at what’s happening here. And it’s not just for book signings. I work all the time, all over the world, and this is the kind of response I get wherever I go.”
Ample evidence of that response was apparent on Sunday, at the Eso Won bookstore in Inglewood, where Marsalis was greeted by an even larger, mostly African American audience. The shop, one of the leading purveyors of African American literature, was jammed to the rafters with close to 400 Marsalis aficionados. On the sidewalk outside, 50 or more people were clamoring to get in.
In a small room at the back of the store, Marsalis was playing a few warm-up notes on his trumpet, and eagerly eyeing a cooler filled with fragrant gumbo and an assortment of other New Orleans goodies brought by a devoted fan.
“Mmmm,” Marsalis said. “Soon as I finish out there, I’m coming back for this.”
His reading of sections from the book drew continuous bursts of laughter from the audience. Several were already familiar with the work and asked for segments from specific chapters. Marsalis was happy to oblige.
This time the audience response was a bit different from the Book Soup experience-more relaxed and familial, but also richer with feeling and interaction. Many had heard Marsalis do an interview on radio station KACE on Sunday morning, and were eager to follow up on his comments.
One listener brought his 12-year-old daughter to hear Marsalis “address some of the issues (of racial bias) raised by your Lincoln Center critics.”
Marsalis replied in an indirect fashion by reading a passage from his book called “Crescendos and Diminuendos” in which he addresses the wisdom passed on by an older generation of jazz players-musicians he describes as an “Old Oak Tree of Men.”
“Blacks love their blackness, whites love their whiteness,” Marsalis read, “but that is the false rallying cry of the unhip and the would-be hip, the rabble-rousers and the unrighteous in search of a constituency.
“. . . These people, these Americans . . . willed an art into existence. . . .This they knew: All men and women are created equal and endowed with the right, hell, the responsibility, to swing.”
The complex answer may not have been exactly what the questioner had in mind, but Marsalis made his point, reducing the Lincoln Center issue to its proper context by identifying what is for him the much more important task of raising “. . . consciousness to self-acceptance.”
As the questions continued, Marsalis was drawn into a further expansion of his views of individual responsibility as an issue separate from race.
“Once we decided to go in the direction of separatism,” he said, “we went away from our identity.”
Then, reading from the book: “What do you do when the clearest objectification of who you are comes from what you hate? What do you do? Not recognize it? What do you do when you are inseparable from what you hate?”
The combination of book readings and spontaneous responses, mixing the colorful jargon of street humor with an intellectually well-founded argument in favor of self-reliance and self-acceptance, revealed a far richer perception of Marsalis, sensed immediately by an audience that nodded and grunted agreement as he moved from point to point.
Some disagreed. “He’s just recycling that old Martin Luther King stuff,” muttered one man, “and that passive resistance stuff doesn’t work any more.”
But there was no question that Marsalis, talking to an African American audience, was demonstrating an impressively charismatic presence that has clearly been overlooked or simply unseen by his critics. Still only 33, he expresses no interest in ambitions beyond making music and, in his own way, teaching. Yet there was an undeniable feeling in the room that Marsalis has a capacity for leadership that reaches well past his role as an important young musician.
“I don’t know about that,” he said. “The only thing I really want to do is get past the bad faith reporting and get back to the truth. And the best way I know to do that is with documentation.”
Then, in a final, indirect expression of his theme of self-reliance: “Make records, put out books, write music and be productive, because that’s the documentation of who you are. That’s why I did the book, and that’s why I’m out here talking about it.”
by Don Heckman
Source: Los Angeles Times