The downside of Wynton Marsalis

On Tuesday, April 28, Wynton Marsalis will appear at the Wisconsin Union Theater to perform one of his new compositions and Igor Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat” with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. When he does, you’ll hear his fans talk about what a genius he is, making comments about his mastery of jazz and classical forms — a real Renaissance man.

Forget it. The only thing Marsalis does outstandingly is play music other people have written. He’s a superb classical trumpeter. But his lack of creativity — his failure even to recognize that great artists add to the vocabulary of their art — causes his improvising and composing to be slickly imitative at best. Moreover, in his position as the director of Lincoln Center’s jazz program he’s been downright hostile to innovative musicians.

Yeah, he won a Pulitzer Prize, but so what? The moronic Forrest Gump won an Oscar. Pearl Buck won a Nobel Prize, but James Joyce didn’t. Prizes of this sort mean nothing. They’re popularity contests and reflect the politics of the moment.

Not only have Marsalis’ musical accomplishments been overrated, his efforts to widen the appeal of jazz to the mass public have been negligible. Even his own record sales have been plummeting. The way things are going, in about 10 or 15 years it may dawn on the music columnists at Time and Newsweek that they’ve created a false messiah. By that time though, they’ll be backing another wrong horse.

Marsalis’ father, Ellis, is a fine postbop pianist from New Orleans who recorded with the Adderley brothers in 1962. Unlike his son, whom he named after piano great Wynton Kelly, Ellis played the music of his time rather than imitating jazz musicians of the past.

Wynton’s first major gig was as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1979. His playing caused a sensation in jazz circles, and, certainly, he was much further along than most teenage jazz trumpeters at that time. His style showed the influence of Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw and from a technical standpoint was already brilliant. Several years earlier he’d established himself as a teen phenom in the classical field and had attended Juilliard before joining Blakey.

When Columbia Records got wind of Marsalis they must’ve figured he’d be a new Miles Davis, and signed him to a fat contract. Beyond that Columbia officials spent an enormous amount of money publicizing him. Happily for the company, Marsalis’ group conception at that time was heavily influenced by the 1960s Davis band with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. To connect him more obviously with Davis, Columbia hooked him up with three members of this group, Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, on Marsalis’ 1982 debut LP — a very good one.

Wynton’s quintet obviously owed a lot to Miles’, but brought in other ideas that didn’t make them sound like slavish imitators. Besides, in 1982 everyone hadn’t caught up with what Davis’ quintet was doing 15 years earlier. The quintet had a belated influence, so Marsalis’ band had a contemporary sound; it wasn’t a retro outfit. Wynton’s playing still owed plenty to Miles, but he was taking chances and his solos were coherent, tasteful and impressive technically. It seemed reasonable to think he would improve and develop a voice of his own, as Lee Morgan, a teenage wonder in 1956, had done. But things didn’t work out that way.

Marsalis’ next few LPs were fine, although Miles’ influence was still apparent. By no means was he a great jazz musician by the mid-‘80s, but around then he began getting an amazing amount of media attention. Columbia’s publicity department was partly responsible, but Marsalis’ albums were probably genuinely enjoyed by the type of dilettante who writes music criticism for mass-media outlets like Time, Newsweek and The New York Times. Because his work was comprehensible, they raved about his respect for tradition. And they were impressed by the excellent chops that Marsalis and many of his sidemen had. These were hard-working, serious young men, not crazy bohemians.

The fact that Marsalis won two Grammys in 1984 — one in a jazz, another in a classical category — really sent his stock soaring. They don’t refer to classical music as “legit” for nothing. His classical Grammy really legitimized his jazz efforts in the eyes of many.

Marsalis’ music has been evolving in the past several years — backward. He’s also been composing large-scale — i.e., long — compositions for orchestra and voices. In This House on This Morning, a two-CD set written for a septet, is heavily influenced by Ellington and gospel music. Marsalis often revisits the territory Ellington covered in his Sacred Concerts and Black, Brown and Beige. In his writing and solo work he uses a lot of Ellingtonish growl effects, also employing squeezed tones like Duke’s cornetist Rex Stewart. The music also refers to postbop and New Orleans jazz. Unlike many of Wynton’s detractors, I won’t claim his writing has no merit; in fact some is skillful. However, too much material on In This House is somewhat updated traditional music of decades ago. Maybe it would be effective as a soundtrack for a movie like Pretty Baby, but on its own it doesn’t stand up well.

I don’t think Blood on the Fields, which got Marsalis his Pulitzer, is as good a work as In This House. Again, it’s derivative, owing far too much to Ellington and maybe something to Charlie Mingus. It’s also much more pretentious than In This House, although some listeners might be reluctant to criticize the work because it deals with racial oppression. The oratorio’s spoken portions and song lyrics are, at times, amateurish. The piece opens, “Trouble in our own land/Crimes against the human soul far too large for any describing words to hold.” Huh?

Between In This House and Blood on the Fields, Marsalis contributed half an album’s work (his father’s group did the rest) to Joe Cool’s Blues, a CD inspired by the Peanuts TV-show soundtracks of Vince Guaraldi. It’s pleasant, but clearly a lightweight and commercial effort — something that should be kept in mind whenever Marsalis goes around badmouthing other musicians like Miles Davis for selling out. Miles never did anything this opportunistic.

Marsalis’ playing is getting increasingly less modern. On In This House he shows the influence of Clark Terry and possibly Harry Edison; on Blood on the Fields he sometimes plays in a deliberately anachronistic manner. This relates, to a degree, to the nature of the pieces he’s performing but indicates as well that he doesn’t have a clear sense of where he’s going musically.

Marsalis’ lack of direction may have something to do with his work at Lincoln Center, where he’s formed a repertory band and performs the music of past jazz eras as well as featuring his own efforts. His activities as program director for that institution can be criticized on several grounds. Marsalis defines jazz narrowly. He claims it should swing and have a strong blues feeling. Thus, avant-garde artists (who, though they may be capable of swinging their tails off, on some occasions choose not to emphasize it) are excluded from appearing in Marsalis-promoted concerts because he doesn’t think they’re playing jazz. Marsalis’ attitude toward swinging is inconsistent, though, as he regards pre-Louis Armstrong New Orleans musicians such as Freddie Keppard as jazzmen, though they don’t swing much either. Swing was invented years after jazz emerged as a distinctive musical form.

To claim that real jazz must have a strong blues feeling doesn’t make sense. African American musicians have been the most numerous of the great jazz innovators, and their work usually has a bluesier feeling than that of white jazz artists. But jazz owes a tremendous amount — e.g. the harmonic/melodic system, the instruments — to European-invented music. Why should jazz musicians be required to play with a marked blues feeling when they’re using European scales and chords? Beyond this, the music of some African American jazz musicians much admired at Lincoln Center, including Benny Carter, isn’t bluesy, yet no one claims he’s not a jazzman, nor do they assert that the impressionistic music of Duke Ellington isn’t jazz.

In his book Blue, Eric Nisenson points out that, with the exception of Gerry Mulligan, no white jazz musician has been honored at Lincoln Center. Presumably this has something to do with European Americans’ jazz being less bluesy than that of African Americans, but African Americans who aren’t into being bluesy, like Carter, receive special dispensation from Marsalis. Perhaps he really thinks that Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Gil Evans, Dave Tough, Woody Herman, Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro and Jack Teagarden are insignificant. If that’s the case, and if Marsalis isn’t motivated by racism, which is possible, then he certainly has severe taste limitations.

Give Marsalis his due, however, for being hostile to experimenters of all colors, of denying all of them the prestigious Lincoln Center venue and associated income. Speaking of Marsalis’ neo-conservative movement, saxophonist David Murray remarked in Jazziz magazine, “I call ‘em neo con artists. They’re conning the public into thinking that nothin’ happened in jazz since the 1950s…. They’re conning the public into thinking they’re the guys who actually created this stuff, when actually they’re just playing a tired version of some music that had some real fire to it.”

Fusion really upsets the Lincoln Center crowd. They take the position that the work of men like Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul since 1969 should be looked at with a jaundiced eye. Marsalis doesn’t even consider Bitches Brew and the albums Davis made after it to be jazz. He says they’re rock, and won’t allow rock in his building.

Apparently Marsalis objects to the R&B (James Brown) and rock (Jimi Hendrix) influence in Miles’ work, and to his use of heavy amplification and electronic instruments. But jazz has always absorbed influences from other forms. It’s absurd for Marsalis to try to excommunicate Davis because of musical cross-pollination, which is often a very healthy process. And if Wynton is so adamant in his objection to electrification, he ought to be fair and criticize the 1930s and ’40s work of musicians like Lionel Hampton (vibraphone), Charlie Christian (electric guitar) and Fats Waller (electric organ), who started the whole thing.

Some point out that Marsalis’ high profile has at least publicized jazz, maybe created more jazz fans. However, he hasn’t had much effect in these areas, as jazz record sales are currently declining and jazz is heard less on the radio. Sure, the media still dig Marsalis. He keeps popping up on PBS, involved in one project or another. But more and more people understand that he’s no savior. The musicians keeping jazz alive are artists like Henry Threadgill, David Murray, Dave Douglas, Mark Dresser, Joe Maneri and Don Byron.

Now, if Marsalis and the young traditionalists who follow him — Roy Hargrove, Joshua Redman, Cyrus Chestnut—are looked upon solely as people trying to preserve older forms, like the Dixieland revivalists of the 1940s or the classical musicians who perform the music of Bach and Beethoven, that’s fine. And the old forms should be preserved. The problem is that the press and too much of the general public still treat the preservationists as if they invented ideas they actually appropriated from Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard and others.

Marsalis has annoyed a number of people with his pontificating and general insensitivity; he’s polarized the jazz public to a degree. I wanted to discuss my ideas about him with a relatively cool-headed person, so I spoke to Don Byron, an outstanding clarinetist who’s worked frequently in avant-garde jazz and classical settings, but is also a student of earlier genres and did an excellent job of re-creating the music of early Duke Ellington, Raymond Scott and John Kirby on his album Bug Music.

Byron had objections similar to mine about Marsalis. He noted, however, that “Wynton opened up jazz education for young African American musicians. Until Wynton jazz education was about young white musicians being prepared to play for bands like Woody Herman’s or Buddy Rich’s.” Byron thinks it’s important that Marsalis has stimulated young African Americans to study the history of jazz. But he went on to say that “the orthodoxy that Wynton’s created has closed jazz as [African Americans’] main instrumental new-music venue.”

I can only hope, then, that the improved jazz education programs offered to young African-Americans will help them see beyond Marsalis’ orthodoxy, as Byron has.

by Harvey Pekar
Source: Isthmus

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