They took me in like I was their son’: Wynton Marsalis on jazz’s great tradition

At the end of his performance at the Barbican with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis made a little speech. The next piece, he announced, was a number that Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers used to play. Marsalis then recalled how he himself had played with the Jazz Messengers as an 18-year-old trumpet prodigy. He described how much he had learned from the drummer, who was then approaching 60, and especially about ‘the sacrifices you have to make to play this music’. Then the band roared into ‘Free for All’ by Wayne Shorter.

A couple of days before, I had met Marsalis for a chat — it wasn’t precisely an interview because I’ve interviewed him so many times over the years we’ve turned into friends. One of the things we talked about was the difficulty of playing jazz — especially in front of an audience. ‘The pressure of playing in public makes it all for real, I love the pressure of it. That’s what makes it fun. You can’t imitate that in a practice room. If you have nerves you have to learn to embrace it.’

Doing anything in public holds its fears. According to a survey, the average member of the British public is slightly more frightened of making a speech in front of an audience than they are of their own death. Marsalis was amused by this, but contended that performing music is yet more daunting. ‘I was having a conversation with Condoleezza Rice, who plays classical music on the piano. She said sometimes when she is going to give a speech, if she is nervous, she says to herself, “Thank the good Lord I’m not playing!”’

Jazz is exhilarating to listen to because it sounds loose, wild and free; but the paradox is that it requires a great deal of discipline from the performer. That’s true, of course, of anything that is done well: the more effortless it appears to the audience, the harder it is to achieve. But jazz exacts particular rigours. It is an idiom that is, partly at least, improvised — and the effect of carefree spontaneity must be created whether or not the musicians are in the mood, night after night, year after year. For musicians who are on tour, the music has to be made after gruelling travel against the background of life led in an endless succession of hotel rooms.

Throughout his career, Marsalis has looked backwards towards the great jazz tradition that stemmed from his native town of New Orleans in the music of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver. In its early days, jazz developed at warp speed, so that within a couple of decades New Orleans jazz had developed into the modern jazz of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. In another couple of decades modern jazz had become atonal and avant-garde. In classical terms it was Monteverdi to Schoenberg in less than half a century,

Born in 1961, Marsalis is now 52, so he was starting out at exactly the period — the 1970s — when acoustic jazz was being washed away by a tide of rock (‘It was a dark period for the music’). He has dedicated his career to keeping the tradition alive: not just part of it but all of it. That is what Jazz at Lincoln Center is about. The most difficult aspect of his mission, he believes, is not teaching the musicians, it’s training the audience. ‘We need to teach the listeners more than the players. Anything that requires you to develop taste needs education.’

When he was young, Marsalis told me, Art Blakey was one of his mentors, but he had many others. ‘When I was growing up not many people were serious about learning what I wanted to learn. Many of the older writers and artists — the novelist Ralph Ellison was one — took me in as if I were their son, as well as musicians like John Lewis and Elvin Jones.’

Marsalis and I, it turned out, share an attitude with the Chinese: reverence for age. Indeed, we had a mentor in common in the veteran trumpeter-player Adolphus ‘Doc’ Cheatham (1905–1997). In the 1980s, I found myself organising a short tour for Doc, travelling — rather amazingly it seemed at the time — with this man who had played with Bessie Smith and subbed for Louis Armstrong in 1926.

I watched Doc get ready for a performance, his startling comb-over coiffeur carefully preserved in a species of hairnet he referred to as his ‘head rag’, before he donned one of his equally astounding tartan jackets and walked on stage. He would then lift his trumpet to an angle that resembled that of an angel playing the last trump and play soaring, stately music.

Marsalis brightened at the mention of Cheatham’s name. ‘My man! I went on tour with Doc and Sweets Edison, we played three trumpets. Sometimes Doc would blow a phrase and Sweets would whisper to me, “Wow, that one dates back to slavery days.”’

At that time Cheatham was in his late 80s, Edison in his 70s, Marsalis in his 20s. Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, star of the Count Basie Orchestra, was another mentor. ‘I was very close with him, I loved him. We first met when I was maybe 15; when I was in Los Angeles he’d come and meet me with his white Cadillac and we’d hang out.’

There was a pause, and Marsalis added, ‘It got sad, I played at a lot of funerals, all of people I was very close to and who had taught me a lot, not only about music. I played at Ralph Ellison’s funeral.’

It was from Ellison — the author of Invisible Man (1952), one of the greatest African–American novels, and also a lifelong jazz fan — that Marsalis got the inspiration to found Jazz at Lincoln Center. In a way, it is also the culmination of the long march of jazz from its origins in the dance halls and bordellos of New Orleans. It gives jazz a permanent place in the cultural life of New York beside the Metropolitan Opera.

By doing so he managed to get what most major jazz musicians have always craved: a big band. Since the 1940s, these have been a musical luxury that only the most famous — Count Basie, Duke Ellington — could afford. But in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Marsalis has one of his own.

In 1992 Doc Cheatham told a writer for the Chicago Tribune, ‘There’s this kid Wynton Marsalis, he’s got a lot to learn, but I think he’s getting there. Maybe he’ll carry it on.’ As it turned out, that’s precisely what he has done.

Source: The Spectator

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