Trumpeter WYNTON MARSALIS has been hailed as a symbol for the New Decade
Trumpeter WYNTON MARSALIS has been hailed as a symbol for the New Decade, and that’s a’lot to live up to. Chrissie Murray brings an insight into this forthright, young spokesman for jazz in the Eighties.
‘The whole Seventies was like a period when the most talented guys just went for a bag of goods, and they didn’t develop their artistic abilities.
‘I love Omette Coleman, but all these guys slip through the door as free musicians, and the critics, they don’t even know what it is but they co-sign it because they’re afraid they might miss something.
‘The musicians won’t see to it that the music is placed on as high a pedestal as it should be. They’ve let the music be compromised … ‘
So speaks the uncompromising Wynton Marsalis with uncommon maturity – a weighty statement, indeed, from a 20-year-old already an accepted voice of a new jazz generation.
Art Blakey says that ‘this guy makes the young kids all over the world want to cut their wrists’.
Ron Carter calls Marsalis – ‘the most remarkable musician to appear on the scene in quite some time’.
Leonard Feather writes in the Los Angeles Times that ‘as a jazz soloist, he is a symbol for the New Decade’.
People magazine calls Marsalis – ‘one of the brightest prospects for jazz in ‘82’.
And, in case there’s any doubt, DownBeat’s critics vote him the ‘Talent Most Deserving Wider Recognition’ in 1981.
All in all, that’s a hell of a lot to live up to for any 20-year-old. But, you get the feeling that Marsalis isn’t just any 20-year-old.
We first saw Marsalis here, briefly, a couple of Camdens ago, doing something of a ‘star turn’ with Art Blakey’s youngest Jazz Messengers for years.
For those who missed out on the performance, but picked up on the buzz, recorded proof emerged on Kingdom Jazz’s Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers (recorded live at Bubba’s in October 1980). With the young trumpeter now signed to that once-great jazz label, CBS, that first album – featuring early Marsalis – could be destined to become a collector’s item.
Much has been claimed for this young Turk, and the future will take care of expectations one way or another. But what do we know about this guy – yesterday, just another talented teenager; today, one of jazz’s honest properties?
Marsalis was born in New Orleans on 18th October, 1961 – one of six brothers. His father – pianist-composer Ellis Marsalis – named him Wynton after Wynton Kelly.
When elder brother Branford received a clarinet, Ellis looked for an instrument for 6-year-old Wynton and came up with a trumpet via family-friend and associate, Al Hirt. But, far from becoming the child prodigy instantly, young Marsalis proved to be a reluctant wamderkind.
‘I didn’t really want to play it. By the time I was seven, the trumpet was collecting dust …’
It wasn’t until Marsalis was 12 that he ‘really got serious’.
‘The summer before I went to high school, I really started practising and listening to albums, right. I studied books on the instrument.
‘I had a great teacher – John Longo. I can’t even describe the amount of stuff I learned from John. He taught me more than just the trumpet. He taught me a whole conceptual way of playing. He instilled in me a certain love for playing – jazz and classical. “Listen for this in this guy’s playing … listen for that. He’d always ask me to explain why, so that my mind would work. To me, the physical act of practising is just the release of mental activity that is going on before you pick up the horn. Most cats just practise.’
Ellis Marsalis can also take much of the credit.
‘My father was a great influence in more ways than just musica11y. He believed in education. We would talk all the time. I could always go to him and say, “Let’s go over this tune … what are the chord changes for this”.’
‘I was listening to jazz records to study, see what the guys were doing, not necessarily to get the notes off, but trying to understand what they were doing conceptually. When I listened to Bird or Clifford Brown, I was trying to see how those phrases related to what was going on around them, and to place the music in a historical perspective. That’s all I did, man – thought about the music. It’s a constant process of investigation, refining, absorbing, eliminating and trying to understand.’
After Longo, Marsalis became a classical student of Norman Smith, principal trumpeter in the New Orleans Philharmonic.
‘Norman taught me a lot about phrasing and tonguing and, in return, my father would teach him piano. From Norman, I learned more about piccolo trumpet. It was another way of thinking about music.’
Marsalis also took some lessons from George Jensen, Longo’s old teacher – an extraordinary man for whom Wynton has the greatest love and respect.
‘George Jensen was one of the only white guys that would teach black guys back in the days of segregation. He was a beautiful guy so soulful. He had a stroke, and could barely talk, and could only write with his left hand. He had a certain spirit. He wanted to live. His playing day were over but Doc Severinsen gave him a left-handed trumpet and he tried to play a little bit every now and then.
‘I was taught to play legitimate, not jazz, because that’s not something that can really be tutored. When I was 12 or 13, I heard Maurice André and I thought he was really great, so I got interested in playing classical music also. For some reason, all the jazz musicians were in awe of the classical musicians – afraid of it or something. I thought, man, I’m gonna sec what this is, right. I listened to André and I said, damn – I wanna play like that! I played solo with the New Orleans Symphony when I was 14 – the Haydn Trumpet Concerto.
‘Norman Smith showed me bow to refine my style. He gave me exercises – solo melodics and cantatas, lyrical études – “Play this really soft and slow … “. It was a major step for me because my tonguing was never really correct.’
At 16, Marsalis found himself once more in the solo spot, this time playing Bach on piccolo trumpet.
‘Bach! That’s the hardest. That’s the crumbier! It’s piccolo trumpet – extremely high! One of Bach’s trumpet-players died trying to play that…’
If Marsalis found jazz musicians in awe of classical musicians, the classical musicians don’t escape criticism, either …
‘The reason classical musicians can never play jazz is it’s impossible to give themselves a state of mind which will enable them to learn jazz. They cannot go to the cats to learn bow to play jazz – they believe what they are doing is the highest way of performance.
‘Classical composers stand a better chance of becoming jazz musicians. Most of them are afraid to learn – afraid to admit that jazz is on such a higher level. They realize that jazz has exerted more influence on 20th-century music – for them to admit this, it’s a reflection on their own inadequacies.
They say, “I can’t really play, I can’t improvise … I won’t deal with that”.’
Armed with a full scholarship to Juilliard, the 17-year-old Marsalis arrived in New York, ekeing out his allowance by playing in Sweeny Todd on Broadway. Then, one night, be remembers one of the worst trials of his life – sitting in the first time with the Blakey band.
‘I sounded Ii.kc shit, man. I played “Along Came Betty’‘ and I didn’t know it. I got lost. I didn’t know where the tune was – I barely finished the form off. Bobby (Watson) was shouting out the changes in the alto key. Blakey was back there laughing and said afterwards, “Yeah, that was pretty sad but that’s all right’‘.
I’d never listened to the Jazz Messengers that much. My father had some albums at home. I would never listen to that!
‘Blakey is the essence of what Afro-American music is about. What be plays is so complex. If any musical scholar tries to figure out what he’s doing rhythmically, be could never explain it. His approach to playing music is so free and loose. He directs from the bandstand. What be does seems unintellectual, but it’s not. He’s a master of construction.’
After a few months with Blakey, George Butler sent Herbie Hancock a tape of Marsalis and, as Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter had cancelled, Hancock welcomed Marsalis. They toured all the big festivals – Chicago, New York, Cleveland, and even Japan.
‘The first time I played with them in rehearsal – with Herbie, Ron Carter and Tony Williams – it was like walking on water. You’re the only one that’s playing, right, they just play what you play.
‘For all Tony’s activity, he’s still playing what you’re playing. You hear records and he’s crowding cats, but that isn’t how it feels when you’re playing. He’s very sensitive and perceptive. Tony’s conception of playing is a lot like Art’s, only he’s a lot more open, more modem.
‘It’s ironic, man – before I played with Tony I’d never really listened to Art to hear what he was playing. It’s a lot hipper than I thought it was. You hear Art playing 3’s on 4’s – he was one of the first drummers to do that. Like, Art’s way of playing is so scientific and advanced for what it is – and he concentrates only on making the music better.
‘I really dug playing with Herbie, Ron and Tony. I was never nervous because they didn’t treat me like some young kid. They treated me with respect, and they’re like master musicians. It was like I was on the gig. It’s on a high and advanced level. You have to know where one is because nobody’s laying that down.’
With the success of his recent, first solo album, Wynton Marsalis (CBS), the pressure is on – perhaps, more than ever – for Marsalis to show the way as ‘the new breed of musician’. He’s aware of the responsibility, but not daunted by it.
‘When you’re young, you have a lot of enthusiasm, and I’m young now, so I don’t see everything breaking down. It’s easy for me to look at the other cats and say, “Oh, man – Miles did this, and Freddie did that … “.
People don’t understand. I have to phrase this so it doesn’t sound like I’m crying, but when you’re black, you have a foot that’s always in your ass. That’s like a fact of life that you deal with. You see people come up and get this and get that, and you start feeling you should have some.
‘A great example of that is Miles. Here’s the greatest trumpet-player in the world in the Sixties – Sly Stone came up, the Beatles came up, and they got what they deserved. Huge rewards! So Miles says – “Well, man – I’ve been putting up with shit for all these years, and times have been harder than a muthafucker”.
‘The whole Seventies was like a period when the most talented guys just went for a bag of goods, and they didn’t develop their artistic abilities … The musicians won’t see to it that the music is placed on as high a pedestal as it should be. They’ve let the music be compromised.’
There are those who consider that Marsalis is still ‘a bit too wet around the ears’ to deliver such weighty statements and, suspecting him of precocity, have accused him of being arrogant. But Marsalis presents a spirited and convincing defence which sounds familiar …
‘It’s not that. When I was a senior in high school, there was one modern jazz gig in New Orleans – the Oyster Bar on Magazine Street – and we had it. It’s all dixieland for tourists, and a lotta that’s bullshit. Tom around catering to the whims of the kinda people who just think you’re there to entertain them for laughs. Experiencing such a large degree of condescension just turned me off to a lotta stuff. I’m not arrogant. It’s too much, too much to take.’
This summer, Marsalis is touring the European festivals, including the Capital Jazz Festival (25th July) – this time, fronting his own band. A big step.
‘I’m very enthusiastic. I can’t wait to be surrounded by a group of guys who are all interested in the same thing I’m interested in musically. I want to use the band as a vehicle for my own voice.’
Much of Marsalis’ energy has gone into the band’s presentation which he believes is as important as the music.
‘When people come and see a concert, they are looking at the band. Serious musicians shouldn’t look like they’re playing a football game. I don’t believe it’s unnecessary protocol. The people who are paying to see the band should get more than just the music.
‘Most people won’t really understand what the musician is doing musically. They can only relate to what they see and how they think the music is being presented. If you are serious about what you’re doing, everything should indicate that you’re serious. The bandstand is sacred – it’s like the altar. You can’t come up there talking while guys are soloing. I see bands with total disrespect for the music. I want my band to be always on time.’
Like I said, Marsalis is a pretty uncompromising cat. But is he unique to his generation?
‘I know about 15 or 20 guys interested in playing. That sounds like a small number but that’s a lot. In the Sixties, how many were there – maybe 10 to 15 guys?
‘Maybe perhaps we can salvage some of the respectability of the music …’
by Chrissie Murray
Source: The WIRE