Wynton Marsalis and Vincent Gardner love Houston’s jazz heritage and want to help it grow

Jazz statesman brings his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to town while his trombonist and arranger presents concerts, educates young players.

Arguments these days about what constitutes jazz feel almost quaint. Contemporary performers — many of them Houstonians such as Robert Glasper, James Francies and Chris Dave — have approached creative expression with a blank slate. They can and will use any tools and sounds necessary to put across music they feel is vital and contemporary.

Though Wynton Marsalis is only 61, his arrival as a teen phenom decades ago allowed him to shed skins to become an elder statesman for jazz early on. And he suggests all the old fuss in jazz — the debate between innovation and traditionalism — was pointless.

That’s the proposition of our Constitution,” says Marsalis, who bring his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to Wortham Theater Center this week as he swings through southeast Texas. “You don’t want to rewrite the Constitution. Why would you do that? You had nine, 10 geniuses around it. I don’t think you push music ahead and do something different. Is Schoenberg ahead of Beethoven? I never heard that. It doesn’t sound like that. First of all, I don’t think any of them are ahead of Palestrina. They do different things. But you can play Palestrina’s music and think, ‘Man, what is that?!’”

He believes one needn’t destroy and rebuild. Rather music should exist untethered from time and place.

He cites his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, as encouraging him to learn the music’s history and then find his mode of expression within it. That experience ran parallel for Vincent Gardner, trombonist in Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and co-founder of Jazz Houston. Gardner also learned from his father, a jazz musician. “We had our own way of playing, and they encouraged us to be that,” Marsalis says. “Why should we then destroy our art form? Especially to imitate popular forms, for what? What do we have to give?” he asks. “That’s what I’m looking at.”

Marsalis in a Zoom call repeatedly deferred on matters of history to Gardner. The trumpeter and composer heard Gardner in Florida decades ago and knew he wanted the trombonist in his band. That Gardner is a top-shelf arranger added value, as did his ability to sing. Marsalis leans on him for other matters, too.

“He’s the actual historian,” Marsalis says. “If I have a question, I call and ask him.”

Following a stop in Galveston, Marsalis will be in Houston for a series of Jazz Houston events, including a performance for students at the Barbara Bush Plaza at the Central Houston Public Library, as well as visits to the Houston and Klein school districts for master classes and workshops. He does so because Gardner and his wife, singer Belinda Munro, saw an opportunity in Houston — a city with a rich jazz history that remains alive despite formidable attrition of musicians from the city to New York or Los Angeles. Gardner and Munro uprooted their lives in New York to reseed jazz in Houston through Jazz Houston, an organization that produces concerts, runs a local jazz orchestra and also manages educational doings, including a youth orchestra.

Weeks ago, they produced a program of music that celebrated Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet and other Houston jazz legends.

“We try to celebrate the past, present and future,” Gardner says. “All centered on the city of Houston.”

Seeding jazz in H-town

Marsalis’ creation of Jazz at Lincoln Center was crucial in a codification of jazz as an American music form worthy of concert-hall treatment. His goal wasn’t to remove it from the clubs where the music was born more than a century ago, nor the tight spaces where it began to flourish. He simply wanted to bestow on jazz an institutionalized reverence comparable to classical music. He sought to canonize an American art form.

Jazz at Lincoln Center blossomed in New York. Gardner and Munro saw opportunities beyond a city with built-in jazz infrastructure, including legacy clubs and smaller spaces for more experimental fare.

“We’re only supporting his idea,” Marsalis says. “His baby.”

Gardner took note of the migration patterns of Houston musicians from Wheatley High School, Kashmere High School and also the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Houston had a regal history of storied jazz artists who stayed here — as performers or educators: Conrad Johnson, Cobb, Don Wilkerson.

“New York is a mecca for the music, where you get the most direct and meaningful instruction,” Gardner says. “And the most opportunity.”

But he was intrigued by “all the bad cats that came from Houston over the years.”

He spent time digging into the rudiments of the Texas tenor sound, the ways the saxophonists made prominent use of the low register as a contrast to what others in the ensemble were playing. “I have a deep understanding and a deep appreciation for it now,” Gardner says. “A lot of great elements came from Houston musicians that were melded into the greater jazz pool. I’m excited to figure out more of them and bring them to light, so people can see what this great city brought to the jazz tradition.”

And he wants to nurture that tradition among younger players, too.

“Why can’t an environment be created where that kind of homegrown talent has an opportunity in the city where they’re from?”

Admittedly, Gardner’s and Munro’s timing likely had them second-guessing their notion. They arrived before after Hurricane Harvey raked the Gulf Coast and flooded Houston.

Education and history

Like Marsalis, Gardner is a next-gen jazz performer. They both believe that education is every bit as crucial as putting on performances. “You have to have that educational wing,” Gardner says. “To reach out to young people and encourage them to keep going. And to put an emphasis on those coming out to listen to what you’re doing.”

Which is what he and Munro have done here. Their programming is notable, with thematic concerts that celebrate jazz’s history. Their work digs deep into the soil, too: Last month, Munro sang works associated with Anita Moore, an under-heralded Houston native who sang with Duke Ellington.

Moore died in 2001 with not nearly enough attention for her distinguished career. That September Jazz Houston show also included pianist Helen Sung, an HSPVA alum and a performance by the Jazz Houston Youth Orchestra.

Like Marsalis, Gardner and Munro believe fully that jazz can honor history without becoming a museum piece.

“I think young people of this generation, they’re knowledgeable about self-identity,” he says. “And there’s no better music in the world to proclaim your identity than jazz music. They recognize that in the music. And I think that’s why they like to play it.”

‘Let the music be what it is’

“Pick who you want to pick in the history of the arts,” Marsalis says. “They were taught. Bach was taught. With the exception maybe of Berlioz. Maybe.”

Marsalis namechecks a local teacher, Bob Morgan, for years the storied head of jazz studies at HSPVA. In fact, Marsalis drops scores of names in the course of a conversation. The effect isn’t to create awe at his knowledge or his contacts list but rather to try to mute the notion of jazz as some “other” art form. The classical composers, iconoclasts like Willie Nelson, educators like Morgan: They’re referenced to flatten discussions that create a sense of otherness, which can often be applied casually with regard to race and class.

“Black and white are constructions that are not real,” he says. ‘When you start to live in unreal constructions, you have to start inventing more and more things to make it real. Prejudice is real. But somebody says ‘the Hispanic vote’ … What’s that? Ecuador? Cuba? A certain class from Mexico?”

He says his mentor — the legendary writer Albert Murray — asked: “How can you be a minority in your own country? Can somebody French be a minority in France? The terminology we use ‘jazz as a pure form’ … jazz is a hybrid. There’s no such thing as a pure form.”

Gardner says: “There are a lot of things we scrutinize, but I believe in letting the music be what it is. That will define what it is.”

And Marsalis adds: “We need a different mythology.”

So Marsalis, at 61, and Gardner, a decade or so younger, are helping codify a new mythology. Gardner cites Marsalis as crucial in helping him structure Jazz Houston: things involving a board, finances, management.

They’ll both take the stage for a performance as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Marsalis’ name is there prominently. But he sees their workload as shared.

“They don’t need me, Vincent is there doing his thing,” he says. “The thing is getting away from the cult of the personality. I think it’s about all of us. Vince is our music director for this time.

“We’re part of a continuum. And I love that continuum. … Vincent has the tradition and an investment in community that is going to pay dividends. We have the good fortune to have a representative of that quality who’s going to see a forest grow around it.”

by Andrew Dansby
Source: Houston Chronicle

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