Wynton Marsalis going strong at 50

By jazz standards, 50 is young — at least when you consider that pioneers such as saxophonist Benny Carter and trumpeter Doc Cheatham were playing beautifully into their 90s.

Then again, alto saxophone genius Charlie Parker died at 34 and cornet visionary Bix Beiderbecke never saw 28.

So when trumpeter-composer Wynton Marsalis reaches the half-century mark, on Oct. 18, he’ll stand at the midpoint of what one hopes will be a long career. By any other measure, however, Marsalis has packed more cultural precedents into the past three decades than one previously assumed a single jazz life could hold. Better still, Marsalis’ enduring position as the world’s most recognized jazz musician has benefited the art form significantly, notwithstanding the harsh criticisms that have dogged him from the start.

Just think back to the 1980s, when Marsalis emerged as a national figure and outspoken advocate for real jazz, as opposed to the watered-down, fusion- and rock-driven substitutes that often passed for it at the time. Fatalists were proclaiming the death of jazz, prompting Marsalis to use that epitaph as the sardonic title for a movement of a suite on his first great recording, “The Majesty of the Blues” (1989).

The mere fact that a New Orleans trumpet phenom wasn’t going to cater to the pop-rock marketplace confounded expectations.

“It was major news that a young and very talented black musician would choose to make a living playing acoustic jazz rather than fusion, funk or R&B,” observed critic Scott Yanow in the encyclopedic “All Music Guide to Jazz.”

Not that Marsalis saw much of a future for himself playing this music — he simply refused to do anything less.

“My dream was always to be a jazz man, but I didn’t think that would happen,” Marsalis told me in 1989. “In my generation, it was unrealistic to think that you could be a jazz musician.

“That’s because a lot of what was being called jazz wasn’t truly jazz, and even as a kid I knew that. … So I said to myself, ‘If the great jazz musicians can’t play jazz, if my daddy (pianist-educator Ellis Marsalis) can’t get jobs playing jazz, then I’m in sad shape.’”

But the trumpeter attained such a heightened level of virtuosity on his instrument and proved to be such a profound jazz composer that he became a symbol for a resurgence in the music. Moreover, his eloquence made him practically ubiquitous in the media, Marsalis turning up on TV, in newspapers and on the front of Time magazine in 1990.

The Time cover heralded “The New Jazz Age,” that sweeping phrase alluding to Marsalis’ outsize influence in nurturing a robust generation of young jazz musicians. Thanks to Marsalis’ eye (and ear) for talent, singular artists such as pianists Marcus Roberts and Eric Reed, trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Payton, saxophonist Victor Goines and uncounted others were launched on high-profile careers that flourish to this day.

But this was just the start of Marsalis’ work. By co-founding Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York in 1987 (it became an official Lincoln Center constituent in 1991), Marsalis would establish the first bona fide, world-class institution dedicated to championing the music across the U.S. and around the globe. He took the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (later renamed the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra) relentlessly on tour, designing themed concerts celebrating the founders of the art form.

These jazz originators were black, and Marsalis’ wholly appropriate veneration of them ignited charges of racism from a hostile white press.

“It appears that (Marsalis) is reviving not only the older music but also the reverse racism popular among black musicians in the fifties and sixties,” wrote Whitney Balliett in The New Yorker in 1991.

In fact, Jazz at Lincoln Center would go on to salute dozens of white players, but — at its start — it clearly was making a statement about the creators of the art form.

Marsalis, characteristically, would not bow to his critics.

“When I play the Hindemith Sonata on trumpet, I have no problem saying that I’m trying to address German objectives,” he told me in 1994. “Or if I’m playing Debussy’s music, I’m trying to address French styles. That is not insulting to me.

“So why should it be insulting to white American musicians to play in the Afro-American idiom. Why is that an insult?

“I’m the artistic director, and the music that we pick is based on my taste. If you want to play jazz trumpet, you have to deal with Louis Armstrong, whether you are white or black. Why is that racist?”

Marsalis remained defiant on other jazz issues, as well, using the pages of his book “Sweet Swing Blues on the Road” (1994) to decry the “capitulation” of Miles Davis to rock cliches and bemoan America’s general “cultural celebration of the insignificant.”

These words did not make Marsalis a hero in the precincts of pop or jazz criticism, but he and Jazz at Lincoln Center would not be stopped. In 2004, Jazz at Lincoln Center opened America’s first arts nexus devoted to jazz, a $128 million complex at Broadway and 60th Street.

It’s critical to remember, though, that amid this dizzying pace of activity, Marsalis has composed and recorded without pause. Though not every release can be considered a triumph, the high points have given jazz a library of compositions of considerable musical depth and stylistic bravura.

The lush pictorial effects of “Soul Gestures in Southern Blue” (1991) and the bristling counterpoint and bustling rhythms of “Citi Movement” (1993) set the stage for Marsalis’ greatest suite until that time, “In This House, On This Morning” (1994), a jazz evocation of gospel church service.

Then Marsalis pushed further, addressing the horrors of slavery in “Blood on the Fields” (1997), a three-hour vocal-instrumental epic distinguished by movements such as the harrowing “Forty Lashes” and the searing “Soul for Sale.” In 1997, the piece became the first jazz composition to win the Pulitzer Prize in music (I served on a jury that unanimously recommended the work to the Pulitzer Board).

Musically, Marsalis has recalibrated his artistic voice in many ways. His symphonic-choral work “All Rise” (2002) showed him wrestling with questions of faith, crisis and deliverance on a Mahlerian scale. His scorching CD “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary” (2007) featured his incendiary, spoken rant on the sorry politics of our day.

In all, it’s a staggering inventory, and it piques one’s appetite for the work yet to come, particularly a promised opera for a jazz world sorely lacking in them.

If Marsalis never played or composed another note, he still could lay claim to having lifted the stature of jazz in America.

More than anyone, Marsalis brought jazz back into the American conversation, and for that he deserves warm birthday wishes indeed.

by Howard Reich
Source: Chicago Tribune

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