Wynton Marsalis isn’t afraid of controversy

The acclaimed jazzman has never backed down from his assertion that certain American jazz works need to be recognized as canonical.

Wynton Marsalis is the best-known, most acclaimed jazz musician of his generation, with amazing technical skills and grand compositional ambitions. He has almost single-handedly brought about a Renaissance in the music in the last 15 years, and has paved the way for young neotraditional Young Turks such as Marcus Roberts, Roy Hargrove and Joshua Redman, among others.

These things are pretty much undisputable.
What is disputed in jazz circles – heatedly, bitterly, protractedly – is whether Marsalis, who will perform Thursday night in Ames, is mummifying the music to which he’s devoted his life. The list of charges against him, according to critics: His definition of jazz is far too narrow, stopping at Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. He is too stuffy, too combative, and as a player is a stiff improviser, lacking the emotional depth to match his admittedly formidable chops. And he has the nerve to talk back to critics. Marsalis, speaking recently from Alaska, said he didn’t think he was saying anything particularly outrageous at first. “It shocked me that what I was saying was controversial,” Marsalis said.
“It seemed obvious to me. You’re allowed to have a public forum and then you don’t use it? You only use it to say what’s being said already?”
Certain members of the New York jazz intelligentsia have been particularly nasty, especially since Marsalis became artistic director at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

“They feel their power is being put upon,” he said. “I don’t feel that what they say reflects what the people think. That’s part of being in public – if a you express a point of view ; that’s not endorsed, you have to be ready to be challenged. And I kind of like that. At i long as it maintains some integrity, good, healthy, public debate is good,”

He’s never backed down from his assertions that certain American jazz works need to be recognized as canonical – equal in cultural value to European classical works; that the establishment of a jazz canon is vital to the form’s continued existence; and that instrumental music that incorporates elements of rock or other styles may be music – but it sure ain’t jazz. In this last respect he’s even at odds with his own brother, Branford.

But Marsalis does seem to relish the fight and he enjoys a provocative line. Here’s a bit from his book, “Sweet Swing Blues on the Road,” in which he imagines a woman coming home from a concert by the (now disbanded) Marsalis Septet to find the kids in her care watching destructive rap videos:
“Sitting in front of the television, watching women in drawers assume semipornographic poses while men with hands on genitalia chant rhymed doggerel to an incessant beat. Young sensibilities slowly destroyed by the alpha-wave onslaught of ignorance efficiently delivered to the learning centers of the brain.”
“You can’t wash that stuff away but that’s the joy of being engaged in the battle,” he said. “You got to have a good fight even if it’s a losing battle, you do it for the fun of it.”

You can assume that a Chuck D-Marsalis album will not be forthcoming. What is up, in terms of collaborations, is Marsalis’ new record with his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis. The two, separately and in various band configurations, do songs associated with the “Peanuts” TV shows. The record is called “Joe Cool’s Blues,” and it may help deflate the trumpeter’s stuffy reputation.

Which he never really deserved, in the first place. Because much of Marsalis’ compositions in recent years have been very long and ambitious – a new piece, “Blood on the Field,” is three hours long – some folks have wrongly assumed they must not be fun. Not true. The sprawling “Citi Movement,” a kind of musical and cultural history of New York, was loaded with good humor. “In This House, On This Morning,” his conception of a service in a black church, was raucous and joyous.

In his position at Lincoln Center, Marsalis has been accused of reverse racism in his canonical choices. Defenders say Marsalis’ enemies are upset simply because an African-American is piloting the course for this African-American musical form. Marsalis dismisses both assertions: “We’re talking about the musicality of our nation. To assign a racial term to it is derogatory. It’s been said I do that, but I don’t look at it in racial terms; I look at it in cultural terms. The sound of the African-American is the sound of jazz, but it’s also the sound of America. That overrides the racial aspect of it. If you want to study literature and study William Faulkner, you don’t say, ‘I’m studying white literature.’ You’re just studying literature.”

And if Marsalis were teaching lit, he’d be teaching the classics with an evangelical fervor. “That is my work,” he said. “I’m always written about for talking to schools, but the bulk of what I do is playing. I play somewhere just about every night.”
The Wynton Marsalis Septet played together just about every night for more than six years, until exhaustion set in. Marsalis broke up the band recently and formed a quintet that includes Septet alumnus Wess Anderson. It’s that band configuration that will play Ames’ Stephens Auditorium Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

“It was supposed to be a quartet, but Wess said, ‘Man, take me out there,” Marsalis said with a laugh. As is customary, the show likely will be a quick survey course in American music – from the proto-jazz of Jelly Roll Morton to Ellington to the fierce explorations of John Coltrane and Marsalis originals.
When the band is up there, none of this other stuff matters. What matters is that the band is hot, not that its leader is a lightning rod for controversy. What matters is that they’re reinterpreting past traditions for the present.

Jazz, says Marsalis, is “the portrait of our culture in sound, our democratic way of life, it recognizes the gifts of individuals and value of group action. It places a premium on soul and feeling, has a spiritual foundation, and when you play, it makes you feel good.
“And it swings.”

Tickets to the Wynton Marsalis Quintet performance are $8 (for ISU students or those under 18) to $26, available at the ISU Center box office or Ticketmaster.

By Patrick Beach
Source: Des Moines Register

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