Wynton Marsalis, Skain’s Domain - Review

At this point in time, Wynton Marsalis is a work in progress, a brilliant trumpeter who throughout his still-developing career has seemed to find controversy at every turn. When he first hit the national scene in 1980 with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the 18-year old was considered a phenomenon. Two years later he had gone out on his own and in 1983 he won Grammys in both jazz and classical music. The general news media was soon portraying Marsalis as the symbol of jazz, an up-and-coming master of the future. However others in the jazz world correctly pointed out that at the time the trumpeter lacked an original sound of his own, being too close to comfort to Miles Davis of the mid-1960’s. In addition, some of his statements in interviews seemed a bit arrogant, dismissing much of the music of the 1970’s, post-1965 avant-garde and fusion. Since then the pro and anti-Marsalis camps have only grown in intensity as he has continued to grow in stature, in recent times with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and with his Pulitzer Prize winning epic work Blood On The Fields.

Although one could argue that it is too early for biographies of Wynton Marsalis to be appearing (he turns 38 this year), because Marsalis has already accomplished so much and has been in the jazz headlines for nearly 20 years, Leslie Gourse’s Skain’s Domain is a welcome event. Through extensive interviews of Marsalis, family members, other musicians and associates, she has expertly pieced together the Wynton Marsalis story up to 1999. One learns a great deal about Marsalis’ early days in New Orleans and sees that his personality traits were already nearly fully formed as a teenager: a very strong work ethic, self-discipline, a love for music and the desire to teach and encourage those who are younger than himself. Also apparent from an early age is a certain bossiness (sometimes treating the less disciplined but just as brilliant Branford Marsalis as if he were Wynton’s younger brother instead of the other way around) and the habit of making statements that he would later regret. In the latter area, Marsalis early on underrated Dizzy Gillespie to the point of telling Jon Faddis that he did not think much of Dizzy’s tone, and he tried to discourage a young Renee Rosnes from giving the jazz big leagues in New York a shot.

Leslie Grouse is particularly good in portraying Marsalis’ personal life, revealing that the unmarried trumpeter has had a total of three children with two different women, all of whom he stays in close contact with. One also learns more about the sometimes-complex but loving relationships that Wynton has had with his parents and his siblings (although Delfeayo and Jason barely make appearances in the book), the role that New Orleans played in his early life and the great influence that Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray have had on Marsalis’ musical beliefs.

There are some minor flaws to the biography. Leslie Gourse’s style of writing may take a bit of getting used to for she has the tendency to end quotes with “Wynton said” or “Wynton explained” rather than “explained Wynton,” a practice that can sound a bit awkward. A few examples: “‘When he wanted to, Wynton could charm the bark off of trees,’ Bobby Watson has said.” “They said, ‘Man, this is good, man,’ Faddis recalled.” “It would have been inconceivable for me to stay out here and do what I did without his management and friendship, which he gave me constantly and totally,’ Wynton reflected.”

A little more serious is that, although the biography is fairly complete in most areas, virtually nothing is said about the Art Blakey big band tour of 1979 (which resulted in Marsalis’ first recording), the VSOP II band (other than mentioning that the trumpeter took time off from Blakey to play with the all-star group), the records Fuse I. and Fuse II. (virtually Wynton’s only recordings in a commercial setting) or the soundtrack of Tune In Tomorrow (which was the first time on record that Marsalis threw off the Miles Davis influence and really sounded like himself). Also, one never really finds out why Alina Bloomgarden, who was partly responsible for Lincoln Center presenting jazz in the first place, was replaced on the jazz staff in 1991. And the lack of much musical analysis (which records should a listener new to Marsalis purchase first?) is unfortunate.

But overall this is definitely a worthwhile book and Gourse (although clearly on Marsalis’ side) is quite even-handed, tracing with detail the controversies of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Certainly the letter that went out dismissing all of the musicians who were over-30 in the band (sent out by Rob Gibson but apparently approved by Marsalis) was both illegal and dumb. Although rescinded, the policy was eventually carried out in more subtle ways. On the plus side has been Marsalis’ tireless efforts to help younger musicians (even giving out his home phone number to a countless number of youths), his constant fight for acoustic jazz and his championing of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

Skain’s Domain ends in an inconclusive manner but that seems only fitting because Wynton Marsalis’ life and career are still developing and some of the most interesting chapters have yet to be lived (and eventually written). This book is an excellent first biography of the trumpeter and should greatly interest all followers of the current jazz scene.

by Scott Yanow

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