Wynton’s Blues - The Atlantic Monthly (March 2003)
Manhattan is empty during the last week of August, and the kind of emptiness it achieves is like that of the mind during meditation—a temporary, unnatural purity. On a Tuesday evening in late August of 2001 I was wandering around Greenwich Village and ended up at the Village Vanguard. After sixty-some years of business the illustrious little jazz haunt hasn’t changed; it remains one of the inexplicable constants of the Manhattan landscape. Its midtown cousin, Birdland (named for the bebop saxophonist Charlie “Yardbird” Parker), closed down decades ago and was replaced by a strip joint, Flash Dancers, which has been in business longer than Birdland was; a theme nightclub near Times Square now uses the Birdland name. There’s still a Cotton Club in Harlem, but not in the original location, and now it’s a seedy disco. The Vanguard has somehow survived in its primordial basement and has retained all the bohemian eccentricities that have always helped make it cool: the fence-post marquee, with performers’ names handwritten vertically; the treacherously angled stairwell; no food served; no credit cards accepted. Lorraine Gordon, the Vanguard’s owner and the widow of the club’s founder, is a Medici of the jazz world, a patron and king-maker. Among jazz fans and musicians the Village Vanguard is clearly a paragon of the music’s own kind of purity—one that’s neither temporary nor unnatural.
I walked in on a set in progress and took the next-to-last seat on the burgundy-leather banquette that runs along the east wall. The end table, Lorraine Gordon’s, was vacant, indicating that Gordon was probably in the kitchen, where she does the books and where musicians congregate between sets. (Although foodless, the Vanguard has one of the most venerable kitchens in New York.) A small combo was running through the bebop classic “Blue ‘n’ Boogie” at a duly vertiginous speed. There was no mistaking the bandleader: Charles McPherson, an alto saxophonist who was a protégé of the late bassist and composer Charles Mingus. McPherson is a venturesome musician who upends the jazz repertoire on the bandstand, and he composes pieces built on surprise, as Mingus did. Although he is a superior talent, he’s not a top jazz attraction, which is why he was scheduled for the last week in August. For his second tune after my arrival McPherson, in homage to his mentor, played Mingus’s homage to Lester Young, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” The performance was languid, and my eyes drifted, settling eventually on the trumpet player, because he was turned away from the audience and even from the rest of the band, staring at the floor. Although I couldn’t place him, he looked vaguely familiar, like an older version of Wynton Marsalis.
During the third song, Charlie Parker’s “Chasin’ the Bird,” the trumpeter stepped to the center of the bandstand to take a solo. “Excuse me,” I whispered to the fellow next to me (a jazz guitarist, I later learned). “Is that Wynton Marsalis?”
“I very seriously doubt that,” he snapped back, as if I had asked if it was Parker himself.
Stylishly dressed in an Italian-cut gray suit, a dark-blue shirt, and a muted blue tie, the soloist had the burnished elegance that Wynton Marsalis and his musician brothers have been bringing to jazz for two decades. If this man was not Wynton, he looked like what “Marsalis” means—but older and heavier, and not just in appearance. There was a weight upon him; he didn’t smile, and his eyes were small and affectless. I could barely reconcile the sight before me with the image of youthful élan that Wynton Marsalis has always called to mind.
The fourth song was a solo showcase for the trumpeter, who, I could now see, was indeed Marsalis, but who no more sounded than looked like what I expected. He played a ballad, “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You,” unaccompanied. Written by Victor Young, a film-score composer, for a 1930s romance, the piece can bring out the sadness in any scene, and Marsalis appeared deeply attuned to its melancholy. He performed the song in murmurs and sighs, at points nearly talking the words in notes. It was a wrenching act of creative expression. When he reached the climax, Marsalis played the final phrase, the title statement, in declarative tones, allowing each successive note to linger in the air a bit longer. “I don’t stand … a ghost … of … a … chance …” The room was silent until, at the most dramatic point, someone’s cell phone went off, blaring a rapid singsong melody in electronic bleeps. People started giggling and picking up their drinks. The moment—the whole performance—unraveled.
Marsalis paused for a beat, motionless, and his eyebrows arched. I scrawled on a sheet of notepaper, MAGIC, RUINED. The cell-phone offender scooted into the hall as the chatter in the room grew louder. Still frozen at the microphone, Marsalis replayed the silly cell-phone melody note for note. Then he repeated it, and began improvising variations on the tune. The audience slowly came back to him. In a few minutes he resolved the improvisation—which had changed keys once or twice and throttled down to a ballad tempo—and ended up exactly where he had left off: “with … you …” The ovation was tremendous.
Lorraine Gordon had come in shortly before the final notes. Leaning over to me, she said, “What did I miss?”
That was a good question, and I had others. What was Wynton Marsalis, perhaps the most famous jazz musician alive, doing as a sideman in a band led by a little-known saxophonist in the slowest week of the year? Where were the scores of fans who used to line up on the sidewalk whenever Marsalis played, regardless of whether he was billed and promoted? Why did he look so downtrodden, so leaden … so different that he was scarcely recognizable? How could his playing have been so perfunctory (as it was for most of that evening) and yet so transcendent on one bittersweet song about loss and self-doubt? What happened to Wynton Marsalis?
That may be like asking What happened to jazz? For twenty years the fates of Marsalis and jazz music have appeared inextricably intertwined. He was a young newcomer on the New York scene at a time when jazz seemed dominated and diminished by rock-oriented “fusion,” marginalized by outré experimentation and electronics, and disconnected from the youth audience that has driven American popular culture since the postwar era. Extraordinarily gifted and fluent in both jazz and classical music, not to mention young, handsome, black, impassioned, and articulate, especially on the importance of jazz history and jazz masters, Marsalis was ideally equipped to lead a cultural-aesthetic movement suited to the time, a renaissance that raised public esteem for and the popular appeal of jazz through a return to the music’s traditional values: jazz for the Reagan revolution. In 1990 Time magazine put him on the cover and announced the dawn of “The New Jazz Age.” Record companies rediscovered the music and revived long-dormant jazz lines, signing countless young musicians inspired by Marsalis, along with three of his five brothers (first his older brother, Branford, a celebrated tenor saxophonist; later Delfeayo, a trombonist; and eventually the youngest, Jason, a percussionist) and his father, Ellis (a respected educator and pianist in the family’s native New Orleans). By the 1990s Wynton Marsalis had become an omnipresent spokesperson for his music and also one of its most prolific and highly decorated practitioners (he was the first jazz composer to win a Pulitzer Prize, for Blood on the Fields, his oratorio about slavery)—something of a counterpart to Leonard Bernstein in the 1950s. He took jazz up and over the hierarchical divide that had long isolated the music from the fine-arts establishment; the modest summer jazz program he created won a full constituency at Lincoln Center. In 1999, to mark the end of the century, Marsalis issued a total of fifteen CDs—about one new title every month.
In the following two years he did not release a single CD of new music. In fact, after two decades with Columbia Records, the prestigious and high-powered label historically associated with Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis, Marsalis has no record contract with any company. Nor does his brother Branford, who just a few years ago was not only one of Columbia’s recording stars but an executive consultant overseeing the artists-and-repertory direction of the label’s jazz division. (Branford recently formed an independent record company.) Over the past few years Columbia has drastically reduced its roster of active jazz musicians, shifting its emphasis to reissues of old recordings. Atlantic folded its jazz catalogue into the operations of its parent company, Warner, and essentially gave up on developing new artists. Verve is a fraction of the size it was a decade ago. In addition, jazz clubs around the country have been struggling, and the attacks of September 11 hurt night life everywhere; New York’s venerable Sweet Basil closed in the spring of 2001, after twenty-five years in operation, and later reopened as a youth-oriented world-music place. In the institutional arena, Carnegie Hall discontinued its in-house jazz orchestra at the end of the 2001-2002 season.
For this grim state of affairs in jazz Marsalis, the public face of the music and the evident master of its destiny, has been declared at least partly culpable. By leading jazz into the realm of unbending classicism, by applying the Great Man template to establish an iconography (Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Coltrane), and by sanctifying a canon of their own choosing (Armstrong’s “Hot Fives,” Ellington’s Blanton-Webster period, Parker’s Savoy sessions, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme), Marsalis and his adherents are said to have codified the music in a stifling orthodoxy and inhibited the revolutionary impulses that have always advanced jazz.
“They’ve done a lot to take the essence of jazz and distort it,” the composer and pianist George Russell told The New York Times in 1998. “They’ve put a damper on the main ingredient of jazz, which is innovation.”
A former executive with Columbia Records who has worked intimately with five Marsalises says, “For many people, Wynton has come to embody some retro ideology that is not really of the moment, you know—it’s more museumlike in nature, a look back. I think as each day passes, Wynton does lose relevance as a shaper of musical direction. He’s not quite the leader of a musical movement any longer. That doesn’t mean he’s not remarkable, or without considerable clout, or that he’s not the leader of a cultural movement. But within the record industry the Marsalises are no longer seen as the top guys.”
Six weeks after he played in Charles McPherson’s band at the Village Vanguard, Wynton Marsalis turned forty. (His publicists will have to come up with a nickname to replace “the young lion.”) Marsalis has been struggling, clearly. In addition to the rest of his troubles, he and his fiancée broke off the engagement that might have brought stability to his notoriously mercurial romantic life (he has three sons by two single women, one on each coast), and Jazz at Lincoln Center suffered a setback shortly after Marsalis’s birthday, when the chairman of its board of directors was murdered in his home. This February, Marsalis returned briefly to the spotlight, when he, his three musical brothers, and their father joined forces on their first CD together, The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration—released on Branford’s new label, Marsalis Music, and supported by a high-profile PBS special and a brief national tour starting a few days later. But this effort to celebrate the Marsalis legacy is seen by some in the jazz world as just another exercise in nostalgia. It’s a criticism that familiarly echoes the one that has bedeviled jazz as a whole for some years. Yet if the lives of this man and America’s great indigenous music are indeed entwined, their predicament calls for fuller scrutiny and better understanding. It’s too easy to dismiss Marsalis’s condition as a midlife crisis.
Every icon needs an origin myth. Born in the same city as jazz, Wynton Marsalis was blessed with a signifying provenance. “I’m from New Orleans,” he has told an interviewer, as shorthand for his musical background. “We don’t need a concert hall for jazz.” In many ways Marsalis’s story is so neatly connected to jazz history that it defies credulity. Had a screenwriter created Wynton Marsalis, a cynical producer would have sent back the opening scenes for rewrite: too perfect. Not only did he come from the cradle of jazz but he plays the trumpet, the instrument that originally defined the music. “The first jazz musician was a trumpeter, Buddy Bolden,” Marsalis once said, “and the last will be a trumpeter, the archangel Gabriel.” Moreover, Marsalis rose to prominence in the mid-1980s, just as jazz was approaching its centennial. “There’s a tremendous symbolic resonance that has always been a part of what Wynton’s about,” says Jeff Levenson, a veteran jazz writer who also worked as an executive at both Columbia and Warner Bros. Records. “This kid emerges who’s a hotshot … and the whole thing has a kind of symmetry to it. Louis Armstrong starts things off—trumpet player, New Orleans, turn of the century. Wynton closes it out—a trumpet player from New Orleans.”
Dolores and Ellis Marsalis still live in the house Wynton left when he moved to New York on a scholarship to Juilliard, in 1979. It is a nice, modest house of green-painted clapboard, in a neighborhood that used to be nicer. To enter the house one goes through an iron gate and past a patch of lawn with manicured shrubbery and a statue of a black madonna in the center. The interior looks large without six boys frolicking in it at once. (Only thirty-two-year-old Mboya, who is autistic, lives at home now.) Dolores Marsalis keeps the house, her husband tells me with a pride they obviously share: everything is just so, and communicates to the visitor in a gracious way. The chairs have pressed crocheted doilies pinned to their backs: they are not for horseplay. The walls are covered with paintings and graphics portraying African-American themes: they are not decorations but art. The table next to the front door holds a display of photographs of women in the family: everybody counts.
Ellis Marsalis is a sturdy man, sixty-eight, who moves with a deliberate bounce. A lifelong educator who has taught music on every level from elementary school to college, he held a chair in jazz studies endowed by Coca-Cola at the University of New Orleans until his retirement, in 2001. When he speaks, his words have the measured authority of a lesson. Wynton Marsalis is very much like his father in the way he holds himself (hunched a bit, as if he were reading from a music stand), sits (legs spread), gestures (forward and in tempo), and speaks (with a disarming touch of New Orleans patois).
To Ellis Marsalis, the work ethic his own father taught by example is primary to success, be it in commerce or in art. “When I was teaching [high school],” he says, “I used to see a lot of talent that didn’t particularly go anywhere, and at first it was really mysterious to me. I couldn’t really understand it—I mean, to see a seventeen-year-old kid who’s a natural bass. Those are born. You don’t learn to do that. And to hear coloratura sopranos who couldn’t care less. I was forced to reappraise what my understanding of talent is. Then I eventually began to discover that talent is like the battery in a car. It’ll get you started, but if the generator is bad, you don’t go very far.”
A musician by aspiration who took up teaching by necessity, Ellis Marsalis was ambivalent about his own decision to stay in New Orleans and raise his children, rather than to pursue a big-time career in New York. “At the time Wynton was growing up, I still had a lot of anxiety about going to New York,” he recalls. I asked him if he thought Wynton had recognized his frustrations and had set out to aim higher by making New York his home base. Was he trying to fulfill his father’s dream? “Could be,” Ellis said, nodding slowly. “It could be.”
In The History of Jazz (1997) Ted Gioia wrote, “[Wynton] Marsalis’s rise to fame while barely out of his teens was an unprecedented event in the jazz world. No major jazz figure—not Ellington or Armstrong, Goodman or Gillespie—had become so famous, so fast.” The facts are impressive even twenty years later: while still at Juilliard, Marsalis was invited to join another kind of conservatory, the Jazz Messengers, a band led by the drummer Art Blakey; soon after, he was appointed the group’s musical director, at age nineteen. As Ellis Marsalis says, “He called up and said, ‘Man, I have a chance to join Art Blakey’s band. What do you think?’ I said, ‘Well, one thing about Juilliard, man,’ I said, ‘Juilliard’s going to be there when they’re shoveling dirt in your face. Art Blakey won’t.’” By 1982, when he turned twenty-one, Wynton had toured with the jazz star Herbie Hancock and had played with distinction on half a dozen albums, leading “the jazz press to declare him a prodigy,” Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times in the mid-1980s. Columbia Records signed him in an extraordinary contract that called for Marsalis to make both classical and jazz recordings, and he started a collection of Grammys in both categories. No jazz musician has had such success since.
To a degree Marsalis’s aesthetic, which draws reverentially on the African-American traditions of the blues and swing, seems to repudiate the style of the previous era. Swing was a rejection of traditional New Orleans jazz, bebop a rejection of swing, cool jazz a rejection of bop, free jazz a rejection of the cool, and fusion a rejection of free jazz. (Though reductive and Oedipal, this theory bears up well enough if one ignores the innumerable overlaps, inconsistencies, and contradictions, and also the entire career of Duke Ellington.) Wynton and his young peers were rejecting fusion, an amorphous mixture of jazz and pop-rock, which they saw as fatuous and vulgar, and which they thought pandered to commercialism.
As the composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard, a childhood friend of Wynton’s who followed him to New York and into Blakey’s band, recalls, “In the early eighties we had to fight for our existence in the music war. The fusion thing was real big, and we were trying to get back to, like, just the fundamental elements in jazz.”
But for all fusion’s attributes as a target (it was slick, ostentatious, cold, and elementally white, much like the big-band “innovations in modern music” of Stan Kenton and the “third-stream” pretenses of the 1950s), the style scarcely dominated the New York jazz scene when the Marsalis brothers and Blanchard started out. In fact, when Wynton Marsalis played at the club Seventh Avenue South in the last week of January 1982, to promote his eponymous first solo album, nearly every jazz room in town featured bebop (or older styles of the music): Kai Winding was at the Vanguard, Anita O’Day at the Blue Note, Dizzy Gillespie at Fat Tuesday’s, Archie Shepp at Sweet Basil, George Shearing at Michael’s Pub.
“There was a whole lot of jazz in New York then, and it was straight-ahead [bebop], by and large,” recalls the pianist and educator Barry Harris. “You had all the work you could do [as a bebop musician], and nobody was doing fusion but the kids. Now, they made the festivals and whatnot for the younger crowd. That was where that was at. It was no big thing. That was a good time for straight-ahead [music] in New York.”
Although marginal to the core jazz constituency, centered in New York (as it had been for decades and continues to be), fusion had a voguish appeal to college audiences and other young people. The Marsalis revolution was especially radical, then, in rejecting a style popular among musicians of the revolutionary’s own age, rather than the music established by his elders; it was subversive methodologically as well as aesthetically, and the ensuing polarization in jazz circles on the subject of Marsalis and his music was uniquely intra-generational.
The musical landscape Marsalis entered in full stride and soon dominated was far more complex than most accounts have suggested—as is the actual music he has made. Marsalis was never a nostalgist like the tuba player Vince Giordano, who re-creates jazz styles of the early twentieth century. The improvisations on the first few Wynton Marsalis albums employed elements of the blues and swing (along with other styles, including free jazz), but in the service of personal expression; and Marsalis’s earliest compositions, with their harmonic surprises and their lightning shifts in time signature, were less homage than montage. In the image his detractors like to paint (over and over), Marsalis single-handedly halted jazz’s progress. “Wynton has the car in reverse,” the trombonist and composer Bob Brookmeyer has said, “and the pedal to the metal”; if so, the vehicle was already in gear. Over the course of the 1970s a movement to elevate esteem for jazz and protect the music’s heritage was emerging in one sphere at the same time that fusion and the music of the living bebop masters coexisted in their own spheres. The Smithsonian Institution began an effort to preserve the musical archives of Duke Ellington and other jazz masters; the bandleader and trumpeter Herb Pomeroy was leading a repertory jazz program at the Berklee College of Music, in Boston; the saxophonist Loren Schoenberg was working with Benny Goodman to revive his big band; the bassist Chuck Israels formed the National Jazz Ensemble; the musicologist and conductor Gunther Schuller was conducting vintage jazz works and writing about them as if there were a canon; the impresario George Wein founded the New York Jazz Repertory Company. “I just felt like it was time,” recalls Wein, who later produced the neo-traditional concerts of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. “There was a lot of that percolating at the time, and that’s the atmosphere that Wynton and the others came into.”
The revival movement itself was a revival. Back in the late 1930s, when the “From Spirituals to Swing” concerts at Carnegie Hall gave American jazz the imprimatur of the cultural establishment, the music had changed course and languished in a contemplative state. Writers and musicians of the period rediscovered the artists and styles of the music’s (relatively recent) past—a respite, time has shown us, during which jazz began metamorphosing into bebop.
The debate over classicism that has swirled around Marsalis is nothing new either. The enduring issue is, of course, not which work is entitled to a place in the canon—Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe? Jelly Roll Morton’s “Black Bottom Stomp”?—but who is empowered to confer that distinction. Marsalis has compounded things substantially, not only by making music that he expects will be taken seriously but also by defining the terms, and by challenging white critics and white-dominated institutions to yield authority over such matters.
The scholar and author Gerald Early, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, says, “Wynton Marsalis is a target for criticism because, unlike a lot of artists, he’s become a quite outspoken critic himself, and he has articulated a historical theory and an aesthetic theory about jazz music. I think that critics feel kind of threatened and rather uncomfortable when an artist comes along who’s capable of doing that pretty well—well enough so that a critic has to respect it.” Indeed, most of the early press about Marsalis was laudatory, until he dared to use his platform to advance ideas about jazz history and black identity. Ever since, jazz critics, most of whom are white, have tended to treat Marsalis more severely. “The fact that these critics are white, that a lot of the audience for jazz music is white,” Early says, “I think is a source of tension for many of the artists who are black. White critics basically codified and structured the history of this music and made the judgments about who is significant in the music and so forth, and I think in this culture that can’t help but be a real source of tension for many black jazz musicians.”
Stanley Crouch, a critic and a long-standing influence on Marsalis, is quick to expand on the theme. “I think a lot of the criticism of Wynton’s music is based upon a hostility toward him. Marsalis, any way the critics look at him, is superior to them. He’s a greater musician than any of them are writers. He’s a good-looking guy. He has access to and has had access to a far higher quality of female than any of them could ever imagine. He doesn’t look up to them, and that’s a problem.”
Wynton Marsalis lives in an airy eight-room apartment on the twenty-ninth floor of a high-rise tower a few dozen footsteps from the stage entrance to Alice Tully Hall, where Lincoln Center’s jazz orchestra has been playing since it started, in 1987. His home is as conscientiously detailed as the house of his parents. On a visit a year ago I asked him if his mother had helped him decorate it, and he laughed. “Maybe she should have,” he said. “She knows what she’s doing.” But he has his own taste, and it isn’t his mother’s. The living room, which is so spacious that at first I didn’t notice the grand piano in the corner, is done in vivid colors; Marsalis says that he likes Matisse for the “positivity and affirmation” of his work, and that he picked up the artist’s vibrant palette in his appointments. Patterns on the carpeting and the fabrics suggest crescents, the symbol of his home town. Sunlight floods the room from banks of windows at the room’s outer corners. “I like the sun,” Marsalis told me as we sat on sofas opposite each other. “The source of life. There’s a lot of sun in New Orleans.” An enormous lithograph of Duke Ellington hangs over one of the sofas, and other prints and photographs of Ellington, along with those of Armstrong and Blakey, line the hall leading to the other rooms.
Gerald Early has commented on Marsalis’s sense of style: “Whether he is at the cutting edge of what’s going on in jazz now is neither here nor there. He represents a certain kind of image, which I think is enormously important, of the jazz musician as this kind of well-dressed, extremely sophisticated person, and a person who lives well—a person who reads books, a person who, you know, enjoys a kind of GQ sort of life.”
Until recently Wynton Marsalis seemed physically unaccountable to time. His good looks were the boyish kind. Full-cheeked and bright-eyed, he was adorable. At the same time, he always carried himself with a poised surety, a masculine grace, that tended to make women straighten up and men start poking their toes at things. The nickname “young lion” seemed appropriate, Marsalis being a creature of fearsome beauty who is also nocturnal, combative, and nomadic. But his body has begun its midlife thickening. He projects a quieter, softer, slower presence now, although he still plays a tough game of basketball.
For most of the past twenty years he has been on view in his natural state: working. Marsalis is living by the work ethic that his father passed on from his grandfather, with a determination that would seem pathological if it weren’t utterly normal for him. He is not manic; he works at a moderate pace but never stops. Indeed, although Marsalis has not been recording much lately, he is constantly working with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. From his office in the headquarters of Jazz at Lincoln Center he oversees its creative and educational activities. He practices the trumpet for several hours every day. He plays with his sons when they are with him. And in the evening he goes out—leaving just a few hours a night for sleep. When we spoke at his home, I asked him what the man in the lithograph over his head, Duke Ellington, meant to him.
“Indefatigable worker. He loved music and people and playing. He played a lot, and he loved jazz, and he loved the Afro-American people.”
“Do you have a performance philosophy?”
“I’ve always tried to be respectful of my audience. I always sign people’s autographs, always acted like I was working for them. I try to play people’s requests, try to come up with a way of playing that I thought people would want to listen to—never thought I was above them. I’m here to do a job. I always try to be professional, and many times, in halls across the country, I’m the last one to leave—all the crews are gone.
“For me to tell people who are spending their money and have worked their jobs and are going on a date with their husbands or their wives, tell them, ‘I know you all are here, and you should be honored that I’m here‘—that’s just not my philosophy.”
He keeps a dressing room full of elegant clothing—closets of dark suits and formal wear, and a rack of hats. The bedroom has a long cabinet with framed family photos and other memorabilia on display; when Marsalis sits up in his bed, they are what he sees.
He flopped onto his mattress and focused on the task of cleaning and lubricating his trumpet. “I should properly do this all the time,” he said, shaking his head at himself. “I keep playing till it’s so filthy all you hear when I play it is the dirt.” Marsalis pulled his instrument apart and began a consuming procedure that involved massaging a viscous fluid onto each of the parts. As he worked, he talked about music, which is what he seems most at home doing wherever he is.
“My daddy said to me, when I was leaving high school, you know, debating whether I would go to New York, should I go into music, and the whole thing was, ‘Well, you don’t want to go into music, because you’ll end up being like your daddy.’ He struggled his whole life. He said, ‘Man, I can tell you one thing. Do it if you want to do it and if you love doin’ it. But if you don’t want to do it for that reason, don’t do it. Because when it really, really gets hard, you have to tell yourself, This is what I want to do.’ My father told me, ‘Don’t sit around waiting for publicity, money, people saying you’re great. Son, that might never happen. If you want to do it and you love doin’ it, do it. But if you don’t …’” Marsalis shook his head.
For all his success and acclaim, Marsalis is vexed by his critics in the jazz establishment. “My relationship with the jazz critics has never been good,” he said, pausing for some time, at least half a minute. “It’s never been a great relationship. I’ve never been portrayed accurately—not at all. The whole thing was always, like, trying to water down your level of seriousness, always trying to make you seem like an angry young man and all this. Man, you know—that was just bullshit.
“When I hear that term, ‘classicism,’ it’s hard for me to figure out what people are talking about. There are so many musicians playing today—like, the way Joe Lovano plays, the way Marcus Roberts plays, the way that Joshua Redman plays, the way that Danilo Pérez plays, the way Cyrus Chestnut plays. There are a lot of musicians playing a lot of different styles. In any period of any music a vast majority of the practitioners sought some common language, and then there are people who do variations on that language. I think we need to delve deeper into the tradition, not run away from it. See, musicians are always encouraged to run away from it. You know, if you’re a musician, you want to run from it, for a basic reason—because you don’t compare well against it.”
A decade ago The New Yorker ran a cartoon depicting a middle-aged white man lying in bed. Two young children are bursting into the room. “Dad! Dad! Wake up!” one of the kids yells. “They just discovered another Marsalis!” As each of his musician brothers—and their father—followed Wynton onto the national jazz scene, the Marsalis era took a shape that began to seem dynastic. The family looked like musical Kennedys, from the strong-willed patriarch to the pair of handsome, charismatic sons who led their generation to the younger siblings struggling to fulfill impossible expectations. Eventually all five musicians ended up working at Columbia Records—back under the same roof but in a variety of roles.
Easily reduced to clichés of sibling contrast, Wynton and Branford have personified the duality Wynton sees in the world of the arts: purity versus corruption. In its cover story on Wynton and the young lions, Time emphasized the brothers’ polar attributes.
Wynton, extraordinarily disciplined and driven by an insatiable desire to excel, was a straight-A student who starred in Little League baseball, practiced his trumpet three hours a day and won every music competition he ever entered. Branford … was an average student, a self-described “spaz” in sports and a naturally talented musician who hated to practice.
Branford has played with rock and pop musicians such as Sting and the Grateful Dead; Wynton has derided pop-jazz players as “cult figures, talking-all-the-time heroes, who have these spur-of-the-moment, out-of-their-mind, left-bank, off-the-wall theories about music which make no sense at all to anybody who knows anything about music.” Branford has performed and recorded funk music under the pseudonym Buckshot LeFonque (derived from a pseudonym that the saxophonist Cannonball Adderley used in the 1950s). Wynton told a Kennedy Center audience in 1998, “There’s nothing sadder than a jazz musician playing funk.”
They maintain a respectful distance, playing together on occasion and rarely explicitly criticizing each other in public. “I love my brother, man,” Wynton told me emphatically. “That doesn’t mean we talk every day. We might not get a chance to talk to each other at all for a long time, and we might not agree on everything when we do talk—or when we don’t. But I love my brother Branford, man. I love all my brothers.”
Branford toed the same line when I interviewed him last year, and yet he promptly drew a distinction between his work and Wynton’s. “I love my brother,” he said, “but we’re totally different. I don’t agree with some of the statements that he makes when he says jazz lost the world when it stopped being dance music. One of the things that attracted me to jazz was the fact that it wasn’t dance music. I wouldn’t want to play jazz and have people dance to it. That’s not my thing.”
Although at first praising Wynton’s efforts to carry on the legacy of jazz, Branford couldn’t seem to resist taking a thinly veiled shot. “I think it’s something that should have been done a long time ago and has to be done,” he said. “I use classical music as a role model. There are classical musicians who preserve music. There are people who play madrigals. There are people who only play in their Baroque chamber orchestras.”
Some of those who know the two brothers well see sibling dynamics as an explanation for every step in their careers. “They have tremendous love and tremendous respect for each other, and they will fight to defend one another when speaking to outsiders,” Jeff Levenson, the former Columbia executive, says. “But I really do believe that for Wynton and Branford, each of their achievements has been a competitive strike against the other. They’ve channeled all that rivalry stuff into their own motivational energy.”
Branford’s career has largely followed pop-culture convention—he’s been a musical anti-hero. He exudes a lusty nonchalance, an Elvis quality, that also infuses his saxophone playing. His music is muscular and aggressive. Thoroughly aware of his bad-boy reputation and its market value, he has sustained it into his forties through practice. “They [writers] think I’m an arrogant cuss, which I am,” he told me. When Wynton speaks of being mistaken for “an angry young man,” the man might be his older brother. Branford’s success, coursing through the turbulence of pop-music stardom, network television, and best-selling genres including funk, seems, if not inevitable, at least easy to understand.
Wynton, for his part, rose on a bubble made from an unprecedented mixture of seemingly incompatible ingredients: youth culture, history, the African-American experience, mass marketing, and the ideals of fine art. He was a young man who honored his elders, promoted higher standards in a cynical business, and played a black music thought to be in decline to become a national sensation. How long could he float like that?
When jazz musicians teach improvisation, they often start with a basic assignment: Go home and listen to a recording you like. Take one musical phrase that appeals to you, and use it to construct a composition of your own.
The record industry spent the 1990s on a similar project: the big labels heard what Wynton Marsalis was saying, took from it what appealed to them, and used it to build a new business of their own. In seeking to elevate the public perception of jazz and to encourage young practitioners to pay attention to the music’s traditions, Marsalis put great emphasis on its past masters—particularly in his role as director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Still, he never advocated mere revivalism, and he has demonstrated in his compositions how traditional elements can be referenced, recombined, and reinvented in the name of individualistic expression. “It’s a mistake when people say about Wynton that what he’s doing is recapitulating the past,” Gerald Early says. “I really think that what he’s doing is taking the nature of that tradition and really trying, in fact, to add to it and kind of push it forward.” But record executives came away with a different message: that if the artists of the past are so great and enduring, there’s no reason to continue investing so much in young talent. So they shifted their attention to repackaging their catalogues of vintage recordings.
Where the young lions saw role models and their critics saw idolatry, the record companies saw brand names—the ultimate prize of American marketing. For long-established record companies with vast archives of historic recordings, the economics were irresistible: it is far more profitable to wrap new covers around albums paid for generations ago than it is to find, record, and promote new artists.
As Bruce Lundvall, the head of the Blue Note recording company, acknowledges, “The profitability of the catalogue is a mixed blessing. Let’s say [consumers] buy their first jazz record when they hear Wynton or Joshua Redman or whoever it might be. Then they want to get the history. They start to buy catalogue, and that’s exactly what the active, current roster is fighting. I remember [the saxophonist] Javon Jackson saying to me, ‘I’m not competing with Joshua Redman so much as [with] Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane and Lester Young and Stan Getz‘—the whole history of jazz saxophone players, which is available [on CD].” Jeff Levenson adds, “The Frankenstein monster has turned on its creators. In paying homage to the greats, Wynton and his peers have gotten supplanted by them in the minds of the populace. They’ve gotten supplanted by dead people.”
But dead people make poor live attractions, and thus jazz clubs have suffered commensurably. “You know, I really love Duke and Louis and Miles and Ben Webster and all those guys, but I like jazz best when I can hear it live—it is supposed to be spontaneous music,” says James Browne, who ran Manhattan’s Sweet Basil. “They’ve been saying jazz is America’s classical music, and it deserves respect. Well, now it’s America’s classical music. Thanks a lot. What do we do now?”
No longer signed to major record labels, Wynton, Branford, and other jazz musicians of their generation are taking stock (and they now have the leisure to do so). The focus of the discourse in jazz has shifted from the nature of the art form to that of the artist.
Both Wynton and Branford describe their departures from Columbia Records as an opportunity for self-evaluation. “I’m not with Columbia,” Wynton said soberly in his apartment. “It was not vituperative. It’s just time for me to do something else. It’s just time, and it’s a good thing. It’s just time for me to figure out how I can forward my identity, to say, ‘This is who I am.’
“The record companies should have abandoned us a long time ago. They should have saved us the trouble. It’s not going to be healthy for our pocketbooks, but it’s healthy for jazz. Through that void there is opportunity. Somewhere in that void is an opportunity for somebody to come up and start signing jazz musicians and letting them make the records they want to make.”
Within Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis’s jazz program has always had a status much like that of black culture in America: it is of the whole, yet other. Jazz at Lincoln Center began as a way to fill blank dates on the calendar at Alice Tully Hall, the smallest of the institution’s four major theaters. “I didn’t think it was important at the beginning,” Marsalis says. “They called me and said they wanted to do some concerts with dead hall space in Lincoln Center, and did I have any ideas about what they could do? Because I had played classical music, I was a person to call. So I called Crouch—‘What do you think? What could we do?’ So we got together. It wasn’t that big a deal—it was just three of us in a room [Marsalis, Crouch, and Alina Bloomgarden, of Lincoln Center], talking. Then I started to take it seriously.”
Although Jazz at Lincoln Center is now the institutional equal of the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the New York City Ballet, most of its concerts are still being held in Alice Tully Hall. Sometime around the fall of 2004 Jazz at Lincoln Center will move into a sprawling multipurpose compound at Columbus Circle, a few blocks south of Lincoln Center proper. There, at the yet unfinished Frederick P. Rose Hall, it will be part of the new AOL Time Warner Center, which will house not only the corporate headquarters of AOL Time Warner but also a hotel, a condominium tower, and various stores and restaurants. It will be the only one of Lincoln Center’s fiefdoms to be based “off-campus.” Still of the whole, yet other.
Marsalis has been deeply involved in the planning of—and the fundraising for—this new home for Jazz at Lincoln Center, which he talks about with a keen sense of “the spirit of place,” the phrase he once used as the title of a concert of Duke Ellington’s travel music. In a piercing wind on a January afternoon last year we walked around the construction site, a beam skeleton more than ten stories high at that point, and he described the philosophical underpinnings of the project.
“This is going to be the House of Swing, and we want everything in it to swing, even though the only thing swinging around here now is girders—watch your head,” Marsalis said calmly. Against the cold he and I were both wearing long topcoats, woolen scarves, and hardhats, but he looked comfortable; he seemed to know every unmarked area in the maze of steel and most of the men working in it. Marsalis guided me to the center of an open space, about 250 square yards, which would someday be one of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s two main performance venues—this one large enough to stage one of Ellington’s symphonic suites; the other one about half its size, for small groups and solo recitals. “They’re like two sides of the same thing, like night and day or man and woman,” he said.
“Sound is very important,” Marsalis continued. “So are the people. The people are as important as the musicians here.” The stages will be lower and closer to the seats than they are in typical theaters, and the spaces will be designed to carry, not diminish, the sound of the audience. “We want to hear the audience answering us back—the call and response, we want that.”
On our way to a makeshift elevator used for shuttling the work crews and materials, a foreman approached Marsalis, accompanied by several construction workers. “Excuse me, Wynton—I want you to meet Moose,” the foreman said. “He’s a hell of a singer.”
A stocky fellow stepped forward tentatively. He had a stiff-lipped, nervous grin that he spoke through. “Hi, Wynton,” he said.
Marsalis shook his hand. “Why don’t you come over some time and do some tunes with us—sing with the band?” Marsalis said, waving a hand northward in the direction of Lincoln Center.
“No kidding?” the aspiring singer said, still grinning (but less nervously).
“Come on over—we’ll do some tunes.”
Like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, both of whom toured the world under the auspices of the U.S. State Department during the Cold War, Marsalis has a feeling for people and a passion for his art that in combination make him a potent political force. No one denies his importance as a global ambassador of jazz. “He has never moved me as a trumpet player,” Whitney Balliett, a well-known jazz critic, says. “But God—watching him in the Burns thing [Ken Burns’s 2001 PBS documentary about jazz], it’s phenomenal! All he has to do is open his mouth, and out it comes.” According to the composer and conductor David Berger, who has been associated with the Lincoln Center jazz program since its inception, “Duke Ellington probably had more charisma than anybody I ever met—I mean, he was amazing. But Wynton, he’s got it too. When you talk to him, he makes you feel good—just his presence, his energy. It elevates you and makes you want to be a better person.”
I accompanied Marsalis to an event at the Cross Path Culture Center to benefit Barry Harris’s jazz-education institute, and I lost him in the crowd of several hundred people. Dozens of jazz musicians, including Randy Weston, Kenny Barron, Allan Harris, and Jeffery Smith, were milling around the loftlike open space. When a camera flash went off, I spotted Wynton having his picture taken. Shortly after that another flash popped, ten or fifteen feet away from the first, and I saw Wynton posing again. I realized that all I needed to do to find him at any point during the evening was to look out at the crowd, and a camera flash would mark him.
To an institution like Jazz at Lincoln Center, with a new headquarters under construction and some $28 million left to raise from corporate sponsors, grants, and society donors, Marsalis is an asset of immeasurable value. “What strategy does the board of directors have for raising the necessary funds?” I asked the board chairman, Lisa Schiff, in her office, a few blocks south of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s future home. “Wynton,” she said.
For years Jazz at Lincoln Center was savaged by charges of mismanagement, racism, elitism, ageism, cronyism, and sexism, but these days it is more inclusive, forward-looking, and professional. Indeed, the concert schedule put together for the 2001-2002 year by Marsalis and his reorganized staff (including Todd Barkan, the artistic administrator, an independent-minded impresario who joined Jazz at Lincoln Center two years ago) was practically a manifesto against canonical rigidity. Emphatically multicultural, eclectic, and even contemporary, the program presented the music of Brazil (Pixinguinha, Cyro Baptista), of women (Abbey Lincoln, Barbara Carroll, Rhoda Scott), of white people (Woody Herman, Lee Konitz), of the French (a tribute to the Hot Club de France), and of young adventurists (Greg Osby, Akua Dixon). Perhaps Marsalis really did have a plan for Moose the construction worker to sing with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
“One of my problems with Wynton used to be that he drew such a hard line many times,” the composer and saxophonist Greg Osby recalls. “He doesn’t seem to be that firm anymore. A lot of it I recognize as youth. He’s a lot more accepting of varied presentation now. Not to say that he loves it, but he’s a lot more tolerant of it.”
Jazz’s public advocates, Marsalis among them, like to talk about the music as a democratic art, a form of communal expression founded on the primacy of the individual voice. In recent years the conversation about the future of the music has focused on the global expansion of the jazz community and the integrity of the voices in that expanded community. But if the effectiveness of any democracy is in inverse proportion to its size, it looks—again—as though jazz may be doomed. That is to say, the music may not survive in the form we now know. Two decades after Wynton Marsalis and his troops took up arms against fusion, world music, the apotheosis of fusion, is at the gate.
“I wonder about the future of jazz, with all the music from other parts of the world floating around more and more and more,” Whitney Balliett says. “Eventually that’s going to be picked up in jazz. It already has been, and I wonder if there will eventually, in the next ten or twenty years, be a kind of diffusion—if the music will no longer be the jazz that we had ten or twenty years ago.”
As for Marsalis, the very subject of globalism and jazz makes him choke on his words. I brought up the topic while we were eating Chinese food on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, after he had told me how much he was enjoying his spicy chicken. “World music“—he coughed out the phrase—“and all that stuff. I like people’s music from around the world, and music from around the world belongs in Jazz at Lincoln Center. But for me—my music—I like jazz. I like the swingin.’ I loved Art Blakey. I loved Dizzy. I love jazz musicians. Jazz has to be portrayed and brought forward for what it is—and celebrated. It can’t be sold by being subsumed into the world-music market, and I’m just not willing to—I’m not willing to compromise my integrity under any circumstances. I wouldn’t do it when I was twenty. I’m certainly not going to do it when I’m forty.”
In 1939 Duke Ellington walked away from his contract with Columbia Records. Coincidentally, he, too, turned forty that year, and was at a career crossroads. After more than a decade of near servitude to his manager, Irving Mills, Ellington ended their association and started rebuilding his musical organization. He hired a pair of virtuoso innovators, the bassist Jimmy Blanton and the tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, and began composing with a new collaborator, the twenty-four-year-old Billy Strayhorn. “Ellington’s music was marked by increased rhythmic drive and instrumental virtuosity,” John Edward Hasse wrote in a 1993 biography of the composer. “[It presaged] bebop and other musical developments to come, and numerous musical explorations and innovations. With breathtaking originality, Ellington broke more and more new ground.” In 1946 the jazz magazines would proclaim, almost in unison, that Ellington was passé again. Ten years after that Time would declare “a turning point in [Ellington’s] career,” saying that the composer had “emerged from a long period of quiescence and was once again bursting with ideas and inspiration.”
When Wynton Marsalis turned forty, in the fall of 2001, Jazz at Lincoln Center threw him a surprise party at the Manhattan nightclub Makor, a couple of blocks away from his apartment. I had received an invitation and had been told that the guest list would be limited strictly to those who knew Marsalis well or worked closely with him, but there were hundreds of people sardined into the place: musicians and administrators from Jazz at Lincoln Center; the saxophonist Jimmy Heath; the broadcaster Ed Bradley; and others I could not see, because no one could move. Marsalis entered at 10:30 that evening, accompanied by his father and Stanley Crouch (who lured Marsalis to the club under the pretext of meeting a couple of women). The band struck up “Happy Birthday,” New Orleans-style, and Marsalis waded through the crowd toward the bandstand, beaming, his arms raised high in the air.
It took him nearly twenty minutes—and thirty choruses of “Happy Birthday“—to reach the stage. “It really was a surprise,” Marsalis said, and he began to cry. “Sometimes you’re working so much, and this stuff just unfolds, and—I don’t know. I can’t say nothing.”
The first piece the band played, after “Happy Birthday,” was Ellington’s “C-Jam Blues” (also known as “Duke’s Place”), and the last song of the night was Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” Thanking his well-wishers, Marsalis eventually approached my vicinity in the crowd, and I asked him if he knew where Ellington had been on the same day in his life. “In Sweden,” he said in half a beat. “Making some music—or making something!” (Ellington had indeed been in Stockholm, on a European tour.)
A few weeks later we were talking about his birthday, and Marsalis brought up Ellington again. “I have so much further to go,” he said. “I’m just a baby. I’m just trying to figure out how to play. Like Duke, man—Duke never stopped, never stopped learning. Till the end, man, he was sitting at the piano every night—every night—trying to figure out how to do it better.
“I’ve had my ups and downs. Everybody does. I don’t know what you would say about me right now. But I’m not concerned with that. You have to keep your mind on the issue, and the issue is the music. You have to look at the world around you and the things that happen to you and take them inside yourself and make something out of it. That’s what jazz is. That’s how I feel.”
For Wynton Marsalis, fate is an opportunity for creative improvisation—another ringing cell phone at the Village Vanguard.
by David Hajdu
Source: The Atlantic