Wynton’s interview on the Telegraph: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got swing

Being with Wynton Marsalis is always an education. He’s happiest when he can enthuse about something, or learn something new from whoever he’s speaking to. Right now, sitting over lunch in a Japanese restaurant in New York, he’s off on the topic of jazz’s Anglo-Celtic roots.

“Those folk songs and hymns the slaves learnt from their masters were the real basis, the African element was grafted on top, not the other way round,” he says very firmly, “and this is why African and jazz rhythms developed in a different way. Listen, if you clap a marching rhythm, one-two-three-four, you can fit a swing rhythm over the top, like this.”

He demonstrates, to the amused interest of other diners as well as me. “Now can you beat out a march rhythm for me?” As I oblige, Marsalis closes his eyes, frowns with concentration, and claps out something with a startlingly different feel. Suddenly, we seem to be transported to Africa.

“That’s a Ghanaian rhythm. I had to figure out a way of putting these two things together when I wrote Congo Square.”

Congo Square (co-written with Yacub Addy) is one of three pieces by Marsalis that are receiving their British premiere during the forthcoming JLCO (Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra) residency at the Barbican Centre. The title, I discover, is full of significance for African-Americans.

“Congo Square was in New Orleans, and it was the only place in the US where slaves could play their drums. It was controlled by the French, who were more relaxed about slaves’ cultural practices. The English banned drums because they were seen as a kind of communication.”
That tradition is long gone. But Marsalis was able to rediscover it, thanks to Addy, a New York-based Ghanaian musician who performs alongside Marsalis’s orchestra, together with his group Odadaa!

“Man, I learnt so much from that guy,” says Marsalis reverently. “He told me about the meaning of different rhythms, and played me something called a royal rhythm. I said I couldn’t hear the difference between that and a normal triplet rhythm, and he said: ‘Brother, that’s why you will never play it right!’ ” Marsalis tells all this with a laugh.

The passion to learn, the reverence for jazz’s roots, the concern with big issues of cultural transmission, as well as the minutiae of musical performance and composition, these are what have made Wynton Marsalis such an inspirational leader of the JLCO. Plus a stratospheric performing ability on the trumpet, and a human touch that allows all the members of the orchestra to shine.

Under his leadership, the orchestra’s activities at the Lincoln Center have grown from a modest three-concert summer season back in 1987 to a permanent presence as one of the centre’s 12 resident artistic institutions. He has become a worldwide ambassador for this quintessentially American musical genre, which began as the voice of an oppressed people, became a global form of popular entertainment and is now revered as an art form.
Some complain that during its ascent to the high ground, jazz lost its roots in communal solidarity and simple joyousness. That’s something that concerns Todd Stoll, who runs the educational side of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

“Don’t run away from the swing; that’s something Wynton says often, and I agree. I think it would be great if people could dance to jazz again, like they used to. The problem is that school and college dance bands moved over to pop and rock in the Sixties and Seventies, so they lost touch with jazz. I played in one of those bands myself, and when I left I hadn’t played a single note of Duke Ellington.” He shakes his head in disbelief at this sorry state of affairs.

The music of Duke Ellington, whom Marsalis describes as one of the great geniuses in all music, is at the centre of the education department’s activities. Their Essentially Ellington pack will be sent out to any school that asks for it, plus a vast library of scores across the entire history of jazz. All this is gratis, thanks to some generous private donors.

“Thousands of school bands have an entire library filled with our material,” says Stoll, with some pride, “and we’re starting to work overseas now.”
Across the street from Stoll’s office in the Time-Warner building is more evidence of JLC’s ambition, as well as the generosity of private philanthropy in America. It houses the first purpose-built large auditorium for jazz, the Frederick P Rose Hall, plus the medium-sized Allen Room, a jazz education centre and archive, and the intimate Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, which has a view to die for over Central Park.

At the centre of all this is the 15-strong big band which visits Britain next week, and contains many of American’s finest players plus two Britons, in the shape of trombonist Elliot Mason and revered Scottish baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley.

It’s all mightily impressive, but Marsalis has his critics. Many say his effort to preserve swing-based jazz is misguided, because the real essence of jazz is that it is the “sound of surprise”, always moving on. In any case, the nerve centre of African-American culture has shifted to other forms of music: above all, hip hop.

Marsalis will have none of this. “Hip-hop for me is a throwback to the minstrelsy. After the Civil War, white folks were offered minstrel shows that offered ‘real coons from the real plantation’, and to me that’s like rappers today, with their talk of keeping it real, giving themselves a minstrel name, boasting about how they can degrade their women.”
Belonging to a tradition offers a way out of this sterile self-assertion. “You and I talk English, so we’re able to embrace the tradition the language embodies, of Chaucer and Shakespeare. It’s the background to everything we say, and we need to be aware of that. The more you learn of the traditions you belong to, the higher you can go. Look at Joe Temperley, he’s the oldest member of our band, he’s from Scotland, and yet he plays jazz so beautifully and with such optimism. It’s not about where you’re from, it’s who you are and what you have become.”

Wynton Marsalis & Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra are in residence at the Barbican Centre (0845 120 7550) July 10–26. They will also appear at the Anvil, Basingstoke (01256 844 244), on July 17 and Symphony Hall, Birmingham (0121 780 4949) on July 20.

Source: The Telegraph

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