Young man with a horn

A couple of months ago I got a phone call from a writer working on an article about Jazz at Lincoln Center. The program, announced in the spring of 1991, has gotten a lot of media attention. It’s undeniable that Lincoln Center’s giving jazz a regular home has “legitimized” it in the eyes of some cultural elites, including foundations and philanthropists, here in the land of its birth-one of the last places the music has won that respect. (Whether jazz should have needed Lincoln Center for legitimation is debatable but. unfortunately, beside the point. More on that later.) But the biggest media draw was the designation of Wynton Marsalis as artistic director.

What threw me about the phone call was that my colleague, despite the positive article I’d written to greet the series in New York magazine, expected me to bad-mouth the idea, its execution, its future. I wouldn’t. I explained that the series is only in its second season, that Rob Gibson was hired as director only a few months before it was slated to start, that booking is more complicated than just making a phone call, that Lincoln Center’s halls are typically scheduled for a year or more in advance, making it difficult to place even the bookings he could get. The writer fed me quotes from other sources to prime the pump. All that did was get me to thinking about why he figured anything Marsalis touched would be anathema to me.

Cut to the premiere of Griot New York, the collaboration between Marsalis and choreographer Garth Fagan, in December 1991 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. People in evening finery are draped over the orchestra pit waiting for the trumpeter to come out and tune up. The lights go down and they disperse. Fagan’s dances tend to be puckish and irreverent (although Griot seems a bit stiffer than usual), but the surprise is that much of Marsalis’s music supplements the choreography with its own wry humor.

At least that surprised me. After all, one reason that poor scribe called me was that I’ve complained that Marsalis’s attitudes, and to a large extent his music, have been stunted by an overly high-toned moral seriousness based on a politics of exclusion. From my perspective, that stance denied jazz’s history of expansion, accretion and appropriation. Almost from the moment he appeared on the scene over a decade ago, the young trumpeter was hailed (especially by the promotional organs of his record company) as the engine of jazz’s revivification. He (and they) kept citing this thing called The Tradition, which was supposed to be the self evident lineage of all true jazz. Satchmo to Duke to Bird, I called it—a double play combo that ignores all the fascinating bounces and odd hops that, to my mind, are what make jazz so fundamentally American m its heterogeneity.

Marsalis was supposed to be on a mission: to purge jazz of excesses it had lapsed into since about 1960. In his many and often vitriolic interviews, the young trumpeter made it plain that in his mind jazz was clearly definable in terms of its past. This was an unusual way of characterizing a music whose heroes had consistently looked to the present and future. Still, it was understandable to an extent. The collection of styles we call jazz now has a history stretching back beyond a century. At some point jazz had to pause to reflect on its own development. So did European classical music, in the period between Bach and Mozart.

This is what Marsalis proposed to do for jazz. So he repudiated the commercialism that jazz-rock fusion had dwindled into during the 1970s. The only problem, for me and others, was that he also dissed the truly revolutionary work of greats like Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. Following jazz’s tradition of growth by accretion, they mixed radically diverse musical elements-jazz, funk, rock, Stockhausen, Cage-into a new and heady American brew. If a lot of their would-be followers filled discs with aural junk food-well, that wasn’t their fault. Can you hold Ginsberg and Kerouac responsible for the reams of unreadable mush Beat wannabes cranked out? And does that mush diminish Howl or On the Road?.

Ellington, one of Marsalis’s heroes, had no problems with appropriation, whether from post-Impressionist harmonies or forms like concertos or suites. So there was no small historical irony when Marsalis began denouncing the experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s, which produced such fascinating sonic explorers as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (A.A.C.M.) and Black Artists Group, as “too European.” This raised other questions. What exactly does “European” mean as a stylistic description? It’s not a genre, like rockabilly or reggae, unless we reduce Bach and Bulgarian women’s choirs and flamenco to some least common absurdity. And why, in a music that’s a confluence of European and African idioms, would a European influence be alien?

(Let’s skip lightly over the ironies of Marsalis’s recording passable versions of classical trumpet pieces and of the praise they garnered. Why should jazz musicians have to “prove” their skill by recording European pieces? It just underlines old prejudices among “serious” musicians and music lovers. The technical innovations jazzers have achieved on virtually any of the European-derived instruments they use dwarf comparable innovations by classical musicians in the past hundred years. And then there’s America’s massive cultural inferiority complex vis-a-vis Europe, and the racism that forced many talented and conservatory-trained black musicians to play jazz when they might have opted for the concert hall.)

Marsalis issued canonical prescriptions about the nature of jazz. First and central: The music has to be based on the blues. Though this may seem historically self-evident—blues is jazz’s taproot-it doesn’t necessarily fit jazz’s history of accretion and appropriation. It’s also a slippery notion. Were the Tin Pan Alley tunes that became standards for improvisation blues-based? Did Coleman Hawkins or Art Tatum ever really play the blues? Besides, demanding that jazz go back to its origins to validate itself is like demanding that Megadeth include a Howlin’ Wolf track on every album. It’s genealogically correct and totally beside the point. The music, like the world it inhabits and reflects, has moved on.

You could perform the same calculus of reduction with his other rules. It’s not that jazz should ignore the possibilities he sees. It’s that it shouldn’t ignore any possibilities. The beauty of its breadth is that there’s something for almost everyone-an artistic realization of the American Dream. Marsalis’s rules, like the pronouncements of an ER. Leavis or a Hilton Kotamer, are primarily moral rather than aesthetic. Their aim is to narrow and control the horizons, to define the type of exploration to be sanctioned.

Keep in mind that Marsalis’s arrival on the scene dovetailed with the coming of CDs. So revivalism was very much on the minds of record-biz execs. CDs brought baby-boom-andolder buyers back into the record stores, which they’d largely abandoned during the 1970s. They needed to buy the soundtracks of their fives again, since those had been transferred to the new medium. By the mid-1980s, half or more of every major jazz label’s releases were reissues. You don’t have to be John Sculley to see how a revivalist program and sound like Marsalis’s fit neatly into the marketing plan.

Because Marsalis’s music manifested his credo, over his first decade as a composer he wrote little that got beyond pastiche. His playing, and that of his sidemen, rarely rose” above the level of an homage. But by the late 1980s, when he began a senous study of Satchmo and Ellington sidemen like Cootie Williams and Bubber Miley, Marsalis’s own sound grew. He began incorporating their onomatopoeic effects—the smears and mute wah-wahs and laughing hiccups. The additions broadened his conception of his horn, lessened his dependence on hard-bop models like Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard and the younger Miles, and started to give him the unique voice every jazz musician seeks. Not without irony, though: The post-Ornette vanguards Marsalis dislikes reappropriated those same effects into their musical vocabularies during the 1960s. (They were despised by generations of jazzers, especially the boppers, as clownish.) As Gary Giddins noted to me, the A.A.C.M.‘s Lester Bowie, target of some of the younger trumpeter’s most vicious attacks, was also his avatar. Maybe it’s a case for Harold Bloom.

Growing up in public mixes the pleasure of fame with the danger of exploitation, as Mickey Rooney or Judy Garland could’ve told you. But that’s what Marsalis did, as Miles had to before him. He came out of Art Blakey’s hardbop College of Musical Knowledge shooting his mouth off, attacking everybody from Miles to Herbie Hancock, styles from fusion to funk. He publicly denounced his brother Branford for touring with Sting. But gradually-very gradually-his for-the-record tirades shifted to a more positive emphasis on his notion of what the music should be. He’s become a tireless educator, taking time out on tour to visit local high schools, check out the charts they are playing, conduct workshops. (It’s no accident that the Lincoln Center program boasts a slate of concerts for young people at la Leonard Bernstein.)

Some of this is gratifyingly unpublicized. Take Marsalis’s contribution to New York’s Third Street Music School Settlement, an inexpensive East Village training ground. Last year it held an auction to help maintain its subsidized fee structure; Marsalis offered trumpet lessons with himself, which drew healthy bids.

In addition, Marsalis’s highly visible success as a spokesman/star who fashioned a career as a jazz musician made jazz look viable to a generation of younger musicians. Who can guess how many American kids he’s attracted to making jazz? Stardom is overvalued in this country, but there’s no denying its pull-in certain areas, that is. Although Marsalis’s recordings sell in the six figures—very impressive for jazz—he still doesn’t pull in a larger public for jazz overall. (Branford may do more to attract new listeners to jazz just by booking it regularly on the Tonight show.)

While things began changing conceptually for Marsalis at the end of the last decade, they changed very slowly. Between 1987 and 1991 he released the pretentiously titled three-volume Standard Time (each volume had a different subtitle-volume three’s, for instance was “The Resolution of Romance”). A series of duets with his pianist-father Ellis, the discs, despite the subtitles, did not differ a whit in tone or approach. Their main problem, I wrote then, was theft worshipful attitude toward the material. Sacramental reverence isn’t necessarily the best approach when a musician is trying to reroast old chestnuts. The intersection of the two Marsalises created little heat and no fire; the standards stayed standard. In 1991 came the also pretentiously named Soul Gestures in Southern Blue (Columbia)—Another three volume set, this one boring blues-based compositions. Tellingly, Marsalis’s best paying surfaces on offbeat encounters, like his solos on Charles Mingus’s Epitaph (Columbia)

A couple years ago, I was writing an article on the then-new intersection of hip-hop and jazz, deejays jamming rhythm tracks under live musicians. One of the folks I talked to about the idea was Marsalis, who I figured would lambaste it. Instead, he used it to make a related point that draws on the work of writer Albert Murray (a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center committee):

I think that if you can get people dancing to the music, that’s a major step forward for it— as long as you don’t prostitute the music itself to do that. That’s the only thing. You can get them to dance to jazz music. But then the music has to be different, too; the musicians will have to play it a little differently. The groove elements will have to be developed, coming out of the New Orleans tradition. A funk groove is just one groove out of thousands that could have evolved in American music. Take what Duke Ellington did: He’s one of the people who really created a lot of different grooves. His grooves are very sophisticated, so since most of the public is used to dancing only on a backbeat, it would take a lot to change the way of thinking and get popular dance up to the level of sophistication needed to address these grooves. But that could give jazz musicians a little bigger window to get through to the public, if we learn how to construct grooves again, like Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Elvin Jones were doing. I would be glad to see that work.

I found—and still find—his hierarchies unsettlingly elitist. But this was an encouraging sign that his aesthetic focus was shifting. Then came Griot New York, which almost served as an illustration of his thoughts on the interrelationship between dance and music. Ballet, it seems, may open some new and interesting musical doors for Marsalis. My guess is that it’s because it gives him a strictly defined, disciplined format with a spatial analogue. The physical correlative allows him to let the music comment rather than carry the whole load. The result: He can get off his knees and finally move, at least sometimes, to the sound of joy so essential to the earlier jazzers he’s studied. That’s probably why some of the pieces reminded me of cartoons-especially those of the Fleischer brothers-which often use “hot jazz” soundtracks to escalate the frantic pace of the action or slyly undercut it. The episodic musicai structure built into ballet also forces him to tackle change at a much more rapid rate than he otherwise has-another reason his music for Griot, now released as Citi Movement (Columbia), seems cartoonlike.

Marsalis has big and laudable ambitions. He wants jazz to be recognized as the American music, and he wants to capture the way jazz expresses the American experience. “As with American reality,” he writes of Citi Movement’s “Marthaniel,” “this is not in a key. It is constantly changing keys.” The multiplicity of voices, the jumpcut-to-the-beat compositional strategy, the playfulness of much of Citi Movement bring him closer to that goal—certainly closer than anything he’s done previously. And yet…

Cut back to Jazz at Lincoln Center. So far, the series has showcased the more conservative of jazz’s faces. Now, musical conservatism at the House That Rockefeller built can’t all be charged to Marsalis. If you can’t hear Bartok there, why should you expect to hear Ornette? (An irony is that director Gibson became known for his adventurous presentations in Atlanta.)

This scholasticism is one reason some jazz fans are turned off by the venue itself.

(Another reason is the ticket prices, which make even the pricier clubs look cheap.) They want the music, in their words, where it’s always been. To which I say, Bullshit. Jazz should be played anywhere anybody will go to hear it. Any other attitude patronizes both the music and its audiences, brings with it an uncomfortable whiff of elitism.

But Jazz at Lincoln Center also represents an opportunity for Marsalis and his cohorts to reach out, present a more inclusive picture of the music, help restore some coherence to a relatively small community fractured by opposing theologies. To concentrate its focus on pre-1960s sounds, as they have, is an ideological more than a musical decision, and it doesn’t help.

According to Gibson, the series should only present music that’s proved its value via longevity. But the old Darwinian assumption is tricky. Who judges what’s survived, and on what terms? Besides, it’s hard to argue that the thirty-year-plus body of work by an Omette Coleman doesn’t meet that criterion. Gibson him- self once told me about the inspiring and unexpected effect Ornette’s music had on a large outdoor crowd at one of his Atlanta shows. “A lot of them left,” he said “but most of them stayed, and the ones who stayed loved it.” The moral—that given a chance, at least some ofjazz’s poears—is self-evident. That distinguishes the jazz audience from Lincoln Center’s classical crowd, which seems devoted to a few perennial favorites. So where’s the slot for Ornette on Gibson’s upcoming agenda at Lincoln Center?

A few mouths ago, I was talking about this with Muhal Richard Abrams, one of the A.A.C.M’s founders a quartercentury ago and still in jazz’s vanguard. Abrams’s compositions and playing” and his gently educating interaction with other musicians-reflect his deep knowledge of the music’s history. I told him about Gibson’s focus on presenting music validated by time. His response: “Don’t you think that whatever they put on that stage will be legitimized just because it’s on that stage?” I wonder if that was why Marsalis, instead of Muhal or Omette, was awarded the first commission for the series last year, with plodding, dryly academic results.

Cut to Peter Martins’s Jazz. A celebrity-studded audience spends the intermission leaning over the orchestra pit to watch jazz’s most famous younger celebrity tune up. Martins’s choreography makes satiric gestures toward ballet tradition (two Balanchine works preceded his onstage), like having the male dancers half-drag rather than carry their female partners. In tandem, the impish humor of Marsalis’s music makes elliptical allusions. “Express Crossing—Astride Iron Horses,” the inevitable jazz-like-a-train shuffle, is threaded with them. But unlike earlier Marsalis, here the allusions are coy and clever.
“Take the A Train,” for instance, makes its foregone appearance via its piano intro—and only part of that. Finesse and joie de vivre tingle during the New Orleans march section, replete with homages to Louis Armstrong but without the stiff seriousness Marsalis used to genuflect with each time he announced the arrival of a “master.”

There’s always hope.

By Gene Santoro
Source: The Nation

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