You may know Wynton Marsalis the showman, the iconoclast, the humanitarian. But you must know Wynton’s music as well.
The marble halls of the Fifth Avenue center for Cultural Services of the French Embassy rang with happy blues Nov. 6, when Wynton Marsalis played trumpet with his quintet, having just been awarded the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award for excellent achievement.
Add it to the United States’ own National Medal of the Arts and congressional Horizon Award, a United Nations’ designation as a “Messenger of Peace,” the Netherlands’ Edison Award, honorary membership in Britain’s Royal Academy of Music, multiple Grammys, honorary doctorates, laurels from community service organizations and, oh yes, the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and it’s pretty clear: Honors crowd the shelves of the most famous jazzman of the 21st century.
Who has not heard of Wynton Marsalis? He has performed in 30 countries, on every continent except Antarctica and sold five million recordings worldwide. Artistic director, founder and indomitable spirit of Jazz at Lincoln Center, leader of its Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO), hero of Ken Burns’ 10-part documentary Jazz, the composer-performer has collaborated with everyone from Kathleen Battle to Willie Nelson, been commissioned for the dance companies of Alvin Ailey, Peter Martins, Twyla Tharp and Zhongmei, and created the 100-minute, 12-movement All Rise for symphony, jazz band and choir.
The list of his activities—musical, humanitarian and commercial (he’s been an “ambassador” for Movado watches, appeared in an iPod ad, made Brooks Brothers the official clothiers of the LCJO)—goes on and on. He’s played twice this year at the White House for the Obamas. Since Hurricane Katrina, he’s been an activist for reconstruction and civic improvement of New Orleans, and he’s lent his name to the Freedom Campaign for Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. He’s a tireless educator, holding innumerable master classes and informal jam sessions as well as instituting JALC’s Essentially Ellington high school band competition, now in its 15th year.
He’s got friends in high places, having played basketball with Kareem Abdul-Jabar, been photographed at society soirées with Mayor Bloomberg and applauded on his investiture as Chevalier by attendees that included police commissioner Raymond Kelly, comedian Bill Cosby, festival producer George Wein, actors Wendell Pierce and François Battiste, former and present Lincoln Center potentates and other culture machers too plentiful to mention.
But have you heard his music? And do you like it? These are the key questions for evaluating the enduring reputation of Marsalis, now 48 and a force to be reckoned with since he emerged from Juilliard to join drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (with his brother, saxophonist Branford Marsalis) back in 1980.
It seems impossible that anyone could have heard it all, though maybe critic Stanley Crouch, Wynton’s intellectual consultant and chief cheerleader going on 30 years, comes close. According to his website, the trumpeter has released 40 jazz albums under his own name, 11 with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and 18 more categorized as “classical.” Those include Listen to the Storytellers, in which he’s a narrator; Concert for Planet Earth, where he blows with his septet as well as with Placido Domingo on the melody known in the U.S. as “Brazil,” and A Fiddler’s Tale, his “response” to Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Story—besides several CDs of baroque trumpet repertoire.
He has been ambitious—and prolific. Focusing on Wynton’s jazz productions, one finds several sets with several CDs, most notably a seven-disc box of his septet Live at the Village Vanguard, the three-disc Blood on the Fields oratorio which won him the 1997 Pulitzer (first for any jazz musician), the two-CD Citi Movement and two-CD All Rise. He has also appeared in countless Jazz at Lincoln Center video shoots and Jazz from Lincoln Center radio programs (full disclosure: I’ve interviewed him and written scripts for that series). His latest projects are Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis Play the Music of Ray Charles (his second DVD with Nelson in performance at Lincoln Center, featuring Norah Jones in a guest spot); Blues Symphony, selected movements of which will be premiered by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Nov. 19-22 (the complete work has been scheduled for the ASO’s annual King Celebration at Morehouse College on Jan. 14, 2010), and his Christmas Jazz Jam, sold exclusively in Target stores and via iTunes.
I first heard Wynton live Sept. 2, 1981, at the Chicago Jazz Festival, in pianist Herbie Hancock’s stellar quartet with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. As I dimly recall, Wynton was an 18-year-old in full possession of fine chops, able to hold his own in the company of his hip elders, already a powerful voice. There was nothing compromised about what he played; he addressed complicated melodies without faltering and explored them in solos appropriate to the 25-year-old conventions of hard bop. Columbia issued both Hancock’s Quartet featuring Wynton and Wynton’s eponymous debut album in 1981.
Two more records followed in ’82, including Fathers and Sons, which informed listeners that Wynton’s dad, Ellis Marsalis, was a respected modern jazz pianist based in dismissive New Orleans, and put forth Branford as a worthy tenor sax contender. But Wynton really scored with his 1983 releases Think of One (named after a Thelonious Monk composition) and Trumpet Concerts (Haydn, Mozart, Hummel). In ’84 those albums snared him two Grammys, for Best Jazz Instrumental Solo and Best Instrumental Soloist Performance, respectively. The first musician ever to be rewarded for both jazz and classical performances, Wynton Marsalis, at age 22, was all set.
Handsome, smart, outspoken and well-dressed (he reinstated the business suit as onstage attire-of-choice), Wynton was the all-but-anointed leader of a jazz movement dubbed the Young Lions right around the same time Ronald Reagan was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year and announced he’d seek re-election. His crisp, boldly conservative attitude (Wynton’s) about the need to re-affirm the basic values of acoustic jazz reflected a strain of American thought that was believed as far as black music went; Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Prince’s Purple Rain and certainly Ice-T’s gangsta rap “Killers” went a bit too far. In jazz, first-generation fusion bands had run their course, and up-and-coming talents like saxophonist David Murray were tarred as avant-gardists—even when they joined established icons such as Ornette Coleman in re-emphasizing tunefulness and a strong beat. Wynton did that, sort of, but while wearing a tie and sweating a lot less.
There was little argument with his technical musicianship 25 years ago, nor can there be much now. He quickly proved to be a consistently gifted instrumentalist, capable of fantastically polished execution. He can play fast and hard, soft and slow or high and tight, serving both the tradition he admires of jazz based in blues, ballads and swing, and his personal style that complicates old-school stop-times and compound rhythms, and analyzes the kinks and curlicues of twisting bebop themes. He has mastered the arcane use of mutes and vocalization of sounds, and creates spontaneous extensions of familiar themes with implacable narrative logic. I remember a single chorus of “Embraceable You” he played unaccompanied as an encore at Lincoln Center once as one of the most concise and affecting statements in my listening experience. He has persuasively interpreted Jelly Roll Morton tunes and Monk’s music, Coltrane modalism and even Coleman harmolodics, demonstrating finesse beyond his personal preferences.
From the start of his career to this day, Wynton has practiced small group improvisation with like-minded collaborators in formats that are challenging and have as many implications off the bandstand as on it. In early albums such as J Mood and Black Codes (From the Underground), he asserted a virtuosity that had upwardly mobile significations for race-sensitive cats. If you claimed you played jazz, you had to prove yourself on Wynton’s terms—which would be easier to do if you were a brother or adopted member of the club (his predecessors, including Blakey, Max Roach, Charles Mingus and Miles, had sometimes expressed the same opinion).
He let his impatience with rap, hip-hop and neo-soul be known because he is convinced of the superiority of acoustic jazz and wants you to be, too. He positioned jazz as the music of romance. From his 1984 standards-with-strings album Hot House Flowers through 1990’s Resolution of Romance and 2004’s The Magic Hour to this year’s He and She, he has turned his sound to the challenges and pleasures of interpersonal relationships. If his frameworks sometimes seem over-precious, his heart is in a nice place.
Then, too, he is also a big band leader who values ensemble cohesion and historical accuracy, an approach that has ups and downs. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, at his direction, has revived many works of merit from decades past, but has not been able to develop a compelling oeuvre of its own or graduate many musicians from its ranks into gratifying careers. Maybe that’s impossible, as there are so few Wyntons.
Where Wynton stumbles worst, however, is when he goes after big game with unrelieved earnestness or indulges a fantasy of childhood that’s stuck on cute. He’s one of a half-dozen of the world’s greatest trumpet players in the jazz tradition, but he hasn’t yet demonstrated a comparable skill for large-scale composition, Pulitzer Prize notwithstanding.
I heard Blood on the Fields in performance at Lincoln Center in 1994, and there were high points in his songs for vocalists Cassandra Wilson, Miles Griffith and Jon Hendricks (try “Lady’s Lament,” “My Soul Fell Down,” “I Hold Out My Hand,” “Look and See” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd”), as well as for the LCJO (“The Market Place,” “Flying High” “God Don’t Like Ugly,” “Back To Basics”). But these didn’t justify the three-and-half-hour length, the conceit of orchestra musicians serving as a Greek chorus, the muddiness of the book or the musical anachronisms (I know it was supposed to be historical drama, but still).
Wynton’s awfully literal, twinkly renditions of Christmas tunes, albums devoted to Vince Guaraldi’s “Peanuts” themes and attempts to show that he can rap as well as anyone are hard to swallow, I find, or just fall flat. I remain immune to the charms of All Rise, mounted to hail the turn of the millennium but striking me as anything but festive, a bloated bore. I will not go to hear anything he does with programmatic religious overtones and hold but slight hopes for Blues Symphony. See videos Wynton posted on Facebook for his explanation and piano demonstrations of its seven movements: “Every movement uses the blues form as its basis, and each movement has a specific sound and historic period, dealing with things that exist in American folklore and Afro-American mythology,” he says. Could the music be inspired?
Wynton’s writing shines when he is truly lighthearted and bounces off other’s creative endeavors. Tune In Tomorrow, his soundtrack for the uneven 1990 comedy of the same name, is witty and pretty, indebted to Ellington but moving beyond that Great Man. The Marciac Suite is an inviting tribute to a French jazz fest where he feels at home. “Citi Movement,” composed for Garth Fagan’s ballet Griot New York, is my favorite of Wynton’s expansive works, adapting some of Mingus’ jazz bravura to evoke the hustle of our town. Wynton’s in-concert albums are good, too—Live at the House of Tribes comprises typical jazz fare, but the band plays with fire and life.
That’s how le Chevalier sounded in the marble halls, proud but not self-conscious, spontaneous and not taking the bestowed title too seriously. Honors can be as weighty as responsibilities. Jazz shrugs at them both. With or without props, Wynton Marsalis stands tall.