By Howard Mandel
Jazz has never had another hero like this world-renowned Pulitzer Prize and multiple Grammy Award-winning composer and trumpeter. A master of both jazz and classical repertoire, he brings missionary zeal to swing’s place in world culture and is the driving force of Jazz at Lincoln Center and its new home in Manhattan.
On a muggy, gray morning in Manhattan last summer, Wynton Marsalis sailed through the whine and din of construction at his beloved Frederick P. Rose Hall. In a yellow hardhat, high-collared white shirt and patterned beige power tie, red suspenders accenting trim dress slacks and black shoes so polished that they repelled several species of dust and dirt on the debris-strewn concrete floors, Marsalis didn’t break a sweat, though some of us trailing him were melting. How does Wynton stay so cool? “New Orleans,” was his answer, offered as if cool were a matter of nurture and nature, influential environment and birthright.
It’s been 20 years since Wynton Marsalis burst into the national spotlight as the first-ever musician to win Grammys in both classical and jazz categories (a feat he repeated in 1984, and which no one’s subsequently matched). At age 43, Marsalis is still youthful but fully seasoned. He is, after all, a world-renowned Pulitzer Prize and multiple Grammy Award-winning composer and trumpeter, a crossover virtuoso, and leader of a barnstorming septet and the globetrotting Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. He is co-founder and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the most independent yet well-connected, high-minded, and generously funded not-for-profit institution ever to serve America’s idiosyncratic, elegantly vernacular art form.
Marsalis ducked under electric wires that sprouted from unfinished wallboard, brushed past duct-taped bundles hanging from the ceiling, and stepped over coiled conduits. He had a familiar nod, nickname, or signifying moment with every worker he passed, and he could already envision Rose Hall in action.
He calls it “The House that Swing Built,” and it is scheduled to open in October 2004 as the state-of-the-art, multi-operational home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. J@LC, as it snappily dubs itself, has become the envy and standard-setter of not-for-profit producers and presenters everywhere since its inception in 1991. Its 2003 calendar included 450 events—concerts, tours, radio and television programs, jazz appreciation curricula for all ages, and a thriving national high school band competition—and it will work even harder to justify its claim of being “the new center of the jazz universe” upon the opening of Rose Hall. The 100,000 square-foot, $128 million facility designed by architect Rafael Viñoly will
fill floors six through 11 of the mammoth Time Warner world headquarters.
“The Allen Room is our semi-formal space,” said Marsalis, “designed loosely on the Greek amphitheater, because the sound is very clear, and it was the ultimate community space.” This amphitheater has floating wings for extra seats, a dance floor, and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on Columbus Circle, swank 59th Street, and the majestic southwest corner entrance of Central Park.
“The Rose Theater is our largest stage, with 1,200 seats, based loosely on the model of an 18th-century-Italian opera house. It’s just over one hundred feet from the lip of the stage to the wall of the second balcony. See how the bandstand is so close, not way above the people?
“The atrium is going to be like a park is for the city, an open space for everybody to be in,” Marsalis continued. “And this”—gesturing over a partition at the Ertegun Hall of Fame, named for the Atlantic and Warner Bros. Records moguls—“is going to be like a living museum for the music, with interactive displays and also jazz artifacts.”
Wynton’s trumpet, for instance?
“Not mine, no,” Marsalis laughed. “Maybe one of Dizzy’s.” John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, the groundbreaking composer, entertainer, trumpeter, and image-maker from the ’40s to his death in 1993, is being honored in Rose Hall with a hangout space tagged Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola (the name also recognizes a $10 million grant from a certain soft drink manufacturer). “It’s designed to be intimate,” Marsalis gestured toward what will be a relatively low-ceilinged room, “with about 140 seats. Or we could have banquets here, tables between the pillars, and the city view as a backdrop.”
Rose Hall will operate in part as a rental, vying for attractions with Carnegie Hall’s new Zankel Hall, among other rival venues. “There’s no way we could occupy it ourselves all year long,” Marsalis acknowledged, and last August J@LC added an “artistic programmer for non-jazz projects” to its staff. “Anyway, these halls are designed for the integration of all the arts, in the spirit of jazz but not just jazz. We want it to be a community space. We want it to be shaped by many different people’s tastes, not just Jazz at Lincoln Center’s. We’re not going to be heavy-handed in how we deal with it. We want to work with everybody, so that this place will stand as an international symbol of jazz.”
Jazz has never had another hero like Wynton Marsalis, and it is instructive to separate Wynton the man from Wynton the institution. His character is due in part to timing: He operates in an epoch of corporate imperatives, less intoxicating than the Jazz Age, less forgiving than the Swing Era, more conformist than the bebop years, more commercial than the cool school, far removed from the protestations of free jazz. The man onstage is indeed akin to previous jazz players who related to their colleagues first, in the heat of the moment, and to their audiences a close second. But the man behind J@LC is an establishmentarian of a different order than his famed predecessors who convened and sustained big bands or careers as star soloists over many decades. He brings missionary zeal to considerations of jazz’s place in world culture and what he can do to raise and secure its status by erecting monuments that will last beyond his active life.
And therein lies the crux of the Marsalis controversy: Critics reiterate his early, rash statements about pop music’s degradation of civilization, his faith that his personal heroes alone carry jazz’s essential DNA, his analysis that a white media establishment
misunderstands and controls jazz. This last charge is especially nettlesome, as what his anti-fans hate most is how Marsalis is unequivocally treated by the media as jazz’s unrivaled spokesman.
In March 2003, Atlantic Monthly published an article by David Hajdu suggesting that Marsalis’s tide had ebbed, that he’d been done in partly by his own insistence that jazz past overshadows jazz present, thus encouraging record companies to mine their back catalogues rather than take chances on new artists. The article invoked his reputation as a “narrow neotraditionalist” and, by extension, the very survival of his chosen art form. “What happened to Wynton Marsalis,” Hadju wrote, “may be like asking ‘What happened to Jazz?’ ” Well, jazz may be endangered, but the idea of Marsalis in free-fall was off the mark.
He’s been too busy to fall anything like freely. In the 2002-2003 season, he led the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in programs of the music of Art Blakey, Benny Goodman, new flamenco, and Valentine’s Day swing dancing. He helped initiate a J@LC resident Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. He starred in J@LC’s spring gala at Harlem’s Apollo Theater with Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Audra McDonald, Willie Nelson, and actor Laurence Fishburne, among others. He guested in his own concert presentations of fiddler Mark O’Connor’s “swinging strings,” of pace-setting small groups, and of compositions by the late New Orleans drummer James Black, co-leading with his father—pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis.
For the J@LC 2003-2004 season, Marsalis had to prepare music by Count Basie, Ornette Coleman, Gil Evans, and John Lewis for Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra concerts. He led the LCJO, collaborating with Russian saxophonist Igor Butman’s Big Band, on opening night at its current home, Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, on September 18; he and the LCJO opened the fall season at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on September 19 and the Washington Performing Arts Society season at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on September 21. Another unusual challenge: readying the orchestra for its first residency in Mexico City, in March.
In 2002, Sony Classical released Marsalis’s most recent major recording, All Rise, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting three choirs totaling 100 voices, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, while Columbia Jazz issued an anthology, Popular Songs: The Best of Wynton Marsalis, as a capstone to his 20 years on the Sony/CBS labels. By then, Marsalis’s contract with Sony/CBS had ended, and his departure from Black Rock—on the heels of the resignation of his older brother, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, as vice president of Columbia Jazz’s A&R department—was also cited in the Atlantic as evidence of his decline. But Wynton wasn’t stranded without a record deal for long.
In 2003, Wynton and papa Ellis, Branford, and younger brothers trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason recorded The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration (on Branford’s new label, Marsalis Music), and he toured en famille in the album’s support. He also negotiated a joint venture with Blue Note Records, reportedly getting a 40-60 percent profit split in his favor.
“Wynton’s debut for us is a real jazz record, mostly instrumental,” said Bruce Lundvall, Blue Note president, prior to the then-untitled album’s proposed January 2004 release. “Bobby McFerrin sings one song, and Dianne Reeves sings another. I believe it will do quite well.”
Lundvall’s prediction is safe enough, because the superficially casual but actually high-concept jazz that Marsalis has promulgated is widely accepted as a major current of the sophisticated 21st-century cultural mainstream. For immediate proof of Marsalis’s reach, note his endorsements and sponsors. He’s in ads for Mondavi watches; his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is officially dressed by Brooks Brothers; General Motors is just one of the Fortune 500 companies supporting J@LC and its proponents (including Ken Burns’s Jazz, the 19-hour PBS documentary that adopted much of Marsalis’s viewpoint on jazz since 1965). Adding to his oodles of honors, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan named Marsalis a “Messenger of Peace” in 2003, and the U.S. Congress gave him the “Horizon Award.”
It’s unfair, however, to judge a musician by his connections. To know Marsalis, listen.
This is not hard, as there is a Wynton Marsalis record for every occasion. His some 40 CBS albums include idiomatic recitals of Jelly Roll Morton’s hot jazz, Thelonious Monk’s quirky modernism, Ellington-inspired train songs, and tunes written for Charlie Brown cartoons. There is music for romance, like “Hot House Flowers”—Marsalis’s trumpet crooning soft, slow standards, supported by cushiony strings. There’s his goofy breakthrough soundtrack to the satiric movie Tune In Tommorow, and splendid ballets written for the choreography of Garth Fagin (Citi Movement) and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (Sweet Release). There is chamber music (At the Octoroon Balls, performed by the Orion String Quartet, and A Fiddler’s Tale, taking off on Stravinsky) and a seven-CD set from a week his septet gigged at the Village Vanguard.
There are his acclaimed readings of the Baroque and Classical brass staples—Hummel, Purcell, Haydn, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2—and his tortured Pulitzer oratorio, Blood on the Fields, an uneven but wildly ambitious meditation on slavery and man/woman relations sung by Miles Griffith, Jon Hendricks, and Cassandra Wilson. Compositions on that large scale have increasingly consumed Marsalis, who was encouraged by conductor Kurt Masur over the course of their several New York Philharmonic collaborations. Might composing be the ultimate focus of Marsalis’s energies?
“I don’t know, I like playing, too,” he said, hunched forward in his chair at a round table in the J@LC office, shortly after the hard-hat tour. “Like last night [saxophonist] Walter Blandings said to me, ‘Man, you sound like you’ve been practicing, ’cause your range is better.’ You know, in the trumpet section, if I miss notes, Seneca Black or Ryan Kisor will be looking at me like why am I messing up their music? Which is funny, because just a few years ago they were coming to me for lessons. But I’m always trying to keep my horn up and let other trumpet players know I’m still playing and I’m serious, too.”
Marsalis favors a heavy, large-bore horn that produces a big, dark, burnished sound amenable to his array of vocalisms, mutes, and multiphonic effects. He has enviable control of dynamics and articulation; his breathing, tongue, and valve work result in eloquent mid-register phrases, startling smooches, laughs, and clarion cries like those developed by Ellington trumpeters in the late ’20s and ’30s.
He is a story-telling soloist. After he selects a motif, he shapes it through consecutive choruses until he’s revealed its secrets and unleashed its sensuality. In all his years Marsalis hasn’t cut a single hit—not one song that everybody’s hummed for a minute or two, and that other players have covered—but he consistently improvises breathtaking tales to gratifying climaxes.
For all his spontaneity and spirit, Marsalis plays an essentially self-conscious art music. It is based on masterful manipulations
of fundamental harmonies, propulsive polyrhythms, and tuneful repertoire of past bebop masters like Blakey, Gillespie, and Monk, icons Armstrong and Ellington, and mid-’60s iconoclasts Davis, Mingus, and Coltrane. It embraces African-American principles of expressivity, uplift, and transcendence, but so do other jazzes of today, including radio-formatted “smooth jazz,” alt.rock jam bands, the hip-hop avant-garde, the white trad underground, the academically blessed Third Stream, government-supported jazz from European nations, Brazilian jazz, radical Jewish mavericks, and Asian-American improvisation. These and other varieties proliferate, but Marsalis’s not-so-narrow traditionalism dominates serious discussion of the genre.
The mission Marsalis embarked on 20 years ago was guided by his upbringing in New Orleans, experience as a classical prodigy, his brief tenure at Juilliard, and professional apprenticeship to
Art Blakey. Over the decades, Marsalis has tempered his early, ardent, not to say argumentative, purism. He’s learned that people the world over, musicians from many conservatories, and artists across disciplines have valid ideas, too. Where once he was dismissive of genres and sub-genres he felt were beneath true jazz, he now enjoys, curates, and sometimes participates in Afro-Latin jazz, symphonic jazz hybrids, and even quasi-pop outings. Have his attitudes changed as his scope has expanded?
“A lot,” he answered. “When you’re coming up, your environment shapes what you think is going on. But what’s deep is that what’s going on in your environment is what goes on in every environment. There’s much more latitude, more possibility, than you originally think. You don’t have to accept what you have been given. There is energy in the world that you can tap into, and there are a lot of people on that wavelength. You are not alone. It may seem like it, but you’re not.”
Marsalis has always represented jazz as explicitly rooted in African-American sources. Has music he’s heard in lands as far away as Chile and China led him to believe that jazz can come from anyone, anywhere?
“No,” he replied. “Any group of people’s music is very difficult to learn. I’m not sure that it’s even possible to absorb another culture’s music for a person not from the culture. You get little smatterings of it, you understand what you can. What I’m talking about is more of a human thing, it’s not about music at all.
“It’s this: People fall in love in America, and they fall in love in China. They get betrayed in China, and they get betrayed in America. They get upset stomachs there, they get upset stomachs here. They get a feeling of joy and uplift from something that makes them happy, they have kids that they want to see raised to fruition, they want to hear performances that have a depth of feeling and virtuosity to them—and we have all those things here, too. The human things inform the music; you reflect those human experiences in your music.”
Asked for specifics, Marsalis talked for almost 20 minutes non-stop, remembering people, places, meals, quips, conversations, travels, tests, and triumphs. He had too many memories to relate in an article, or even a reasonably sized book. His recall was remarkable, ranging over 20 years of life lived intensely, at once public and private.
“. . . And it’s all been with so much love and feeling,” Marsalis ended his recitation, “that there’s no way I can communicate it to you that could make the feelings be alive. The talk is far less than the experience. The question always is how can we put the experience in the forefront?”
Wynton Marsalis apparently didn’t know he’d found his answer. Like the jazz greats he venerates, he transforms his experience into compelling, enduring music—beyond talk, beyond words—on the page and in the air.
Howard Mandel, author of Future Jazz (Oxford University Press), is at work on a book about Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor as exemplars of the avant-garde.