Wynton Marsalis leans forward, peers through his glasses and says with his usual fervor, “People actually want to discuss music with me. Me! Their knowledge of music is so limited that I don’t understand how they even think they can converse with me in my own idiom That’s like me wanting to discuss the space program with a rocket scientist. That kind of arrogance is foreign to me.”
I look around around the room. Though this penthouse is mighty spacious for Manhattan, I can find no one trying to talk music with Wynton Marsalis other than myself—unless you count the ghosts of jazzmen past who crowd this pad like it’s Gabriel’s last set on Saturday night at some celestial saloon. There’s Coltrane talking shop with Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington showing Pops Armstrong a run on the piano. It will be difficult to avoid music with the musician. There are records everywhere. And a baby grand. And in the next room, like infants in a sunny nursery, eight horns lie side by side before a window that looks past a West Side barrio and onto the Hudson River. Avoiding music here will be like avoiding religion at the Golden Mosque. One can but try. The ghosts all smile.
“Oh, no, I cannot speak about myself,” says Wynton Marsalis. “I do not speak about me personally because when you do that you are in danger of losing objectivity and that is something you don’t want to do. Then you start giving your version of reality. Versions are false.”
Okay. Let’s clear up some misconceptions about all your alleged feuds.
“I do not speak about other people because that’s gossip. I do not gossip. I deal in reality, not speculation. You don’t need to know that stuff. If Thelonious Monk walked in this room right now, he might have nothing to say. You’d think he’s strange. But in his music is a world of humor and ideas, and that’s the truth about Monk, not the guy sitting here silently. It doesn’t matter how a musician spent his vacation or who his wife is or how many times he was beat up. You need to hear how it gets expressed in the music. My life is manifested in my art. Listen to the music, man. The only reason to meet a musician is to tell your grandchildren.”
Mine will be curious tykes. And less insecure than their grandfather, one prays, for he has never felt so achingly white and musically vapid as now in the company of young Mr. Marsalis. And though the musician is not one to accommodate anxiety, resentment is not the response. There is more enthusiasm than malice in his declarations, more vitality than venom. Life has yet to teach empathy.
Wynton Marsalis is 25.
He is on a mission from the muses. He has little time for earthly foibles and feelings. His or yours. When not studying jazz, he plays; when not playing jazz, he lectures; when not lecturing on jazz, he writes. And when given the chance, he lectures on writing about studying and playing jazz.
“I’m gonna tell you what to avoid in this piece. Now, don’t be writing the white man’s version of a Negro. I hate that, man, but people who are well meaning do the dumbest shit. They say ‘gonna’ and ‘man’ and they try to give their pieces an ethnic feeling. I don’t like that, the ethnic vibe. That’s unnecessary. Jazz is a portrait of America at its highest, idealized level. Music should not have a racial title. This is American music, but in this country, music can only be white. You understand?
“The Wright brothers invented the airplane. Is that a white invention? They weren’t thinking white when they did their work, they were thinking airplane. Louis Armstrong never thought black when he was playing trumpet, but you can bet that Bix Beiderbecke thought white because he was listening to a black man and trying to sound like him. There is a truth missing in Bix’s music. Now, don’t go writing that I said white people can’t play the music.”
Okay. Wynton Marsalis did not say white people can’t play the music.
“Do I have a problem saying there are no white players in the pantheon of jazz? No. There’s Bird, Louis, Trane, Duke, Monk and Miles. Now let’s look at classical composers—Beethoven, Brahms, Bartók, Mozart. I can name all of them and never name a Negro. Is that a problem? No.”
Wynton Marsalis did not say white people can’t play the music.
And the ghosts all giggle.
Under blue-gray Mason-Dixon skies, musicians enter Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore. In a few hours, they will wear tuxedos and perform Rachmaninov and Debussy and Bach. People in dark suits and light dresses will applaud energetically. They will all be home in time to catch the local news in living color.
Across the street, in an empty cabaret, Wynton Marsalis sits at a piano. He tries out a few chords of “Come Rain or Come Shine” and scribbles his discoveries on the white sheet music before him. His silver-plated trumpet sits on the thick carpet of the bandstand. One can only estimate how much time a prodigy has spent alone with his music by the time he reaches 25, how many years have been consumed by practicing seven, eight, sometimes ten hours a day.
Marsalis is waiting for his band. They are late. It is four in the afternoon. Their first set will begin at nine tonight and their third set will end near three in the morning. The sold-out engagement at Ethel’s Place has added a fourth night. It too will sell out. Still, fewer people will see Wynton Marsalis this long weekend than will attend the symphony’s single performance.
“With Bach or Haydn, you know what you’re playing is worth hearing, and the best thing you can do is not mess it up. In jazz, you have to have something worth saying and then know how to say it.”
Marsalis may be the only person in history to define slumming as playing a Bach concerto with a famous symphony under the baton of a respected conductor. Nothing against the music—he has only kind words for J. S. Bach—it’s just that the demands made on the musician are so, well, limited. If one is sufficiently talented and disciplined, one can play most any piece. Classical music is checkers to jazz’s chess. One of the world’s premier trumpet soloists, Wynton Marsalis has given up virtually all classical performances in favor of jazz.
“Concert musicians are artisans—jazz musicians are artists,” he states. “It’s 5,000 times harder to play correct jazz. To perform a single solo, you have to know harmonics, rhythms, melody; you have to possess a vision, a concept, a personality, a knowledge of the history of the music; you need precise articulation and perfect technique; you have to compose and edit and execute simultaneously—in the battlefield, on the bandstand. No time to think of a note or wish you had something to say. With Bach or Haydn, you know what you’re playing is worth hearing, and the best thing you can do is not mess it up. In jazz, you have to have something worth saying and then know how to say it.”
In a white tuxedo, he draws crowds rivaling Itzhak Perlman’s or Yo-Yo Ma’s; in a creamy sports jacket with padded shoulders, he sells out any jazz venue. His jazz and classical albums sell incredibly well (roughly 200,000 and 100,000, respectively) and clog up the charts for months. Unlike pop or rock, their shelf life has no known expiration date. He is simultaneously lighting fires under old concerti and giving a hotfoot to a complacent jazz community.
A black man with gray sideburns enters the cabaret and furtively approaches the musician from the rear. The musician hears only the piano. The stranger stands behind him for a long, indecisive moment. The musician is oblivious, vulnerable, yet no flash of danger, no inchoate fear, registers. Wynton Marsalis seems immune. Nothing will detour his crusade. Forget the bullet that took trumpeter Lee Morgan or the potions and powders that proved other jazz cats had but one short, temporal life. Marsalis has an invisible protective shield. His only addiction is the music. And he will ride no roller coaster from hothouse to poorhouse—a black Harvard MBA with a green thumb is tending his flourishing garden. Some people’s charmed lives invite apprehension of tragedy. Wynton Marsalis’s charmed life invites more charm.
The stranger now makes his presence known, and the musician greets him warmly, offering soul salutations and a handshake. Marsalis is gracious to most anyone without a contract or a hoodwink up his sleeve; he embraces, ecumenically, his rank in the black community as Model Citizen with amazing grace. His speech can turn from professorial to patois at the drop of a drumstick. It is no accident that a poster of Wynton Marsalis was tacked to kid Huxtable’s bedroom door—Marsalis is Bill Cosby’s spiritual son. The stranger compliments Marsalis on his albums and his attire, and when the effusive farrago of well-wishes reaches a garbled fervor it is obvious to the musician that the stranger is soused.
“Don’t drink too much more, homie,” says the Model Citizen to the wobbly welcome wagon.
“Yo, bro—it’s been a hard week. Cut me a break?”
“Damn, is it Friday already?” mutters the musician to himself.
And this was an off week. Monday was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Tuesday was a seminar at Georgia Tech on “The Relationship Between Aesthetics and Technology in Post-Industrial America” (or, in Marsalis’ shorthand, “Why Americans are so technically advanced and listen to such fucked-up music”). Wednesday was press conferences and travel. Thursday was a high school address, teaching and a radio interview in Philadelphia. This morning was another high school, in Trenton, New Jersey. The musician will take any opportunity to crusade for pure jazz, to spread the gospel according to apostles Coltrane, Monk, Duke and Bird. The only problem, he says, is the time it takes away from practice.
Isn’t there an old axiom about practicing and preaching?
The sound of metal kissing glass comes from the balcony. Marsalis is distracted. A waitress is setting a table. He flirts. She compliments him on his Grammys. He flirts. She asks how many he has won. He rises from the Baldwin and walks across the stage. He is wearing a tawny suede jacket and red sweatpants with a jet-black fly flap. Flirting is in high gear. There is always time, even in his metronomic schedule, for women. It is another topic about which he is reticent, saying only that his sex life is too wild to explore, too dangerous to detail, and that discretion is the better part of loving.
The Grammys are something else again. Marsalis has won six, four for jazz, two for classical. They have proved equal parts boon and boondoggle. In 1984, he was the first artist to ever win for best performance in the classical and jazz categories. If his twin talents catapulted him into musical prominence that night, it was his acceptance speech that caught the ear (or ire) of music fans and musicians.
It ended with: “I’d like to thank all of the great masters of American music—Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk—all guys who set a precedent in Western art and gave an art form to the American people that cannot be limited by enforced trends or bad taste.”
It sent chills up some spines and needles into others. It caused Miles Davis, lord of the trumpet, to say: “Sometimes people speak as though someone asked them a question. Well, nobody asked him a question.”
I will. About last year’s Grammy show.
“Racist bullshit, man. Did you see how they had to have a white guy for every black guy playing jazz? Check it out—they had gospel music and soul gospel music. And Phil Collins wins for best singer when he can’t even sing. He was out of tune the whole show, and it’s just disrespectful to the music, man. They call that stuff rock and roll in order to make it white music when we all know where it comes from and how it—I better shut up. This is the stuff that fucks me up with my publicity.”
The publicity after the Grammys two years ago, when he disappeared before presenting the opera award, had Mr. Marsalis suffering from food poisoning. Mr. Marsalis’s own diagnosis was music poisoning. Herbie Hancock was “Rockit”-ing around the stage when Marsalis took sick. The trumpeter now refuses to talk about Hancock—once an idol and the producer of Marsalis’s first album—in much the same way an orthodox man dismisses a family member who has married out of the faith. Apostates abound. They are branded by their funky backbeat or synthesized sound. Marsalis stopped talking to his own brother Branford when he went off to play saxophone with Sting. Sting ain’t jazz. But more about pop stars and infidels soon.
“I thought the classic scene was tough—it’s nothing compared to jazz. There are no schools or music camps to come up in, nobody trying to make sure the music is preserved.”
Jazz musicians are not given to hyperbole or propaganda. Public sniping is considered unnecessary, uncool. Yet it seems that every time Marsalis opens his mouth, another gauntlet falls to the floor. Musicians may appreciate the spotlight on jazz, but resent its narrow beam. When the names of Monk and Ellington and Coltrane are evoked, Marsalis not only insinuates himself into their royal bloodline, he neglects hundreds of living, breathing struggling mortals. Wynton Marsalis doesn’t really care. He speaks the Truth.
“I love it when people say fraudulent musicians are doing the best they can considering their background and talents. If a man breaks into your house and rapes your old lady and kills your kids, do you know what his lawyer is going to say in court? ‘It’s not his fault, Your Honor, he was doing the best he could considering his background and talents.’ Musicians are no different.”
At 25, Wynton Marsalis has constructed a philosophy of life as mathematical as a fugue. He is fiercely intelligent and totally aware of the enmities he encourages. He expects nothing more, nothing less. This savior business is a tough racket.
“He may appear to be on top of the world,” says his father, Ellis, “but there’s great agony for Wynton. Sometimes on the phone he sounds like he’s dying.”
“When you live in Green Bay, Wisconsin, no one has to tell you about football. That’s how it was with jazz in New Orleans when I was young.” Ellis Marsalis, now 52, is a renowned pianist and a professor of jazz studies.
By the time he and his wife, Dolores, had six sons, the music had gone to tourism or the coasts. The Marsalis home was an oasis, even if the kids were oblivious to its pleasures. “My musician friends would come over all the time and occasionally we would see a matinee on Bourbon Street and there were always jazz recordings in the house. Wynton didn’t want to hear it. I never promoted the music, never ritualistically paraded the music before my kids. I was more concerned with them being like other kids, so they played every kind of ball there was. Wynton held the strikeout record for a pitcher in the Little League. He played baseball, basketball and football. The music seeped in subliminally.”
Wynton was 12 when he heard John Coltrane. Heard him. Then saw him. “When you saw pictures of jazz guys,” he remembers, “you knew they were serious. They weren’t grinnin’ and skinnin’ like so many darkies.” So he picked up the trumpet that had been given to him six years earlier. The instrument was the choice of his father, who believed two people in the same house playing the same instrument was one too many. (Branford always played reeds, the young Delfeayo would play trombone and Jason, the youngest, drums.)
And then one day when Wynton Marsalis heard his friends saying that blacks couldn’t play classical music, he decided to play classical music. Just like that. Because everyone he knew was afraid of “this big monster on the other side of the mountain,” he picked up his ax and blithely started climbing.
He was 13.
He made his debut with the Philharmonic a year later, and when he performed a Brandenburg Concerto so difficult that most accomplished veterans avoid it, he entered Berkshire Music School at Tanglewood a year shy of admittance age.
He was 17.
Then came a scholarship to Juilliard and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and record contracts and world tours, and finally, a decade after he had picked up the instrument, Marsalis was hailed by Maurice André, classical music’s first trumpeter, as potentially the greatest trumpet player of all time.
Wynton Marsalis was 22. And he had slain the dragon.
“When Wynton was a senior in high school,” recalls Marsalis père, “it looked like he would do what Maurice André was doing, play straight classical. That was fine. But when Wynton went to Tanglewood, the experience turned him off. Tanglewood was antiseptic, to say the least. People brought their lunches out to the manicured lawns and they listened to Leonard Bernstein conducting Mahler and they wouldn’t even allow black people to clean their houses! The whole lifestyle was anathema to Wynton. He could have made $15,000 a performance, but it was a world that didn’t include him.”
Wynton went directly from the cosmopolitan life of Tanglewood to the tangled life of the cosmopolitan. He was alone in New York with no money and no gigs and no relief for homesickness. It was the only time in his life he labels down, kind of blue.
“The jazz community is different in New Orleans. The cats are all real close. They love each other down there. Not here. I wanted to go home in the worst way. I thought the classic scene was tough—it’s nothing compared to jazz. There are no schools or music camps to come up in. There’s no scholarship money, no special record labels, nobody trying to make sure the music is preserved. Classical music has all that. There’s a scene. There’s no jazz scene. When Miles and Clifford Brown and all those guys were coming up, jazz was happening. Everybody was playing. You could learn anywhere. They had it hard, but at least they were together.”
“I see Wynton as a very isolated person,” says his best friend, Village Voice writer Stanley Crouch. “Jazz leaders are not happy people. The ones I have met—Monk, Mingus, Ellington, Basie, Sonny Rollins—they all have something similar which comes from the isolation. There is a complicated agony of decision and responsibility.”
“Agony” is the word used most often to describe the rift between Wynton and older brother Branford, who did not speak for over a year and who, after playing together in church and marching bands and funk groups and with the Jazz Messengers and their own group for four years, may never do so again.
“Wynton swears,” says Crouch, “that he will never play with Branford again. One day, without warning, half of Wynton’s band was gone. He had canceled lucrative classical bookings to accommodate his band, and Branford and pianist Kenny Kirkland were suddenly committed to this guy Sting, who is neither a jazz musician nor a significant popular artist. That day, Wynton found out something about human nature he didn’t necessarily want to find out. It was a real Cain and Abel deal.”
Which cut deeper, the abandonment to Sting or the sting of abandonment, is debated. Larry Willis, a fast friend of the Marsalis clan who has played piano with the brothers, separately and together, takes a stab: “I know Wynton worries about the music—socially, culturally, economically. When he sees someone in his own family acting contrary to his beliefs, he cannot live with that. It’s excruciating. These two were extremely close—beyond a sibling attachment—but both are opinionated and adamant. Personally, I cannot see the difference between Wynton playing white European music and Branford playing Sting’s music. Neither is jazz.”
Branford says sabotage was not his motive. “Wynton and me are different. He’s a leader. He spends an inordinate amount of time sitting at his piano figuring out how his group can sound better. I don’t do that. I practice at night when I put on a tape and figure out a solo as I’m falling asleep. Wynton has been practicing since he was 12. I’ve always been a lazy bum, floating from one thing to another. Wynton knows how diverse our tastes are. Hell, the first record I ever bought was an Elton John album.”
“I have to deal with Miles every time I pick up the horn. Early Miles. Not that stuff he’s playing now—that’s not jazz, man.”
What Wynton knows is one thing, what he says is short and bittersweet: “Our concepts are different. What we are trying to do in music is totally different. He used to play in my band, with me, and now he’s not doing that.”
Branford thinks the emotional element was more potent than political, that in escaping his brother’s shadow he foreshadowed mortality. “We practically lived in the same room from the day Wynton was born until I got married. We had one mind. We could beat any team in two-on-one football. Just like in the music—we had telepathy. When I left the band it meant we weren’t going to be together anymore, our lives were changing. It was very painful. Someday when I have time to think about it I’ll be real sad, but I’m too busy now to be sad.”
Busy with music, marriage, and little Reese. When the baby was born, Uncle Wynton came around. A birth can bury most any hatchet. The brothers see each other now the way brothers do, once in a while, to watch a ball game, to break bread. Wynton has yet to find a saxophonist to fill the void. And Branford is moving at his own pace, scoring films, gigging, making albums. He has already released a jazz album as well as a classical album and has multi-record deals in both formats. The people at CBS have not been so high on such a dyadic talent since, well, since they signed Wynton Marsalis.
When you enter Dr. George Butler’s office at Black Rock, its inhabitant is the third image you see. Staring out from behind his desk is a larger-than-life poster of Miles Davis. The room belongs to the sorcerer even though he currently resides, contractually, at Warner Bros. after three decades and a few revolutions at Columbia.
Next to Miles Davis is a smaller, Japanese poster of Wynton Marsalis. A larger, American version is on order.
“I think Wynton has been victimized by people labeling him as the young Miles Davis,” says Butler, credited with urging Miles out of his silent way in 1980. “Miles was never a great technician, as Wynton surely is, but Miles could utilize space and he played from his heart. I can tell you that I’ve worked with both, and Miles was constantly calling me and asking how Wynton was, where Wynton was. There were other times, of course, when Miles was fed up with talking about the ‘young Miles Davis.’ But when they would meet, they would embrace sincerely and converse.”
“I told Wynton,” Miles Davis has said in the past, “they should be suckin’ his dick for playin’ that old, simple shit … Wynton’s takin’ time off from playin’ his own shit to play their shit. And if he missed one goddamn note they gonna be on his ass. Naw, I don’t think no honor should be bestowed on a black person just ’cause he’s playin’ some fuckin’ ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ shit.”
Marsalis is relentlessly bitter toward Miles, rarely passing up an opportunity to deride him as the personification of everything gone wrong with jazz. “I have to deal with Miles every time I pick up the horn. Early Miles. Not that stuff he’s playing now—that’s not jazz, man. Just because somebody played jazz at one time doesn’t mean they still play it. He’s a charlatan. He’s sad now.”
This dissonant call-and-response has been simmering, like a bitches’ brew, since the day Marsalis was born: He was named for Wynton Kelly, then playing piano with Miles Davis. Six years later, Miles was visiting Ellis Marsalis in New Orleans when he heard Wynton was getting a trumpet. “Don’t get that boy no trumpet,” he said, “it’s too hard. Let him play something else.” Wynton attended Juilliard, as had Miles, and quit Juilliard to play jazz, as had Miles.
When Miles was “unavailable” for a reunion with his quintessential rhythm section of the Sixties—Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams—Wynton Marsalis joined them. Wynton mocked the Modern Miles simply by mimicking the Early Miles, in sound, celebrity and style.
“This may sound boastful,” says the sartorial Butler, dressed in four shades of corporate gray, “but Wynton’s appearance was my doing. You should have seen him when I signed him. He was like a country bumpkin, a big ’fro, big horn-rimmed glasses, nothing matched. I focused on his look.”
(Marsalis disagrees: “Bullshit! Did you ever see how he dresses?” Marsalis takes great care in his selection of threads, combining Japanese Loose, English Tweed and American Hip to help him affect, when sockless, an Oxford-educated cop right out of Kyoto Vice.)
“Initially,” continues Butler, “people were overwhelmed by his technique. Wynton would never admit this, but he used to think he had to prove he was extraordinary every time out. One of the reasons we did Hot House Flowers (an album mostly of standards backed by strings) was to demonstrate that the technician could play with emotion and soul, as it were. No razzle-dazzle display of fast notes. We tried to silence the critics. I had to twist his arm to try something that different.”
(Marsalis disagrees: “Bullshit! I listened to Clifford Brown With Strings every night when I was young. He’s my main man for sound. I’ve always wanted to make an album with strings.”)
“I got for Wynton the kind of promotion, marketing and merchandising that had to happen for his career,” continues Butler. “Covers of magazines, television shows and a general push comparable to that of a rock star. I don’t think that had ever been done by a major label for a jazz star, not even during the early Miles Davis days here … As far as Miles’s departure from CBS being predicated on all of Wynton’s publicity, I prefer to refrain from commenting. You have to know Miles. He is …”
The office door opens. A head pops in. There’s an important phone call. Dr. Butler excuses himself and swivels his chair a few degrees.
“Miles! … Good to hear from you … Miles, we miss you … How’s Cicely? I saw that on television … why sure, Miles … I will listen to it, yes … when are you coming back, Miles? … What? Wynton? Oh, Wynton’s fine, Miles, just fine.”
Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia is the alma matar of Wilt Chamberlain and Walt Hazzard, and though Wynton Marsalis would love to try out the hallowed hoops in the gymnasium—he shoots baskets whenever he can—he will go directly to the auditorium and try to convert that large hall into a jazz cathedral. His pulpit is quite portable.
There is no benediction. The floor is opened to questions.
What do you think about rock musicians?
“Rock is okay to listen to once in a while. It’s like candy—it tastes good, but it’s not nourishing in any way. Rock and roll elevates anyone the way good music does. If you think rock musicians are artists, you are living under a serious misconception. Lionel Richie is not profound. Shakespeare is profound. You should be looking for new ideas, not things you already know. If your teachers are not imparting new information to you, then get them fired or find a new teacher.”
What’s wrong with helping people be happy and dance?
“Entertaining is too easy. It does not elevate. I could make people clap all night long. Check it out. If I hold a note for a long time, you’ll be entertained. [With circular breathing, he holds a note for thirty seconds. Applause.] Or if I dance around. [Does a dead-on imitation of Miles Davis stalking his own staccato spurts. Applause.] Or if I play loud and soulful. [Plays some funk with accentuated slides and bends. Applause.] This is making the blues sentimental and contrived and cheap. You always want to play up to people, not down to them. Art is making the complex simple—rock and roll makes the simple complex.”
Why are you so arrogant about jazz?
“I shouldn’t even have to address this issue. It’s comical to compare Thelonious Monk with Grandmaster Flash. Jazz is a higher form of development of human richness and complexity—not stuck in some primal, kindergarten level. You cannot reduce an objective medium—music—to something subjective. You may like something, but that does not make it good. We have a recorded history of music—a record is like a book or painting—and the giants have set the standards. If you listen, you will know. That’s what Monk said: know. Most kids here don’t have one jazz album.”
It takes about an hour of Truth—straight, no chaser—to alienate all but the most faithful. Marsalis will later call this his worst experience at any school. “I found out what happened afterwards: Half those kids didn’t have a 1.5 average. That was the problem.”
The problem now, surprisingly, is the crush for autographs. Marsalis sits on the downstage lip, accepting kisses from girls and signing anything that will hold ink. The teacher in charge of the assembly asks for the stage to clear. It fills up. Marsalis offers no aid; he is closer in age and spirit to these teenagers than to their authority figures. He is still big brother to four siblings, and one, 16-year-old Mboya, is autistic. Behind the fire and brimstone burns a candle for kids: In concert halls, he singles out a child in the audience and gives him a pep talk; at high-level meetings, he brings along a friend’s kid and drives the big brass batty.
Presently, two seniors who have sat quietly and listened to the entire sermon rise to leave. One turns to the other and says, “What was this guy’s name?”
“Winston Churchill or something like that,” is the guess.
“I don’t know his name,” says the first student, “but he be angry!”
It’s now time for Wynton Marsalis to put his embouchure where his mouth is. A full house at Ethel’s place has taken on a testy edge by waiting in line for over an hour. Mostly black urban professionals (no acronyms, please), they are not used to “jazz time.”
They are also unfamiliar with Monk’s “Reflections.” Marsalis’s solo is intricate and controlled. Behind the trademark glasses, his eyes never close longer than a blink. No bead of perspiration stains his brow. He appears never to transcend his thought, never to leave his body, which remains fairly frozen in concentration. One is reminded of a Zen student who believes fervently that if he sits long enough and meditates diligently enough he will reach Nirvana, will play the perfect solo.
“When people say ‘Play with feeling and don’t worry about the notes,’ I want to vomit. It is based on the belief that technique means you have no emotions.”
After each solo, while chewing ice cubes at the car, Marsalis critiques himself. He rushed this one; he got lost in the time changes of that one. There is a perverse pride in mild failure, corroborating the complexity of the test. And if you should hear a rift lifted from Miles or Dizzy Gillespie or Roy Eldridge, all the better. “Early on, I forced myself to play like me when I should have been playing like them. You don’t want to imitate yourself until you have developed a profound style, which I have not done. I received a lot of recognition when my development was, well, not worthy of that amount of recognition. I’m still trying to learn.”
He returned to Juilliard last month. As a student. He says he needs many refinements. Wynton Marsalis wants to be correct. He does not yearn for magic or mysticism or epiphany. He wants to get it right. Still, he does not understand why people accuse him of playing with no feeling. He puts everything he has into the horn.
“We try to swing. That’s what we do to entertain. When people say ‘Play with feeling and don’t worry about the notes,’ I want to vomit. It is based on the belief that technique means you have no emotions. It makes me sick and nauseous! It keeps musicians ignorant of their craft. You should know as much as you possibly can in order to express yourself fully. Shakespeare had phenomenal technique. He developed total command of the language in order to express his vision of humanity.”
Marsalis fears his vision will never equal his technical command. He worries that, given all the gifts the gods can give, his horn will, in the end, be full of hot, if gorgeous, improvisational air. If his classical accomplishments were part of his christening, they are now stations of the cross he bears. The thousands of hours of study sit like chips upon his padded shoulders. The audience is caught in that limbo between the reality of his tamed tones and the myth of the jazz player in some ecstatic state. No angels dance upon this stage; no demons are exorcised.
“I’ve heard all this about Wynton being cold and dispassionate. I think he’s a really shy young man who has a hard time with his feeling. I couldn’t express my feelings in my music until I was 40.” Rod Rodney is almost 60 now. He started playing trumpet as a teenager with big bands and later took Miles Davis’s place with Charlie Parker. “Some complaints are valid. I don’t think Wynton will be the iconoclast that Miles was, but don’t put anything else past this kid. He’s a magnificent player and a first-class gentleman. The feelings will come. Just leave him alone and let him live.”
Indeed. Marsalis needs time to comprehend the mounting ironies. He has attained his vaunted status, this jazz purist, because he excels at another music, a music so staid his mere presence energizes it. Simultaneously, he is trying to produce a jazz so traditional that it will startle in its very freshness, it’s pellucidity. And sweetest irony of all is the notion that Wynton Marsalis is the savior of jazz.
What does a prodigy do when he has mastered the masters at 19? How many teenage geniuses survive their own futures? If the Caucasian classics were the “monster on the other side of the mountain,” jazz is the mountain itself, where the peak is always hidden behind the next cloud, Wynton Marsalis is but another climber now. And no matter how graceful his interval leaps, how deft his arpeggios or how many chords do not resolve to a tonic, the jazz fans will continue to ask the same old question: Yes, but can he play?
[Photo Credit: Dr Trumpet]