The Month In Jazz – November 2021

Wynton Marsalis turned 60 last month, October 18. It’s a milestone in everyone’s life, so kudos to him for making it happen, especially at a time when many famous black musicians have died in middle age, if not sooner. I probably wouldn’t have given it much thought, but Jazz at Lincoln Center presented three nights of concerts from November 18-20, including a retrospective of music from the last 40 years of his career and his first small group performances at the Rose. Theater of the place in a decade. So now I think of Wynton Marsalis.

His eponymous debut album, released in January 1982, was intended to certify him, from the start, as the new crown prince of acoustic jazz as it was meant to be played, the living link between the glorious past and the promising future. It opened with two tracks featuring players his age – his older brother Branford on tenor saxophone, Kenny Kirkland on piano, Clarence Seay on bass and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums – and ended by another performance of this group, although with Charles Fambrough going into low position. In between, however, there were four tracks that the Marsalis brothers went to jazz fantasy camp on, ahead of pianist Herbie Hancock’s 1965-68 Miles Davis rhythm section, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams and even took over “RJ” from Davis’s ESP album.

The liner notes, by Stanley Crouch, helped get the point across. “Her arrival, and what she reports, is particularly important because there has been – as always – discussions about the decline of jazz, and more than one has sworn to have seen the art gurgling on her bed in the room. dead.” Now you could say that the four most important words in this sentence are “as there always are.” People keep claiming that jazz is dead. During that time, I was able to release 10 to 15 records per month that are worth sharing with all of you for five consecutive years. And anyway, Marsalis himself offered at least symbolic resistance to being defined as a strict aesthetic conservative, telling Crouch: [Dizzy] Gillespie, [Fats] Navarro, [Clifford] Brown, Miles, Freddie Hubbard and Don Cherry. And it is not an easy job.

This mention of Don Cherry comes as a surprise, but if you dig deep enough into the Marsalis discography, there are sometimes nods to the avant-garde. He is not himself a forward-thinking man, not even a little, but he speaks this language enough to get by when necessary. On the 1950s: a prism, a 2020 Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra album, the ensemble enters a sort of big band version of Ornette Coleman’s leaning blues style on “Pursuit Of The New Thing,” and Marsalis never seems lost.

Marsalis’ leadership in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has been a remarkable achievement, the focal point of his artistic career. Since launching the program with a series of concerts in 1987, it has grown into a major force in New York and beyond. They have their own label, Blue Engine, which takes performances out of their archives; their Essentially Ellington and Let Freedom Swing programs offer programs and artist tours to schools across the United States; and they have tuition-free jazz academies for young players. The emphasis is obviously on tradition: the musical tree that has its roots in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century and branched out in all directions in the 30s, 40s, 50s and early 60s. But Marsalis doesn’t seem concerned with keeping young musicians inside the fence, just giving them a base. Like him said to New York Times in 2017, “With our younger students, we say to them, hey, when you come in and play these arrangements and do these things, then they can do whatever they want… speak with their voice and then do their thing. “

(It should be noted that Jazz at Lincoln Center, the venue, has booked performers who are much more outside than Marsalis in recent years. Matthew Shipp’s trio have performed at Dizzy’s Club, The Small Hall; Cecil Taylor and John Zorn were co-headliners at the Rose Theater; the same venue hosted ECM Records’ 50th anniversary concert, which featured some very sharp performances; and Henry Threadgill was invited to give two concerts with great ensembles in 2017, which he unfortunately had to cancel due to illness.Even though he himself is a largely traditional musical thinker himself, the institution of which he is the public face also sometimes gives the green light to the avant-garde.)

In some ways, Jazz at Lincoln Center allowed Marsalis to do something truly rare in any art form: it created its own context. Most artists have a context imposed on them from the outside. Critics – and fans – interpret their work and define what the artist does, sometimes wrongly. The mistake can be as minor as not realizing that a particular composition is a musical response to another composition that the reviewer may not have heard, or it can be as serious as overall ignorance. of the artist’s culture, causing art to be filtered through a set of reference points. If someone is not from the United States, for example, why should their art automatically be considered a statement about American society?

Wynton Marsalis exists in the context of Jazz at Lincoln Center. The music he writes (and the music that the members of the Orchestra write, with his encouragement), performed by the orchestra or the small groups that he draws from its members, is presented according to his own artistic standards; he doesn’t have to dilute it or compromise it in any way. It can give awesome results, like in 2019 Jazz And Art, or it can go wrong, like in the 2020s The always crazy truth. But it’s a clear artistic vision at work, and it’s incredibly valuable. I can only think of three other comparable examples of this in jazz, and these are the Duke Ellington Orchestra (while Ellington himself was alive and composing, of course), the Sun Ra Arkestra (same warning) and AACM.

Ellington has always kept his band in the present day, never allowing it to become a mere act of nostalgia. He didn’t give in much to popular trends – of course he did play a mix of beatles songs on the Ed Sullivan Show, but his concerts consisted of presenting his music, and although classic pieces remained in the book, he continued to write until the end of his life. Sun Ra, too, insisted on existence on his own terms. He kept his group together by literally living in the same house with them, maintaining almost cult discipline and firmly arming the outside world, and rarely, if ever, leaving the mask behind. He said he was from Saturn and accepting that was part of the price of admission. When the AACM was founded in 1965, one of its central tenets was that members should compose and present their own music. They supported each other, played in each other’s groups and organized collective concerts, and as a result, they were able to develop and insist on a context for their work. They were less prone to critical whims, as the united front they presented meant that the idea of ​​”AACM music” meant something. As different as they are, the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill and others were clearly blazing a trail. Duke Ellington was a jazz icon, but embraced the phrase “beyond the category,” and Sun Ra’s music was just one part of a larger philosophy that impacted all aspects of music. life (his own and that of the members of Arkestra). All of these people have had an untold impact on music, at least in part because they insisted that their work be heard on their terms.

It will probably be 30 years or more before the music of Wynton Marsalis is analyzed in depth. It will have to be done posthumously, and someone will have to go through all the albums, all the compositions and the history of Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Orchestra. (My personal choices would include the years 1985 Black codes (metro); the years 1986 J Mood and Live at Blues Alley; the years 1987 Marsalis Standard Time, Vol. 1; years 1998 Standard time Vol. 5: the midnight blues; the years 1999 Live at Village Vanguard box; 2019 Jazz And Art; and this year Democracy ! Following.) For now, when he’s 60 and showing no signs of slowing down, it’s enough to recognize that he too has created his own context.

And now, new music!

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