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Feature Article

An embattled Wynton Marsalis perseveres
by Seth Rogovoy

(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., June 28, 1998) -- It can't be easy being Wynton Marsalis. For all the honors and accolades that have been bestowed upon the composer, trumpeter and bandleader -- the multiple Grammy Awards, the honorary degrees, the unprecedented Pulitzer Prize -- he is and seemingly always will be in the hot seat, fair game for a certain crowd that insists on demonizing him every chance they get.

In recent years Marsalis has been accused of everything from being the catalyst of upheaval at the Tanglewood Music Center (of which he is an alumnus) to being a reverse racist, a stodgy, musical reactionary, or, as the subtitle of a recent book has it, of being responsible for "the murder of jazz."

What happened? How did this teen-age prodigy -- playing Haydn with the New Orleans Philharmonic at 14, winning the best brass-player award at Tanglewood at 17, under contract to both the jazz and classical departments at Columbia Records at age 20 -- go from being one of the most celebrated musicians of his generation to being one of the most controversial figures in contemporary culture?

"I don't really care about any of that," said Marsalis in a recent phone interview from a hotel in Michigan, where he was on the road with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, which he will be bringing to the National Music Center in Lenox on Sunday, July 5, at 8.

Since the early-'80s, when he first gained fame as the only musician ever to win both classical and jazz Grammy Awards in the same year, Marsalis has traded on his creative accomplishments to address greater issues of cultural politics. While his musical efforts are usually received warmly by critics and audiences alike, his outspokenness has not always endeared him to everyone.

"When you make a statement that's a cultural statement, some people agree with it and some people don't," said Marsalis. "I just feel grateful to have an opportunity to have a voice that's heard -- even when what I'm saying is being bastardized or changed.

"I'm just fortunate enough to have a voice. My father and other musicians, they were always working and playing and it was impossible for them to get out here and be heard on any level. So my principal attitude is more of gratitude -- for the good and the bad. I don't have anything to complain about.

"I wish that more focus would be paid to the music, but that's not going to happen until later, maybe, if it happens at all. But I'm grateful for whatever's here now, because it doesn't have to be this way either. It could always be 1932 -- then you wouldn't be able to say anything."

Even when the focus is on music, Marsalis cannot escape the controversy that swirls around him. Partisans such as jazz critic Stanley Crouch, who is the artistic consultant at Jazz at Lincoln Center where Marsalis is artistic director, make claims for Marsalis as nothing less than "the major voice of sophisticated populist modernism in American music," whereas detractors like Eric Nisenson, jazz writer and author of "Blue: The Murder of Jazz," see him at best as a good trumpet player in the "revivalist" style and at worst as an active agent in the perennially-heralded "death of jazz."

It's as good a bet as any that the truth, if there is such a thing, lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Certainly anyone who listens to the complete, three-hour recording by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra of Marsalis's Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio, "Blood on the Fields" -- the first jazz work to be so honored -- cannot help but be moved by the composer's stunning grasp of the entirety of American music.

Indeed, after two-and-a-half hours of variations on blues, gospel, spirituals, New Orleans funk, bebop and vocal jazz, perhaps the most startling moment in the piece -- a meditation on slavery and freedom - - comes when a violin player breaks out into a frenzy of Appalachian- style fiddle music, and it sounds totally natural in context. "Blood" is Marsalis's supreme achievement, putting into music what he has long been saying in words about the relationship between jazz and American democracy.

Then again, Marsalis's latest album, "The Midnight Blues: Standard Time Vol. 5," is an unabashedly nostalgic throwback. It's an old- fashioned, make-out record (the album art includes a photo of mussed- up bedsheets) which, as the title implies, consists primarily of moody jazz standards, e.g., "The Party's Over," "Spring Will Be a Little Later This Year," "Glad to Be Unhappy," played by Marsalis's quartet with syrupy, string-drenched backing arrangements.

As musical director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Marsalis presides over one of the best-funded, highest-profile jazz bands in the world. According to the organization's own mission statement, the orchestra "is dedicated to developing a performance repertory of historic compositions and newly-commissioned works for big band. The LCJO specializes in the music of Duke Ellington and they are currently preparing for their all-Ellington performances and tours throughout 1999, the centennial year of the birth of Ellington."

This is hardly a recipe for innovation, which some say is an essential aspect of authentic jazz. Even the "newly-commissioned works" by the LCJO tend to be Marsalis's own, neo-Ellingtonian suites, albeit ones that Crouch plants firmly in "the avant-garde."

Marsalis defends his approach thusly. Speaking about the current Lincoln Center tour, he said, "The theme we always go under is that `all jazz is modern.' For me, that's pretty much the theme -- that the whole of jazz should not be separated into little periods, and for it not to be viewed as some fad-type music that has to have some new trick every five or six years. The playing of jazz itself is a modern act -- that's what we always say and play."

Marsalis's "Big Train"

A centerpiece of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra's concert at the National Music Foundation in Lenox on Sunday night at 8 is expected to be a complete performance of Marsalis's latest work for jazz orchestra, "Big Train."

According to LCJO reedman Victor Goines, the as yet unrecorded new work "takes all of the historical aspect of the train in jazz that Duke Ellington and everyone else has developed and takes it to another level. There are all kinds of trains -- a fast train, a slow train, the freedom train -- in the piece."

Marsalis himself said "Big Train" is "full of metaphors." The piece, which had its premiere at Lincoln Center this past March, "is structured like a train," said the composer. "Each section has a certain specific emotion, and the transitional material is very short, like the little hook you have between two trains."

Also like a train, "Any section can be taken out," said Marsalis. The work is "about the conception of the individual in the group....and the relationship between the soloist and the ensemble."

The progression of "Big Train" is from adulthood to childhood rather than vice-versa. "In the beginning, a man asks, `Where does the big train go?' That's like the adult, they go to a train station, they want to know where the train is going.

"The child asks, `How does the big train go?' That's what the child wants to know. They don't care where it's going -- they want to know how does it go, what sound does it make....The train makes the sound of jazz."

How big is "Big Train?" Says Marsalis, "It's big."

If you would like to purchase Wynton Marsalis' latest CD "The Midnight Blues: Standard Time Vol. 5" on-line, please click on the SoundStone logo to the right.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 3, 1998. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 1998. All rights reserved.]


Seth Rogovoy
rogovoy@berkshire.net
music news, interviews, reviews, et al.

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