It is funny, almost independently what one reads (on the internet) about Wynton Marsalis, latest the second sentence elaborates on what controversial figure he is. And this post obviously makes no difference to this!
But as Swiss, I have an elegant way out of this – being neutral has served us well in the past and will serve me here as well. Without having to take sides, I can purely enjoy his music, which I really do a lot!
When Wynton Marsalis stormed onto the world stage of Jazz, or at least the US stage initially, he became the leading figure of the Young Lions defining a new genre, which would become known as Neo-Bop.
The Young Lions had absolutely clear views on what the foundation of their music would be, all Jazz performed by black musicians from the very early days all the way to Bebop. And even clearer it was to them what not – Free Jazz (which rarely swung) and Fusion as well as Funk (which rarely was acoustic). That stance softened over the years however.
The thrilling aspect about the early Young Lions albums is the youthful pursuit of rhythm as a life-or-death matter. The style was labelled Burn Out, fast, aggressive, modal, and dominated by a lot of piano and drum interaction. An example for this is Chambers of Tain on Black Codes (From The Underground) by Wynton Marsalis. Unfortunately, I could not find this song on youtube, but here is another one from the same record:
Besides listening to the music of an artist or a genre, I normally am interested in understanding how it fits into the context it was created in.
In this case, at the end of the seventies, Jazz had been marginalized. Rock and Pop were dominating, Fusion was on the decline and Free Jazz was not really something for everybody.
Fusion and Funk, which came with a heavy electrification of the instruments, also brought negative influences on straight-ahead music played during the 1970’s. Recording quality of albums could be awful and less skilful playing was overpowered by effects.
People like Wynton Marsalis were afraid that Jazz, a unique American art form with global repercussions, was about to be killed off!
Hence his call – we need a canon – and his very strict bethinking of the traditional Jazz styles.
With his series of Standard Time records, in total six albums released starting in the mid-1980’s, Marsalis shows his appreciation for the Jazz standards. On the following example from Standard Time 3 – The Resolution of Romance, Wynton joins his father Ellis, who was a very fine Jazz pianist.
But as in pretty much every new development in Jazz also in this case racism played its role. Almost unthinkable as we are talking about the 60’s/70’s when Marsalis and other Young Lions grew up! But they indeed felt the sharp end of American racism during their youth. And so they formed a closed cycle with a clear “us versus them” stance.
In my understanding, there are clear parallels to what had happened thirty years earlier when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker (amongst others) established Bebop. As then, there was a feeling that the whites were dominating the music scene, at least commercially. And a view that it was time to show how Jazz played at the highest level had to sound like, because the general quality of the genre had suffered. As in the 50’s this again led to some serious work artistically.
It is fair to say that Marsalis was a trumpet “wunderkind”. The large Jazz stage he definitely entered when joining veteran bebopper Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers while still at college. Then he was on the road in a Miles Davis tribute band with former Miles sidemen Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. The next step was to launch a solo career from which he has never looked back.
Initially criticised as being a Miles Davies imitator he found his sound at the latest with the 1990 recording Tune in Tomorrow, by exploring earlier styles of Jazz (such as Louis Armstrong’s playing), mastering the wah-wah mute, and studying Duke Ellington. From that point on, even when playing a Miles Davis standard, Marsalis had his own sound and has finally taken his place as one of Jazz’s greats.
Marsalis’ three-and-a-half-hour Jazz oratorio Blood on the Fields became the first Jazz composition to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Music. It concerns a couple moving from slavery to freedom.
This is a 2013 recording of the piece which premiered on April 1, 1994 at the Lincoln Center.
Although in the 90’s Wynton’s music started to change, getting more large-ensemble and pre-bop oriented, on Live at the House of Tribes he puts some nice Bebop on!
In 1987, Marsalis co-founded a Jazz program at Lincoln Center. In July 1996, Jazz at Lincoln Center (JLC) was installed as a new constituent of Lincoln Center. In October 2004, Marsalis opened Frederick P. Rose Hall, the world’s first institution for jazz containing three performance spaces (including the first concert hall designed specifically for Jazz), along with recording, broadcast, rehearsal and educational facilities. Marsalis also serves as Artistic Director for JLC.
A consummately skilful trumpeter, an ambitious large-scale composer and a shrewd campaigner for Jazz, Wynton Marsalis has become one of the biggest international stars of the genre. Time magazine put him on the cover as architect of the new Jazz age.
There are many interesting records from him, for an overview go to http://www.wyntonmarsalis.org. In 2011 he played the blues with Eric Clapton, a record I got to like a lot!
Thanks for reading all the way to here!