[Dixielandjazz] Marsalis in London
barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sat Sep 24 21:12:09 PDT 2005
There are those who will see this article as pretentious drivel.
And those who will learn from it.
And those who will not read it at all.
And those who will be amazed at what Wynton Marsalis is.
And those who?
Caveat: It is LONG but if you are really a JAZZ fan, you'll love it.
Enjoy it or not, but please understand that this man IS a JAZZ MUSICIAN in
the truest sense of the words.
>From The London Independent - September 16 - Michael Church
Wynton Marsalis: Blowing his own trumpet
The leading voice in American jazz is bringing his epic work for choir,
orchestra and jazz band to Britain. All the music of his country is there.
He has won a Pulitzer Prize, he is an outspoken campaigner on racism and
social injustice, and he was named by Time magazine as one of the 25 most
influential Americans. Wynton Marsalis is the leading voice in American
jazz, with an extensive discography and a string of awards. He was the
first instrumentalist to win simultaneous Grammys in the jazz and classical
Joining Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers at 18, he went on to perform with all
the major players of the Eighties, and toured with his band all over the
world. But he has his detractors. He's a neo-classicist, they say: safe,
backward-looking, a curator of the styles of the past. Presiding at his
comfortable base in the Lincoln Center, he gets stick for being less
attuned than his brother Branford to what's going on in jazz today.
When the American television series Ken Burns Jazz was aired three years
ago, with Marsalis as the prime contemporary spokesman, he was condemned by
the jazzerati as being responsible for the fact that the series, which
echoed Miles Davis's remark that jazz was dead, was essentially an
obituary. The experimental Branford, they said, should have been the
guiding light. But one might argue differently: could it be that Wynton's
sights are set on wider horizons than those of the masonically-sealed world
of avant-garde jazz?
Coming our way later this month is something extraordinary: Marsalis's
symphony All Rise, to be performed by his Lincoln Center band, with the
London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Adventist Chorale, and with
that august Beethovenian Kurt Masur wielding the baton. Marsalis's
symphony, which at 90 minutes is longer than any in the classical canon,
would be a great achievement for any classical composer. Coming from this
43-year-old jazz trumpeter - and he wrote it at the age of 36 - it's
Herculean. He has listed the elements in its language: the didgeridoo,
ancient Greek music, fugue, the New Orleans funeral cadence, the fiddler's
reel, the clave, the naningo, American popular song, Eastern and
Near-Eastern scales, and plain old down-home ditties. And he wasn't just
striving for "a world-music type of mélange".
But that list sells it short: Masur and his orchestra will need to be at
the top of their form to do justice to the Mahlerian expressivity and
Stravinskian brilliance that Marsalis's score demands. The work reflects a
journey based on more than magpie pastiche and taking in three centuries of
Western music. At the same time, its 12 movements echo the structure of a
12-bar blues: if it weren't too ill-timed an expression, you might say
Marsalis's native New Orleans runs through it like a great meandering
I make the mistake of starting my interview by talking about New Orleans,
and asking the trumpeter's reaction to recent events. "Deeper than words,"
he answers, and instantly becomes too choked to speak. When he's recovered,
he agrees to recount the genesis of this work. "Kurt Masur went to one of
my concerts in Detroit, and afterwards came backstage and asked me to write
for the New York Philharmonic. I thought he was joking. I'd never written
any orchestral music, and wasn't known as a composer, even in jazz. So why
would this guy approach me? I didn't take him seriously."
But Masur had been serious: he'd loved the "symphonic jazz" tradition, as
exemplified by Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton, and, as he told me recently,
he'd found it sad that nobody had thought to continue it. "I began trawling
through the work of composers in New York, and I realised that very few of
them had an independent, individual voice. Most of them were influenced by
the Hollywood sound. But when I heard Wynton's music, I realised it was
animated by the same kind of feeling as that pervading Ellington and
Kenton. He is one of the great jazz musicians, after the tradition of Louis
Armstrong and company. I believed he could make history move forward again."
After three years, as Marsalis explains, they met again. "And he asked if I
was still afraid to write for the New York Phil. Well, I'm competitive, so
when he says that, I say, 'Man, I'm not afraid.' I told him I would try to
develop enough technical knowledge to do a piece that was at least
passable. So then I wrote a series of pieces - a string quartet to learn
about strings, then something for woodwind, then I learnt about the
American folk fiddle tradition."
And Masur's admiration grew. "My basic idea was to try to reflect how jazz
began - among the black people in Africa, and on the plantations, with
gospel and so on. And Wynton simply said, 'I'll think about it.' I could
never have imagined that he would use this idea to create a piece of such
stunning originality, and such magnitude.
At the next meeting he told me what he had in mind, and that it would start
very simply. He told me, 'Don't worry, it's growing, it will come' - and
then he came to demonstrate three movements on the piano. I was excited. I
realised he was deeper than I had thought, and his understanding was
absolutely philosophical. He didn't want to make a commercial piece, he
wanted to express his feeling, and the feeling of his people." To get a
sense of how classical and jazz bands might fuse, they put the Philharmonic
and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra together for a concert in which they
would first play Grieg's Peer Gynt and then Duke Ellington's suite
inspired by it.
Masur says: "It was an amazing evening - we talked first, then
demonstrated. 'Anitra's Dance' was so refined in Grieg, and in Duke
Ellington's version had such erotic vulgarity - the same melody, but an
incredible contrast. And the dance of Peer Gynt's mother was done in the
style of a New Orleans funeral. Incredible, going right under the skin."
And when All Rise was premiered - two days after the attacks of 11
September 2001, when America was in shock and shows were being pulled
everywhere - it was found to be in near-perfect working order. Masur says:
"He hardly needed to change anything, even though it was only just finished
as we went into rehearsal."
So Marsalis must have had a sound classical grounding? The trumpeter
responds to the question with a potted history of his career, which began
with lessons from his jazzman father when he was six. "I didn't get into
classical music till I was in high school. I met a guy on a streetcar who
gave me a recording of Maurice André playing classical trumpet concerti.
Until then I'd only been interested in Clifford Brown and Miles, but I
started liked that, so I got some more of his albums, and when I was 14, I
won a competition to play the Haydn trumpet concerto at high school. Yeah, I
got better quickly."
Then he became a Beethoven fan: "I went to a library and found articles
talking about Thayer's life of Beethoven, so I got it out and read it."
Thayer's massive tome is the Everest of Beethoven scholarship. "Yeah, but I
didn't know it was the summit. I was just a boy in New Orleans, and I
didn't know anybody else who liked his music." His school ran a course in
symphonic analysis, which he diligently followed. Soon he could read a full
In his late teens, he found himself much in demand for classical concerts,
and discovered the piccolo trumpet. "I heard Maurice André playing that. At
first I thought he was doing it on a regular trumpet, and I was trying to
learn it that way; I learnt everything off the record, rather than from
music. But a friend brought me a piccolo trumpet, and said that if I learnt
how to play it, I could have it. I couldn't get a sound out of it first,
but I was determined to play him the last movement of the Brandenburg
Concerto No 2. When he came back, I got it."
He went on playing in churches in pieces such as the Messiah. "There
weren't a lot of piccolo trumpet players in town then, so I was the one who
got called in." When he went on to the Juilliard school of music, he found
himself playing Stravinsky, Sibelius and Mahler, while pursuing the line
that led to his début with Art Blakey. But he also went to summer camps,
where he knocked around with hot-shot classical virtuosi, and drank at the
fount of Leonard Bernstein's orchestral wisdom.
How autobiographical is All Rise? Quite a lot, he replies: for example, the
opening theme was a song sung to him by his great-uncle Alfonse, who was
born in 1883; and the little chant in the second movement was sung to him
by his two-year-old son Simeon on a car journey. But he's at pains to point
out that the work is not in any sense the story of black music in America.
"It's American music, and true American music has no colour. I may be
outspoken on issues of race, and social injustice, but music is different.
'American' music takes in all shades and backgrounds. The racism in our
culture makes us separate ourselves, but in fact we are in this all
"I grew up in the Afro-American tradition; that may be the foundation of my
consciousness. But my principal teacher in high school was white, as was
the guy who gave me the Maurice André, who was himself French and white.
Masur is German, and his son is a trumpet player. The connections go
Even, of course, to England. "To English bands, like the Philip Jones Brass
Ensemble, and the whole English brass tradition. All my early records I did
with the English Chamber Orchestra, and I love playing with them. They are
a link with the tradition that goes all the way back to Handel, and that is
now also part of my tradition." But if his first allegiance remains to jazz,
it's for a very good reason. "I don't want to go further and further into
the labyrinth of the mind, where the audience can't follow you. The
achievement of jazz is that you can come up with something that is
abstract, but sounds concrete enough for the average person in the street
to dig it."
Marsalis seems surprised that I hear Mahler's voice writ large at one point
in All Rise, but he happily admits the Bernstein influences in other
movements, and the Stravinskian ones. Then he makes a comment that should
give the London Philharmonic pause for thought: "A lot of the time, the way
that I hear the music is not the way it's being played. For example, I want
all the string players to play like it's fiddle music, but the closest they
come to that is what Stravinsky's music sounds like. I'll sing it and you
can hear it. I'll write deevee-doodle-deevee... [he sings with an easy
swing] but they will play [and he delivers a tamer, more neutered tune]. It
sounds like Stravinsky, because they don't have the reference point of
And when my jazz band comes in, playing the same melodic shape, it doesn't
sound anything like Stravinsky." It's the difference, he says, between
violin and fiddle. Then he chides his classical collaborators on the Sony
recording of this work for denaturing a fugue. "I heard the phrasing of
that totally differently from the way it was played." He sings, first to
demonstrate its swing and energy, and then as though daintily jabbing at the
strings. "But it's hard for any string section to sound like a style they
This problem will always exist with this work. Like if our jazz band was
required to play in the style of Bach; I might manage it, but some would
have real trouble. We have that same trouble when we try to play Latin
music, which is written like eighth-notes, but is actually in 16th-notes."
One of the most remarkable echoes in this work comes in the middle of the
pantheistic final movement, entitled "I AM: Don't you run from me". After
an exultant gospel solo and an exuberant big-band riff, the whole thing
subsides into a silence broken by staccato parps on the bassoon: is this a
reference to the same effect in Beethoven's Ninth? "Right, a very conscious
reference." And then, like Beethoven, he brings the sun out? "Yeah, the
blues. I wanted it to sound like an elementary school band, but we couldn't
pull it off. I wanted it to be inept, but not a parody - because when kids
play, they're earnest about it. That's the appeal of their bands. They're
trying so hard. But we just sounded like people making themselves mess up."
Professionalism can be a disability.
What effect does Marsalis hope this work will have? "I hope it might help
players have confidence in our own ways, and not to be afraid of them, as
Bernstein showed - things like hoe-downs, fiddle songs, and the art of
improvisation, and the New Orleans funeral tradition, and call-and-response
church singing, and the fact that the blues run through everything. And in
our relationship to European music, in that we don't have to imitate it,
it's a part of us, inseparable."
But, alongside New Orleans, it's religion that permeates All Rise, as
Marsalis's own commentary indicates: "The tuba preaches, the French horns
are the choir, the jazz trumpet is a sister in the back of the church..."
And this prolific sister is now rumoured to be planning, of all things, a
Mass, which is yet another idea prompted by Masur. The conductor says: "It
arose after I told him about all the Masses I had conducted in my life, and
all the different attitudes to God they embody - Beethoven and Mozart and
And I think he is philosophical enough to do it. I await it eagerly."
So how is it progressing? Marsalis ruminates: "I'm thinking about doing
something on the Last Seven Words of Christ." When I mention that those
words fired one of Haydn's greatest works, he wants to listen to it
straight away. Yes, that Mass could happen.
But now, with the floodwaters receding, Marsalis has found his voice on the
subject of New Orleans, and also the obvious way to help. "New Orleans," he
says, "is the most unique of American cities, because it is the only one
that created its own full culture. It was the original melting-pot of
Spanish, French, British, West African and American people. We are
resilient, so we are sure that our city will come back."
What this American tragedy provides, he adds, is "an opportunity for the
American people to demonstrate to ourselves and to the world that we are
one nation determined to overcome our legacies of injustice based on race
and class. We need people with their prayers, their pocketbooks, and above
all their sense of purpose, to show the world just who the modern American
is. This is gut- check time."
Tomorrow, Jazz at Lincoln Center will present a relief benefit concert
entitled Higher Ground, which will be televised live to every corner of the
United States. Those who have agreed to take the stage include Bill Cosby,
Robert De Niro, Renée Fleming, Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones, Bette Midler,
Toni Morrison, Paul Simon, Meryl Streep, Robin Williams - and Wynton
Marsalis. Yes, presidential stuff.
'All Rise' starts a five-date UK tour on 30 September at Symphony Hall,
Birmingham. Its London performance is at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7,
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