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Straight No Chaser - A Jazz Show

Welcome to Straight No Chaser, the Award-winning Podcast hosted by Jeffrey Siegel

Oct 18, 2011

It may be hard for those who discovered jazz in the late 1970's and early 1980's to wrap their heads around it, but trumepter Wynton Marsalis turns 50 years old today. Despite his position as one of jazz's most revered voices and organizers, I always saw him as the new kid on the block.

Clearly that's no longer the case. A look at his discography (jazz, classical, soundtracks, etc) reveals more than 70 releases, an average of more than 2.5 releases a year since his debut in 1982. That's a staggering output, and much of it is fine music. And yet, for all his output, and all his awards - nine Grammy awards and a Pulitzer Prize among them - he is also a lightning rod for controversy. Here's an excerpt from his Wikipedia entry - footnotes and all - that spells out the issue:

Marsalis has been criticized by some jazz musicians and writers as a limited trumpeter who pontificates on jazz, as he did in his 1988 opinion piece in the New York Times "What Jazz Is - and Isn't".[1][2]

Jazz critic  Scott Yanow acknowledged Marsalis's talent but criticized his "selective knowledge of jazz history" and his regard for "post-1965 avant-garde playing to be outside of jazz and 1970s fusion to be barren" as the unfortunate result of the "somewhat eccentric beliefs of Stanley Crouch.[3] Trumpeter Lester Bowie said of Marsalis, "If you retread what's gone before, even if it sounds like jazz, it could be anathema to the spirit of jazz."[4] In his 1997 book Blue: The Murder of Jazz, Eric Nisenson argues that Marsalis's focus on a narrow portion of jazz's past stifled growth and innovation.[5] In 1997, pianist Keith Jarrett criticized Marsalis saying "I've never heard anything Wynton played sound like it meant anything at all. Wynton has no voice and no presence. His music sounds like a talented high-school trumpet player to me."[6] Pierre Sprey, president of jazz record company Mapleshade Records, said in 2001 that "When Marsalis was nineteen, he was a fine jazz trumpeter...But he was getting his tail beat off every night in Art Blakey's band. I don't think he could keep up. And finally he retreated to safe waters. He's a good classical trumpeter and thus he sees jazz as being a classical music. He has no clue what's going on now."[7] Bassist Stanley Clarke said "All the guys that are criticizing—like Wynton Marsalis and those guys—I would hate to be around to hear those guys playing on top of a groove!"[8] In his autobiography, Miles Davis – who Marsalis said had left jazz and "went into rock"[9] – hedged his praise of Marsalis by suggesting that he was unoriginal. He also found him too competitive, saying "Wynton thinks playing music is about blowing people up on stage." In 1986, in Vancouver, Davis stopped his band to eject an uninvited Marsalis from the stage. Davis said "Wynton can't play the kind of shit we were playing", and twice told Marsalis "Get the fuck off."[10]

Some critical exchanges have included insults. Besides insinuating that Davis had pandered to audiences, Marsalis said Davis dressed like a "buffoon." Trumpeter Lester Bowie called Marsalis "brain dead", "mentally-ill" and "trapped in some opinions that he had at age 21... because he's been paid to."[2][9] Marsalis in reply said Bowie was "another guy who never really could play."[9]

Marsalis was criticized for pressing his neo-classicist opinions of jazz as producer and on-screen commentator in the Ken Burns documentary Jazz (2001). The documentary focused primarily on Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong among others, while ignoring other jazz artists. David Adler said that "Wynton's coronation in the film is not merely biased. It is not just aesthetically grating. It is unethical, given his integral role in the making of the very film that is praising him to the heavens."[11]

If his playing is a bit staid, and his desire to record - if not recycle - jazz classics on a number of his releases a but redundant, his contribution as a composer, as the director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and in particular his live playing make him a formidable talent. And that's enough for me.

While an excellent Breathe of Life posting of Marsalis' live music is no longer available on their website, I have a copy, and am sharing it again for you to hear. Enjoy.