Monday, 22 June 2009

The beat of Marsalis

There is no doubt that Marsalis is one of the greatest figures in jazz. Continually pursuing his goals of recording and performing music at the highest level, as well as educating today’s youth, he is indeed worthy of all the recognition he has received so far and will undoubtedly continue to receive – if he continues to do what he is doing.

SOME critics have described Wynton Marsalis as the rallying point for the new jazz, one of the greatest figures in jazz and the inspirer of the jazz that happened from the 1990s till date.
Much as I respect the views of knowledgeable critics, most of whom see these things from their own personal and individual perspectives, it must be said that it is not true that Wynton is at the top of the scene of the 1990s to 2009.
As for being a rallying point; it is a possibility in view of the fact that he is the artistic director of the acclaimed jazz at the Lincoln Centre programme, New York City. By virtue of his role at the centre where he nurtures and directs today’s young jazz musicians, he could be said to be a rallying point, a motivator. But this does not in any way suggest that he is the inspirer of the jazz that has been happening since the 90s.
Even though Charlie Packer died in 1955, till today,
his music still inspires, in fundamental terms, the jazz that was played from that time till now. With the bop influence which changed harmonies, chord sequences and solo concepts, the Charlie Parker influence still looms largely. Notwithstanding, he still cannot be said to have totally inspired all that is happening today because since his death, a lot of developments have happened; a lot of changes have taken place.
Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis all went their separate and individual ways. Those of them who are still alive like Sonny Rollins and Ornette are still borrowing from foreign cultures an their own immediate environments.
In terms of the trumpet which is Wynton’s own instrument, the ‘90s which saw him to the Jazz Centre was, in my own opinion, dominated by Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. An activist who was determined to make a point as far as enthroning jazz as ‘Black Music’ is concerned, Bowie played the trumpet in an extraordinarily unusual style with an avantgarde approach that defied categorisation. When he performed in Lagos, Nigeria at Decca Recording studios with Fela’s Egypt 80 in 1978 on such tunes as Dog Eat Dog and No agreement, his trumpet was weird and yet it conformed with the Afrobeat progression laid down for the songs by Fela. Solos which he shared with Fela’s sideman, Tunde Williams were not far out, to the point that you could not recognise that he was improvising on African rhythms and melodies. Making a deliberate effort to identify with tradition and the grassroots, Bowie derived most of his notes from the themes just so that he did not stray too far away from Africa. Such is the hallmark of artistic creativity – the ability to adapt to various melodies, cultures and patterns.

Every saxophonist is today looking up to John Coltrane for inspiration – over 40 years after his death. They still see him as the ultimate, and want to enact the modal phrases that characterised his playing; and the peculiar Indian sound and tone he imbibed from that country – from research and experimentation. And yet, Coltrane cannot be said to be the inspirer of all of today’s jazz. Even when it is obvious that Coltrane’s influence is so infectious that young saxophonists are copying his phrases and technique, we cannot credit him with all the responsibility.
Miles Davies took the trumpet to a creative height unprecedented in the history of jazz. Every trumpeter wants to listen to Miles for his tone, phrases and improvisational concept. Still, he cannot be said to have dominated today’s scene. Even though his influence is overwhelming, the Terence Blanchards and Roy Hargroves of this world also have their individualities to invest in their playing.
Wynton Marsalis is a great trumpeter. Besides, he is a great organiser of men and material. He truly has touched most of the young, aspiring jazz men on the scene today.
Marsalis has garnered awards of all kinds from numerous sources. He has received the Grand Prix au Disque of France, the Edison Award of the Netherlands, and eight Grammys for jazz and classical music (including Grammys in both jazz and classical the same year).
In 1996, he won a Peabody Award for his twenty six part National Public Radio series, “Making the Music”, and his four-part PBS-TV series, “Marsalis on Music”. The same year, TIME magazine named him one of America’s 25 most Influential People. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his epic work – Blood on the Fields (Columbia), which he recorded with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. In 1998, Marsalis was given the Young Star Award at the Turner Broadcasting System’s Trumpet Awards, which recognises outstanding African-American achievement.
There is no doubt that Marsalis is one of the greatest figures in jazz. Continually pursuing his goals of recording and performing music at the highest level, as well as educating today’s youth, he is indeed worthy of all the recognition he has received so far and will undoubtedly continue to receive – if he continues to do what he is doing.
But Miles Davis and Lester Bowie could have garnered more laurels than these, if only they were establishment artists ready to conform with the tenets of the system. But as genuine artists, they were too restless and impatient to be pinned down to organising and co-ordinating. They were always researching and reaching out to new levels. And Wynton himself recognises this fact even though he has always refused to give honour to Miles Davis who influenced and shaped his career as a trumpeter.

With a classical music background, Wynton came into jazz through Miles whom he copied note for note, phrase to phrase – before he eventually came into his own. Up till now, the traits of his mentor can still be heard in his playing, but he has refused at every opportunity to give credits for his influence to Miles whom he has bad-mouthed in several interviews – for reasons that we do not know. And this is not a sign of true musicianship.
In 1997, Wynton was asked who were some of the people who had had the most influence in his life, and why. His reply: “Both my parents. First, just my father – just to have an opportunity to be around a musician of that calibre, that type of man with a lot of integrity and not really pretentious at all, some one who really loves music and believes in it and whose belief in music is not predicated on his position in it because he was always struggling just to make ends meet to feed that big family he had.
“But he didn’t get jaded because he still had belief in the music. So he would say, “Well, I might not be making money, but the music is great”. And my mother – just the type of investment in time she put into us going to music lessons and taking us to concerts and stuff that she didn’t really necessarily want to do.
“Then all the many teachers I had … I have so many trumpet teachers. And then all the musicians that I knew when I was growing up. They were kind of like my uncles even though they didn’t know the type of impact they had on me. Just to always be around them.
“ And then, musicians like Art Blakey. He had a tremendous impact on me. The opportunity to work and understand what it means to go to work every night and play and not joke around, like be serious about swinging and playing with vibe at all times, playing with a certain intensity and feeling.
“And musicians like Clark Terry, I would meet them when I was in high school. And he sent me a postcard once. Just musicians who keep you inspired, you know. So many people. I could just go on and on. There are so many musicians. I know so many people I’ve met who were very inspirational”.
It is surprising to realise that all through the interview, no mention was made of Miles Davis, the man who directly influenced him. But he made mention of Clark Terry, a trumpeter who belonged to an era before him and even Miles Davis. Clark Terry played with Duke Ellington.

Born into a music family, Wynton began studying the trumpet seriously around the age of twelve. At seventeen, he moved to New York City to attend the prestigious Julliard School. Soon after arriving, however, he accepted an offer to join Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and began touring the world. A couple of years later, he began forming his own groups, and he has maintained a relentless recording and touring schedule ever since. In 1987 Wynton co-founded “Jazz at Lincoln Center”, which has been named a full constituent organisation, the first to earn the distinction since 1969.

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