BY BENSON IDONIJE
FOR over six decades, since the advent of modern jazz in 1942, the younger players of that genre have introduced nothing. This is despite the solid foundation laid by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and the interventionist efforts of such innovators as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy, and Miles Davis. This is not to mention the efforts of Wynton Marsalis, the Miles Davis-influenced trumpeter who was born in 1961, but began to contribute to the development of jazz in the 1990s.
Residing in New York City where he serves as the artistic director of the acclaimed ‘Jazz-at-the-Lincoln’ Centre programme, Marsalis helped to bring about resurgence in the popularity of jazz in the ’90s. He has mentored such young players as trumpeters, Nicholas Payton, Wallace Roney, Roy Hargove and Terence Blanchard among others. Marsalis has nurtured the likes of Eric Reed, Steve Turre, Nicholas Payton and bassist, Christian Mc Bride among the many musicians that have benefited from the workshop sessions at the Lincoln Centre.
But the truth is that these young adherents are still following on the heels of the elders, playing the same notes, progressions and phrases. They are still propelled by the same artistic motivations.
One big irony that continues to characterise the attitude of these young players is that even though their influences are the elder musicians, they never give credit to them. But, why would they, when the co-founder of ‘Jazz at Lincoln’ and its artistic director himself, who is responsible for preparing them for their careers, has always refused to acknowledge his mentors and influences?
In an interview he granted some writers a few years ago, Marsalis was asked to name 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; someone 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 this music is great.’ And my mother — just the type of investment in time she puts into going to music lessons and taking us to concerts and stuff that she didn’t really want to do.
“Then all the many teachers I had. I had 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 maybe didn’t know the type of impact they had on me, just to be always 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 a 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.”
Of all the elders whose music Marsalis grew on, he only mentioned Art Blakey with whose Jazz Messengers he previously played, in the course of finding his feet. He made a passing reference to Clarke Terry, whose music Dizzy Gillespie extended. He refused to talk about his direct influence
— Miles Davis. No reference was made to Sonny Rollins, Pharaoh Sanders, Ornette Coleman who are still alive — so they can savour the acknowledgement for this generation to appreciate the reality of what he is saying.
Notwithstanding, the elder musicians are still dominating and dictating the direction in which jazz should go — Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Pharaoh Sanders, Andrew Hill, Archie Shepp, Horace Silver, Randy Weston, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock.
Born in 1930, Rollins will be 80 on September 7, this year. And yet, his saxophone sound is still as strong and inspiring as ever. As if, for him, life begins at 80, his release of Sonny Please has invested him with the new responsibility of taking the bull by the horns. Now recording on Doxy, his own label, he has started his own company. The saxophone colossus has taken control of his destiny.
Rollins has always remained more venturesome than his contemporaries. On Sonny Please, he is more intrepid still, than a vast majority of musicians half his age. Qualities that have long defined his playing — the questing lyricism, the physical and emotional tenacity, the Shakespearian imagination — remain objects of wonders.
His solos are ingenious in the best sense of the word, combining a childlike joy of discovery with grown-up passion and wisdom. His tone is brighter and more brittle than it once was. Rollins is a swinger.
The Ornette Coleman quartet deals in moment-to-moment magic; the kind that defies documentation. His Sound Grammar, recorded in Germany, is a testimony to his creative development; the height of the avant-garde which he began in 1959.
Coleman will be 80 on March 9, 2010.
Pianist Andrew Hill is back on Blue Note Records with Time Lines, at age 72. As a pianist, his note choices are still cryptic, his phrase shapes are still angular and his movements still scurry. As a composer, bandleader, he still creates exotic, darkly luminous aural landscapes that inspire soloists.
Pianist Randy Weston, the 83-year-old composer, bandleader with great passion for African music, is still pursuing his agenda.
The elders that we know today played conventional jazz – in the mould of Charlie Parker — for many years. The transformation to avant-garde was thus a natural movement that was bound to take place. But these days, as if they want to walk before they crawl, the younger generation blunder into avant-garde without a thorough preliminary grounding. The foundation therefore is shaky and does not allow genuine creativity to flourish and blossom the way it did for the elder statesmen.
Archie Shepp has expanded his horizon both as a saxophonist in the avant-garde mould and a blues player and singer, at 72. As elder statesmen of jazz, Joe Henderson, Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock and all, have continued to inspire today’s jazz scene, setting the pace for the younger generation to follow.