Marsalis’ outspokenness stirs mixed feelings among colleagues
One of the most popular jazz artists of this era, Wynton Marsalis also is one of the most controversial.
“I think his promulgation of an orthodoxy whereby jazz ‘must’ do this, that or the other is ridiculous and has caused a lot of needless division,” says bassist Lindsey Horner, who lived in Pittsburgh before moving his career back to New York City.
“He has tried to define the parameters of jazz, and when you can so clearly define an art form, it is dying,” says Ken Vandermark, an avant-garde sax player who operates out of the adventurous music scene in Chicago.
“I find Wynton’s idea of what jazz is, should be, and can be, far too limiting,” says saxophonist Ben Opie, leader of Pittsburgh’s innovative 12-piece OPEK band.
But Marsalis, the creator of hot-selling albums and award-winning compositions, also has his supporters.
“He is blazing some serious trails,” says Bill McFarlin, executive director of the International Association of Jazz Educators, based in Kansas. “People are creative in different ways, and there is a huge spectrum to his work.”
“He has done a lot for jazz when it needed it desperately,” says Peter Levinson, a Californian who has written several music biographies and worked for many years in music promotion.
“He got rid of the old image of a jazz man as a guy starving, on drugs and living in New York City,” says Nathan Davis, director of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
Marsalis has generated a world of opinion with his dedication to the tradition of jazz. While many listeners understand and agree with his unfaltering focus on the roles of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and the like, an equal number get irate at his apparent lack of willingness to examine newer forms.
In conversations over the past 20 years, Marsalis has never focused on that criticism or altered his views. In fact, at times, he has seemed perplexed at being criticized for having an opinion.
Those who disagree with him take on the attitude of doubters more than detractors. Horner attended the Juilliard School of Music at the same time Marsalis did, so is quite familiar with the remarkable talent that has won Marsalis awards for classical performance as well as jazz.
“Technically, he is one of the great trumpet players,” Vandermark says.
But they also challenge him for seeming to establish the limits of “true jazz” somewhere in the ’60s, a time before the explorations of Albert Ayler or Cecil Taylor. That also eliminates any value to contemporary jazz, says Vandermark, leader of his own quintet and participant in many other forward-looking projects.
In trying to “intellectualize” the music, Marsalis has created a sound that is “very, very dry.” The trumpeter denies the importance of an “individual voice in the musical collective,” Vandermark says.
Horner agrees and says that leads to albums that are “pleasant enough,” but ones he doesn’t listen to with the frequency of trumpeter Dave Douglas, who has done fresh interpretations of standards as well as playing in an ethno-improv band.
Opie and Horner, in separate interviews, both say Marsalis is less of an “innovator” than many other jazz performers and, hence, is not taking the music anyplace new.
Marsalis’ supporters are quick to point out his winning of the Pulitzer Prize as well as several Grammy awards as an indication of the worth of his music. Michael Cuscuna, a producer of many famous jazz recordings, also points out Marsalis has done quite a bit of fresh work as artistic director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Marsalis has presented such artists there as Ornette Coleman, Andrew Hill and Geri Allen, Cuscuna says, “not artists he would agree with but those he sees as important.”
“He is hugely opinionated, but not close-minded,” Cuscuna says. “Most of us just edit ourselves more.”
The Lincoln Center program will be moving into a new $128 million home in the fall, and Cuscuna says Marsalis’ work leading it has been “extraordinary.”
McFarlin says Marsalis deserves great credit to undertaking “massive” work at Lincoln Center that has “pushed the envelope educationally as well as musically.”
Pitt’s Davis agrees Marsalis’ music tends to be conservative, but points out he has heard him go many different directions, from New Orleans-based tunes to bebop.
“If you’re a good trumpet player, you can do it all,” he says. “He has brought some of the older music back to the forefront and people should be able to hear that, too.”
Mike Tomaro, director of jazz studies at Duquesne University, Uptown, says he is sometimes upset that Marsalis “has been proclaimed as the absolute authority on jazz.”
But he suspects much of that is related to the media and fans getting caught up in a successful marketing campaign by record companies,
“One fact that cannot be denied is that he is a phenomenal trumpet player,” Tomaro says.