He's not without his critics, but Marsalis's dedication to the spirit of jazz is more than worthy of a place in the hall of greats
Like Sonny Rollins, Keith Jarrett and the late Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis is one of a handful of jazz instrumentalists whose name is known beyond the world of the jazz cognoscenti. But unlike the other three, Marsalis has polarised opinion more than any other jazz artist of the last 30 years.
A consummately skilful trumpeter, an ambitious large-scale composer and a shrewd campaigner for jazz, he has become one of the biggest international stars of a tradition that was already being marginalised by rock and pop-influenced jazz by the time he burst on to the scene as a teenage virtuoso in the early-80s.
By the end of that decade, Marsalis's face was on the cover of Time magazine, which billed him as the chief architect of "the new jazz age". But he made plenty of enemies as well as friends.
Marsalis's trumpet-playing made the jaws of even hardened pros drop, and there are plenty of episodes during the 1980s that his many admirers would defend as a great moment in jazz. But beginning in 1986, the series of albums the trumpeter released under the telling title Standard Time perhaps defined his message better than any others from his early years. In the jazz climate Marsalis entered (touched on in this series's coverage of Weather Report and jazz-fusion and the fiercely exploratory soundscape of Anthony Braxton), the 25-year-old's work sounded like a return to the jazz played before he was born – as he intended it to. Here's the standard April in Paris, from 1986's Standard Time: Volume 1.
The classical-recitalist's uniform and the soberly candid expression on the album cover carried a message as significant as that dazzling trumpet solo: Marsalis was calling time on US cultural assumptions of the 1980s. Jazz musicians, especially African-Americans, had in the 20th century created a unique American art form with global repercussions, and Marsalis was incensed that the music industry, the media and the arts establishment were not only showing it no respect but conspiring to kill it off.
With a zeal and energy to match the virtuosity that allowed him to play jazz and classical trumpet with equal ease, Marsalis was determined to lead a fightback. For this determination alone, whatever the critics who dismiss him as a neoconservative think of his music, Marsalis's 80s work deserves a place in the great moments of jazz. Many young musicians around the world at that time (including Courtney Pine's generation of black British youth) were inspired by both the trumpeter's sound and his coolly charismatic authority, and began to view jazz as a potential life-path.
Wynton is the most famous and influential member of a New Orleans dynasty of musicians of which the patriarch is Ellis Marsalis, a respected New Orleans pianist and teacher who played with Ornette Coleman in the 1950s, and which also includes brothers Branford (saxes), Delfeayo (trombone) and Jason (drums). Wynton had distinguished himself in New Orleans classical orchestras as a child (he could play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto flawlessly at 14), and when he came to New York in 1979 to study at the Juilliard School – supplementing his allowance by playing in the pit-band for Sweeney Todd on Broadway – he was already a phenomenal technician. He began playing with veteran bebopper Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers while still at college, was soon on the road in a Miles Davis tribute band with former Miles sidemen Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, then launched a solo career from which he has never looked back. But Marsalis was passionate in his belief, in in his teens, that a toxic mix of crass music-industry commercialism and the cerebral avant garde-isms of experimental jazz were consigning a precious tradition to the archives.
Marsalis's tone, technique and sense of narrative shape and direction initially recalled the introspective lyricism of Miles Davis in the pre-fusion 50s and early-60s, but also the polished sound and rhythmic momentum of hard-bopper Clifford Brown. Columbia Records took to alternately releasing jazz and classical albums in which Marsalis was the main attraction. By 25 he was winning Grammys. In 1987, he was appointed head of the jazz programme at New York's Lincoln Centre, named "one of America's 25 most influential people" by Time, and placed in Life's list of "the 50 most influential [baby] boomers". He began writing ballet and movie scores, even jazz operas, and with the accomplished repertory orchestra he created at the Lincoln Centre took eloquent dedications to such innovators as Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk to mainstream audiences all over the world, and into schools and educational institutions too. With family members, he has also campaigned tirelessly for justice and reparation for the citizens of his home city following 2005's Hurricane Katrina.
It's easy to typecast Wynton Marsalis as a neoclassicist, fearful of the future and fuelled by the desire to restore order, proportion and harmony to a fragmented world. In earlier years, particularly in his proselytising collaborations with the traditionalist jazz critic and academic Stanley Crouch, he has more than justified that impression. But Marsalis is changing, and becoming increasingly involved through performance and educational projects with artists outside his own culture (notably in Europe) who bring different influences to jazz. "Jazz is about joy to me – about things coming together," he once observed. "Affirmation and celebration – those are the qualities of jazz that attracted me first." Maybe for the first time, this driven and contradictory music-maker is hearing the widest implications of his earliest convictions.
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