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Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Few Observations on Wynton

This post was prompted by the recent Randy Sandke affair (Peter Hum has a particularly good article on this here), where Wynton’s name loomed large in the arguments on both sides, yet it was something that he himself had no direct involvement with. Wynton’s huge profile in American musical politics in general and jazz politics in particular ensures that his name comes up again and again in all kinds of contexts.

I remember the first time I saw Wynton Marsalis play live. It was in 1983 at the Cork Jazz Festival and he was playing with the ‘Black Codes’ band. Not that it was called the Black Codes band, but it was virtually the same band that made Black Codes from the Underground a little later. It was a late night gig, starting at midnight, and there were about 7 of us musicians sitting together, ready to check it out. We knew who Wynton was, because there’d been such a palaver about him already, and we had heard both him and Branford (on recordings), with Blakey’s band. But we didn’t know Jeff Watts, or Kenny Kirkland, (or the bassist Phil Bowler) and didn’t really know what to expect. They came on stage and launched into something – probably Nozz-Moe_King which I wouldn’t have known by name at that time – and it was like being punched in the stomach. That is if being punched in the stomach can ever be described as being a pleasant experience. It was amazing – the power, the virtuosity, the turn-on-a-dime tempo changes – the sheer brilliance of it. At the time there was nothing really like it – yes, it was coming from the Miles 60s quintet conceptually, but it had its own thing too, especially the way the rhythm section played, espousing a kind of codification of the experiments in metric modulation that Miles’ group had touched on, and the hook-up between Watts and Kirkland in particular was spectacular.

At this point Wynton hadn’t taken on the role as spokesman for ‘real jazz’ in the way that he later did – he was outspoken, but people were still focussing on his trumpet playing at that time, and the sound of his band, rather than discussing him as a demagogue or seeing him as a divisive figure. And I think this is an interesting thing about Wynton, looking at it from the vantage point of where we are now – the more political power he took on, the more discussed his positions on what constitutes jazz were argued over, the more controversial he became, the less interest there seemed to be in his actual music.

His personal charisma, amazing trumpet playing and the way his band played was at one point incredibly influential on a particular constituency of young musicians, founding the ‘Young Lions’ movement and espousing a return to a way of playing that looked to emulate earlier generations of players rather than forging ahead with something that hadn’t been done before. Ted Gioia in his very fine History of Jazz, makes the interesting suggestion that this movement represented possibly the first time in jazz that a large coterie of young musicians had set their aesthetic compasses backwards rather than forwards. Jazz had always had a cult of modernism from its very earliest days, and this was the first time that any kind of serious, and philosophically underpinned, retro movement had been seen among young musicians.

For myself there was a period where I had an avid interest in what Wynton was doing musically – particularly in the area of rhythm. I got the eponymous first album and then bought Think of One, ‘Black Codes’, and then on into J Mood, Marsalis Standard Time Vol.1, and finally Live at Blues Alley. When first Kenny Kirkland and then Jeff Watts left the band and the music became even more referential to the past, and Wynton became more and more outspoken regarding his views on what did or did not constitute jazz, I became less and less interested in his music. I never enjoyed his large scale pieces, or his new band, and the final straw for me was when he recorded with pianist Eric Reed on Jelly Roll Morton’s “Tom Cat Blues,” recorded on the same sort of wax cylinder equipment that Morton used on his first recordings in the 1920s – the cover also featured Wynton in a sepia-toned imitation of an old photograph.

After that I paid little attention to Wynton’s music, his prolific output all passed me by with the exception of two recordings that were sent to me in a brief incarnation I had as an online jazz CD reviewer. It was a pretty good deal – I got free CDs and a little taste in return for 100 word reviews. Two of Wynton’s CDs landed on my doorstep - Marsalis Plays Monk and Live at the Village Vanguard- the latter an 8 CD set that I’d never have laid out folding money for, but that contained within it reminders of how great a player Wynton was. Some of the solos on this recording are simply stunning in terms of inventiveness and virtuosity. But again I feel some of the other players are not even close to matching Marsalis’ improvisational ability and there are real longeurs on the album – I found myself waiting impatiently for Wynton’ next solo. The Plays Monk recording is the only one of Wynton’s later recordings that I like in its totality and listen to occasionally. I think he captured the essence of Monk’s music really well there, and there are some terrific arrangements of Monk’s lesser known pieces.

But considering how prolific he is, and how long he’s been on the scene, it’s interesting to note that his recordings seem to make very little impression on the contemporary jazz scene these days. There is no question that Wynton looms much larger as a prosletiser for for a particular viewpoint, as a politician who deals with the big business world of arts funding in the US and of course as the eminence grise behind the whole JALC project. I wonder how he feels about the fact that he’s much more prominent as a public figure than he is as an improviser, composer and trumpet player? For someone with the prodigious gifts he has, it must be galling to have to spend so much time discussing your musical politics and have so much interest heaped on you for this aspect of your life, and very little interest taken in whatever your current musical project is.

And it’s understandable that his doings and pronouncements are so closely followed in the States. He does after all control, in a country with almost no funding for its own indigenous art-music, the largest funded jazz entity in the US under the umbrella of the JALC. In Europe however, Wynton’s doings and sayings don’t hold nearly the same fascination for the jazz fraternity as they do in the US – naturally enough I suppose. As someone who deals with young jazz musicians on a daily basis it’s interesting for me to see that Wynton has a very low profile for these same young musicians. In general they know him of course by reputation, but usually they only know two albums – ‘Black Codes’ and ‘Standard Time Volume 1’ - they’d be hard pressed to name any other albums from that period and they certainly don’t know anything by him recorded in the past 15 to 20 years. I find it ironic that for all his boosting and espousal of earlier styles of playing, he is best known musically for a few albums he recorded a quarter of a century ago, and ones in which he genuinely did something new with material taken from earlier players, rather than playing something that sounds like a pastiche (no matter how well played a pastiche it might be) of those earlier players.

As for me, I have the utmost respect for Wynton both as a musician and as a jazz philosopher. I don’t agree with some (and sometimes a lot) of what he says, but everything is argued from such a position of deep conviction and intelligence that it’s impossible not to give what he says a fair hearing, even if you disagree completely with it. He’s incredibly articulate and has become genuinely more fair-minded as he’s gotten older, and of course there’s still the trumpet playing......... In all of the stuff that goes on around him, it’s often forgotten just what a great jazz trumpet player he is. It was after all his playing that gave him the platform to air his views, and that made people pay attention to those views. Yes, he is an astute politician, but if his playing had been in any way run of the mill, nobody would have listened to anything he said, any more than they would have listened to the rest of us...........

Though I’ve devoted my professional life to the playing of jazz, the teaching of jazz and have been immersed in listening to jazz for at least as long as Wynton has, I know he wouldn’t even allow me to play as much as a few bars with him because I play the ‘wrong’ bass. But despite this and despite the fact that he often says things with which I strongly disagree, I still forgive him, because of stuff like this............

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Black and White?

I can’t believe they’re still arguing over the black/white thing in the US jazz blogosphere at the moment......... The trumpeter Randy Sandke wrote a book called Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet: Race and the Mythology, Politics, and Business of Jazz which apparently, (I haven’t read the book), claims that some white jazz musicians got/are getting a raw deal from left-leaning white critics over the years and, due to the political/PC bias of these critics, were never given the credit for their achievements. This has created a storm in a teacup effect with heavy hitters from the jazz blog world weighing in (mostly negatively towards Sandke’s thesis) and Sandke taking on all-comers with huge rebuttals of their arguments, (how much time does Sandke have!? If it was me it would be just too exhausting to go into the minutiae of everyone’s arguments for the sake of rebuttal).

To an outsider to American jazz politics like myself, the arguments about whether somebody dissed Michael Brecker in an article several years ago, or who did or did not claim Bix had a poor sense of rhythm just seems daft. Ethan Iverson has a gigantic piece on it which gets into the fine detail of who said what, when, and about whom. Apparently Sandke is about to give a rebuttal to this piece – which will join the rebuttals he’s already made in response to Howard Mandel and David Adler

From where I’m sitting it seems extraordinary to watch some very famous writers and musicians savaging each other over this subject. Surely this argument about who was most influential and why, or who got their due and who didn’t, is over? It seems especially bizarre to see suggestions being made that X didn’t get his due because he was white, and Y was over-praised because he was black. And vice versa. I really didn’t think so many serious writers and musicians could get so passionately involved in the arcana of these arguments. Surely there are more important things to discuss these days – such as the dwindling playing opportunities for ALL musicians, black OR white?

As to the argument that jazz history has been skewed by a political/racial agenda - without having read the book, but being an avid student of jazz history (via the music rather than the books on it), it seems glaringly obvious that though there have always been good and great white players, the vast bulk of what constitutes the influential history of the music (at least up to 1970), and the major developments in jazz, have emanated from the Afro-American community. There’s no getting away from it – no matter how many Bix’s, Artie Shaws, Benny Goodmans, Stan Getz’s, and Bill Evans’ (and many other great white players) you acknowledge, if you take Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Davis, Ornette and Coltrane (not to mention Monk and Mingus.....), out of the mix then it’s all over – there’s no real major body of work around which the other musicians – black and white – revolve.

You could make an analogy with classical music in this respect – yes there are lots of great non-German composers (especially post 20th century) but if you take Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Mahler, and Schoenberg out of the picture then there probably is no picture left since the development of the music itself is so dependant on the work of these German composers.

Jazz history is completely dependant on the work of these aforementioned jazz greats and the music can’t be imagined without them. And they’re all Afro-Americans. It’s a music that sprung from the Afro-American community in the US and while there were great white players involved from even the earliest times, the major development of the music revolves around Afro-Americans.

At least up as far as 1970

After that the picture is far less clear – you have the rise of the fusion movement, most of which was dominated by white players, and the transformation and maturation of European jazz – undergoing an evolutionary process which saw it change from being an imitation (sometimes poor) of American jazz into something which had highly individual regional characteristics and many really great and original instrumentalists. In America over the past thirty years many influential instrumentalists – Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker, Dave Holland, Brad Mehldau, Kurt Wosenwinkel, Joey Baron, Dave Douglas and many others – have been white. And of course there have been many influential black players as well – Jeff Watts, Terence Blanchard, Mark Turner, Kenny Kirkland, and many others including of course Wynton and Branford Marsalis. However the domination of the music by Afro-Americans has waned since 1970 and to me this is a subject far more worthy of discussion than the current furore over who dissed who, who was quoted out of context, and who said what and when.

It seems to me that Afro-American society at large has pretty much abandoned jazz as being something that has any relevance for them. Of course there are still players coming out of the Afro-American community, and people in the community for whom the whom the music has importance, but as a whole the music doesn’t seem to have much support from the people from whom it originally sprang. In my recent trip to New York I went to 11 gigs in 5 days and saw hardly any Afro-Americans in the audience.

And I think the current apathy and lack of interest in jazz displayed by the vast majority of Afro-Americans is a tragedy for the music and a tragedy for Afro-American culture. And I think it’s a far more interesting and important discussion than the current Stateside squabble that seems to be more about bruised egos and people scoring points off each other than any effort to bring clarity to their argument. And, sitting here on the other side of the Atlantic, the argument itself seems like such a waste of time to me. Surely we have more important fish to fry these days than whether somebody misquoted Gary Giddins!?