One of my favorite jazz blogs, Do The Math, recently featured several interesting articles about Wynton Marsalis. If you aren’t familiar with Do The Math, it’s a blog by members of the experimental jazz band The Bad Plus. Most, if not all, of the articles are written by the band’s excellent piano player, Ethan Iverson. As Ethan would readily admit, the articles tend to be a tad on the long side (some of these Wynton articles are real doozies!), but don’t let that scare you away. I think you’ll agree that Ethan’s intelligent and insightful writing is well worth your time.
I’d expect that these Wynton Marsalis interviews and articles are of more interest to my trumpet playing readers, but I’d encourage any jazz enthusiast to give them a read. If nothing else, I’m sure you’ll come away with several new albums to add to your listening lists.
- Interview with Wynton Marsalis (Part one) - detailed discussion with audio clips of Wynton’s latest major opus, Congo Square.
- Interview with Wynton Marsalis (Part two) - blindfold test of classic trumpet solos including a dissection of “Knozz-Moe-King” from Live at Blues Alley. If you only have the time or interest to read one of the interview parts, read this one.
- The “J” Word - If you aren’t familiar with Wynton’s polarizing effect on the jazz community, you should definitely give this a read before reading the articles that follow
- Young Lion jazz of the 1980’s - Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Marcus Roberts, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Kirkland, Kenny Garrett, etc
- Four Early Wynton Marsalis/Jeff Watts Records - Ethan Iverson's picks for the best Young Lion records of the 1980's.
- Current Perceptions - a discussion about the Young Lion legacy and the sometimes dismissive view of critics and musicians.
- An Old Feud - the rift between the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the 80’s Young Lions, Wynton Marsalis, and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
- Reading the Black Jazz Writers - an examination of the role that race and culture play in jazz writing
Following are some of my thoughts about the articles:
THE WYNTON CONTROVERSY - BACKGROUND AND COMMENTS
As you may already know, Wynton Marsalis’ definition of what is and isn’t jazz is a source of controversy in the jazz community. As Ethan Iverson points out, Wynton’s definition of jazz seemingly excludes free or avant-garde jazz, the even-eighth-note jazz associated with ECM artists, and musicians who straddle the worlds of free and straight-ahead music, such as Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, and Dewey Redman. For Wynton, it isn’t jazz unless it’s blues-based and swinging. It also helps if the music sounds like it was composed before 1955.
During the latter part of Ethan Iverson’s interview with Wynton Marsalis, Wynton attempts to justify his narrow definition of jazz by comparing jazz to basketball. Wynton argues that if we were to call everything “basketball” then you couldn’t teach people how to play basketball anymore, since the word itself would no longer have a distinct meaning. This argument suggests that jazz actually benefits from a narrow definition, because it’s easier to identify, teach, and learn.
While I agree with Wynton’s argument in theory, I think his definition of jazz is so limiting that the basketball equivalent would state that it’s only basketball if you’ve got a full court, 15-minute quarters, referees, regulation equipment, and five people per team. A half-court, one-on-one game would have to be called something else entirely (Hiphopketball?). Personally, I prefer a more inclusive definition of jazz in conjunction with qualifying words like “free,” “straight-ahead,” “atmospheric,” or “smooth” -- if you must.
You might say, “Why does it matter what Wynton thinks about jazz? After all, he’s entitled to his own opinion and he can believe whatever he wants.” True enough. The issue, though, is that Wynton Marsalis also happens to be the most visible and influential person in the jazz community. When he defines jazz, people listen. His voice has an impact on audiences, club owners, and ultimately the livelihood of those he excludes. His influence came to a head with the Ken Burns “Jazz” series, in which the Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch school of “jazz” casually omitted all jazz from the 1960’s and beyond. Members of the jazz community were not in the least bit happy to see themselves and/or their favorite musicians erased from the history of jazz, and I can’t say I blame them.
It isn’t my intention to start a new debate about Wynton Marsalis or the definition of jazz. I’m simply mentioning the above issues to provide some background for the Ethan Iverson articles. As a trumpet-playing author of a jazz blog, I expect that several of my readers will be big fans of Wynton Marsalis. Some of you will be learning about this Wynton controversy for the first time and it might come as a shock to discover that not everybody digs Wynton Marsalis as much as you do. If all of this is new to you, please try to keep an open mind when reading the Ethan Iverson articles. Also, keep in mind that while you might be on the Wynton side of the argument, most of Ethan Iverson’s readers probably are not.
Regardless of your views about the Wynton controversy, I think you’ll agree that it’s pretty cool for Wynton Marsalis and Ethan Iverson to come together and talk so openly with each other about jazz music. I also appreciate how despite their differences, Ethan Iverson writes about Wynton with respect both for his music and for his role in the jazz continuum.
KNOZZ-MOE-KING - IT AIN’T NO GOOD?!
One of my favorite parts of the interview occurred during the blindfold test when Ethan Iverson put on Wynton’s recording of “Knozz-Moe-King” from the “Live at Blues Alley” album. I first listened to that recording almost 20 years ago, when I found the record at my local library. “Knozz-Moe-King” is the first track and I still remember exactly how I felt when I first heard it. I felt terrible. It was the first time I had heard Wynton really open it up on a solo, and it made me miserable to know how bad of a trumpet player I was by comparison. Of course, I still can’t play any of that, but at least I now know there are very few trumpet players who can even come close to what Wynton played on "Live at Blues Alley."
Anyway, what fascinated me about the interview was when Ethan Iverson played the "Knozz-Moe-King" clip for Wynton, and Wynton immediately started to pick it apart. Wynton criticized the interaction between himself and the other musicians and even said, “it ain’t no good”. Obviously, Wynton’s aesthetic has changed over the years and I’m sure that has a lot to do with his current assessment of the music, but damn… It’s an incredible track by any standard. Ethan Iverson seemed equally incredulous as he expressed his admiration of the recording. I guess it goes to show that regardless of how things might seem to you or me, an artist will always find something to critique about their work.
YOUNG LIONS AND EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC
In both the Young Lions article and in “An Old Feud,” Ethan Iverson laments the fact that the Young Lions of the 80’s didn’t embrace the avant-garde jazz scene that existed contemporaneously. He goes on to say that he “can't stop feeling that ignoring free and experimental jazz was the greatest weakness of the Young Lions.”
I tend to disagree, and wonder if today’s experimental scene is actually more interesting thanks to the Young Lions' singular style of music. I say this because I think the Young Lion style of virtuosic, rhythmically and harmonically complex jazz (HardBop++!) raised the bar for future generations of jazz musicians. Seeking to approach the same level of mastery, young players probably spent more time in the practice room and consequently became better overall musicians. If they then decided to use their heightened skills to play experimental jazz, then the experimental jazz community would benefit from having better-quality players. Perhaps Ethan Iverson and the other guys in The Bad Plus are themselves examples of fantastic musicians who were motivated to achieve excellence thanks in part to the virtuosity of the Young Lions.
You might say, “Hey, the experimental jazz scene had virtuosos. Weren’t they raising the musical bar too?” Absolutely. I think the problem here is that to many outsiders, free jazz can sound like a bunch of random noise. If it sounds like noise to you, then it probably also sounds like anyone can just pick up an instrument and squawk away. I know this isn’t the case, especially when speaking of the truly gifted free jazz musicians and their music, but I do think it can be an uphill battle to convince some people that a) free jazz is music and b) that it takes skill to play. As such, I don’t think free jazz on its own is capable of inspiring the same levels of musicianship that you’d get from the music of the Young Lions. This might not be the cool thing to say, and I could certainly be wrong, but I think it’s a point worth considering.