Sunday, July 29, 2007

Great Art, Timeliness, and Timelessness, Part II: The Music of Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis is the most important person in jazz music today.

He’s institutionally powerful through his leadership role with “Jazz at Lincoln Center” and the “Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.” His programming choices shape the institutional face of jazz.

He’s had an important hand in shaping popular understandings of the history and nature of jazz, probably most prominently through his role as key interviewee throughout Ken Burns’ 10 episode Jazz documentary. There’s unlikely to be another popular document with anything like the impact of Jazz anytime soon. (Fortunately, the documentary is generally of high quality, though with controversy over the final episode – see “Vitriol and Jazz.”)

Not least, he’s important through his popular recordings, both through “Jazz at Lincoln Center” and “Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra” recordings and with small combos under his own name. (It should also be mentioned that, even if he’s emphasized classical music less over the past few years, he’s also an accomplished classical trumpet player, having championed through recordings the not so common 20th century classical trumpet repertoire, e.g. trumpet concertos by Henri Tomasi and Andre Jolivet, and a variety of 20th century trumpet works on his album “On the Twentieth Century.”)

Is Wynton Marsalis a great artist, though?

Black Codes

The album “Black Codes (from the Underground)” is one of Marsalis’ early recordings (from 1985) and one of his finest. At the least, it’s good art. It’s harder to say this is great art. As I argued in my previous post, two qualities of great art are timeliness and timelessness. It’s relatively easy to say of Shakespeare or Mozart that much of their art is timeless, given the way their art can still affect us in powerful ways across long stretches of time. It’s harder to say this with certainty for work that’s just over 20 years old, but I’ll argue that at the least, “Black Codes” is timely and has some qualities that make it potentially timeless.

The album is very much a jazz recording of the mid-1980s. This is a potentially more controversial claim than would seem to be the case for a 1985 recording. Marsalis has often been seen as (and presented himself as) a traditional jazz musician – a musician of the pre-avantgarde/free jazz, pre-fusion, hard bop school – a tradition he was steeped in through his earlier stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. To some, he is, and was from his early recordings, too traditional, a musical conservative attempting to slavishly imitate earlier jazz styles in a decidedly untimely way. This goes too far, I think, even for later recordings (though there is also something to such claims for some more recent work as I’ll discuss later), but it’s inaccurate for a recording like “Black Codes.”

There is much about “Black Codes” that comes out of the hard bop tradition (and it’s not as if that’s anything that needs defending). Most any good or great art develops from an established artistic tradition. In the context of the dominance of jazz/rock/funk fusion heavyweights like Weather Report and Miles Davis in the 1970s and into the 1980s, Marsalis’ recording stands out mainly through its traditional sound. There is much here that is, new, though. While the timbres of non-electric instrumentation sound traditional, rhythmically, especially, it’s difficult to imagine these songs being played the way they are here prior to the 1980s.

The rhythms are not the steady bass strums and throbs of bebop or 1950s and 1960s hard bop. Here, there’s a definite intimation of steady rhythm, but with a lot more space in the bass and drum lines. The “moment” in jazz history of which this album is an important part is as much a result of the avant-garde/free jazz and jazz/rock/fusion traditions as of bebop/hard bop. I’d argue that fusion didn’t die or fade away (and in fact there are many still playing it, even if they don’t tend to sell out large concert halls anymore), but was more subtly incorporated back into “traditional” jazz – what had been most different about fusion wasn’t electric instruments, but rhythm as “groove,” often with creative use of “space” (really silences) alongside virtuosic playing (Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius being two of the acknowledged masters at this, but see also Michael Henderson’s playing on a number of early 1970s Miles Davis recordings). This combination of steady rhythm with free and open rhythm is one of the things that makes “Black Codes” so timely and of the jazz moment.

At the same time, “Black Codes” transcends its moment. Here, the musicians are grappling with a number of seemingly incompatible musical tendencies to attempt to produce something coherent and new. Great art grapples with the world, attempting to understand it and shape it – in this case, what was happening in mid-1980s jazz was the attempt to bring together several heretofore incompatible strands of jazz to produce a new shape for jazz – and it is this grappling with reality to understand and shape it that speaks to a universal human experience and that potentially creates timeless art. Much art aspires to greatness in this way and fails (though I think such art greater than highly competent art that is comfortable, takes few or no risks and as a result produces no new understanding of the world, much less any reshaping of it). I think that “Black Codes” pulls off what it sets out to do and in it Marsalis and his fellow musicians achieve greatness. I realize that whether this is “great art” or not does depend to a certain extent on subjective judgment – I think it succeeds – others might disagree. The more important point here is that with “Black Codes” Marsalis is engaging in artistic production in a way that can potentially produce great art.

They Came to Swing

Much of what Marsalis has done more recently associated with Lincoln Center is more disappointing to me. Take, for example, the “Jazz at Lincoln Center” album “They Came to Swing” from 1994 (not a “Wynton Marsalis” album per se, but one where he was involved as a key musician and soloist throughout). This, as with the activities of “Jazz at Lincoln Center” and the “Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra” generally, is a socially important recording. Stanley Crouch, writing as an artistic consultant for Jazz at Lincoln Center, writes in the album’s liner notes, “The performances selected for this document are part of our jazz mission at Lincoln Center, which is to present first class performances, regardless of style; to create a viable jazz canon; to provide education for young musicians and listeners; and to build a jazz archive worthy of the music and the premier arts complex in America.” These are important goals, as is the role of Marsalis and others associated with Lincoln Center as ambassadors for jazz.

“They Came to Swing,” as the title suggests, presents an album of swing jazz. It’s fun, energetic music. Sir Roland Hanna provides a particularly invigorating piano introduction to “Take the A Train,” the album’s opener. But in its attempt to recreate swing jazz, it feels like a museum piece, or perhaps more to the point, like a museum replica or model – a display that gives a pretty good sense of the original, but without quite replicating it, somehow lacking the total quality of the original.

Attempts to create great art through imitation of the art of an earlier era almost inevitably fall short. There are two important reasons for this. First is the near impossibility of mimicking everything about an earlier style or idiom. There are occasional successes in mimicry, e.g. the occasional forger of paintings who fools most experts (and ironically whose success at mimicry can only be revealed by finally not fooling someone). More commonly only the most obvious attributes of a style are imitated, generating cliché, such as when a contemporary poet uses lots of archaic and flowery language, such as “twas” and “thou,” because it sounds more “poetic” to facile ears. “They Came to Swing” is not a string of swing clichés – it’s more akin to the skillful forgery, though presented openly and honestly as deserved homage – so it’s not on this ground that I find it disappointing as art (even if I also find it to be a fun entertainment for an occasional listen).

The second reason why art via mimicry generally falls short of great art: cutting edge art – art that is seriously grappling with the world, coming to terms with it, and reordering it – art with the potential to be great art (as I argued is the case with Marsalis’ “Black Codes” recording) – is dangerous. There’s a high risk in attempting to create something new in that it might not work – it might flop. This is particularly the case with jazz, given its highly improvisatory nature.

When artists take chances and succeed in the creation of something new, there is an “alive” quality to the art as a result. I realize that referring to art that is grappling with its contemporary reality to produce something new as having an elusive quality of “alive-ness” may not be satisfying. (On the other hand, such an abstract metaphor for a quality that is real but difficult to pin down is reminiscent of a long tradition of musician-talk, e.g. of whether a particular musician has “it” or not.) This quality results, I think, from a combination of human response to the combination of novelty and profundity expressed in potentially great art with the communal nature of artistic production. Art that is alive, then, is the product of the active play between artists striving towards the new and profound. The paintings of the impressionists have this quality of exuberance and life, while most painting of the accepted French styles of the time do not – nor does painting that attempts to recreate that idiom of visual expression today.

All of the musicians associated with Lincoln Center are prodigiously talented from a technical point of view. Many, like Marsalis, have produced some works that I consider great art. But when such musicians play big band swing today, they’re not taking any risks. Some fun music will be produced, but nothing particularly new. In contrast, recordings from the 1930s and 1940s of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras sound very much “alive.” These band leaders and their musicians were continuously trying out new things, working out the idiom of swing jazz, and taking risks the entire time (the somewhat later Dizzy Gillespie song, “He beeped when he shoulda bopped,” humorously refers to the perils of jazz improvisation), with musicians collectively responding to each others’ new creations (something happening with all arts, e.g. the impressionists’ mutual influence on one another, but which happens from second to second in jazz performance).

But by the end of the 1940s, Ellington and Basie had done just about everything that could be done with a big band in the swing style. (This is not to say that everything that could be done with a big band had been done; see, e.g. Charles Mingus’ big band works, the 1950s collaborations between Miles Davis and Gil Evans, John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass, or even more radically Ascension.) There were a few later additions through the 1950s of last things to do with swing, e.g. Ellington’s Masterpieces by Ellington album – Ellington’s first opportunity to record in the LP format, providing more space in which to “stretch out” than had been the case with 78 rpm recordings – but by and large Ellington shifted to other ways to produce new art, such as his concert suites or forays into something like early world music (The Latin American Suite and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse and The Near East Suite).

One recent recording by Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra that does excite me is their recent big band arrangement of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. If you’re going to treat Coltrane works as repertory, this is a way to do it, without any attempt to directly mimic it. Adapting the big band to something quite different from swing, and adapting this music to very different instrumentation, was a move alive with risk. The payoff is hearing a wonderful piece of music that has become part of jazz tradition reinvigorated.

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