Wynton's Blues

For two decades Wynton Marsalis ruled the jazz universe, enjoying virtually unqualified admiration as a musician and unsurpassed influence as the music's leading promoter and definer. But after a series of sour notes—he parted from his record label, has been caught up in controversy at Jazz at Lincoln Center; and has been drawing increasing fire from critics and fellow musicians alike for his narrow neotraditionalism—perhaps the biggest name in jazz faces an uncertain future. Just like jazz itself
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Manhattan is empty during the last week of August, and the kind of emptiness it achieves is like that of the mind during meditation—a temporary, unnatural purity. On a Tuesday evening in late August of 2001 I was wandering around Greenwich Village and ended up at the Village Vanguard. After sixty-some years of business the illustrious little jazz haunt hasn't changed; it remains one of the inexplicable constants of the Manhattan landscape. Its midtown cousin, Birdland (named for the bebop saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker), closed down decades ago and was replaced by a strip joint, Flash Dancers, which has been in business longer than Birdland was; a theme nightclub near Times Square now uses the Birdland name. There's still a Cotton Club in Harlem, but not in the original location, and now it's a seedy disco. The Vanguard has somehow survived in its primordial basement and has retained all the bohemian eccentricities that have always helped make it cool: the fence-post marquee, with performers' names handwritten vertically; the treacherously angled stairwell; no food served; no credit cards accepted. Lorraine Gordon, the Vanguard's owner and the widow of the club's founder, is a Medici of the jazz world, a patron and king-maker. Among jazz fans and musicians the Village Vanguard is clearly a paragon of the music's own kind of purity—one that's neither temporary nor unnatural.

I walked in on a set in progress and took the next-to-last seat on the burgundy-leather banquette that runs along the east wall. The end table, Lorraine Gordon's, was vacant, indicating that Gordon was probably in the kitchen, where she does the books and where musicians congregate between sets. (Although foodless, the Vanguard has one of the most venerable kitchens in New York.) A small combo was running through the bebop classic "Blue 'n' Boogie" at a duly vertiginous speed. There was no mistaking the bandleader: Charles McPherson, an alto saxophonist who was a protégé of the late bassist and composer Charles Mingus. McPherson is a venturesome musician who upends the jazz repertoire on the bandstand, and he composes pieces built on surprise, as Mingus did. Although he is a superior talent, he's not a top jazz attraction, which is why he was scheduled for the last week in August. For his second tune after my arrival McPherson, in homage to his mentor, played Mingus's homage to Lester Young, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." The performance was languid, and my eyes drifted, settling eventually on the trumpet player, because he was turned away from the audience and even from the rest of the band, staring at the floor. Although I couldn't place him, he looked vaguely familiar, like an older version of Wynton Marsalis.

During the third song, Charlie Parker's "Chasin' the Bird," the trumpeter stepped to the center of the bandstand to take a solo. "Excuse me," I whispered to the fellow next to me (a jazz guitarist, I later learned). "Is that Wynton Marsalis?"

"I very seriously doubt that," he snapped back, as if I had asked if it was Parker himself.

Stylishly dressed in an Italian-cut gray suit, a dark-blue shirt, and a muted blue tie, the soloist had the burnished elegance that Wynton Marsalis and his musician brothers have been bringing to jazz for two decades. If this man was not Wynton, he looked like what "Marsalis" means—but older and heavier, and not just in appearance. There was a weight upon him; he didn't smile, and his eyes were small and affectless. I could barely reconcile the sight before me with the image of youthful élan that Wynton Marsalis has always called to mind.

The fourth song was a solo showcase for the trumpeter, who, I could now see, was indeed Marsalis, but who no more sounded than looked like what I expected. He played a ballad, "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You," unaccompanied. Written by Victor Young, a film-score composer, for a 1930s romance, the piece can bring out the sadness in any scene, and Marsalis appeared deeply attuned to its melancholy. He performed the song in murmurs and sighs, at points nearly talking the words in notes. It was a wrenching act of creative expression. When he reached the climax, Marsalis played the final phrase, the title statement, in declarative tones, allowing each successive note to linger in the air a bit longer. "I don't stand ... a ghost ... of ... a ... chance ..." The room was silent until, at the most dramatic point, someone's cell phone went off, blaring a rapid singsong melody in electronic bleeps. People started giggling and picking up their drinks. The moment—the whole performance—unraveled.

Marsalis paused for a beat, motionless, and his eyebrows arched. I scrawled on a sheet of notepaper, MAGIC, RUINED. The cell-phone offender scooted into the hall as the chatter in the room grew louder. Still frozen at the microphone, Marsalis replayed the silly cell-phone melody note for note. Then he repeated it, and began improvising variations on the tune. The audience slowly came back to him. In a few minutes he resolved the improvisation—which had changed keys once or twice and throttled down to a ballad tempo—and ended up exactly where he had left off: "with ... you ..." The ovation was tremendous.

Lorraine Gordon had come in shortly before the final notes. Leaning over to me, she said, "What did I miss?"

That was a good question, and I had others. What was Wynton Marsalis, perhaps the most famous jazz musician alive, doing as a sideman in a band led by a little-known saxophonist in the slowest week of the year? Where were the scores of fans who used to line up on the sidewalk whenever Marsalis played, regardless of whether he was billed and promoted? Why did he look so downtrodden, so leaden ... so different that he was scarcely recognizable? How could his playing have been so perfunctory (as it was for most of that evening) and yet so transcendent on one bittersweet song about loss and self-doubt? What happened to Wynton Marsalis?

That may be like asking What happened to jazz? For twenty years the fates of Marsalis and jazz music have appeared inextricably intertwined. He was a young newcomer on the New York scene at a time when jazz seemed dominated and diminished by rock-oriented "fusion," marginalized by outré experimentation and electronics, and disconnected from the youth audience that has driven American popular culture since the postwar era. Extraordinarily gifted and fluent in both jazz and classical music, not to mention young, handsome, black, impassioned, and articulate, especially on the importance of jazz history and jazz masters, Marsalis was ideally equipped to lead a cultural-aesthetic movement suited to the time, a renaissance that raised public esteem for and the popular appeal of jazz through a return to the music's traditional values: jazz for the Reagan revolution. In 1990 Time magazine put him on the cover and announced the dawn of "The New Jazz Age." Record companies rediscovered the music and revived long-dormant jazz lines, signing countless young musicians inspired by Marsalis, along with three of his five brothers (first his older brother, Branford, a celebrated tenor saxophonist; later Delfeayo, a trombonist; and eventually the youngest, Jason, a percussionist) and his father, Ellis (a respected educator and pianist in the family's native New Orleans). By the 1990s Wynton Marsalis had become an omnipresent spokesperson for his music and also one of its most prolific and highly decorated practitioners (he was the first jazz composer to win a Pulitzer Prize, for Blood on the Fields, his oratorio about slavery)—something of a counterpart to Leonard Bernstein in the 1950s. He took jazz up and over the hierarchical divide that had long isolated the music from the fine-arts establishment; the modest summer jazz program he created won a full constituency at Lincoln Center. In 1999, to mark the end of the century, Marsalis issued a total of fifteen CDs—about one new title every month.

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