Jazz at the Crossroads

In 1988, in his article "Born Out of Time," Francis Davis profiled the career of jazz musician Wynton Marsalis—a young trumpet-player who, while still in his teens, had taken the music world by storm and almost single-handedly revived mainstream interest in jazz. Davis considered what the future might hold for him.

At twenty-six he is no longer a prodigy. He is now four years older than Miles Davis was when he recorded the first of his classic nonet sessions, two years older than Clifford Brown was when he recorded "Jordu" and "Joy Spring." It is time to ask if Marsalis has fulfilled his potential, what his influence has been on musicians his own age and younger, and whether he has expanded the audience for jazz, as many hoped that he would.

A common criticism of Marsalis's music was that instead of embracing such experimental styles as "fusion" or "world" music, it adhered too much to the traditional forms of the past. The fact that someone of his stature in the jazz community was taking such a conservative approach, critics argued, might ultimately be harmful to jazz, because it could inhibit the evolution of the genre. And jazz, Davis emphasized, depends upon continual change for its survival:

Progress is frequently a myth in jazz, as in most other aspects of contemporary life. But it is a myth so central to the romance of jazz that the cost of relinquishing it might be giving up jazz altogether.

Fifteen years later, the music writer David Hadju checked back in on Marsalis to report on how "the young lion" of jazz is faring today. Not so long ago, Hadju explains in "Wynton's Blues," his article in this month's Atlantic, it seemed as though Marsalis could do no wrong:

The facts are impressive even twenty years later: while still at Juilliard, Marsalis was invited to join another kind of conservatory, the Jazz Messengers, a band led by the drummer Art Blakey; soon after, he was appointed the group's musical director, at age nineteen.... By 1982, when he turned twenty-one, Wynton had toured with the jazz star Herbie Hancock and had played with distinction on half a dozen albums, leading "the jazz press to declare him a prodigy," Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times in the mid-1980s. Columbia Records signed him in an extraordinary contract that called for Marsalis to make both classical and jazz recordings, and he started a collection of Grammys in both categories. No jazz musician has had such success since.

But Marsalis, now forty, seems to have reached a crossroads in his calling, and is struggling to find a way forward. Perhaps in part because Marsalis so successfully emphasized the importance of jazz's history and brought earlier forms of it into vogue, Hadju explains, recording companies these days tend to simply re-release classic recordings by old jazz legends rather than promoting the work of contemporary talent. For this reason, many musicians and critics accuse Marsalis of having, in Hadju's words, "single-handedly halted jazz's progress." Whether or not this phenomenon is Marsalis's fault, he seems to be as much a victim of it as anyone else. Indeed, Hadju points out, "after two decades with Columbia Records, the prestigious and high-powered label historically associated with Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis, Marsalis has no record contract with any company." Asking "What happened to Wynton Marsalis?" Hadju suggests, "may be like asking What happened to Jazz?"

This is not the first time that aficionados have feared that jazz might be losing its way. In "Jazz, Hot and Cold" (July 1955), Arnold Sundgaard reviewed jazz's evolution up through the 1950s and noted that at several points along the way critics had lamented that jazz was no longer what it used to be. Jazz, Sundgaard explained, had emerged around the turn of the century in New Orleans when onlookers played instruments and sang as they watched street parades go by.

During those years, the local urge for musical expression was so powerful that anything that could be twanged, strummed, beaten, blown, or stroked was likely to be exploited for its musical usefulness. For a long time the washboard was a highly respected percussion instrument.

In the early years of the twentieth century, much of the jazz community migrated north to Chicago, and by the 1920s, that city's South Side had become a thriving jazz mecca. There the evolution of jazz continued for a number of years in what Sundgaard referred to as "an unbroken development."

But in the 1930s Prohibition and the Depression took their toll. The formerly cohesive jazz community splintered, and at that point the genre began to develop in several different directions. Boogie-woogie and swing each had their heyday. And then, after World War II, when those styles had lost their luster, "jazz, groping for a fresh expression, erupted into Bop." In bop, musicians of the post-war era who were often better educated than earlier generations of jazz musicians began to make use of their formal musical knowledge. Thus jazz, which had formerly been more about pure feeling than about thought, began to become somewhat intellectualized. Some people felt that it had become too sedate. Sundgaard quoted one employee at a New York jazz club who complained, "In the old days, they used to say the music was so loud you couldn't hear yourself talk. Now they get sore if you even whisper!"

Sundgaard, however, did not endorse any one incarnation of jazz over another—indicating instead that each style expressed itself in its own valid way:

The question inevitably arises: Which of all these forces is truly jazz? It is a little like asking: What is art? The answers, now found in many languages, are numerous and various....

There are those who long for a return to Dixieland, believing that the sounds produced there are evidence of a True Church. But no art can be completely restored by the archaeologists who uncover it; they only can point out where and when corruption began.

Several years later, Atlantic contributor Milton Bass argued that jazz had reached a dead end. In "Non-Jazz Jazz" (October 1962), he decried a new tendency of mixing the conventions of jazz with those of classical music. "Jazz musicians," he wrote, "are using the surface techniques of the classics as a base for their own little improvisations, [and] they are not really satisfied unless they have a hundred symphonic musicians behind them while they are doing it."

As a result, the genre had become so diluted, he argued, that it was hardly recognizable anymore. "Most of the expressions of happiness," he wrote, "have been squeezed out of it," and jazz, he concluded, had reached "a sad state."

In his critique of the direction that jazz had taken, Bass criticized the work of a number of contemporary musicians, including that of the saxophonist John Coltrane, whose style he dismissed as "flashy" and "dense."

However, artists are often seen in a different light by history than by the critics of the day. In "What Coltrane Wanted" (December 1987), Edward Strickland revisited the legacy of this saxophonist whom Bass had summarily discounted.

John Coltrane died twenty years ago, on July 17, 1967, at the age of forty. In the years since, his influence has only grown, and the stellar avant-garde saxophonist has become a jazz legend of a stature shared only by Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. As an instrumentalist Coltrane was technically and imaginatively equal to both; as a composer he was superior, although he has not received the recognition he deserves for this aspect of his work. In composition he excelled in an astonishing number of forms—blues, ballads, spirituals, rhapsodies, elegies, suites, and free-form and cross-cultural works.

The whole spectrum of Coltrane's music—the world-weary melancholy and transcendental yearning that ultimately recall Bach more than Parker, the jungle calls and glossolalic shrieks, the whirlwind runs and spare elegies for murdered children and a murderous planet—is at root merely a suffering man's breath. The quality of that music reminds us that the root of the word inspiration is "breathing upon." This country has not produced a greater musician.

Though of course it remains unclear what the future holds both for jazz as a musical genre and for Wynton Marsalis as its current beleaguered figurehead, if jazz's complex history has anything to tell us, it is that the verdict of tomorrow is unlikely to look anything like that of today.

—Timothy Charoenying