m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

April 1988

Born Out of Time

Wynton Marsalis and his contemporaries recapitulate modern jazz

by Francis Davis

JUST eighteen when he made his debut with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis answered the prayers of those who feared that the clock was running out for jazz, as it clearly already had for the blues. Most of the surviving heroes of swing and bebop were in decline, and the prevailing wisdom was that no successors were in the wings. But here was an immensely gifted musician still in his teens who played straight-ahead jazz, rather than funk or fusion. That he was a black second-generation jazzman (the son of the obscure pianist Ellis Marsalis) from New Orleans, the city generally acknowledged to be the birthplace of jazz, was taken as an especially good omen.

This was in 1980, and Marsalis has since achieved a celebrity rare for a contemporary jazz musician, partly as a result of his parallel career in classical music. 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.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Jazz at the Crossroads" (February 26, 2003)
Articles on Wynton Marsalis and the evolution of jazz shed light on where jazz has been—and where it may be headed.

The answer to the first question is a qualified yes. With his chill tone and jabbing attack, Marsalis still echoes Miles Davis, just as he did eight years ago with Blakey. Moreover, now that Marsalis leads his own band, he takes his cues from the quintet that Davis led from 1964 to 1967, which included the pianist Herbie Hancock, the bassist Ron Carter, the drummer Tony Williams and the saxophonist Wayne Shorter (who is still the primary role model for Marsalis's brother, the saxophonist Branford Marsalis, older than Wynton by one year and a former member of his group). Yet Marsalis has made progress in finding a voice of his own. There is a sly wit to his half-valve work that owes nothing to Davis, although it does recall the veteran trumpeter Clark Terry, one of Davis's early influences. Another sign of Marsalis's enhanced individuality is the way he has zeroed in on the most provocative aspect of the Davis Quintet's music from the middle sixties: its circling, now-you-hear-it-now-you-don't approach to the beat.

Marsalis is one of very few jazz musicians able to line up enough work to keep a band together full-time, and his rapport with his rhythm section on the recent Marsalis Standard Time--Volume 1 (Columbia FC-40461) attests to the virtues of stability in personnel. There are moments when Marsalis, the pianist Marcus Roberts, the bassist Robert Leslie Hurst III, and the drummer Jeff Watts sound as though they were playing in four different time signatures. But actually they are stretching a basic quadruple meter four different ways, accenting different beats in every measure, and trusting that the listener will feel the downbeat in his bones. The effect is mesmerizing, and it would be beyond the ken of a group hastily assembled for a recording date.

Marsalis Standard Time--Volume 1 is the first of Marsalis's albums (discounting a best-forgotten 1984 encounter with strings) to be mostly given over to vintage pop songs of the sort that provided excellent vehicles for improvisers from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane but that too many younger musicians have rejected in favor of their own compositions. The album is a reminder of the outstretched hand that such songs have long offered to audiences trying to find a point of entry into jazz. Although the reckless tempos frequently reduce the melodies to unrecognizable blurs, the hint of familiarity left in the standards "Caravan," "April in Paris," "Foggy Day," "The Song Is You," and "Autumn Leaves" brings the Marsalis quartet's rhythmic cunning into a sharp focus lacking in his other albums.

The two songs on the album that are Marsalis originals--a fleet blues and an almost motionless ballad--seem out of place, not because they are intrinsically unworthy but because they are not subjected to as many rhythmic variations as the standards. "Memories of You," a solo feature for Roberts, begins promisingly, with wrinkled blues shadings and Thelonious Monk-like rhythmic hesitations, but falters as a result of Roberts's attempt to cram the entire history of jazz piano, from stride to free, into one three-minute performance. There are two versions of "Cherokee," both taken at a tempo considerably less punishing than the one that Charlie Parker set when he reharmonized the song as "Ko Ko," in 1945, but punishing enough to tongue-tie Marsalis. He redeems himself, however, on a lovely interpretation of Benny Goodman's old sign-off theme "Goodbye" and a straightforward reading of "New Orleans" that comes across as a modernist's heartfelt tribute to Louis Armstrong.

THE question of Marsalis's influence is tricky. Even without him, musicians in their twenties might be looking back two decades for inspiration, to the period before John Coltrane's death, in 1967, and the gradual defection of Miles Davis and his sidemen to high-tech funk--the last time when there was anything approaching general agreement on what constituted the state of the art. But inasmuch as Marsalis's emergence identified this anachronistic impulse as a movement, such subsequent arrivals as Branford Marsalis, the alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, the drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith, and the trumpeters Terence Blanchard and Wallace Roney are Wynton's children.

Despite his large stylistic debt to Wayne Shorter, Branford Marsalis once seemed the most promising of these young musicians, but he has failed to deliver. His mastery of his instrument is impressive, and so is his grasp of jazz history. Called on to evoke Ben Webster's burly savoir faire in "Take the 'A' Train," on Mercer Ellington's Digital Duke(GRP GR1038), Marsalis performs the task admirably. But Renaissance (Columbia FC-40711), his own most recent album, suggests that his ability to mimic different styles is not necessarily an asset. Each of his phrases seems to be enclosed in quotation marks: not only "Wayne Shorter" but "John Coltrane," "Sonny Rollins," and "Joe Henderson," too. All that is missing is "Branford Marsalis."

Donald Harrison and Terence Blanchard are from New Orleans, like the Marsalis brothers, whom they succeeded in the Jazz Messengers. The recent Crystal Stair (Columbia FC-40830) is typical of the four albums they have made as co-leaders of their own group since 1983. The level of musicianship is high, and there is as much rhythmic detail and acceleration of tempo as on Marsalis Standard Time--Volume 1, but Harrison and Blanchard lack Wynton Marsalis's command of dynamics, and the result is that each track is indistinguishable from the one before it. The Marsalis brothers are the models for Harrison and Blanchard, which means that Crystal Stair sounds like the 1965 Miles Davis Quintet twice removed. On Eric Dolphy and Booker Little Remembered Live at Sweet Basil (ProJazz CDJ-640, available only as a compact disc with a companion cassette of the same material), Harrison and Blanchard are cast in the roles of the two late musicians, who were among the most individualistic in jazz. The other participants in this 1986 New York club session are the pianist Mal Waldron, the bassist Richard Davis, and the drummer Ed Blackwell, all reprising the roles they played on the original Dolphy and Little recordings, recorded at the Five Spot in New York in 1961. Although Blanchard is out of his depth trying to capture Little's melancholy, Harrison surprises the listener with searing improvisations that are satisfying in their own right, if too conventional in pitch to evoke Dolphy.

Marvin "Smitty" Smith, once the drummer in the Harrison-Blanchard group, makes his debut as a leader with Keeper of the Drums (Concord Jazz CJ325), an album that owes much of its vibrancy to Smith's savvy in recognizing the individual abilities of the members of his ensemble--Wallace Roney, the trombonist Robin Eubanks, the pianist Mulgrew Miller, the bassist Lonnie Plaxico, and the saxophonists Steve Coleman and Ralph Moore--and his allocation of solo space in a way that shows each off to best advantage. Coleman's angular phrasing is well suited to the Dolphy-esque "Miss Ann," for example, and the sanctified call-and-response patterns of "The Creeper" are custom-made for the blues-based styles of Roney and Miller. Roney's Verses (Muse MR-5335), which benefits from Tony Williams's tidal-wave drumming, is more of a blowing date, and this proves to be an advantage on "Slaves" and the title track, two themeless blues with crescendoing solos by Roney, Miller, and the tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas. But on the remaining tracks, including the Miles Davis-Bill Evans composition "Blue in Green," these three soloists adhere too timidly to the guidelines set by Davis, Evans, and Coltrane in 1959 on the famous original.

ON all these recent albums rhythm is secondary to pulsation, and harmony is frequently suspended in the interest of mood. In that sense these albums recall those Miles Davis made for Columbia in the middle sixties and those his sidemen made for Blue Note during the same period, with a stable of like-minded musicians that included the vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and the tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. What gave the Blue Note albums urgency was their moderation while a revolution was going on elsewhere in jazz, in the more iconoclastic music of Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, and Archie Shepp.

These newer records convey an urgency, too, but it is the urgency of fighting the clock, of insisting that there is still adventure to be found in a twenty-year-old style of jazz that represented a cautious retreat even when new. It is not surprising that the musicians, in their twenties, are finding a ready audience among lifelong jazz fans at least a decade older. Nostalgia for the recent past is a widespread vice, catered to by the very technology that was supposed to hurl us into a future from which there would be no looking back. The new ghosts in the machine include oldies radio, television reruns, vintage films on video cassette, and Beatles and Motown reissues on compact disc (a format still so expensive that consumers feel safer sticking with the tried and true). But nostalgia is a vice to which jazz fans are especially susceptible. In the late 1960s Bob Dylan and the Beatles won for rock-and-roll more intellectual cachet than jazz had ever enjoyed, and both rock and rhythm-and-blues supplanted jazz as music for hedonistic release.

For many listeners, New Age music now serves as the backdrop for meditation that Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders once provided. It's been a long time, in other words, since a passion for jazz was regarded as hip rather than quaint. So a yearning for a time when Miles Davis was a trend-setter both musically and sartorially is understandable, even among those too young to remember such a time firsthand.

The underside of this nostalgia is a widely felt anger that discounts the onslaught of rock in order to put the blame on jazz for its own banishment from mainstream culture because of its excesses after 1965. Wynton Marsalis gives voice to this animosity in statements like this one, from a recent interview with the critic Leonard Feather: "When you come to New York, there's a whole school of musicians who are called the avant-garde, and you don't really [need] any craft requirements to join their ranks. All you have to do is be black and have an African name...." Were it not for the fact that he has no past deeds of his own to recant, Marsalis could be the spokesman for the jazz auxiliary of Second Thought, the coterie of mea-culpa-ing former radicals turned neo-conservatives. Although Marsalis has expressed admiration for Ornette Coleman, the erosion of standards in the avant-garde is a recurring theme in his interviews, and because he neglects to name names, he tars all of Coleman's progeny with his brush. "It's much, much easier to whip up this hasty, fast-food version of innovation than to humble yourself to the musical logics that were thoroughly investigated by [the] masters," he recently complained to Stanley Crouch, once an avant-garde drummer and firebrand poet but now the jazz critic most in sympathy with Marsalis's reactionary aesthetic.

A good many jazz listeners agree with Marsalis, and much of what he says has the ring of truth. "Just to think of the arrogance behind a statement like 'I play world music . . . ,'" he told Feather. "You're admitting that you're giving non-specific, second-hand treatment to different types of music . . . . " The avant-garde's naive fascination with ethnic music is worthy of Marsalis's ridicule. But it is good to remember that in addition to toying with African thumb piano and doussn' gouni and didjeridoo, the avant-garde restored clarinet and tuba to the jazz ensemble, to say nothing of importing such suspect "concert" instruments as violin and cello, thus relieving the inherent monotony of trumpet, saxophone, piano, bass, and drums (the lineup still generally favored by Marsalis and his followers). It was also such nominal avant-gardists of the 1970s as Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Anthony Davis, and Henry Threadgill who rekindled interest in composition by avoiding theme-solos-theme formats, and who put jazz back in touch with its pre-Charlie Parker heritage by reinvestigating ragtime, marches, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and Jelly Roll Morton.

There is no way to turn back the clock on all that has happened in jazz over the past two decades, nor should we want to try. To his credit, Marsalis has brought new audiences to jazz, although the critic Steve Futterman is not the only one who wonders if all that Marsalis has accomplished is to persuade "his upscale audiences that jazz could be as boring as they'd always secretly feared." Those of us who are more familiar with the rich diversity of contemporary jazz know that boredom isn't an issue so long as the music keeps evolving. Still, it should give anyone pause to consider that all of the most intrepid jazz experimentalists are now in their forties or older, while the leading musicians under thirty see themselves as craftsmen making small refinements in a time-tested art. 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.

Copyright © 1988 by Francis Davis. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1988; "Born Out of Time"; Volume 262, No. 4; pages 70-72.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture