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WYNTON MARSALIS : SMASHING THE STEREOTYPES

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Wynton Marsalis is a taste maker beyond his influence as a musician. You see it in his life style, his personal appearance and his influence on young people, particularly young black people.

Marsalis came to fame as a 19-year-old trumpet phenomenon from New Orleans, with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. In the six years since then, he has shattered, and wants to continue shattering, the stereotypic concept of the black musician.

He is interested in continuing his classical career (he was the first musician ever to win Grammys simultaneously for a classical and a jazz album), but is tired of hearing observers imply that this is a greater achievement than his jazz work.

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“Why do people think classical music is harder to play?” he asked during a recent visit. “My playing the Haydn Trumpet Concerto is not equal to the task of Haydn’s writing it. But Louis Armstrong standing up and improvising, composing on the spur of the moment--that was an achievement calling for very special criteria.”

Marsalis’ campaign to gain respectability for jazz extends to visual values. In an era of jeans and tattered shirts, he is immaculate onstage. The current Playboy devotes a full page not to his musicianship, but to a photo showing him in his wool/silk/cotton jacket (“about $250”), short-sleeved silk shirt, wool-silk pants with inverted pleats and Hollywood waist.

Nothing about Marsalis suggests what most Americans associate with the black experience. His early influences were those of a secure family (“We had a father--we were ahead of most black cats right there”). He had a splendid education not only at Juilliard, but in high school, where he was a National Merit finalist. Musicians of Count Basie’s generation may have read the comics; Marsalis is more likely to be found engrossed in a book by Ralph Ellison.

“Right now I’m reading four books at once,” he said. “Ellison’s ‘Going to the Territory,’ John Chernoff’s ‘African Rhythm and African Sensibility,’ C. A. Diop’s ‘Cultural Unity of Black Africa’ and Thomas Mann’s ‘Doctor Faustus.’ If I get tired of one of them, I pick up another.”

His taste in food also reflects his background: In New York he likes to dine on soul food at Jezebel’s, or drop in at the Quilted Giraffe on Second Avenue, where one of his old high school friends is the chef.

Marsalis’ jazz compositions and performances have been branded by some critics as conservative. Marsalis bridles at these comments. “There’s a whole school of so-called avant-garde musicians, and you don’t have to have any craft requirements to become one; all you have to do is be black and have an African name or something. They’re the real conservatives, the true conformists, because everyone rushes to join their ranks.”

Growing up, Marsalis listened to what the other youngsters heard: Earth, Wind & Fire and other pop groups. Today he has little time for pop, funk or fusion, preferring to look to jazz roots: “I get my inspiration from Bird (Charlie Parker), from the early Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus. They’re all interrelated and representative of true Afro-American culture. I want to work against the disrespect that’s been shown toward this culture, be it by black people or white.”

He plans to preserve his double life in music rather than combine the two elements. “You can’t put them together. What has the so-called ‘Third Stream’ produced? If Duke Ellington had wanted to combine them, he had the ability, but he decided not to.”

That Marsalis has become a cult hero and that his image has inspired black musicians who might otherwise have been detoured into pop is a source of satisfaction to him. Social and racial issues will always play a central role in his thinking; he has never forgotten that when he earned A’s in a predominantly white school, the white students would resent him.

“As much as I’d like to tell you that people are all the same, we know it just isn’t so. People have the same basic drive, but the conditions you grow up in determine how you behave,” he said.

Because he grew up in conditions that offered him an outlook of unusual breadth, Marsalis lives contentedly in his two worlds; yet he is quick to reject a “world music” philosophy.

“It’s arrogant to pretend that you play world music. That’s only an admission that you’re giving non-specific, second-hand treatments to different idioms,” Marsalis said. “Great musicians spend their entire lives trying to understand the music forms within their own culture. I’ll be satisfied if I can just reach that objective.”


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