Wynton Marsalis at SFJazz Reminds Us Why We Need Wynton Marsalis
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
Davies Symphony Hall
Sunday, June 19, 2011
Look, Wynton Marsalis. You've taken a lot of shit over the years for rankling the people who -- like you -- worry over ideas of authenticity in music almost as much as they worry over music itself. They carp at your insistence that Ellington's title "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" is a direct statement the one inviolable rule of jazz: that it must swing, always, free jazz and the avant-garde and all those snowy-feeling ECM records be damned.
They insist that your music is as pedagogical as your teaching and interviews, that it promulgates a history of jazz that starts in the 1920s and peters out in '65 or so, a couple years before Miles went electric. They remember that you dissed those electric Miles records -- a heresy that grows more damning each year as more and more of the world catches up to Dark Magus and On the Corner.
And they hold that your Standard Time records and your participation in Ken Burns' Jazz documentary and your programming and performances at Jazz at Lincoln Center all contribute to the further removal of jazz -- especially of the challenging variety -- from the actual lives of actual people. It's a short trip from museum to mausoleum.But having just heard you and your Lincoln Center Orchestra swing the doors off Davies Symphony Hall last night, all I have to say about those detractors is fuck 'em. If there's another big band (15 musicians!) traveling the world and playing such vital, inventive music with such feeling and virtuosity, well, it must be Mingus'.
You talk in interviews about jazz as part of the "collective human heritage," like Shakespeare or some other great dead thing, and then you take the stage and sing and growl through your trumpet, the great strings of golden notes unfurling with such beauty that that whole collective human heritage feels not just alive but part of the now.I've rarely seen an actor do that with Shakespeare.
And it's not like the popularity of your hardworking band is keeping William Parker and Matthew Shipp off the charts or something. After years of fretting over whether your relentless avocational classicism was good for jazz, I'm willing to say, yeah, it probably is: Without you selling its importance everyday, everywhere, there would be even less of it in people's lives than there is already.
Those detractors hate that you only promote the most familiar strains of it, from the New Orleans hot music of the '20s through to the hard bop of the Blue Note era. But, Christ, when you're the only jazz musician most Americans can name, and your music is likely the first encounter most people will have with jazz at all, it makes perfect sense to trot out "Mood Indigo" for them, like you did last night, rather than some tribute to David S. Ware or something.
That savvy built Jazz at Lincoln Center, both the orchestra and the cultural institution, and has served as serious inspiration to SF Jazz, a cultural institution in its own right -- and one this close to its own building. If the curation there is anything like the season SF Jazz is wrapping up this Saturday with Portugese fado artist Ana Moura at the Herbst, than this music is set to thrive.
Anyway, last night's show was a 110-minute blissout. The big band - now in its 23rd year-- leapt right with you from decade to decade and style to style, from your go-to Ellingtonia and those gospel stompers you love to searching bop and and a righteous rumba ("Armando's Rhumba," by Chick Corea) and some gently dissonant ensemble passages where the band sounds like it's going off a cliff yet still managing to play. (Again: Mingus.)Your music clowned, on occasion, with the three trombonists offering flatulent whinnies and the muted trumpets suggesting, at times, the rowdy chatter of cartoon ducks. It wooed at times, particularly octogenarian saxman Joe Temperly's panty-peeler read on "Sunset and the Mockingbird," or Marcus Printup's soulful trumpet solos, and it wowed on others, such as your own "The Tree of Freedom," a gorgeous swell of melodic emotion with deep blues roots and so strong a tune that until you called out the title I kept guessing it was some standard I didn't know.
The one thing the music didn't do is look to the future. But, really, when those detractors consider that no music had ever before changed as much and as quickly as jazz did in the first half of the 20th century, maybe their hearts will soften: We don't fault poets for writing sonnets, or the South Park guys for writing showtunes. We just demand that they do it so great that the old forms become new.
On Ellington's "Mood Indigo" the brash and gutsy band suddenly mellowed, now sounding like a 78 a room away; the soloists seemed to be trying to outhush each other. Then it was right back to your own compositions, and those by Sherman Iby and Ted Nash, both sax players in the band, and among them the Ellington felt of a piece: just as fresh, just as now.
With these 15 players -- and with remarkable seasons like the one SF Jazz is wrapping up -- these forms seem reborn each night.
As they will be tonight, when you and your orchestra take the stage at the Santa Cruz Civic Center Auditorium. You'll be sitting in the back of the orchestra, fourth trumpet.