What Is Jazz?

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When Wynton Marsalis burst into the public eye in the early 1980s, it was as a virtuoso trumpet player. From the start he was an articulate talker too, but his bracing opinions were off-thecuff and intuitive; his ideas, like his playing, needed seasoning. In the years since, not only has Marsalis’s music deepened tremendously, his thinking has matured and coalesced to produce a coherent theory of jazz. Much of the controversy that surrounds him—he is accused of being an elitist, a snob, a killjoy—stems from the difficult position he occupies: that of the serious artist who is also a celebrity. Television talk shows are no forum for ideas; anyway, in America, intellectuals are “eggheads.” Marsalis is no elitist; rather, he is someone who loves jazz music because, unlike pop, jazz is an infinite challenge, a discipline you can spend your whole life mastering, humbling yourself daily but always growing. If he were an opera singer or a novelist, Marsalis wouldn’t be the butt of so much shallow criticism. It’s the price you pay for being the greatest living practitioner of a music that has its feet in two worlds: entertainment and high art.

Marsalis’s two biggest intellectual influences are the novelist and essayist Albert Murray and Murray’s protágá the journalist Stanley Crouch. Under their tutelage Marsalis came to accept the idea that lies at the heart of his thinking on jazz—namely, that jazz is the most American of art forms, the distillation of the American spirit.

Nor does jazz’s inventor, the African-American, occupy an isolated niche in American culture. Our nation’s cultural life is shot through with cross-influences; as Albert Murray is fond of saying, Americans are cultural mulattos. Jazz, born in that sociological gumbo pot New Orleans, is a multicomplexioned commingling of European concert music, brass-band marches, African strains, and Latin tinges; it is, in other words, the perfect expression of the hodgepodge, the stew, that is American culture. That is one of the tragedies of jazz’s waning popularity, Marsalis believes: We stand in danger of losing the truest mirror we have of our national identity. Accordingly, he is a fervent jazz missionary, giving dozens of workshops, lectures, and master classes per year, trying to sow the seeds of jazz. Approached after a show by a kid with a horn or a question, he will never turn the youngster away.

Jazz is more than the best expression there is of American culture; in practice, Marsalis argues, it is the most democratic of arts, a model of neighborly behavior. Jazz, he believes, teaches the rudiments of good citizenship, and that is the second reason Marsalis spends so much time in schools. His activism is inseparable from his aesthetics.

A decade ago Marsalis began to articulate the musical goal that motivates him now: to play “all of jazz,” to draw on the entire history of the music in his playing and composing. At its best Marsalis’s music may actually accomplish what he is shooting for. In its soulful, swinging, sweet-and- sour gravity, in its weight, it seems to embody the very essence of jazz, hovering almost eerily, cut loose from time, over the music’s entire hundred-year history, neither bebop nor swing nor New Orleans jazz, though bearing traces of each, but palpably itself.

Marsalis now concentrates on long pieces instead of five-minute songs. The Wynton Marsalis Septet, which he disbanded in 1994 to concentrate on composing and on his artistic directorship of the “Jazz at Lincoln Center” program, has recorded a pair of two-hour works, Citi Movement and In This House, on This Morning . Marsalis’s biggest piece, Blood on the Fields , an oratorio for three singers and a fourteen-piece orchestra, was performed at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in April 1994. Its recorded version will appear in 1996. The composer’s first string quartet, (At the) Octoroon Balls , received its premiere last May. Still a young man—he turns thirty-four this month —he has already released twenty-nine albums, a flood of music that will take years to absorb.

What follows is perhaps the most thorough examination of jazz Wynton Marsalis has ever made in print—covering its essential traits, its history, and his own place in that history. The conversation, conducted last spring, began in a Manhattan restaurant, was picked up ten days later on Marsalis’s band bus, and wound southward through the Pacific Northwest from Seattle to Eugene, Oregon.

Marsalis’s version of jazz history is by no means conventional. The bebop revolution, for instance, was rhythmic, he argues, and not, as received opinion has it, harmonic. Many disagree with him, but few, musicians or critics, have what Marsalis can claim: a thought-out, unified view, a cosmology, an aesthetic. Touched by genius, Wynton Marsalis is one of a kind. For the first time ever, jazz’s greatest musician is also its most articulate spokesman.

As I’ve understood you, the reason a jazz musician needs to master the history of jazz is to discover the music’s essence. What is it?