Going Inside Jazz With Wynton

Of the many books on jazz I’ve read, much of the permanent illumination has come from those written by the musicians themselves. I can now add to the list Wynton Marsalis’ Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life (Random House). I don’t look for analysis of techniques. That’s obviously not my bag. I want to know more of the musicians, and how they hear one another. Wynton gets into the jazz experience from the inside. (Geoffrey C. Ward helped in the structure of the book; Wynton wrote it.)

A perpetual student, “I’m always reading,” Wynton has said. “And listening.” Soon after he came to New York from New Orleans, he found how much he had to learn. One night, Harry “Sweets” Edison “called a slow blues. ‘Man,’ Sweets said when it was done, ‘you just played more notes than I played in my entire career.’ Implied in that was ‘And you didn’t say anything.’”

Young Wynton asked John Lewis how he defined jazz, and was told, “It has to swing or seem to swing. It has to contain the element of surprise, and it has to embody the eternal search for the blues.”

Adds Wynton about Lewis, “The way he presented himself didn’t make you think about the blues.” In my own first meeting with the creator of the Modern Jazz Quartet, John had a copy of England’s sophisticated political publication, the New Statesman, jutting out of his suit pocket.

But, Wynton writes, Lewis “understood the blues above all else. At every moment, wherever he was, he was going to find the blues.”

I rarely saw John Lewis overtly angry, but one day he was smarting. He’d heard of an imminent Atlantic Records session with Joe Turner, and Lewis hadn’t been asked to be part of it. “I’m a blues player!” he said to me in sharp frustration.

I knew Billie Holiday, heard her often in clubs, and read a lot about her. But Wynton shows us how to penetrate more deeply into her continuing presence among us. When he was growing up, his father often played at home the last recording she made, Lady in Satin. Says Wynton, “Some people hated it because so little of her voice was left. But for me, it teaches that the message you are delivering can be more important than limitations in the method of delivery.

“Billie could evoke dark, dark feelings by applying swinging sweetness. If you put a little salt in something sweet, it gets sweeter; if you put some sugar in something bitter, it gets more bitter. She was like that.”

I knew Duke Ellington in a number of contexts and have written a lot about him, but again, Wynton adds more to my appreciation and understanding of his music: “He was fascinated by intense interactions and unusual human foibles. Two guys in the band didn’t like each other? Make them sit right next to each other. Give them back-to-back solos. See what happened. … He loves musicians. Not just their playing. Them. … [A]nd more than any other jazz musician, he addressed the rich internal lives of men and women in love.

“One touch of his hand on the piano and the moon enters the room. He loved ladies and they loved him.”

A recent Winston Churchill quote I found brought Duke instantly to mind: “I am a man of simple tastes, easily satisfied with the best.” With Duke, that also included women.

Charlie Parker has, of course, a wide international audience. I don’t use the past sense referring to his immortality, but in Moving to Higher Ground, Wynton reveals the often stunning breadth of Bird’s impact. I had a friend, a New York City homicide detective, Don Baezler, who was a Bird enthusiast. A police precinct would be a rather unusual place to discuss Charlie Parker recordings. Or so I thought at the time.

But Wynton shows how parochial I was: “John Lewis told me all kinds of people would be at Charlie Parker’s gigs. It always shocked him: sailors, firemen, policemen, city officials, prostitutes, dope fiends, just regular working people. Whoever it was, when Bird started playing, his sound would arrest the room.”

I once ran into Bird briefly on a railway station platform. At that time he was only interested in talking about country music. As Wynton writes, Bird’s music “had so much in it because it had come such a long distance. It had all of American music in it: fiddlers’ reels and Negro spirituals; levee tunes and camp-meeting songs; minstrel songs; vaudeville tunes, and American popular songs; the blues and ragtime … European classical music”—Bird once told me a Bartók concerto had long resonated in his head—“and the irresistible stomping, riffing style of blues playing that tells you Parker came from Kansas City.”

I recently interviewed the internationally celebrated Jerry Douglas, the master Dobro player, winner of a number of Country Music Association Awards. Bird came into the conversation, and Douglas spoke excitedly of what a kick it was for him to record with Ray Charles.

Songcatcher Alan Lomax used to call what we have here, and sent around the world, “the rainbow of American music.” In his book, Wynton says, “No one knows how another person experiences living. It’s too deeply rooted, based on too many unique circumstances. Language cannot express these private, ever-changing states of being. Music is much clearer about subconscious and super-conscious matters. Music makes the internal external. What’s in you comes out.”

Wynton notes that he wrote the book to “explore the creative tension between self-expression and self-sacrifice in [the ultimate wholeness] of jazz, a tension that is at the heart of swinging, in music and in life.”

And because jazz is so deeply rooted in the evolution of American music, it changes your life all the more by surprising you in the range and continuous surprises of your feelings.

Originally published in January/February 2009

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