Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life
Wynton Marsalis is the Martha Stewart of jazz. He does it all: virtuoso trumpeter in classical and jazz, award-winning composer, bandleader, director and co-founder of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, teacher, broadcaster, pitchman for Movado watches. Add to that his latest, and perhaps most important role: oracle.
His national premier as oracle was as chief spokesperson for jazz in Ken Burns’ epic, 10-part paean to moldy figs. From his pulpit on Burns’ show, Marsalis issued bon mots about jazz and its universal—indeed, intergalactic—significance.
Now, comes a sequel, Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life, where within we find that the not yet 40-years-old Marsalis has found his own Boswell—one Carl Vigeland, a journeyman journalist out of Amherst, Mass.—who seems to be working on the niche of hanging out with famous people and writing quick books about them.
Vigeland’s most recent one was Stalking the Shark, a volume about Australian golfer Greg Norman that had the misfortune of being published about the time that Norman’s fame was being eclipsed by the upstart Tiger Woods—yet another example of celebrity as one-man industry. Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life purports to be an intimate look at life with Marsalis and his Septet/Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra on the road and what Vigeland refers to as the “glorious profusion” of Marsalis’ creativity. Vigeland aims to paint impressionistically, he explains. “The narrative’s logic is one of feeling, not geography or chronology, and it develops accretively, elliptically.”
Vigeland interlays his observations with Marsalis’ words of wisdom, wanting the technique to resemble the call-and-response of blues. Unfortunately, it comes across as a sausage of a book, filled with the scraps of forgettable banalities that anyone who has spent time on a tour bus knows. Included are too-long explanations about how each band member or groupie got his cute nickname. Vigeland’s nickname is “Swig.” Marsalis’ is “Skain.”
At one point in the book, Vigeland, who is white, unembarrassedly and unctuously describes how he asks Marsalis, a black musician, permission to address him as “Skain,” in an ironic foot-shuffling routine. But herein is the conceit of celebrity. Vigeland and Marsalis expect there to be an audience for everything about Marsalis: his love of sushi; the way he plays a game of pickup basketball; his preconcert ironing; and, of course, his philosophical and sociological exegesis.
Marsalis is an enormously talented musician. That’s something that even his detractors can’t, or shouldn’t, dispute. Moreover, an undeniable goodness to Marsalis and much of what motivates him is revealed in this book. But the bottom line to Marsalis’ appeal is his ability to play music a lot of people like, plus his unparalleled talent at transmitting his enthusiasm, using both his vast tonal and verbal vocabularies.
The bottom line is the music.
One only hopes that if celebrity-stalker Vigeland and celebrity Marsalis decide to produce their own magazine, M!—à la Oprah or Rosie—that the M will stand for music—not just Marsalis.