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Wynton Marsalis: Skain’s Domain by Leslie Gourse

Regardless of one’s personal tastes in music, no one can deny that Wynton Marsalis has made a deep impression on the recent jazz scene. A flawless musician, he grabbed everyone’s attention early on with his ready adaptability to both hard bop and the most challenging literature in European formal music.

At the time of his rapid ascendance to critical acclaim in the early and mid-1980s, he was being hailed as the next major successor in a line of young trumpet giants going back to Clifford Brown. But, actually, he knew very little of this heritage. He was fond of Freddie Hubbard and early 1960s Miles Davis, but according to pianist James Williams, “he didn’t seem very well versed in Lee Morgan, Booker Little, Blue Mitchell, Thad Jones, or Dizzy Gillespie.” Obviously, he must also have been unfamiliar with Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Cootie Williams and Rex Stewart, not to mention Hot Lips Page, Buck Clayton, Harry Edison, Charlie Shavers, Bix Beiderbecke, Bunny Berigan and Bobby Hackett. Yet, at age 19, he was playing with the hottest pure jazz band in the world, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

So how did a precocious kid with a background in New Orleans funk bands and no interest at all in his native city’s rich musical background earn two Grammys, one in jazz and the other in classical music, by the age of 22? In order to answer this question, author Leslie Gourse goes back to Marsalis’ childhood and his formative years with his pianist father, Ellis, and equally talented older brother Branford. A dedicated student of trumpet and an obsessive practicer, Marsalis excelled early as a classical virtuoso, but he had much to learn about jazz: not only its history, but how to apply his technical gifts to the art of meaningful swinging improvisation. He even lacked the emotional maturity and life experience to play the blues. His term with Blakey, however, soon paid off in ways that he had probably never even imagined a few years earlier.

It is both understandable and good that Gourse devotes so much of her space to direct quotations from the principals in Marsalis’ personal life and professional career. For example, after most of the controversies surrounding this unusually outspoken musician have settled down, it is rewarding to read a level-headed and balanced assessment of his stormy latter day relationship with Davis, his onetime idol, and his seemingly pompous, totally dismissive stand against fusion, the avant garde and black pop music. But perhaps most interesting is Gourse’s treatment of the Jazz at Lincoln Center controversy, which was, in effect, an ironic replay of the 1940s media-spawned battle between the traditionalists and the boppers, or, as they were called, the moldy figs and the sour grapes.

All of the juicy elements of a good story were present. Charges of anti-white prejudice, cronyism, musical conservatism and ageism were all directed toward Marsalis, the artistic director of the program and leader of the in-house repertory orchestra, while arguments for the defense were offered by Marsalis, his advisors Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray and his operations director, Rob Gibson. In their sometimes vociferous counter-charges, they claimed that the jazz press was racist (in the more conventional sense), resentful and envious of Marsalis’ elevation to such a prestigious and powerful position at so young an age, and more interested in promoting the music of contemporary avant garde composers and performers than they were in presenting the great music of the past, such as, Morton, Armstrong, Ellington and Monk.

It makes for a lively read, as does much else in this well-written book.

Originally Published