Wynton Marsalis: Hearing Before Your Own Time

Except perhaps for Jelly Roll Morton, there has never been anyone in jazz history as disciplined, grandly ambitious and sometimes pompous as Wynton Marsalis. Dizzy Gillespie said to me years ago: “Wynton told me last night he’s studying all my records. He’s getting them from collectors. And when he’s done, he says, there’ll be nothing of mine that he’s missing. He’ll know why I sound the way I do.”

That discipline has made Wynton a jazz scholar. Shortly after he joined Art Blakey in 1980, he got a grant to study with the late trumpet player Woody Shaw, a far too often neglected jazz original. And, of course, Wynton is so intensely knowledgeable about the roots of jazz that he has become the single greatest influence in teaching young musicians-through clinics and the musicians who play regularly with him-that jazz did not begin with Charlie Parker.

As for his ambition, last December, Marsalis’ “All Rise” premiered at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and Jazz at Lincoln Center, it encompassed-as Ben Ratliff noted in the New York Times-“about 200 musicians, including the Philharmonic, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Morgan State University Choir.” The stage had to be extended.

Moreover, no musician since Leonard Bernstein has been as effective a music educator on television as Wynton. Any school system that does not use those programs is making its students culturally disadvantaged. This year, on World Tour 2000, he is hurling the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra through China, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan and Hawaii-all in less than a month. (By the way, if he chose to, Marsalis could become the preeminent classical music trumpet player of his generation. Some of his performances of that literature are-a word I seldom use-breathtaking.)

Then there is Wynton Marsalis, the panjandrum of Jazz at Lincoln Center, who sometimes sounds like Jelly Roll Morton used to. Not that Marsalis claims to have invented jazz but rather that he is the ultimate authority for deciding what’s authentic-and what is pretentiously artificial and pandering.

His own jazz improvising reminds me at times of what Duke Ellington, ever gracious, once said to a pianist playing her first gig in New York: “My, you play so many notes.” And while his compositions aim at gravitas, their earnestness sometimes makes me turn, for relief, to the wit, sparseness and continual surprise of Thelonious Monk. But Marsalis does keep growing, and his Mr. Jelly Lord: Standard Time, Volume Six (Columbia/Sony Classical) is one of the relatively few joyous reminders that repertory jazz can not only be a tribute to past glories but can stand on its own as a lasting continuation of the tradition.

Unlike some of the jazz revivalists of the 1950s-who sounded as if they were replicating the scratches on the original Jelly Roll Morton and Kid Ory recordings-Marsalis and his colleagues aren’t just archivists. This is a “living” tribute. And for “Tom Cat Blues” on that CD, Marsalis the scholar and his producer, Steve Epstein, made the recording in Thomas Edison’s own recording studio in West Orange, N.J., which hadn’t been used since the turn of the 20th century. Wynton wanted an authentic historic sound.

In the Aug. 5, 1999 Valley Advocate, a newspaper published in Northampton, Mass., Tom Reney-a first-rate writer on jazz-interviewed Marsalis. Speaking of the need to hear music before your own time, Marsalis cited his own learning process as it related to Harry “Sweets” Edison. When he was 14, he first heard Sweets and felt that he played better than Sweets “because I could play fast.” But in time, he realized “Sweets would play slow on a fast tempo. He’d do what Louis Armstrong used to do. You’re going twice as fast, he’s going twice as slow.” And, he’s telling a story. “Once you learn how to hear [before] your era,” Marsalis said, “the whole world of music opens up to you.”

In my conversation with Dizzy Gillespie about Wynton, Dizzy said, “You can’t tell at this point how definite a style Wynton will create for himself, from all he knows. That’s something else. But there’s no reason it won’t come.” It’s coming, and I think that in a few more years, Wynton Marsalis will not need 200 musicians at one time to prove himself. Nor will he be driven to keep recording so often that he seems to be striving to appear in the Guinness Book of World Records. He may yet achieve-as time slows down for him-what he said to Reney about Louis Armstrong: “When he plays a standard, he brings it right down home, and makes it feel like it’s happening to you and your old lady-not some idyllic world somewhere.”