Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

This is the 1st of your 3 free articles

Become a member for unlimited website access and more.

FREE TRIAL Available!

Learn More

Already a member? Sign in to continue reading

Nate Chinen on ’70s and ’80s Jazz

An excerpt from his new book re-examines the trends of a neglected period in jazz history—and why they matter now

Nate Chinen's book "Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century"
Cover of Nate Chinen’s book Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century

To some observers, jazz was in mortal danger after the 1960s, until Wynton and the Young Lions arrived. Nate Chinen sees things differently, and in this excerpt from his new book Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, he examines the warring trends of the ’70s and ’80s, showing how their conflict set the stage for the music’s renaissance in our time.

“Conservation” is another word for saving. And the idea of conservation first began to exert a powerful pull in jazz during the 1970s, a decade in which American interests at large seemed to mobilize around the idea. (The Environmental Protection Agency was established, by executive order, late in ’70.) The music’s elders and originators were shuffling off in greater numbers—Armstrong died in ’71, Ellington a few years later—fueling a disquieting fear that the jazz tradition itself was now endangered, like the ozone layer or the Pacific harbor seal.

This feeling thrived in some influential corners despite the continuing work of musicians in the jazz mainstream, like the pianist McCoy Tyner and the guitarist Jim Hall. It thrived despite the vitality of a post-’60s avant-garde, whose ranks included Ornette Coleman and others in his circle, like the cornetist Don Cherry; Cecil Taylor, a pianistic world unto himself; and the membership of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a rigorous, freethinking collective more commonly known by its acronym, the AACM. The prolific, often daringly original efforts of these artists didn’t provide a great deal of comfort to those fretting about the legacies of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, or Benny Goodman.

Cover of Miles Davis' album "Bitches Brew"
Cover of Miles Davis’ album “Bitches Brew” (1970)

Compounding this insecurity about jazz’s aesthetic survival was the tidal wave of fusion, which swapped out a swinging and lyrical sensibility for something more bombastic and turbocharged. Older jazz musicians griped about fusion the way a neighborhood’s longtime residents might talk about new freeway construction. But the single greatest catalyst for the mutant genre was, at least on some level, one of their own: Miles Davis, the combative yet tersely poetic trumpeter who had played bebop alongside Charlie Parker before delineating the cooler side of hard bop (in the ’50s) and the bleeding edge of postbop (in the ’60s). His groove-rich, darkly entrancing album Bitches Brew—recorded within a few days of Woodstock, the sprawling peace-and-love confab in the summer of ’69—represents one of the small handful of decisive inflection points in jazz history. Musicians who played on the album would go on to form the defining juggernauts of fusion’s first wave: Weather Report, Headhunters, Return to Forever, the Tony Williams Lifetime, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Après Bitches, le déluge.


If “jazz” is to be understood as the music made by jazz musicians in their time, then fusion should have represented a new chapter of the jazz tradition, an evolution of style. And because bands like Weather Report reached a mass public, eventually playing to sold-out rock arenas, you might say it was one answer to jazz’s audience problem. But nobody of prominence made this argument, because fusion was such an alien, steroidal variation on the jazz language, and so entangled with commercial motives. Most figures in the jazz establishment, like Martin Williams, regarded it as a mistake, if not an affront.

What response could there be to the indignities of the age? One answer was to double down on core values and marshal the troops. After an ugly surge of youth unruliness prematurely ended the 1971 Newport Jazz Festival, its producer, George Wein, moved the following year’s edition to New York City, in a big-deal, big-tent production whose offerings sprawled from New Orleans brass bands to a symphonic new work by Coleman to a midnight jam session that sold out Radio City Music Hall. The critic Albert Goldman, in a report for Life magazine, drew on his impressions of this festival to stake a claim: “The comeback of jazz is clearly the top American music story of 1972.” (This in the year of Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace and Al Green’s I’m Still in Love with You—not to mention Neil Young’s Harvest and the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, which could be seen as American music stories despite some geopolitical technicalities.)

Goldman was on target insofar as “jazz” could be a marker of showbiz flair in pop culture, a kind of vogue. Clint Eastwood made his directorial debut with Play Misty for Me (1971), a psychological thriller partly shot at the Monterey Jazz Festival, where a band led by Cannonball Adderley made a cameo. (The film’s title invokes “Misty,” a standard by the pianist Erroll Garner, which provides a central plot device.) Diana Ross, the glamorous disco goddess, portrayed Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), a biopic steeped in tragic lore. The choreographer and director Bob Fosse breezily flirted with jazz iconography in his film Cabaret (1972) and his Broadway musical Chicago (1975), each a smash hit; he later won Academy Awards and wide acclaim for an impressionistic autobiographical feature called All That Jazz (1979). A more golden-hued Jazz Age nostalgia pervaded the Hollywood movies The Sting (1973) and The Great Gatsby (1974), both starring Robert Redford.

Cover of "The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz" (1973)
Cover of “The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz” (1973)

Most of these popular entertainments exploited jazz imagery with jaunty insouciance, as a backdrop or a signifier. The self-appointed stewards of the jazz tradition might have found this more aggravating had they not been deep into their own conservation agenda. One consequential outcome of that agenda was the formal construction of a jazz canon, through initiatives like The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, a six-LP boxed set curated and annotated by Williams and issued in 1973. That same year saw the formation of the National Jazz Ensemble and the New York Jazz Repertory Company, organizations devoted to preserving and reviving the music’s history in performance.


These repertory organizations were, like the Smithsonian, principally concerned with canonization. They often built their concerts around transcriptions of important records or landmark solos. The work was archival and academic as well as artistic, but it all flowed together: Dick Hyman, the musical director of the New York Jazz Repertory Company, was celebrated for his grasp of antiquated piano styles, including those of ragtime heroes like Scott Joplin and Eubie Blake. (When the producers of Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology were deciding how to begin an updated compendium in 2011, they went with Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” which had also opened the original set. But they chose a jazz-repertory version recorded by Hyman in 1975, as if to endorse the idea of a post-historical age.)


Billy Taylor in 1977
Billy Taylor, coiner of the phrase “America’s classical music,” in 1977 (photo: Tom Marcello)

The parallel between jazz repertory programs and the work of Western classical institutions was intentional, part of a push toward dignity for an African-American art form. The phrase “America’s classical music” was coined around this time, in a doctoral dissertation by the veteran pianist Billy Taylor, who later carried it into wider circulation as a jazz educator, a correspondent for CBS News Sunday Morning, and the jazz director for the Kennedy Center. “It is both a way of spontaneously composing music and a repertoire,” Taylor wrote, “which has resulted from the musical language developed by improvising artists. Though it is often fun to play, jazz is very serious music.”


The new jazz historicism rumbled throughout the ecology of the art form. Some members of the old guard, who had lived through epochal changes only to slip into one or another form of career purgatory, saw material returns. A stateside appearance by the tenor saxophonist and longtime expatriate Dexter Gordon became an irresistible human-interest story, as did the reemergence of Jabbo Smith, a trumpeter once said to have rivaled Armstrong.

Cover of Arthur Blythe's album "In the Tradition" (1979)
Cover of Arthur Blythe’s album “In the Tradition” (1979)

Within the avant-garde, which in the ’60s had been dominated by a rhetoric of newness and hurtling progress, traditionalism became a viable mode. The AACM, founded by musicians with a traditional foundation, produced notable statements along these lines. Among them was an album in two volumes actually bearing the title In the Tradition, by Anthony Braxton, a saxophonist known for his arcane compositional systems. Another powerful alto saxophonist with an avant-garde profile, Arthur Blythe, released his own album called In the Tradition: a program of Ellington, Coltrane, and Fats Waller made new by a band with Stanley Cowell on piano, Fred Hopkins on bass, and Steve McCall on drums.

Hopkins and McCall were two-thirds of the collective trio Air, along with Henry Threadgill on saxophones and flutes. That group won DownBeat’s coveted Album of the Year honor for Air Lore—a new spin on Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton, effectively an act of radical jazz repertory. Conservation didn’t have to be conservative.

Even fusion coughed up a major contribution to the cause. Herbie Hancock, who had earned his first gold album with the street funk of Head Hunters, formed V.S.O.P., an openly throwback acoustic postbop quintet. First assembled for a Hancock retrospective at the 1976 Newport Jazz Festival–New York, the band—its acronym evoked top-shelf cognac as well as the tagline “Very Special Onetime Performance”—was cast in the image of the peerless 1960s Miles Davis Quintet, in which Hancock had played. Notwithstanding Davis, who was in murky self-exile at the time, it brought the whole gang back together: Hancock, the saxophonist Wayne Shorter, the bassist Ron Carter, the drummer Tony Williams. Filling in on trumpet was a swashbuckling peer, Freddie Hubbard. Hancock later remembered the group’s revived-yet-changed rapport in jazz-repertory terms: “It somehow made the past become new again.”

Cover of Newsweek, Aug. 8, 1977
Newsweek hails a “comeback” for jazz, August 8, 1977

Less than a decade had passed since the dissolution of Davis’ quintet, upheld then and now as one of the most advanced small groups in jazz history. The relentless upheavals of the period made it seem much longer than a decade. V.S.O.P. received such thunderous approval in New York that its one-time performance led to a world tour, where it met with equally clamoring enthusiasm. Even before releasing its debut in 1977, the group had appeared on the cover of Newsweek under the splashy headline “JAZZ Comes Back!”


That specific choice of language—an echo of Goldman’s “comeback” line, and of Homecoming, the 1977 album that heralded Dexter Gordon’s return—reflects a prevailing new narrative for the music. The implication was not just that jazz had rebounded, but also that some of its most gifted prodigals had returned to the fold. It was convenient to cast this turnabout as evidence of some kind of sober realization, a putting-away of childish things. The jazz-repertory movement, rooted in its noble conservation strategies, could claim credit for tilting the culture toward this baseline of historicism. Its advocates would claim that it saved the music’s roots from obsolescence and extinction.

Still, working jazz musicians in the ’70s were contending with difficult conditions: in the record industry, where rock and pop were the priority, and on the ground, where audiences weren’t easy to rally. The economy was in a recession; New York City was on the brink of bankruptcy. Jazz clubs, of the sort that had sustained musicians in Manhattan for more than forty years, were dwindling in number and purpose. For the more intrepid artists, the action shifted to a confederation of lofts and other noncommercial, artist-operated spaces in Lower Manhattan, like Studio Rivbea and Ali’s Alley. A shadow history of jazz in the 1970s could be set entirely in this milieu, among post-Coltrane/post-Coleman mavericks like Arthur Blythe, the tenor saxophonist David Murray, and the cellist Abdul Wadud. Some of these artists were members of the AACM; others, like the saxophonists Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill, had come out of another collective, the Black Artists Group. They all shared a commitment to fierce originality and self-determination, along with a driving interest in new forms and approaches. They firmly belonged to the jazz tradition, but over time they were largely written out of its mainstream histories.

Henry Threadgill at Keystone Korner in San Francisco, April 1979
Henry Threadgill at Keystone Korner in San Francisco, April 1979 (photo: © Brian McMillen/

Partly this was because of a winner-take-all order circumscribed by the popular media. Partly it was the result of a conservative ideology that envisioned the jazz tradition as a stricter set of practices, a smaller circle. The influence of that constriction was pervasive enough to be almost invisible for a time, functioning as a new baseline reality. The saxophonist Branford Marsalis unintentionally illustrated the point in an interview for Ken Burns’ Jazz.


Speaking of the music’s situation in the 1970s, Marsalis said: “Jazz just kind of died. It just kind of went away for a while.” He went on to soften the point, noting that there had been outliers who kept the fires burning under adverse conditions. But when Burns’ film was broadcast in 2001, it presented the quote without qualification, laying out the Death of Jazz as a concrete historical event, rather than an offhanded generalization. This left out a lot of context but served an irresistible narrative function for Burns and his team. For as Western orthodoxy has it, where there’s a death, you can count on a resurrection—and naturally, a savior—arriving close at hand.


Within the jazz fold, Wynton Marsalis receives grateful credit and scathing crit­icism for the emergence of a neoclassical strain in the music, as if he were the sole author of the shift. In fact, he was neatly positioned to catch that wave just as it was cresting.

Wynton Marsalis was born in 1961, a little over a year after Branford. Because he hailed from New Orleans, the cradle of jazz, and brilliantly played the trumpet, its alpha horn, a certain notoriety was his natural due. He and Branford had played in funk and R&B bands with a halo of black pride—“For us, the dashiki-clad, big-Afro revolutionary was it,” Wynton once recalled—but his identity was forged in a conscientious blaze of inheritance and generational respect. That and an intimidating level of self-confidence, backed by feats of bravura.


Jazz musicians of a certain age still describe Wynton’s arrival in New York, as a first-year student at Juilliard, in terms befitting a rare meteorological event. Steven Bernstein, a trumpeter almost exactly the same age, encountered him immediately. On one of his first nights in town, Bernstein showed up to play with a rehearsal band led by the saxophonist Paul Jeffrey:

“Wynton and I were in the trumpet section. It’s obvious we were kids, almost wearing out our high school clothes. He played lead on a song, and he played it perfectly. Then we did Coltrane’s ‘Moment’s Notice.’ He played a solo, just an incredible solo. Then we did a blues, and everyone got a chorus. He did two choruses of eighth notes, circular breathing. I was just like, ‘Fuck. Whoa!’ Then about a week later, someone called me to go to Giardinelli’s trumpet shop, because Yamaha was showing new instruments after hours. I walk in and hear someone playing the Brandenburg Concerto on a piccolo trumpet. ‘Oh, shit! It’s him.’ Everyone’s jaws dropped.”

Some version of this scenario was surely repeated in other settings. “Two weeks into it, everybody was saying, ‘There’s a kid in town,’” Bernstein remembered. “My trumpet teacher told me: ‘You just can’t worry about it. You could practice all your life and never be able to do that.’”


Marsalis’ undeniable virtuosity, in multiple modes and traditions, would have been remarkable at any point in jazz’s development. At this point in particular, it seemed like the answer to a plea that few had been bold enough to make. More than 20 years later, the Atlantic critic David Hajdu recalled that “Marsalis was ideally equipped to lead a cultural-aesthetic movement suited to the time, a renaissance that raised public esteem for and the popular appeal of jazz through a return to the music’s traditional values: jazz for the Reagan revolution.”

That’s a barbed appreciation, but it bears down helpfully on one factor critical to the young trumpeter’s reception, which was timing. Within the jazz fold, Marsalis receives grateful credit and scathing criticism for the emergence of a neoclassical strain in the music, as if he were the sole author of the shift. In fact, he was neatly positioned to catch that wave just as it was cresting. He arrived in New York a few years into the repertory boom and its accompanying jazz-is-back ballyhoo, warmed up and ready to go. His clarion tone and unassailable technique were as striking as his youth and composure, but there was a larger story unfolding, one precisely primed for the rise of a diligent young hero like himself.

A key part of the narrative around jazz’s resurgence was a passing of the torch from one generation to the next—another trope made tangible by Marsalis, whose father was a noted pianist, Ellis Marsalis. And in 1980, while still at Juilliard, he was hired by the redoubtable hard-bop drummer Art Blakey, who took pride in his mentorship of younger musicians. Marsalis went on tour with Blakey’s ferocious band, the Jazz Messengers, quickly becoming its star attraction.


By 1981 Marsalis was also touring with Hancock, Carter, and Williams: the sterling V.S.O.P. rhythm team, and a direct link to the legacy of Miles Davis. One result of that association was Quartet, a Hancock album on Columbia in ’82; another was Marsalis’ self-titled debut, issued in the same year and on the same label (and with the same personnel, in parts).

Cover of Wynton Marsalis' self-titled debut album (1982)
Cover of Wynton Marsalis’ self-titled debut album (1982)

Wynton Marsalis, produced by Hancock, wasn’t a V.S.O.P. album by another name, despite the fact that it included one composition apiece by Hancock, Carter, and Williams. (One of these, Carter’s “RJ,” had appeared on Davis’ E.S.P.) The album also introduced three pieces by Marsalis, including “Hesitation,” a brisk tune designed to highlight some brotherly sparring between Wynton and Branford. A variation on George Gershwin’s standard “I Got Rhythm” progression, “Hesitation” features a melody with an intriguingly off-balance tonality, patently influenced by Ornette Coleman’s early quartet writing. (The brothers articulate a few notes in the line with a Colemanesque scoop reminiscent of chortling, or the musical equivalent of “Humph!” As in Coleman’s band, there’s no piano in sight.)

Elsewhere on the album, Marsalis steps out of the V.S.O.P. matrix to lead a rhythm section of his peers: Kenny Kirkland on piano, Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, and either Charles Fambrough or Clarence Seay on bass. Their comportment suggests something other than a junior varsity crew. On the album’s curtain raiser, a tune by Marsalis called “Father Time,” they shift between cruising swing and a higher polyrhythmic gear, periodically modulating tempos in a way that the Davis Quintet helped invent. The audacity is impressive: On an album that otherwise features one of the superlative piano-bass-drums alignments in jazz, these youngbloods (only Fambrough was out of his twenties) proudly held their own.

The historicist tone of the age is one reason why Marsalis—recognized as a major acquisition by his label, Columbia—made his debut in the company of elders, who could lend experience and an implicit cosign. Another reason might have been simple expedience; he had already established a rapport with V.S.O.P. But having proven that much, Marsalis didn’t need to repeat any intergenerational gestures in 1983. His next jazz album, Think of One, featured Kirkland and Watts. And in what proved to be an effective bit of marketing, Columbia released it only a few months after Marsalis’ classical debut, Trumpet Concertos, consisting of works by Haydn, Hummel, and Leopold Mozart, and recorded with the National Philharmonic Orchestra under Raymond Leppard.



Herbie Hancock took the stage with a keytar slung over a black leather jacket and a reflective silver shirt. His band had synth drums and a stacked keyboard rig, with D.ST on a raised platform behind a set of Technics 1200s, in a wireless headset and blocky sunglasses … The performance was a pop-culture milestone.

In the decades since Marsalis’ arrival, it has become all too easy to forget the magnitude of the impression left by his multivalent talent—by the notable fact that he was at once a virtuoso in the classical mold and a dashing young paragon of jazz. It’s easy to forget because those two ideas aren’t as incongruent or discordant as they used to be, which is one measure of his project’s success.

What’s striking now about the presentation of Marsalis back then is how shrewd and brand-conscious it seems. Consider for a moment the 26th Annual Grammy Awards, celebrating achievements in the record industry for 1983. Held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on February 28, 1984, this edition of the Grammys is often remembered as Michael Jackson’s night: still basking in the world-beating success of Thriller, he won a record eight awards. Partly as a function of Jackson’s celebrity, the network broadcast reached 48.3 million viewers, the highest rating in Grammy history, not likely to be surpassed. This was a peak moment for the monoculture, that chimerical ideal of true popular consensus, reinforced by the image-making apparatus of a new and explosively successful music video channel, MTV. Jackson’s video for “Billie Jean” was one of the first by a black artist to receive heavy rotation on the channel, after considerable pressure from his label. Instantly iconic, it helped cement MTV’s place in modern life, and Jackson’s stature as the King of Pop. The Grammys were effectively his coronation.

But more than one young potentate was anointed that evening. Marsalis, 22, arrived with nominations in both jazz and classical categories, another unprecedented achievement in the awards history and one that the show’s producers amplified with clever pageantry. After a respectful introduction from John Denver, the evening’s host, the young trumpeter appeared onstage in a dark tuxedo jacket, next to a studio chamber orchestra that, like the set design, was festooned in formal white. With extravagant ease and precision, Marsalis performed a selection from Trumpet Concertos: the Rondo from Hummel’s Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra in E Major.


He happened to play the same piece months later in a concert at Lincoln Center, where he was reviewed in The New York Times. “There was enough virtuosity for three concertos,” wrote Will Crutchfield, singling out the Rondo. “Impeccable scales, faster than one would have thought possible; rapid-fire repeated notes; delicate echoes; dazzling arpeggios—there was something for everybody. Near the end came a rising chromatic chain of trills such as to leave the sourest critic with a silly grin of delight on his face.”

The impact was much the same at the Grammys, loud cheers mingling with the applause. Then Denver announced that Marsalis would show another side of his talent, performing “Knozz-Moe-King,” the opening track from Think of One. Stepping to another part of the stage, Marsalis joined his young quintet, looking slightly and uncharacteristically nervous. After a tentative start, this, too, became a demonstration of prowess: a four-minute mile stamped by chromatic tensions, with an entirely different tempo set by each soloist.

Afterward, the band filed into the wings to await the announcement of Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist. When Marsalis was declared the winner (out of a nominee pool of his elders, including Blakey, on whose album he was featured), he walked to the podium and gave an off-the-cuff acceptance speech with a transparent subtext. First thanking his parents for enduring his many hours of practice, he then acknowledged the staff of CBS Records “for presenting my work with the quality that’s necessary to get to the elite jazz audience.” (He put a slight but discernible emphasis on the word “elite.”) “And I would like to thank all of the guys in the band, because without the band I wouldn’t be able to play anything; this music is very difficult.”


There was more: “And last but certainly, certainly not least, I’d like to thank all of the great masters of American music: Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk. All the guys who set a precedent in Western art, and gave an art form to the American people that cannot be limited by enforced trends or . . . bad taste.” The last two words came with a crooked grin, raised eyebrows and a little head waggle, as in the delivery of a punch line. It seemed clear that Marsalis had a target in mind—Hancock, who appeared on this same awards ceremony to perform his single “Rockit,” the winner of Best R&B Instrumental Performance that year.

Hancock was 43, and while he had been serving as an advisor, bandmate, and producer to Marsalis in acoustic jazz settings, he was also riding his latest category-exploding pop smash. He’d made “Rockit” with Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn, whose vanguardist rock band Material was a staple of the downtown scene in New York. Along with Hancock’s synthesizer hook, the signature element of the track was the rhythmic record scratching of a prominent DJ from the Bronx, GrandMixer D.ST.

Cover of Herbie Hancock's album "Future Shock" (1983)
Cover of Herbie Hancock’s album “Future Shock” (1983)

“Rockit” was the breakout single from Hancock’s album Future Shock, whose title perfectly conveyed the impression made at the Grammys. Hancock took the stage with a keytar slung over a black leather jacket and a reflective silver shirt. His band had synth drums and a stacked keyboard rig, with D.ST on a raised platform behind a set of Technics 1200s, in a wireless headset and blocky sunglasses. The stage design echoed the frenetic, posthuman surrealism of the song’s music video, in heavy rotation on MTV. There were herky-jerky robots, including three pairs of disembodied legs kicking and flailing above the stage. (A few of the robots were revealed, in a climactic flourish, to be break-dancers in disguise.) The performance was a pop-culture milestone, often cited by future turntablists as transformative.


But it wasn’t befitting the highbrow ideals so firmly articulated—and so effectively embodied—by Marsalis. The reproach that he issued from the podium was in line with a few other points he implied: that his own musical pursuit was advanced (“very difficult”) and aspirational (for “the elite jazz audience”), with a seriousness of purpose worthy of its noble lineage (“a precedent in Western art”). Strongly implicit in Marsalis’ appearance at the Grammys, too, was the conviction that jazz deserved a stature and cachet equivalent to classical music. This was an audacious proposition even in the mid-’80s: Dr. Billy Taylor and others were still waging what seemed like a long-odds campaign.

For the arbiters of high culture, only a young hero with the cultural literacy and aesthetic mobility of Marsalis—somebody capable of pirouetting through a concerto in one moment and improvising through an obstacle course the next—could make this argument in good faith. As for the unwashed rabble with no appreciation for such an accomplished art form, Marsalis could still communicate with sheer mastery and evident sophistication. He didn’t receive the standing ovation that Hancock got for “Rockit,” but he did reach those 48.3 million viewers with his message. To the extent that a single turn in the spotlight can set the terms for a movement, this was that turn. And anybody who missed the broadcast, or somehow missed the point, would soon find plenty of additional evidence to support Marsalis’ serious-minded convictions, much of it emanating from the hand and horn of the man himself.

Cover of Wynton Marsalis' album "Black Codes (From the Underground)" (1985)
Cover of Wynton Marsalis’ album “Black Codes (From the Underground)” (1985)

In 1985 he released the defining statement of his early period, Black Codes (From the Underground), an album that pressed advanced postbop techniques into the service of an expressive, volatile, and heroic music with ample precedent in the particulars but no exact precursor as a whole. Kirkland’s pianism was biting, harmonically restive, and set at a forward tilt, suggesting a targeted update to the crashing modalities of McCoy Tyner. Watts created a bulldozer propulsion that had as much to do with rumbling seizures and unexpected crashes as with a swinging ride cymbal. The accord between Wynton and Branford was sharp and jostling, often voiced with tight dissonance, as on a ’60s-Miles set of trapdoors titled “Delfeayo’s Dilemma” (a nod to their younger brother, a trombonist). A superheated track called “Chambers of Tain” crystallized a proprietary band strategy called “burnout,” whereby the musicians attacked a tune with plunging intensity in a prescribed key but with a contingent tempo and no set chord changes, conveying the adrenalized, precarious feeling of racing along a ridge line.


These were not conservative values. Nor was the political thrust of the album, a reference to the postbellum laws in Southern states that restricted African-American freedoms. But Marsalis presented his argument in a context of disciplined erudition: The cover depicts a young boy in a classroom, looking thoughtfully in the direction of the chalkboard, where the album’s loaded title has been scrawled. The boy wears glasses, a tie, and a dress shirt with sleeves rolled up; it’s a portrait of the artist as a young man. Also within the trajectory of his gaze is a trumpet, planted upright on the teacher’s desk. And just beyond it, a globe.

Excerpted from PLAYING CHANGES by Nate Chinen. Copyright © 2018 by Nate Chinen. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Check the price of Playing Changes on Amazon!

Originally Published