D:O [Heart] The 80s, Part Three


Art Ensemble of Chicago
Full Force
ECM : 1980
Buy at Amazon.

Lester Bowie, trumpet; Joseph Jarman, saxophones; Roscoe Mitchell, saxophones; Malachi Favors Maghostus, bass; Famoudou Don Moye, drums, percussion.

The Henry Threadgill Sextett
Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket
About Time : 1983

HT, alto and baritone saxophones; Olu Dara, cornet; Craig Harris, trombone; Diedre Murray, cello; Fred Hopkins, bass; John Betsch and Pheeroan Aklaff, drums.

Muhal Richard Abrams
Rejoicing with the Light
Black Saint : 1983
Buy at eMusic.

MRA, piano, conductor; Jean-Paul Bourelly, guitar; Baikida Carroll, trumpet, flugelhorn; Vincent Chancey, French horn; Marty Ehrlich, alto saxophone, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet; Eugene Ghee, tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Craig Harris, trombone; Patience Higgins, baritone saxophone, clarinet, alto clarinet; Howard Johnson, tuba, baritone saxophone, contrabass clarinet; John Purcell, piccolo, flute, alto saxophone, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet; Rick Rozie, bass; Warren Smith, vibraphone, percussion; Abdul Wadud, cello; Andrew Cyrille, drums.

We conclude our ‘80s retrospective with the jazz figure who dominated the media landscape during the decade: Wynton Marsalis. If you haven’t already checked out Ethan Iverson’s essential interview with him – plus the accompanying suite of articles about the Young Lions, AACM, etc – do yourself a favor and head over there now. These thoughtful and provocative linked pieces constitute the best jazz criticism of the year, hands down.

Even if you’re like us and the mere invocation of Wynton’s name raises your blood pressure, the pieces are revelatory. Ethan mainly sticks to talking music with Marsalis, focusing on his new album Congo Square, featuring the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with a West African drum ensemble. It’s no surprise Wynton is articulate and knows his shit inside-out. But we were surprised how forthright and engaging he is when discussing his music. It shows him in the best possible light. There’s also a fascinating blindfold test and a kozmigroov reference for good measure!

Ethan raises some fascinating points we want to tackle. But first, let’s set our prejudices on the table: We’re not particularly fans of Wynton’s music. Growing up, friends were obsessed with Wynton and the Young Lions. We duly immersed ourselves in the albums and attended concerts, trying to figure out the new scene. With a few notable exceptions, we were kind of bored. There was something intractably stodgy about much of this neo-traditional work, lacking both the spark found in the original forms and the thrilling innovations of the so-called avant garde. To our ears, it was minor music with a major publicist. So we moved on to greener pastures. We still occasionally check in on Wynton and his cohorts and discover a few impressive passages, but nothing has yet caused us to overhaul our initial opinions.

Our main gripe with Wynton is his self-serving rhetoric about what constitutes jazz. As he erupted on the scene in the ’80s, Marsalis gained an unprecedented bully pulpit through the media and his association with Lincoln Center. He used this power to redraw the boundaries of the entire genre, declaring that only acoustic music that swung was actually jazz. This argument was plain insane, but a surprising amount of otherwise intelligent people bought it. The result was that generations of jazz giants such as Sam Rivers, Marion Brown, and Cecil Taylor were denied work – and worse, their music was derided and further marginalized.

It’s been widely pointed out this is analogous to how Ronald Reagan* redrew the political map during the same period. Reagan espoused a bogus return to “traditional values,” and effectively used this term to belittle opponents and consolidate power for himself and his cronies. Wynton similarly used his curatorial duties at Lincoln Center to provide work for his colleagues and only allowed institutional legitimacy to trickle down to those who met his favor.

Almost as destructive was his role as consultant for Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary, instructing the documentarian that the genre corrupted itself after 1965 and didn’t revive until, surprise, his own ascendancy. That shameless lie has been amply debunked – particularly in the 1970-93 discussion initially launched by Ethan Iverson – but it was still broadcast to millions as the official story.

In the Iverson interview, Wynton comes off as inclusive, talking up his experiences playing traditional jazz, funk, classical, marching band, ragtime, and even avant garde music with Kidd Jordan. But as Ethan points out in an accompanying piece, Wynton still clings to his strict definition of jazz. Here’s a sample of what DOES NOT make the cut, as delineated by Iverson:

1) American popular music since 1955, especially if electric instruments are involved

2) Classical music, especially dense modernism and minimalism

3) Experimental, avant-garde, or free jazz made or influenced by musicians like Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Milford Graves, the AACM school (including Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill), and the BAG school (including Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill). This category includes Downtown metajazz like John Zorn, anyone playing hardcore free jazz today like William Parker, plus more recent composers and improvisers like Tim Berne and Dave Douglas.

4) Romantic and even-eighth-note “pretty” music associated with Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, ECM, and Europe.

5) One-of-a-kind rogue improvisers who are major stylists in both free and straight-ahead music like Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, Paul Bley, Steve Lacy, Kenny Wheeler, Dewey Redman, Eric Dolphy, Richard Davis, etc.

In other words, almost everything interesting that’s happened in jazz for THE PAST FOUR DECADES. Discounting 40 years of a 100-year-old art form isn’t revisionist history, it’s amputation. And even though, truth be told, we sort of feel Wynton on whole Jarrett/Metheny thing, we’d never claim it’s not jazz. Taken together these developments don’t constitute a series of quirky offshoots. They comprise the story of the music itself.

One of the most interesting moments in the Iverson interview occurs when Wynton talks about how people have ignorantly criticized his music without hearing it all, especially the recent work he feels differs from his early efforts. He makes a salient point with this anecdote:

I was in the Modern Museum and I told my son, “Earn your prejudice. Don’t be prejudiced against something you don’t know. Look at the man’s work. Look at all of this stuff.”

Sound advice. But what’s jaw-dropping is that several minutes later, he admits to Ethan how he isn’t familiar with the work of the AACM. Wait a minute. You mean, the avant garde collective whose music he has demonized, barred from the hallowed halls of Lincoln Center, and claimed help ruin jazz in the 1970s? The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill, George Lewis, Leo Smith, et cetera. He admits he doesn’t know any of their music?!?!

It’s hard to know what’s more astounding here: The sheer hypocrisy or the remarkable musical ignorance.

The irony is layers deep. The AACM is deeply involved in a dialogue with the vast history of jazz. We’d argue they’ve engaged it far more widely and significantly than Wynton and his past-obsessed peers. The AACM may be interested in Cage and Stockhausen, but they also know their Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. Some claim they deploy their knowledge as mere postmodern pastiche, but we hear something far more serious and playful, a sincerely daring attempt to reanimate history in a living and relevant context.

We’ve posted some AACM tracks above as a corrective. These are not from obscure albums, but rather from works that were cited in the Village Voice “Best of the 80s” poll. They were recorded about the same time Wynton was making his meteoric media ascent, and their engagement with the jazz tradition fairly demolish his arguements. Check out the Art Ensemble’s slinky, sultry, and muscular tribute to Charles Mingus; Threadgill’s elastic gutbucket blues; and Muhal’s creative big band that manages to swing like a mofo.


Ultimately whether Wynton is playing jazz or the AACM is playing jazz, or both, or neither, is moot. We always look to Duke Ellington to settle these questions of genre. He sagely says music falls into two categories: Good and bad. We’ll go on record as saying we’re in awe of the drumming of Jeff “Tain” Watts, that we dig many of Branford Marsalis’s more abstract blowouts, as well as some of Kenny Kirkland’s adventurous piano and Wynton’s fiery solos. Drew has even been known to occasionally enjoy some Marcus Roberts, though Chilly needed No Doze to make it through one of his gigs.

But really, if you’re comparing the purely musical accomplishments of Wynton and the Young Lions to the AACM… well, to misquote Greg Tate, that ain’t even a conversation, let alone a quip. Hell, the first third of Anthony Braxton’s career alone overshadows the entire output of the Young Lions in terms of musical quality, scope, ambition, and sheer gusto.

But this isn’t a baby and bathwater tantrum. One of Iverson’s crucial points is that Wynton Marsalis’s musical seriousness and deep knowledge about jazz’s origins contributes something important for musicians. He writes:

Wynton’s message may not open creative doors; indeed, he wants young players to do only one thing, “real jazz”!  But minor tyrants who really know their subject and make their students learn it just so are an important tradition, too.

Makes sense to us. For musicians (though not necessarily listeners) it’s important to know the tradition so you can move on from there. Even the most adventurous jazz is usually nurtured through its roots to the past, whatever form that takes. The tradition of jazz may be innovation, but one way to become an innovator is to work your way deeper into the tradition rather than out of it. To really quote Greg Tate: “Recognize that there’s gold in them haunted hills.”

Iverson worries this isn’t the case anymore. Without naming names, he cites a lack of historical knowledge in the larger jazz community. Ethan takes Wynton’s side that musicians need to know the past and acquire the necessary chops to take the music into the future. He writes about being horrified by a master class full of piano students who didn’t recognize a classic piece by James P. Johnson – and worse, didn’t even know who that was!

From our far more limited purview, we see many of the younger adventurous jazz acts more eager to embrace European free improv and noise than the American jazz tradition. We suspect one factor is that many of these musicians are white. It often seems like they feel that plugging into the rich continuum of jazz is hijacking an African-American expression that doesn’t belong to them. Our favorite exchange between Ethan and Wynton obliquely covers this ground:

Iverson: Jazz culture wasn’t part of my upbringing.

Marsalis: Yes, it was. You’re an American.

And here is Wynton at his best, his most magnanimous, his most Whitmanesque. Here’s the Dean of The One True Path of Real Jazz implicitly telling a white guy from Wisconsin that by taking the craft seriously and studying the past masters, that this is his birthright just as much as a third-generation musician from New Orleans.** It’s a wonderful moment.

If only everyone had Ethan’s sane lens through which to view Wynton: A valuable player and educator who works a narrow field of music. But unfortunately that’s not the case. Wynton’s narrow-minded mythologies have shaped a generation of musicians. The so-called mainstream players we come across also tend to have gobsmacking gaps in their knowledge of jazz history. They know absolutely nothing about any of the adventurous jazz from the past 40 years – from Wayne Shorter on. Again, this isn’t merely overlooking a niche, it’s being ignorant of essential history.

As much as we’re distressed about the piano students being clueless about Johnson, we’re equally worried that a 46-year-old jazz legend knows nothing about the AACM! To our mind, this is just as horrifying a lapse and symptomatic of a deep problem. Actually, it’s even more troubling considering Wynton’s influence and the fact he can’t claim the ignorance of youth.

Largely thanks to Marsalis’s “real jazz” propaganda, jazz today suffers from a distorted body image. His high-profile opinions have helped obscure the full history and musical range of jazz. The fruits of this approach is an overall scene that often seems divisive, uninformed, and unhealthy. Some of the younger mainstream believe they know the full story when they’re missing almost half the picture. And for some of the younger adventurous players, Wynton has made studying the past seem like eating your brussels sprouts rather than exploring a goldmine of possibilities. Both sides lose.*** Or rather, we all lose as jazz is steadily sapped of its vitality from both ends of the continuum.

Our favorite newer acts on the scene don’t fall prey to this false duality, musicians like Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Matthew Shipp, and of course The Bad Plus – among many others. The divisions of tradition and avant garde only serve those afraid to submit their music to Duke Ellington’s ultimate criteria, those who are afraid to embrace a music that truly encompasses the ancient to the future, both at once.


*A recent blog post tackling Marsalis claimed there shouldn’t be anything inherently negative with being compared to Reagan. But students of history will strongly disagree. We bet even Wynton bristles at the  comparison.

**As for the Europeans, well, that’s probably another discussion.

***One is reminded of a quip from Henry Kissinger, who, when asked why academic squabbles were fought with such viciousness, replied, “Because the stakes are so small.”

Discussion22 Comments Category 1980s, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Henry Threadgill, Muhal Richard Abrams Tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

22 Responses to D:O [Heart] The 80s, Part Three

  1. Thanks for linking my Reagan/Marsalis post, but I would like to clarify one thing. Though the title does read “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” my post should not be read as an implicit endorsement or defense of Reagan or Marsalis. My intent was to simply demonstrate how both men employed their own readings of history to gain favor among disaffected audiences. The title was just a way of maneuvering around the tremendous baggage inherent in any discussion of Reagan (an ineffective attempt, I realize now).

    Regardless, the link is much appreciated. Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks for articulating this so very clearly. I’ve been meaning to write this exact thing for years. Now I can just send people here instead of trying to organize my perpetually boggled mind.

  3. Great post – says it all! Thank you.

  4. Thank you for this great article. As a student learning about Marsalis, the young lions, etc, I’ve always been very puzzled by their motivations and by the not-always-real dichotomy of neo-traditionalists and innovators. I very much agree with your assessment of stodginess, though. I can’t claim sufficient knowledge to say this without it smacking of naivete, but listening to marsalis makes me think “Why don’t I just listen to Louis?”

    Regardless, Iverson’s ‘minor tyrants’ idea holds a lot of water. There are many people out there whose souls drive them to razor focus, and without their invaluable flavor of insanity, we’d be hard-pressed to find someone to cultivate our roots. As for my soul, it’s going to stick with Duke.

  5. This prompted me to finish reading Iverson’s Marsalis series. What I keep thinking is this: if Marsalis & Co. weren’t in a position (via JALC, etc) to direct money and attention, would this be an argument? Or at least be a much smaller argument? As an artist, Marsalis should be free to create whatever he wants and make whatever judgments he wants. And as Iverson says, it is an important role to maintain a particular craft and tradition as a living thing. So it seems to me that the only problem is if this comes at the expense of other artists.

    That’s not a small problem, and I’m not really saying anything new here. But I think it’s worth asking or pointing out that the conflict here is perhaps not at all about the art itself, but rather the making-a-living machinery around the art.

    The perplexing thing at the root of all this, I think, is attempting to support art with a business model. If something appeals to more people, regardless of any artistic criteria, then it’s going to be more successful. I don’t know how you get around that.

  6. Yeah, I have to say that these last 2 comments make me question what my issues with Wynton Marsalis are. If it weren’t for Wynton, would Roscoe Mitchell and Evan Parker be household names? The reality is that a lot of the art that Wynton excludes will probably never have a wider appeal than it does now. And whether or not he calls it jazz, whether or not he views it as legitimate, just does not matter. This exact argument happens in other (probably every) sphere of art and music making. You don’t have to read for long in Kyle Gann’s blog (http://www.artsjournal.com/postclassic/) to find him expressing the exact same frustrations about the world of classical composition.

    On the other hand, I know musicians who worked in NY in the 80s who felt that they had been essentially blacklisted in the jazz community there because they didn’t subscribe to Marsalis’s views. So there is a real world impact when someone in such a position of power vociferously expresses very exclusive views.

    And certainly the pendulum continues to flail around wildly… the young-lions-type-movement doesn’t seem to wield nearly the kind of power it once did. And artists like the ones mentioned at the end of the article (Rudresh, Vijay, Bad Plus, etc) seem to be having success (whatever that means) at least equal to most of the folks in the hyper-conservative wing of the jazz world. And folks like James Blood Ulmer and Bill Dixon from one generation earlier are making stronger music than ever. So in the long run I wonder what the impact of Wynton’s rhetoric really is?

  7. @Brian:
    “If it weren’t for Wynton, would Roscoe Mitchell and Evan Parker be household names? The reality is that a lot of the art that Wynton excludes will probably never have a wider appeal than it does now.”

    Frankly, I couldn’t care less whether a Roscoe or an Evan will ever be household names, or have wider appeal — I doubt they do either. But they (and their colleagues and those they have inspired over the last 40+ years) can and should have more and better opportunities to present their music in the U.S., and an environment in which cultural elites are not so blatantly ignorant of (if not hostile towards) their art.

    “…the young-lions-type-movement doesn’t seem to wield nearly the kind of power it once did.”

    Well, define “power”. Perhaps the YLs/neo-cons aren’t as influential among musicians, but their agenda remains in full force as a “resource hog” within many cultural institutions. For example, take a look at the current programming at these venues:

    Jazz at Symphony Center:

    Jazz at Lincoln Center:

    Such programming continues to reflect a complete lack of awareness/concern about many major branches of the jazz tree which have developed within the last 40 years. This is understandable given the fact that such institutions are, by design, conservative and preoccupied with maximizing the ass-to-seat ratio — and only concerned with those asses they can $queeze (subscription$, donation$, etc).

    The larger problem is the lack of infrastructure and support in the U.S. for art not created for the mass marketplace, nor for immediate, broad appeal within a particular genre or niche. Hopefully our new administration will start correcting this (among other things).

  8. These are all excellent points. Thanks for such thoughtful comments. Here are a few more thoughts to add to the overall mix, top o’ the head stylee —

    I think the problem with Wynton is that he has meshed the making-a-living machinery around the art with the art itself to such a degree that it’s very difficult to untangle the two. Like everyone has said, his rhetoric has had real-world implications in terms of denying musicians gigs and grants, preventing them from recording albums, etc. And this in turn has aesthetic ramificiations, resulting in potential great works of art vanishing into the ether (or the necessities of a day job to pay the rent).

    Wynton’s rhetoric also warped a generation of jazz fans who often either became (1) hopelessly narrow minded or (2) were turned off from Wynton’s stuffy version of jazz altogether, assuming that was all there was to the genre. I know a number from both camps, alas. So his ideas matter.

    As for what appeals to more people — while it’s certainly true that Wynton’s music goes down a lot easier than say Evan Parker, I do think the heavy marketing of his music played a large role in its popular success. The huge media exposure and sheer column inches meant Wynton’s music got in front of a lot more people. I know all the buzz made me doubt my initial reactions and I kept buying his records to see what I was missing. I probably wouldn’t bothered for someone with a smaller profile. If Columbia had poured all that effort into, say, Arthur Blythe at the time, then people might just as easily have embraced his style and jazz would have developed in a different way. Hell, “Lennox Avenue Breakdown” strikes me as more fun and accessible to the general public than the Young Lion stuff.

    Of course there’s no way some of the more ‘out’ musicians would’ve become household names. But it’s good to recall how the aggressive marketingof something as relatively out as Radiohead’s “Kid A” was able to turn that into a number one album! People’s ears over the past decade have opened up and I’d argue the inaccessible reputation much adventurous jazz enjoys is more received wisdom than social fact. That’s one of the things we try to show here.

    As for the Young Lions fading – an excellent point. I think their influence has fallen b/c their story of bringing back “real jazz” [the crusade element always seemed a key part of their appeal] has lost its lustre and proven to be largely false, a mirage of its time.

    Beyond that, the proof is in the pudding. According to their own rhetoric, right about now the Young Lions should be rewriting the jazz history with their blazing accomplishments. But instead they’ve unleashed a bunch of blah releases that nobody much cares for. History has moved on, thankfully. More adventurous musicians like Bad Plus and Vijay have enjoyed deserved success b/c people are hungry for something more challenging and find it enjoyable.

    I’m convinced the Young Lions’ musical achievements will continue their inevitable rendezvous with the dustbin of history. But I also fear the lingering effects of their rhetoric — like the aftershocks of Reaganomics — will continue to be felt through institutions, on radio, in clubs, and in general public perception for a long time to come.

  9. Jason – I was typing my reply while you were posting yours and didn’t see your comment until now.

    You really flesh out what I was just dancing around. Thanks for the links and spot-on analysis about jazz institutions and lack of infrastructure.

  10. The concert calendars Guthartz posted make me think of the situation in classical music: compare the schedule of almost any orchestra with the vision of the classical/art music scene expressed in, say, Kyle Gann’s blog. They seem very parallel to me–Marsalis put the AACM out of work, Beethoven & Mozart put new composers out of work, in both cases partly if not entirely because of the tastes of the performers’ wealthy clientele and patrons. I’m not sure what, if anything to draw from this.

    “Wynton’s rhetoric also warped a generation of jazz fans…” [cjc]
    This is a very good point, which I did not address in my earlier comment. I wonder if it will ultimately be the longest lasting negative effect of the Young Lions.

    Speaking of which, did everyone see the “Ask Ben Ratliff” feature on nytimes.com? A little cross-section of what the NYT readership thinks of jazz…some good questions, some adulation of long-dead masters, and “pretty much all jazz sounds the same today.” Oof.

  11. I’m going to post this even though as I re-read it I can argue and disagree with a lot of what I wrote in it. We in the US find ourselves in a pretty crumby cultural situation and it is incredibly frustrating to think about. So, here goes…

    I guess I remain unconvinced that Wynton is really as influential as all that. Ornette won a Pullitzer, Zorn a Macarthur. I went to see Yusuf Lateef at the Walker Museum here in Minneapolis a few weeks ago – it was sro. These are about as major as cultural institutions get.

    And on the ground the music thrives with or without the Marsalis seal of approval.

    Believe me, I wish desperately for a cultural environment that is more supportive of the work of the artists we’re discussing here. To me it just doesn’t seem to be in the cards. The list of things that are backward here in the US goes on and on and on (John Williams commissioned to write a piece for the inauguration? Really? Is that the best American composer they could come up with?). And it feels like giving Wynton a whole lot of power to place much of it at his feet. He’s a smart, talented, charismatic, opinionated guy who plays music people in REAL positions of power thought they could sell… right place right time.

  12. this is a fascinating discussion. i am a great fan of the ‘new’ avant-garde, the so-called ‘downtown’ or ‘loft’ scene: william parker, etc; the wildly innovative free players like mats gustafsson et al, as well as the classic post-bop sound…and i just do not believe ANY one of these can exist without the other.

    so much to say here.

    one point this post opened my eyes (subconsciously i knew it all along) to was the fact that the ken burns’ jazz series basically drops off after the mid-sixties. an incredible shame, when one spends their days listening to brotzmann, nilssen-love, mcphee, shipp and so on…

    the truth is that marsalis is wrong to cast aside this vast, wonderfully nebulous side of the jazz canon.

    purity of essence in ‘real jazz’, in ‘real’ creation?

    the urge to destroy is also a creative urge.



  13. I honestly think the ultimate responsibility falls on George Butler, Stanley Crouch and Columbia records. Not that Wynton shouldn’t carry some of the weight for the “real jazz” argument but he was just Columbia’s tool to commodify, gentrify and re-codify the music from its past. it seems like Columbia was looking for some one to use as a mouthpiece to establish a new ‘savior’ of jazz and classical music and increase the sales of their back catalogs. It seemed that every interview he raved about pre-1968 Miles and dogged everything after. I bet lots of people bought some recording of both periods because some wanted to agree with him and others wanted prove him wrong. Seems just as important to remember that Columbia trotted him out to classical audiences too. I remember people that never listen to jazz pointing to Wynton’s classical and jazz grammys as evidence of his right to say such shallow, callous, ignorant personal attacks on other jazz musicians. Rather that just being seen as an obnoxious kid flush with early success, Columbia’s publicity machine framed his negativity as badge of integrity to degrade the fusion era, avant-garde and other musical forms. I could be overstating this, but it seemed to me that Columbia wanted to sell this music to negro-phobic people by presenting independent from concept of ‘Blackness’ just like radio stations that were called “Soul” are now “Urban”.

  14. I’ve only just got round to reading the article and, as usual, thanks for the thoughtful engagement. My own views are fairly similar and looking at Marsalis’ proclamations from a European position (where so much great music has been created through an engagement with the great African American tradition by European players) the narrowness of the argument seems even more slight.

    The paradox is that Marsalis is one of the greatest educators I have seen, and he mainly works to open minds (and ears) to understand how jazz makes sense.

    However, it is also important to understand something of the context. Chaz is right to cite Crouch (and I’d add in Albert Murray) both of whom had a profound influence on Marsalis (and through him, Ken Burns). In amongst the complexity of debates about black culture and its importance within the US is the simple notion that jazz is black classical music. From this view it therefore had a classic period in which it reaches its zenith. The job of the cultured is then to preserve that great culture. However, just as the European claim that culture reached a great classic period overwrites history with a deadening hand, so does the ‘jazz as Americas classical music’ argument. It raises jazz up, and then locks it away. The drive to experiment and change, to open up possibilities, and to explore form and performance that created the jazz of the mid-30s to the late-50s is still driving through music today. That music engages with jazz’s past, but it remakes it in so many new ways that it’s a wonder to behold.

    I have a number of Marsalis albums, and at their best they are enjoyable, but the obsession with the recreation of sound and technique is the practice of a museum creator, when music is a lived part of culture.

  15. Coming to this late, but back when I read the DTM posts I too was struck by the lack of awareness of James P. Johnson. For one, after teaching for years, I am almost never surprised by people’s lack of knowledge anymore. But, I think part of that lack of awareness of history is a side effect of Marsalis et. al.

    They succeeded in institutionalizing one particular definition of jazz, and in doing so they reigned in the meaning considerably. James P. Johnson has a specific place in history between, say Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington or Art Tatum. His music is about those specific innovations…for them. This narrows the range of meaning of Johnson’s work (it is no longer up to your opinion, because your opinion probably won’t guarantee him as a genius, and as such won’t preserve his art). This narrowing was applied to the whole tradition, hence innovation becomes, in their version, less important.

    End result, it alienates people who don’t identify with that history. Either they feel guilty for “appropriating” black art or they get the message that their opinion of it doesn’t matter (it’s both really).

    One on hand, Johnson deserves respect, and you ought to trust your educational despots when they tell you that. On the other hand, your respect of his music will not make you dance or make you think about people dancing in the past. That is an expensive price to pay for preservation of jazz, and ultimately I think does more harm than Marsalis’s ignorance/disavowal of the breadth and depth of his own tradition.

  16. I realize that this is extremely late, but I just noticed the painting at the top of this post and wanted to know why you chose it. Certain elements (the crown, crossed out words) look familiar. . .
    Also, this post (this whole blog, in fact) makes me wish I could afford more music. Being knowledgeable about the whole history of the music is cost-prohibitive. I guess I’ll be heading to the public library to check out what music they have tomorrow.

  17. Thanks to all for the insighful comments.

    Erin – the image is by Jean-Michel Basquiat. We love how his visionary art mixed avant garde techniques (see: Cy Twombly) with so-called primitive art and grafitti culture. To us, his work is analogous to the best AACM music — deeply grounded in the past while also forging new aesthetic territory. And like the AACM, Basquiat was often underestimated in his prime.

    The particular image is the record sleeve Basquiat designed for the great hip hop single “Beat Bop” by K-Rob and Rammelzee, circa 1983. We dig the design, a nice showcase of his work and its deep connection to music. And it’s yet another example of the sort of ’80s culture that Wynton would like to write out of history.

  18. wow…this comment is incredibly late, but just want to say how much I appreciate the above post and the comment string. I’ve had a break from music blogs and it’s refreshing and inspiring that the conversation is still happening. Every time I raise the “Marsalis question” in other forums it’s like I’m speaking gibberish or everyone shrugs and says “who cares?”


  19. hey peter – nice to see you around here again! appreciate your kind words here. has there been much consensus in other forums about marsalis? on quick scans through various places, i’ve been amazed how seriously people still seem to hold his opinions.

  20. Now THIS is a really late post. Thanks so much for this well-organized and thoughtful piece on Marsalis. I just want to point some interested readers to Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s influential text The Invention of History, which provides a brilliant theoretical model for how people like Marsalis rewrite the past as a means to wield power in the present. If you’re interested, you just need to read the introduction to get it.

    Keep up the good work. This is far and away my favorite blog.

  21. Oops… Just so you know, this book is NOT about Jazz or Wynton Marsalis. It’s about the use of ceremony in places like England. But the ideas transfer. You’ll see.

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