The shame of it all is that Wynton Marsalis has come to represent everything a public considers to be the 'art' of jazz, and as he continues to proffer tame music, the adventurous stuff, the "out" playing that keeps the music alive remains unheard and alien to the curious listener. That there is a Jazz Canon that needs to be preserved is not disputed, it's just that Marsalis acts as if all the innovation is now past tense. He believes it is. His style is conservative and chiseled after his heroes, Miles, Clark Terry, Clifford Brown. Their music, though, came as a result of extending their technique into areas that were unknown in the culture. Marsalis has done none of that. He is cheating himself and boring the rest of us to death. The distinction between an ongoing spotlight between jazz musicians defining musical sensibilities among themselves, at work, and that of Marsalis discussing such things is that Marsalis has the spotlight, the media, and the audience goes to him, and it is there where the debate, this debate begins. We disagree as to the role of critics, but I think the ghettoization of jazz is too laid precisely at the feet of white writers and intellectuals.
Amiri Baraka is a great man and an important critic, and presented jazz as a continuous aesthetic of liberation, and correctly defined African American music as music about freedom and struggle, and the search for new knowledge, the extension of the voice, the exploration of the soul into new knowledge. As Baraka socialist, a brave and lonely vantage in a culture that thinks a free-market can resolve permanent problems in the human condition, I don't think it accidental that his views are ignored, and frankly unknown to most. Marsalis William Bennett-ish view, that jazz should embody virtues conduce to conduct in a democratic society, is a valid one, and we may understand it's broader appeal, but really, bebop purism is needed in an art like jazz, as art, any art, cannot remain a living thing, generation-to-generation, if the past is not known. Simply, Marsalis is part of a generation of artists and intellectuals in the African American community who are no part of the mainstream dialogue in America. Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, Cornell West, bell hooks, Gerald Early--these are actually first-rate thinkers, agree or not with their conclusions, but the fact of the matter is that we require more high-profile cats like Marsalis, from every facet and corner of the black community, to debate, to clamor, and to insist on jazz being a great American art form they created, and thus claim their rights Americans. Again, Marsalis is not my favorite player, and I think his dalliance in two camps, classical and jazz, dilutes his performances in both, but he did get us arguing something that really matters. I will say it again, for that much, he deserves our thanks. The issue for is that though jazz is a quintessential American creation it is the creation of Black-Americans, who forged the music, who have been its prime movers, and who continue to be the innovators who define what the music will be.
Someone with the high visibility of Wynton Marsalis who takes it upon himself to speak for jazz is a resentment waiting to happen, but doubtlessly Marsalis knew this, and went ahead and ran his mouth anyway. But his project is a noble one. He recognizes that jazz is the premier American contribution to world culture, and that it is a black art form as well, but also that the black community, it's young people, were forgetting about the culture that is their right to claim. Leaving specific utterances aside, specific feuds unmentioned, let's just say that his insistence on the black accomplishments in jazz, technical, social, moral, spiritual, have made numerous white people nervous, as we white people tend to become whenever educated black men and women take back the discourse about black culture.Marsalis is something of a cultural conservative, a William Bennett sort who has his own 'Book of Virtues' agenda in his educational projects and with his directorship of the jazz program in Lincoln Center, and that I view his music as less than the fiery blaze of Freddie Hubbard (a better trumpeter than Wynton, really) and a less composed texture than Ellington. But who says there has to be a consensus in the debate. To the degree that Marsalis has opened up the discussion to the larger culture, he has rendered a service to the state of jazz. To the extent that he has gotten many people's dander up, well, I think that is a good thing too because in the hands of dusty musicologist moon lighting as critics, jazz has seemed a gasping, brittle artifact, like old furniture in a museum display, that one appreciated for its former glory, for all it's accumulated history. Whatever stripe you happen to be, Marsalis implies, jazz is not past tense, it is not a thing of history, it is a living thing that has history.
Like anything else in this world of manufactured concerns, jazz has many streams, rills, eddies and currents, all of which keep the pulse alive and relevant, breathing right along with us as we hear it, and in turn become inspired to create it anew. No one that I've read here has come close to saying anything like that, and to think anyone is paranoid, I am afraid. But we're not here to re-write the history books, nor even to indulge in the fetishism revolving the arguments of well-fed men, white and black. Rather, the original topic seen at the top of the page, the final question, really, was about our take on Wynton's promotion of the music, and the word promotion is the key. Because really, before his being on the scene and making a racket over jazz, bop or otherwise, the topic had been as dead as shoe leather. But now as to what jazz is or is not having become something for a wider debate, and into this debate, it draws whites and blacks into conversations with one another more so than they have been in years. And it is, by rights, one that blacks are at last debating in the larger arena. It is no longer a white man's game to define anymore.