Wynton Marsalis, or tradition at all costs

This October 18, 2021, we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of one of the great names in jazz: Wynton Marsalis. If the famous trumpeter was born in 1961, his legend was born in 1986, during some incident, the importance of which was symbolic.

Famous jazzman at nine Grammy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize to his credit, Wynton marsalis is also artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center since 1987, one of the largest establishments of its kind in the world. He is one of the biggest names in American jazz, but it was not without some wrong notes! Indeed, we do not reach the top without making some enemies …

Wynton vs Miles

On June 27, 1986, the very first edition of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival took place. The guest artists can only make the public dream: Bobby McFerrin, TitoPuente, Tony williams, Albert collins and John mayall. Also on the list are two famous jazz trumpeters: Miles davis and Wynton Marsalis.

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At the concert of Miles Davis, then 60 years old and fully engaged in his jazz fusion, suddenly arrives Wynton Marsalis, a young musician of 25, ready to play unexpectedly with the immense trumpeter. The latter, furious to see this insolent young unload on his stage, ends the song after only 30 seconds and orders Marsalis to leave. A few words from Miles, whose outspokenness we imagine, then Wynton disappears to let the concert continue, all in front of an audience captivated by the meeting they have just attended.

[On peut entendre dans l’enregistrement ci-dessous l’arrivée de Wynton Marsalis à 14 minutes et 14 secondes, le début de son solo à 14 minutes et 54 secondes, puis la fin précoce du morceau à 15 minutes et 31 secondes]

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A clash of titans like no other

At first glance, the meeting is nothing extraordinary. It sparks the ink of journalists and jazz critics, but nothing more. The incident is nevertheless indicative of an artistic war waged within American jazz. That evening, on the stage of the Expo Theater in Vancouver, a meeting between the old and the new generation of American jazz takes place.

On the one hand, Miles Davis, a true titan of the older generation who has embodied the evolution of jazz for almost 50 years. Opposite, Wynton Marsalis, an ambitious young trumpeter already with several Grammy Awards in his pocket, including two received in February 1986 (Marsalis notably beat Miles for the Grammy for best jazz soloist of the year).

Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis have openly criticized each other for years through the music press. One is accused of being too much progressive with its jazz, and the other is criticized for its excess of traditionalism. It would be easy to name Wynton Marsalis as guilty of the first crime and Miles of the second. Indeed, when two generations of the same art cross, one is often accused of having betrayed the values ​​and rules established by the other.

But this titan clash is anything but usual. Ironically, it is Wynton Marsalis, at the height of his 27 years in 1986, who accuses the famous Miles Davis of causing a decline in jazz and its values! Some will see it as a form of hypocrisy on the part of Marsalis when the jazz trumpeter, who advocates a certain “purism” and a return to traditional values, decides to add the spirit of jazz to the forms of classical music through his compositions Blood on the Fields (1997), All Rise (1997), The Jungle (2016), Blues Symphony (2019) and Violin Concerto in D (2019).

How can those who were hostile to the Miles Davis merger associate themselves with classical music, which is often placed at odds with jazz? Wynton Marsalis will defend himself simply by asserting that jazz is the classical music of the United States, and that there is no contradiction in associating this genre with the forms and values ​​of classical music.

A virulent defense of jazz

Wynton Marsalis’s first albums, including Think of one (1983), Hot House Flowers (1984) and Black Codes (From the Underground) (1985) announce the arrival of a new precursor of jazz. But the meeting with Stanley crouch, writer and jazz musician, fierce critic of black-American nationalism but also of popular music and contemporary jazz, gradually turns Wynton Marsalis towards the defense of a traditional repertoire.

Despite his growing success, Marsalis was quickly criticized by many of his contemporaries: for his early success, his lack of experience, but above all for the fact that he was not like Miles Davis. But Wynton hits back, and doesn’t hesitate to criticize those around him for the lack of respect for the genre he loves so much.

His own brother, Branford Marsalis, will not be spared from criticism when he decides to join the ensemble of singer Sting in 1985. This betrayal to join a rock singer upset Wynton to the point of almost quitting jazz. But his victory in 1986 at the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, ahead of Sting, gave him new strength.

Wynton Marsalis is perhaps the most contentious and trumpet defender of authentic jazz, but he is far from the only one. A new generation of musicians then took shape, with Wallace Roney, Marcus Roberts, Terence Blanchard, Roy Hargrove, Mark Whitfield and Wycliffe Gordon; firmly turned towards a jazz ” pure “. Nicknamed the ” Young lions ” [les « Jeunes Lions »] and even the ” Wyntonites “, They devote themselves to the heyday of jazz, according to them, and in particular to the works of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis (before his electric period).

The world they came from has all but disappeared now and many who should pass these values ​​on have passed to the other side, now spreading lies. […] Now we are told the plastic spoons are silver and we are meant to believe it », Regrets Marsalis in the magazine Ebony in 1986.

The following year, Wynton Marsalis found the ideal platform to spread his vision of jazz. He acquired the artistic direction of a series of concerts entitled ” Classical Jazz At the famous Lincoln Center in New York, a place of high American musical culture. Its success was immediate, the series was repeated and became, from 1996, a permanent ensemble of the institution alongside the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. By investing the temple of New York culture, jazz joins the country’s cultural pantheon.

The company will nevertheless be rejected by many jazzmen and critics. She is accused of offering a restricted vision of jazz, of celebrating the past of music born only a century before, rather than promoting and shaping its future. But who will laugh last, 25 years later, Wynton Marsalis’s vision has grown into a true cultural industry with a budget of over $ 50 million for several hundred concerts a year and various educational initiatives around the world. Critics and opponents in the world of jazz disturb the trumpeter, preferring to concentrate on the essential: the music.

Ellington faced this; Coltrane had to defend himself in the press […]. There is always a side issue that becomes the problem instead of the music. I want to say, and the music in all that? », Entrusted the jazzman to the New York Times in 1998.

We want to thank the author of this short article for this outstanding content

Wynton Marsalis, or tradition at all costs

Hank Gilbert