The Best Ever!
A Match Made In Nirvana
Of the many gifts that the beleaguered Crescent City has given to the world – Gumbo, Tennessee Williams and Ellen Digeneris among them – Louis Armstrong, who introduced the art of extended solo improvisation to the world, and Wynton Marsalis, multiple Grammy winner in Jazz and European concert music, holder of the Pulitzer Prize for composition, and Artistic Director of Jazz At Lincoln Center, are unique. Not only do their life’s experiences demonstrate the claim that great artist can rise up from anywhere – Armstrong from the whore houses, dives and mean streets, while Wynton, like Mozart, was forged from an extended apprenticeship with a musically accomplished father, and later did stints at the prestigious Tanglewood music festival and Julliard School of Music – both of these New Orleans trumpeters extended the range of what was previously thought possible for performers on their instruments and enriched the vast tradition of western music with new ideas.
This was, to say the least, no picayune accomplishment because the art of perfectly ordering and cultivating sound to produce the beautiful vibrations that we call music reached it’s apotheosis in Europe between the 17th and 19th centuries with the rise of peerless geniuses such as – Bach, Vivaldi, Hyden, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Chopin, Schubert, et al – who composed the European classical tradition of instrumental music which set the standards for instrumental virtuosity.
After the achievement of the European masters many serious students of music thought there was little of value anyone could add in the realm of organization, esthetics, or creative ideas. And since the European system of melody and harmony performed on piano, viols, woodwinds, brass, etc produced the most beautiful and versatile sounds ever heard on this planet, for a while they were right.
Until the ascendancy of the African American musician in the twentieth century, the dominance of European classical music as the sole art music of the western world went unchallenged. As the mid-twentieth century New York Times music critic Henry Pleasants – who was based in Europe for most of his career – points out in his uniquely learned and insightful book Serious Music and All that Jazz, no one had even added a new term to the lexicon of western musical terminology, largely invented by the Renaissance Italians, until the jazzmen came along. Although Pleasants was the first “serious music” critic to recognize that Jazz was the classical music of America – a new music for a new civilization – it should have been obvious to anyone who was learned in music and not blinded by artistic or racial prejudice.
Like American civilization itself, Jazz is rooted in the European tradition but flowered into something different in the wilderness of North America. It is the sound of a civilization whose character – as was shown by the innovative historian Frederick Jackson Turner – was formed in the experience of constantly expanding frontiers. It was an environment in which improvisation, personal initiative, and democratic decision making were indispensable to survival and progress.
Thus it is in the logic of things that the quintessential art form of such a civilization would be democratic, value individual liberty, promote innovation, and pulsate with the clockwork poly-rhythms of a machine age milieu. Having grown up under the roof of pianist Ellis Marsalis – a master musician and teacher of the genre – surrounded by virtuosi such as the great clarinetist Alvin Batiste and legions of others who dwelled in New Orleans, then attending finishing school in the Art Blakey band, Wynton swings like jazz is in his genes.
As one of the world’s foremost trumpeters in the European tradition – one need only listen to his recordings of the most difficult masterworks of the European classical repertoire in order to recognize that this is no exaggeration – he has performed with some of the greatest string ensembles of this era in western music. Thus Wynton is ideally suited to perform jazz music with strings, an idea that was once considered blasphemous! But the recordings of Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown with strings changed all that. Yet as beautiful as these collaborations of idioms were, Wynton has taken it to a new level.
I think there are two reasons for the stunning artistic achievements we are treated to on Hot House Flowers and The Midnight Blues, the two Jazz albums that he recorded with strings. First there are the superior arrangements; although “Brownie” and “Bird” sang with a soulful lyricism the arrangements were often corny and the strings were sometimes too loud. But Wynton, in collaboration with his arrangers has solved those problems and given us some sonic masterpieces that entertains and enlightens, soothing the soul while stimulating the intellect.
Speaking of Hot House Flowers, Stanley Crouch, the peerless jazz critic and moving spirit behind the creation of JALC, obliterates the boundaries that separate prose from poetry in his description of the music. “Yes, it all comes down,” he writes, “the harmonies full of idiomatic dissonance or siren sweetness, the notes that might as well have been stenciled with stardust on the night sky, the rhythms so celebratory, then the conjoined memories and dreams of the magic at the core of intimate majesty.” Here we have art as critical statement, a comment worthy of its subject.
As I listen to The Midnight Blues I hear a unique technical brilliance and the sensual eloquence of the blues moan unite in the service of song. The plaintive wail of Wynton’s trumpet on After You’ve Gone conjures up memories of the bitter sweet passion and pain of lost loves, I Got Lost in Her Arms inspires me to dance the Tango, It Never Entered My Mind makes me want to squeeze somebody gently and shower them with kisses, and The Midnight Blues makes my spirit strut. It is my fondest hope that you will feel these things too when Maestro Sadin strikes up the band and we join Wynton in celebrating a quarter century of accomplishing great things in this tempestuous business of music. It is with but little alteration and no exaggeration that I paraphrase Shakespeare’s description of Othello “The elements so blended in him that all the world could see here stands a trumpet master.” For my money no one has ever done it as well, never mind better.
Jazz At Lincoln Center
New York City