Jazz Around The World!

The First Family of Jazz: Ellis Marsalis and his Boys

A Classic Afro-American Art Wins Hearts Everywhere!

As the learned and insightful music critic Henry Pleasants tells us in his seminal book on modern music “Serious Music and All That Jazz,” the Afro-American musicians who created jazz were the only musicians to introduce a new musical terminology since the Italians did it back during the Renaissance.  The point Mr. Pleasants was making is that Jazzmen created an art music using instruments of European origin, as well as their system of melody and harmony, yet invented something really different from anything Europeans had ever heard…or imagined.

Pleasants was uniquely positioned to see this because of his extensive training in the classical music of Europe, and he was writing about the modern music scene in Europe for the New York Times.  And he has much to say about the way Jazz influenced modern European composers.  However, apart from whatever influence Jazz may have had on European composers, the way in which jazz captured the imagination of musicians and won the allegiance of music lovers around the world, is the real story.

Whether we are talking about writers, businessmen, diplomats, Presidents, artists, intellectuals or kings, Jazz has found passionate devotees. It is safe to say Jazz musicians do wondrous things that fascinate both priest and poets, wisemen and fools. The British critic Stanley Dance devoted his career to writing about Jazz. Ahmet Ertegun – who founded Atlantic Records and first recorded Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin – was the son of a Turkish Ambassador to the US who was such an avid Jazz fan he once expelled a white Southern Senator from his diplomatic residence because he insulted a black jazz musician that was his guest!

Ahmet expressed his life long love affair with this music by contributing the “Hall Of Fame Room,” a multi-million dollar interactive display of the great virtuosos of the tradition.  It is located in Jazz at Lincoln Center, 60th and Broadway, in the heart of Manhattan. The curious viewer can just push the panel with portraits of their favorite artist and a video of them in performance will appear, accompanied by a biographical essay.

I interviewed Ahmet at the grand opening of the 150 million dollar edifice to Jazz, and it can be read in a forth coming book “Jazz At Lincoln Center: Magic Moments In The House Of Swing,” with photographs by the extraordinary Frank Stewart and text by this writer.  In a nutshell Etergun said: “Jazz is the greatest music in the world.  It is America’s contribution to the great artistic heritage of mankind.  And it has influenced more musicians than any other music…I know, because I have heard the greatest of them all over the world.”

King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit

The King Jamming with Benny Goodman

Then there is the legendary Jazz crazy king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej – “”Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power” – and his Queen Sirikit.  At a time when Jazz virtuosos were ignored by the princes and powers who fashion cultural policy in the US, and the thought of playing in the White house was unimaginable, Jazz musicians were hanging out in the Palace jamming with King Bhumibol, who was a devoted multi-reed Jazz instrumentalist.  The King is very proud of the fact that he played with clarinetist Benny Goodman and Saxophone master Wayne Shorter. Although the King is believed to have descended from the Gods, he is democratic in political style and philosophy. Some observers attribute these democratic instincts to his deep involvement with the art of Jazz.

In Eastern Europe Jazz music became a metaphor for freedom and democracy, especially in Czechoslovakia where a whole school of philosophy based on the democratic principles of jazz developed as a counter-statement to communist totalitarian rule.  They were known as “The Velvet Philosophers,” and they were part of an organization know as “The Jazz Section.”

With Dr. Henry Louis Gates And Other Distinguished Black Intellectuals

At La Laguna

At Americans Studies Conference On Afro-American Research Spanish Tinerefe

In 1995, I participated in a seminar with one of those philosophers at a conference sponsored by the European Association of American Studies, chaired by Dr. Justine Talley at the University of La Laguna in the Spanish Canary Islands, and heard him tell how they used the values and ethics of jazz to teach lessons about the advantages of democracy and the virtues of individual liberty. The authorities felt so threatened by it they arrested and imprisoned the philosophers in the Jazz Section.

It is not surprising that people who crave freedom and democracy would be attracted to Jazz. After all, as the quintessential American art, Jazz embodies the most cherished ideals of American civilization. In fact, I would argue that it is only in the art of Jazz that these ideals are fully realized. Jazz is democratic, values individual freedom, promotes invention, and grooves to the complex rhythms of a modern urban milieu. As a genre of western art music Jazz distinguishes itself by overthrowing the tyranny of the composer and the iron discipline of the conductor’s baton.

The emphasis on freedom and democracy in Jazz is both a reflection of the American creed, and the persistent struggle for freedom waged by African Americans against white oppression.  This struggle is the major theme of African American history.  And since, as the Afro-American cultural theorist and brilliant Jazz Critic Albert Murray notes: “an art style is the refinement and elaboration of a lifestyle,” it is in the nature of things that the highest creative achievement of Afro-American culture is an art that celebrates freedom and practices democracy.

Thus the jazz man is always looking to free himself from the restraints of convention and explore new territories. But, as it turns out, this search for freedom is a universal value; which is why Jazz appeals to serious musicians, music lovers and intellectuals across the boundaries of class, color, nationality and geography. Along with freedom and improvisation jazz also conveys a unique blues sensibility that speaks to something so profoundly human that it touches the hearts of people everywhere.

This explains the appeal of Jazz to South African musicians under apartheid as well as French musicians in the aftermath of World War I, a period when one writer recalls that had they been left to listen to strictly ordered, heirachical, European Classical music they would all have committed suicide!  It was the heroic optimism and freedom in the spirit of Jazz that spoke to disillusioned European intellectuals and artists, who were deeply depressed after witnessing their civilization degenerate into barbarism and mass murder sparked by anti-democratic forces.

Another reason for the universal appeal of Jazz early on in the twentieth century is that it is a synthesis of several musical idioms and offers the opportunity for musicians to add their flavor to the performance of the music.  Hence if you listen to Jazz harpist Edmar Casteneda on the album “Cuarto de Colores” you will hear a Columbian approach to Jazz composition and performance.

The harp Edmar plays is of Colombian origin and is very different from the European harp that one hears in symphony orchestras or magnificently played by great Afro-American artists such as Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane.  When I first head him perform at Dizzy’s, a beautiful night club located in Jazz at Lincoln Center which is especially engineered for the acoustic requirements of Jazz, I kept looking for the bass player.

Eventually I discovered that Edmar was playing the bass with his left hand, along with chords and even on solos.  The sound was amplified so that it sounded like an acoustic bass fiddle, and the complexity of the rhythms he was playing sounded as if he were playing the bass line with both hands.  The rhythms ran the gamut from swing to Samba, and his wife sang in voices that came deep from her Afro-Indio culture.  They were no doubt playing Jazz, but it had a decidedly Colombian flavor.

Edmar Castedada and Wife

Japanese Virtuoso Chimi Nakai
She is a Master of Electric and Acoustic Keyboards
Hanging Backstage With Chimi Following a Great Performance

At The “Cuban Overtures” Concert.  Produced by Cuban Cultural Center

The nation that is producing the most impressive crop of young Jazz virtuosi outside of the United States is Japan.  It seems that every time I look up I see another gifted young Japanese jazz artist.  And they are distinguished by the fact that so many of these virtuoso instrumentalists are women, especially key board players.  One of the most impressive of these is Chimi Nakai, a consummate master of the acoustic piano.   Ms. Nakai is one of the new jazz virtuosi who are multi-lingual in musical terms.  She is equally at home in Jazz, European classical and Afro-Cuban music.

Cuban Virtuoso Carlos Del Pino

A Multi-lingual Virtuso Instrumentalist

I have seen her perform on several occasions with the great Afro-Cuban contra-bassist Carlos Del Pino.  Carlos is a top shelf jazz bassist – Afro-American virtuoso’s Ray Brown and Paul Chambers were his inspiration and tutors via recordings – but he is equally brilliant playing the classical European repertoire for the double bass violin, and he is a master of his native Afro-Cuban Son Montuno and other forms.

However the premiere example of the multi-lingual virtuoso instrumentalist Jazz star is Wynton Marsalis, arguably the greatest trumpet player in the world.  That is certainly the opinion I got from the great composer, arranger, bandleader and virtuoso trumpeter Gerald Wilson.  and this opinion has been repeatedly echoed in my interviews with other great trumpet trumpet players, classical and jazz artists – professors who teach advanced courses on the instrument, as well as vintage Jazz masters on all instruments.

Because Wynton has won nine Grammys – four for European classical music and five for Jazz – plus a much coveted Pulitzer Prize for composition, musicians and music lovers all over the world are interested in his work. Hence great performances by Wynton are all over internet on You Tube, where musicians and fans can see him perform on video at will!

As a result of this vast exposure, sharp intellect, knowledge of Jazz tradition – he was born and raised in New Orleans, the birthplace of Jazz – easy eloquence, and genuine warmth and southern charm, Wynton is the most effective ambassador Jazz has ever known.   His position as the Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and leader of the JALC Orchestra provides a powerful platform for his lectures on the art of Jazz, accompanied by live performances from great musicians, around the world.  I consider the Marsalis family the First Family of Jazz.  Their contribution to keeping the Jazz tradition alive is so important that on January 11, 2011 the National Endowment for the Arts bestowed the prestigious “Jazz Masters Award on the entire family.

Wynton Marsalis: Trumpet Virtuoso

Artistic Director Of The World Famous JALC Orchestra

Aside from his four sons, Ellis Marsalis, the patriach of the clan, has trained other world famous Jazz musicians like the pianist / singer Harry Connick Jr. and the great trumpeter and prolific composer of movie scores, Terrance Blanchard.   These New Orleans bred Jazz musicians are constantly travelling the globe and exposing audiences to the classical tradition of American Jazz, the gift of African Americans to world culture. As the representative anecdote for American civilization, “America as she is swung” in the words of Albert Murray, Jazz is also the great American contribution to the classic arts.


Double click on Link to see the Duke Ellington Orchestra live in Switzerland

Double click to See Dizzy Gilesspie and Theolonius Monk in Copenhagen

 Double Click to see Art blakey and Jazz Messengers in Italy

The Cannonball Adderly Sextet Live on the BBC, London
Wynton Marsalis and Chucho Valdez in Cuba
The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in Germany

The Great Hank Jones and Friends at Tokyo Jazz Festival

 Swinging Marvelously!

By: Playthell Benjamin

Harlem , New York

April 28, 2011

** This essay was published in the 2011 edition of Centerpoint Now
A publication of WPUN, World People for the United Nations.
It is circulated to the Heads of State,  for all member nations of the UN
*** Photos of the Marsalis Family and Wynton Solo
by: Frank Stewart
Photos pg Carlos Del Pino and Chimi Nakai
by: Hakim Mutlaq

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