Archive for Wynton Marsalis

Blues Fanfares for the Matriarch

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , , on August 6, 2017 by playthell

Sound the Brass in Celebration

N’orleans Pays Homage to the Queen Mother of Jazz

Deloris Marsalis: Elegant, Charming, Intelligent and Compassionate

One a sizzling summer day in the Crescent City Deloris Marsalis, mother of the marvelous musical Marsalis Clan, and wife to the master musician Ellis Marsalis, danced and joined the ancestors in her eightieth year.  Although I met the grand lady only once, I feel close to her by virtue of my twenty year friendship with her illustrious son Wynton – the peerless trump virtuoso, bandleader, and brilliant composer – and her husband Ellis; two paragons of the musician as intellectual and cultural leader.  And the there were all the wonderful stories I heard about her from family friends.

However according to her obituary and the testimony of friends she was quite nonchalant about the fame of the Marsalis men.  Indeed we are told in the obit:

Being the matriarch of what would become a famous family of Jazz musicians should have been the lede, but for her it was not. That note would be reserved for the second paragraph. If you came to her to talk about her famous husband or sons it would not have been a very long conversation. If you wanted to talk about what you were doing, what you were interested in and how you were making it in the world, she was all ears.” 

We are also reminded of her generous but no-nonsense disposition.

But the absolute best of her was her…love for those who have been brought low, by life, by circumstance, by mishap, or even by their own hand. She would help those in trouble financially, and she would often lend an ear of support by letter, postcard or phone call whether you were in your home, hospital, jail, or just waiting for your next place. Other than her husband, few if any would know of the scope of her ministrations.”

However Deloris was no pushover that could be easily gamed, rather she was a schrewd judge of character who could detect the okey doke or con before it was played:

Not one to favor pity – she could sniff this out with the best – over actually helping you by getting you to help yourself. She would not tolerate “foolishness” or self-pity, if you needed a shoulder to cry on it was there, but only for a minute before you would get the “Now let me tell you something…”.

Despite her stoic manner in dealing with people in crisis, she is also remembered as a witty woman with a great sense of humor: “One of the more unique parts of her was her funny bone. It was a sudden wit and humor that would present itself no different than a strike of lightning. If you had ever thought you could get the best of her, you were quickly reminded that you had not.”  But the thing that won the heart of Ellis Marsalis, the man with whom she would spend 57 years of her life and have six sons with, was her love of music especially Jazz.  “She was one of the few girls who that I knew who actually liked jazz” Ellis recalls.

Hence, although she was not a musician, her life became deeply embedded in the music scene.  And New Orleans was the perfect venue, where the action was.  New Orleans is a city where music making is intricately intertwined with the basic rituals of life in a unique way.  It is the fabled “birthplace of Jazz,” the quintessential American art, a complex instrumental music whose origins lie in the church, the Opera House, the whorehouse and street festivals.  It is an enchanted city where people will make music and dance in the streets at the slightest inticement…a cultural phenomenon that bewitched my dancer daughter who fell under the spell of the “Big Easy.”

It is in the nature of things that music should play such a central role in the last rites for the departed in N’orleans, especially in the culture of the Afro-American community from whence the Jazz tradition sprang.  And thus it is fitting and proper that her gifted sons – whose contribution to keeping that tradition alive is incalcuable – should turn out and lead the parade in the funeral of their beloved mother – just as Wynton has done at the funerals of so many Jazz greats in New York City.

I have witnessed the black musicians of the Crescent City rise up and express the mourning of the entire city after the devastating blow from hurricaine Katrina, when the whole town went under water.  In a concert held at Lincoln Center, filed with memorable performances, the passion and pathos in the sound of the music the Crescent City players made was a healing balm for wounded spirts that gave hope to all who heard it.

Just as all who heard the musicians of the community, led by the son’s of Deloris Marsalis, joined by singers from all stations in life, felt their spirits dance while joyously singing the old hymn “I’ll fly Away.”  There was more triumph than tragedy in the air as the lyrics rang out, soaring above the sound of the horns: “I’ll fly away O glory/I’ll fly away/When I die halilujah by and by/I’ll Fly away,” while the funeral marchers cut a jubilant “second line” step for which New Orleans funeral processions are world famous.

Although the pain of loss was clearly visible on their faces – Wynton and Jason especially – one could see in the dance an affirmation of the wonderful life she lived, and the lives that are yet to be lived by future generations of the Marsalis clan.  Ellis Marsalis, her long time husband and patriach of this family that has given so much beauty to the world, was a paragon of calm dignity as he turned out to pay his final respects to his partner and queen.

Ellis Arriving at the Church

Pater-familias of the Magnificent Marsalis’

The triumphant procession was led by her grandson Mckenzie Marsalis, decked out in the grand New Orleans style with Bowler hat, gloves, shoulder sash, colorful parasol and drill master’s whistle; Cake walking down the avenue steppin high.  Mother Marsalis was given the kind of grand send off befitting a culture hero who worked her magic from the wings as her husband and progeny took center stage and weaved their alchemy in the lime light.

Yet anyone who has ever spent any time in the company of the Marsalis men will recognize the civilizing touch of this wise mothers hand.  For there is not to be found a more gracious, charming, humble bunch of superbly gifted men.   While Ellis was their muse and inspired them to make a living in music, she was their pre-eminent guide to making a good life as men of substance.  Their deep sense of loss at her departure from this life was palpable – which is poignantly portrayed in the photographs – even amidst the celebration of her life in the transcendent ambiance of the occasion conjured up in the majesty of their song.

Scenes from the Going Home Ceremony of the Queen Mother of Jazz

Wynton Directs the Musicians Waiting to follow the Casket

McKenzie Marsalis Leading the Procession

Let the Trumpets Sound!

“I’ll Fly Away”…Delfayo Marsalis Raises his Voice in Song

And Joy Cometh to his Soul

His Drumsticks Put Away…Jason Marsalis Walks in Silence

While the Brass Celebrated with Fanfares

Spike Lee Offer Words of Consolation to Wynton
The Marsalis Brothers offer a Libation to The Ancestors for their Mother

A Sunday Kind of Love

Ellis and Deloris in the Autumn of Life

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Click on link to see the Funeral Procession.
First there is the dirge as the leave the church.  The band is playing “Amazing Grace.  Later they perform Elijah Jane.

“When I die halilujah by and by/I’ll fly away”
See the performance at:
http://video.theadvocate.com/Wynton-and-Delfeayo-Marsalis-sing-Ill-Fly-Away-for-their-mother-Dolores-Marsalis-at-Jazz-Funeral-32777304

 

Text by: Playthell G. Benjamin
Photos and Video: courtesy of the New Orleans Advocate
Harlem, New York
August 6, 2017

 

Wynton is The Greatest!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, You Tube Classics with tags , , on August 2, 2016 by playthell
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Maestro Marsalis at work

The Evidence on Video and Audio

The great composer, arranger, bandleader and trumpeter Gerald Wilson once told me emphatically during an interview: “Wynton Marsalis is the greatest trumpeter in the world!” And as a failed trumpeter who retained a passionate love for the instrument, as well as an acute appreciation for the formidable obstacles and treacherous pitfalls which confronted the aspiring artist that attempted to master it, I wholeheartedly agreed.

As a serious lover of complex instrumental music I had listened to many great trumpeters in Jazz and European concert music – the former a New World invention, a 20th century art that expressed the Afro-American love of freedom as well as the quintessential American ideals of Democracy, Personal Liberty and Innovation. The latter a great art music from the Old World of Europe that was already centuries old, and reflected the hierarchal and highly formalized character of the societies that produced it. And although both musical idioms employ the same instrument, and the music they make is based on the same system of melody and harmony – a European invention that produced sublime sounds by their great master composers – the two musical forms were profoundly different in instrumental technique, compositional structure and artistic philosophy.

In the classical music of Europe the instrumentalist is a vehicle for the ideas of the composer. And if they perform in symphony orchestras, operas or chorales they are also subjected to the dictates of tyrannical composers. Hence in European concert music the creativity of the instrumentalist is severely circumscribed. Everything from tempo, intonation and interpretation of the music is dictated the composer and enforced by the conductor with an iron fist.  Hence conformity to tradition and achieving excellence based upon well-established standards of performance is the objective to which the successful artists must aspire.

Conversely, the art of Jazz performance demands that the performer seek their own voice, follow their personal muse, and create something new under the sun.  Furthermore the music must swing to the clockwork rhythms of the unique machine age milieu in which it was born…the most modern civilization the world had ever seen.  Hence all Jazz is modern music.  That’s why visual artists from American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollard and Wilheim de Kooning, to European masters of Modernism such as Pablo Picasso and Salvadore Dahli lionized their music.

The difficulty of mastering both musical idioms is self-evident in the fact that of all the great musicians that have lived in the world there are so few that have achieved virtuosity in both that we can count them on our fingers and toes. Flautist Hubert Laws, Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, pianists Chucho Valdez and Herbie Hancock, bassists Ron Carter, Carlos del Pino, Richard Davis and Ortiz Walton first among them. However Mr. Marsalis is the only musician on any instrument who has won the coveted Grammy for performances in both genres.  And he has achieved this impossible feat nine times!  Four were for “Best Classical Performance” and five for “Best Jazz Performance.”

For this presentation I have chosen one of the most difficult instrumental pieces from each genre where Wynton is featured as a soloist.  Added to this are two performances with Wynton as accompanist to a singer…a fine art unto itself.  For the instrumental Classical repertoire I have selected “The Carnival of Venice,” and for the Jazz performance I have chosen “Cherokee.” As to the difficulties posed by the first piece suffice it to say that when trumpeters auditioned for the great United States Marine Band, billed as “The Greatest Brass Band in the World” – under the direction of its founder and premiere composer Maestro John Phillip Sousa – who wrote such enduring works as El Capitan, Semper Fidelis, Anchors Away! And the immortal Stars and Stripes Forever – “The Carnival of Venice “ was the piece that they were required to play.

This is because Arbans’ Carnival presents the trumpeter with a series of obstacles that requires mastery of all the technical problems posed by trumpet performance: Legato and staccato phrasing; triple tonguing, circular breathing, fingering the keys, exquisite timing, embouchure and intonation. Cleary Wynton masters them all…and with ease!  This is a heroic achievement, because a trumpet after all is just some twisted brass pipes with a hard metal mouthpiece and only three keys!  Yet it is capable of playing all the notes in the musical lexicon.

This amazing feat is achieved by manipulating sound from the way one blows into the instrument, which is to say mastering embouchure.  It is such a marvelous feat the only reason that great athletes such as Michael Jordon and Russell Wilson attract more fans that Wynton is because more people understand the greatness of what they do. Everybody has had some experience playing sports – if only because physical education is a required component of every school curriculum…and sadly instrumental music is not.  However to grasp the brilliance of Wynton’s performance on Carnival, one need only read the comments of trumpet players from all over the world under the video and note their astonishment – one even said that “suicide” would be easier and a lot less painful that the epic failure one would experience trying to duplicate this performance!”

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 Cherokee, the Jazz selection, was the piece that the hep cats at Minton’s Playhouse threw on Charlie “Yardbird” Parker to prove his mettle when he showed up at Minton’s Playhouse from Kansas City “looking country” totin his alto-sax in a cardboard case.  But when he took out his axe and begin to “cut heads” with his complex, erudite and original musical statements, Bird astonished everybody who witnessed it.  Dizzy Gillespie, a key figure in the aggregation of musical rebels who congregated in Minton’s and experimented with new ideas, said when he heard Bird he thought: “There it is, this is the sound we have been searching for.”  He said that they had bits and pieces of the music that would become world famous as Be-bop, and Bird filled in the gaps and brought the whole thing together.

From that musical communion came a genre of Jazz that would change the way musicians heard and played music all over the world. The artistic challenges Bop presented intrigued musicians from the great to near great to apprentices.  If I had to sum up Bird’s achievement I would say that he did for the world of music what Einstein did for theoretical physics: change the relationship between time and space forever.

The great writer Ralph Ellison, a well-schooled trumpet player competent in both the classical repertoire – he was a music major at Tuskegee, where he studied with the outstanding Afro-American composer in the classical European style but with an Afro-American voice. William Dawson – and was also grounded in the hard swinging blues style of the “Stomp” that was popular among the “Territorial Bands” that played in his native Oklahoma City – bird hailed from nearby Kansas City.

Ellison, was so astonished and overwhelmed by what he head in Minton’s that he wrote “They were playing be-bops…I mean re-bopped be-bops.” The drummers had abandoned the steady bass drum pulse that was so essential to the dancers who got down to the Stomp, that Ellison was horrified by the seemingly free form complexity of their rhythms and described them as “frozen faced introverts dedicated to chaos!”

The experience of hearing this new music called “Be-Bop” invented in Harlem’s Minton’s Playhouse by players like trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, bassist Oscar Pettiford, drummer Kenny “Klook” Clarke and others that he gave up playing the trumpet and became a writer -.one of the greats.  So music’s lost was literature’s gain.

When listening to Cherokee, remember that essential to the genius of Jazz is not only the requirement of virtuosity on the part of each instrumentalist…but one must be able to compose complex music while swinging the blues over chord changes  at the SPEED OF THOUGHT!!!  Hence the speed at which Wynton is playing adds to the magic of it all!  So Kick back and check out the marvelous vibes from the horn of Maestro Marsalis…THE GREATEST TRUMPETER IN THE WORLD!!!

Chillin Back Stage
Wynton in Berkley After a triumphant concert at U-Cal Berkeley
Click to see: THE CARNIVAL OF VENICE

Click to see: CHEROKEE
https://youtu.be/3blL4v-cY18
Boroque Duets: Wynton and Kathleen Battle

Watch Wynton Accompany Jazz Great Sarah Vaughn

Watch Wynton Warm up before a Concert

The concert featured legendary pianist Ahmad Jamal with the JALC Orchestra

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
August 1, 2016
***Cover Photo by Frank Stewart
U-Cal Berkeley Photo by: Playthell Benjamin

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Swings Berkeley

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, Photo-Essays with tags , , on November 17, 2015 by playthell

 

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Maestro Marsilis conducts the Boys in the Band

 An Evening of Gilded Memories and Divine Music

Standing in front of Zellerbach Hall waiting for the great Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to hit, my mind was filled with random thoughts; all provoked by being in that particular place on that particular occasion.  The University of California at Berkley has a unique niche in my memory bank.  I first became aware of this campus in the 1960’s, over half a century ago, when it had a dual identity both as a center for radical ideas and activism, and the University with the most Nobel Laurates on its faculty.

Furthermore it was located in a part of America whose exotic manscapes and landcapes looked as if they had emerged from a fairy tale to my East Coast eyes.  The aura of “radical chic” was enhanced by the fact that Berkeley was located just across the Bay from San Francisco, then the home of the Hippy Counter-Culture which I had observed first hand upon my maiden voyage to the City, where I found myself living at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury.

The Square outside Zellenboch Hall
First Choice

It was as if I had stumbled into an alien world unbeknownst to me.  I had been raised in the racially segregated black community in St. Augustine Florida, where I was socialized on the values of the “Talented Tenth;” the enlightened striving class who set high standards for the Afro-American community and guided us away from “the worst in our own and other races” as Dr. DuBois had called upon them to do in 1903.

And I made my maiden voyage to San Francisco directly from the comparatively staid and culturally conservative environment of Philadelphia.  I had driven up from Los Angeles with a young mathematician who had worked on the Appollo Space Project plotting maps around the moon. And her sister, a young MD, lived the Haight-Ashbury District.  It was the now iconic “Summer of Love,”  a time and place where like the song says “anything goes.”  It was sex, love, acid, Psydchelic rock music, and people were tuning on and tuning out. I was fairly shocked at the way white folks were carrying on in “the Haight.”  The few black folks I encountered were Jimi Hendrix acolytes, and at that time I thought Hendrix had lost his cotton pickin mind.

Me and the Mathematician

Playthell and Rose

Dr. Fine: My Sanfrancisco Guide

At the time I was a disciplined member of the leadership of the Revolutionary Action Movement – an armed underground movement of Afro-Americans which gave birth to the Black Panther Party of Oakland, a matter I have written about extensively elsewhere – and as a doctrinaire Maoist I viewed the entire counter-cultural movement as a mass exercise in bourgeois self-indulgence that only well off white folks could afford to fool with.  I was a soldier in the black struggle, a committed warrior intellectual who had been trained in the use of arms by the US military.

My first visit to the University of California Berkley was occasioned by an invitation to present a speech on the importance of Black Studies in the struggle to eradicate white racist ideology and behavior from American life.  Given the nature of the times – with massive urban riots in which it seemed that the torching of American cities had become common fare and the country was on the verge of race war – this subject matter was considered an urgent matter and Universities were trying to define a useful role they could play in resolving the racial crisis. Normally presenting this argument was easy work; I had already presented it with great success at universities and school boards across the country, including the Claremont Colleges and four of the campuses of the University of California.

But to my mind Berkeley was different.  I was all too aware that this was the incubator of the “Free Speech Movement,” an Ivory tower where great minds communed about perplexing problems in the social and physical world.  Hence when I walked through the imposing gates on Telegraph Ave and set foot on the campus I felt an intimidation that I had never felt before.  Nobody really knew me there yet I got a big audience because I was on the program with Afro-American writer Alex Haley, whose collaboration on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” had made him the most famous author in America, and read around the world.

At the time Haley was a Writer-in-Residence at the university and was working on a new book that he called “Before the Anger,” but was later published as “Roots,” an epic saga about African slavery in America that became one of the bestselling books in the history of publishing and was made into a riveting blockbuster television saga that made ratings history.  As a devotee of Brother Malcolm, whom I knew well, and a big fan of the book, I was delighted to meet Mr. Haley, whom I thought had done America a spiritual benefaction by writing the “Autobiography.”

He was a warm and unpretentious southern brother that reminded me of church deacons that I had known in Florida.  I expressed my gratitude for his labors which he accepted with grace. As I waited to go on after his remarks, I pondered how to approach this audience, who routinely heard great minds hold forth in this space.  It was as if I suddenly had a revelation; I heard an inner voice say “What would John the Prophet Do?”

It was not the biblical prophet that I had in mind but the modern day sound sorcerer John Coltrane, whose music we revolutionaries were convinced was the sound track of the black Revolution.  And when he showed up at a speech of mine in North Philly at a rally organized by radical activist/Jazz Pianist John Churchville, a leader in the Northern Student Movement and we spent the rest of the evening rapping, I was convinced that we were right….Trane told me so.  “I say it all with my horn young brother,” he replied when I invited him to speak to a Black history class I was teaching in the basement of Mt. Zion Church, pastored by the Reverend Doctor Leon Sullivan, “The Lion of Zion!”

After pondering the question for a moment, I decided that if Trane was in my place he would come out and wail, knowing there was no profounder musical truth than that which he was preaching….so that’s what I did.   The audience bought what I was selling – being a skilled orator trained by my aunt Rosa, an exacting tutor, made the task a lot lighter – and they rewarded me with a standing ovation! All of these memories swirled around in my head as I waited for the concert to start in Zellerbach Hall.

Although I am a former history professor who left the profession for other endeavors, I have never lost my love for the study of history and how it can illuminate our understanding of present realities.  It is especially gratifying when you can reflect on events that you participated in that have now become important historical milestones and the people now famous whom you knew back when.

I found special satisfaction in how Black Studies have become a standard part of university curriculums across this nation. This was not always true; I know because I was a co-founder of the first free standing, degree granting, Black Studies Department in the world at UMass Amherst in 1969, just a couple of years after I spoke on this campus, and we were the first to incorporate Jazz Studies taught by seminal artists into the curriculum when we awarded full professorships to instrumentalists/Composers/bandleaders Max Roach and Archie Shepp.

I also have a deep pride in what the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has made of itself since I was present at its inception and produced the most extensive media report on the opening of Jazz at Lincoln Center, presented on WBAI FM in New York. I have also worked on a book project with the world famous photographer Frank Stewart, who is the official photographer for the JALC Orchestra.

Titled “Magic Moments in the House of Swing,” the book documents some of the great performances in this Mecca of Jazz in words and pictures.  Some of my essays were written as program notes for important concerts at Rose Hall, and they were illustrated with Frank’s photos.  As I write the manuscript is finished but unpublished because publishers say a picture book is too expensive to publish correctly and books on Jazz don’t sell well enough for them to make the investment.

The slice of history that I was most conscious of that evening was a story told by Dr. Ortiz Walton – bassist extraordinaire, insightful music critic and Ph.D. in sociology – who had been a doctoral student when Duke Ellington and his Orchestra performed on campus circa 1966.   Walton – who would later write the great book “Music: Black, White and Blue” – was shocked and appalled by the absence of black students at the concert. In order to provide a scientific explanation for what was obvious evidence of a cultural disconnect Walton designed a questionnaire and administered it to the Black students at Berkeley, and the results provided evidence a cultural disaster!

The dominant answer of the black students was that they played past the concert because Duke Ellington’s band “didn’t play Black Music.”  Walton was astonished!  Duke Ellington, the greatest composer in the Afro-American musical tradition, had become a stranger to his progeny; a prophet without honor in his own land.  It was the predictable results of a music business driven by the imperatives of commerce rather than a commitment to promoting high culture, and a educational system that has either removed musical instruction altogether or continues to priviledge European concert music over the indigenous art music of America.

This experience led Walton to write two important books about music and the Afro-American tradition.  A musically ambidextrous virtuoso on the double bass violin, Walton was a principal bassist with the Cairo Symphony and also played with John Coltrane.  Like Wynton, he is a master of both musical Idioms.

Hence one of the things I paid close attention to was the number of black students, or young black people from whatever walk of life, who attended the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra concert.  Although half a century has passed since Duke’s band was here, and the world has turned upside down, black student disinterest in serious Afro-American art music has evidently remained pretty much the same. Here the old adage “the more things change the more they stay the same” applies.  The scant black presence at the concert dribbled off to near nothing when it came to young people, who were outnumbered by their elders despite, and among those that I talked to only one young couple were not musicians; the rest were all aspiring musicians.

However the diversity of the crowd and the young musicians who sought Wynton’s musical advice is eloquent testimony to the widespread influence of the Afro-American art of Jazz; which in its love of personal freedom and promotion of invention makes it the quintessentially American art. (see: “Jazz Around the World” on this site.)  And that art has never been on finer display than it was at Zellenbach auditorium on that enchanted evening.  The band, an aggregation of virtuosi on all instruments, was in fine form.  The ensemble play was perfectly balanced, with each musician contributing his unique voice to a musical tapestry composed of many intriguing colors.

The program moved effortlessly as the music went from the classic big band repertoire to the most modern Jazz styles; the entire tradition of complex Afro-American art music was traversed and each was true to the performance style of the period. The essence of Jazz is individual improvisation in conversation with the ensemble, which places the soloist at the center of the action.

Here the JALC orchestra offers an embarrassment of riches as each instrumentalist speaks with a highly original voice and individual style that moves the audience to repeated ovations.  I think the seeker would be hard pressed to find a Jazz orchestra that ever played the music better than this one, now or at any period in the past.

Maestro Marsalis: Leader of the Band
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The Brighest Star and Guiding Light

Wynton Marsalis, Pulitzer Prize winning composer and multiple Grammy winning trumpeter, remains the Orchestra’s guiding light as Artistic Director, as well as its most celebrated and inspirational performer.  When the orchestra sounded its last note the audience, hungry for more of these celestial blues drenched sounds that make body and soul dance, rose to its feet in a thunderous ovation and shouts of “Bravo!” rang out in the auditorium.

I have seen this Orchestra play many times; they are always excellent….and on this night in Berkeley they served up the music straight with no chaser, swinging hard and straight ahead.  The audience showed their love through vigorous applause when the musicians were on stage, and something akin to hero worship during the reception backstage when they got a chance to meet and greet them.  I was there, and I had my camera.  Below are some of my visual impressions of the evening.

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The sold out audience was mostly white, Asian…..
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………..and long in the tooth
 This couple were the only young black people……

Edit

…..who were not musicians
The Afro-Americans in attendance were Seasoned Fans

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Like Heidi Moore-Reynolds
Maestro Marsalis

Edited Version

Positions himself to meet and greet the crowd
And they came in droves

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Some just wanted to speak to the great artist
Other’s posed for Pictures

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A momento that, like fine wine, will grow more valuable with time
Other band members soon joined Wynton in the reception lounge

Ali edit

Ali Jackson shares tricks of the trade with a young drummer
Trombonist Don Gardner
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Imbibed Spirits with the adoring music lovers
A brilliant composer and arranger

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He always takes the time to talk with aspiring 
Alto Saxophonist / Arranger Ted Nash

 Edit III

Was right at home among the Cosmopolites
With Oakland’s City Council President Jane Doe on left

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And Sculptor/Professor Susannah Israel to his right
Sophisticated Ladies from all walks of life….

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……….vie for his Attention
 And Music students ask complex technical questions

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Demonstrating the proper embrocure for trumpet
Other times he conducts impromtu discourses

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Discussing weighty questions about music theory
The City Council President paid close attention

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And listened closely
So did Professor Israel

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Who gloried in the marvelous music and good company
Wynton autographed every program presented to him

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Most are musicians 
People from all backgrounds turn ot to hear the Band

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Proof that Jazz  lovers are EVERYWHERE!
And I was there with my Camera!
Wynton and Me - Copy - Copy - Copy
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Double click on links below to see the JALCO
Wynton and JALCO members tuning up before a concert
https://youtu.be/ZqtHqCIMyMs
Watch the Lincoln Center Orchestra in concert featuring Wayne shorter
https://youtu.be/yMFgqHuvF6U
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Text and Photos by: Playthell G. Benjamin
*** Cover photo and Wynton in Perormance by: Frank Stewart
****Photo of Playthell and Wynton by:Susannah Israel

Jazz and Gumbo!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , on June 24, 2014 by playthell

 Wynton and me

Two Southern boys Partying in the Big Apple

 A New Orleans Style Party at Wynton’s Crib

   The night had been a smash before the party got started.  Earlier in the evening the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra played their season opening concert featuring the inimitable Ahmad Jamal at the piano and we had all attended. It was an affair to remember as the sold out crowd repeatedly rose to their feet in ovations to the musicians.  It is always a special treat to hear Jazz performed in the House of Swing, especially the Rose Theater, the acoustic engineering alone would make it a rare treat for the serious jazz fan; but the opulent and imaginative interior decoration enriches the experience in ways that’s hard to explain but you know it when you feel it.

Hence everyone was in high spirits as we retired to Wynton’s crib for Gumbo and wine, with some succulent and exotically seasoned fried shrimp appetizers.  Nerves were on edge as we waited for the huge pot of Gumbo to heat up, but as there was abundant French breads fruits and wine we persevered. Wynton’s crib is a great place for a party.

It is spacious, elegant but manly and livable, and enjoys a magnificent panoramic view of Manhattan and New Jersey.   The size of the pad and the diversity of the crowd were such that there were actually several parties going on simultaneously.  Wynton mostly hung out in the main drawing room where the piano is located.  Chess sets were also in abundance in the great room, and like the piano they would be played several times before the evening was over.

 Wynton Plays Chess with is homeboy Matt Dillon
 Wynton and LD

 Hanging out at Wynton’s place brought to mind a party I once attended at Duke Ellington’s spot on Central Park South, right after his triumphal concert with the New World Symphony in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, circa 1974.  That gathering also attracted an accomplished international crowd of beautiful people, but Ellington was a much older man and he was treated in the way that religious devotees treat their messiah.

People seemed to struggle to keep from genuflecting before the great man, even the titled European Aristocrats at the party had to struggle to maintain their cool.  But here the vibe was totally different.  Although I’m certain that the guest at Wynton’s party were just as aware that they were hanging out with history, that our host was a rare genius whose great works will live long after he has departed this world, still everybody was laid back and treated Wynton the way he acts: like one of the guys.

 Like Duke Ellington, music is Wynton’s mistress…
 Wynton's Piano
 …..and Just as in Ellington’s apartment, the piano is omnipresent  

 Wynton is the most unpretentious person I know, given his truly spectacular gifts and achievements; he seems indifferent to his greatness and regards celebrity as a picayune matter.  I have known him for twenty years now and I have never seen him talk down to anyone nor show any trace of arrogance or vanity; he seems to always be trying to get better at what he does and help others achieve their dreams.

Musically it amounts to an incredibly generous attitude that I also noticed in Betty Carter and Duke Ellington, who regularly discovered young talent, nurtured it, and graced the stages of the world with their gifts. Although I find him a jovial and even tempered guy, I don’t know anybody who works harder at their chosen profession nor enjoy it more.  Wynton has a restless and endlessly creative mind that is constantly conjuring up new musical ideas, or strategizing with the managers at JALC to market the program, or managing the diverse personalities of the great artists who make up the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and consistently giving great performances on the trumpet around the world.

Thus I would argue that what some critic’s mistake as arrogance is simply the self-assuredness that comes with great achievements and knowing what you are talking about. Hence confidence is mistaken for arrogance.  Wynton does not suffer fools gladly…and neither do I! He relaxes by taking young street b-ball players to the hole, or bombing them out with his “fabled” jump shot on the courts of nearby projects, or scheming on the chess board for the best strategy to defeat his opponents.

But when he defeated Matt Dillon in a game he damn near jumped up did a break dance, yet gracefully acknowledged that Matt had trounced him countless times on the Chess board, even conceding that his opponent had the better game. As soon as Matt decided the Gumbo was properly heated the guest hurried to cue up, and once they savored the gourmet New Orleans cuisine it quickly became apparent from the soft ecstatic moans, and squeals of delight, that Matt “done messed around stuck his foot in the pot” as the old folks used to say down south.

Chef Matt Dillon: The Man of the Hour!

Wynton's buddy Matt

His Gumbo Inspired Much Love from Everyone

Gumbo is obviously a word that is derived from Louisiana’s African heritage, a cultural reality that the arbiters of American culture prefer to ignore.  As cuisine it is a kind of amalgamated stew with generous proportions of shellfish – oysters, clams, shrimp – along with chicken, sausage, peppers, etc served with rice.  It is like a French version of the Spanish dish Paella, except its soupy and a lot spicier.

When properly prepared the myriad flavors assault the senses with a cacophony of delectable sensations that makes it an intense sensual experience rather than merely a meal. It was the kind of meal we used to call “fightyamammys” in Florida back in the day; the idea was that some meals are so good you’ll “fight your mammy” over it.

The cultured and highly civilized guest could barely manage to contain the predatory side of their character in their quest for more of this bewitching brew. After the guest had stuffed themselves on Gumbo and Baguettes, the wine poured and Wynton sat down to the piano and began a lively rendition of “Happy Birthday to you.”  It turned out that it was the birthday of Joe Temperley, the great Baritone Saxophonist with the Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Joe Temperley
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Playing his Baritone Sax next to the Bassist

Joe is living proof of the global influence of the language of Jazz.  As one of the two great traditions of complex instrumental art music produced in the western world, everybody who is serious about acquiring instrumental virtuosity attempts to play one or the other.  And in rare instances – ala Wynton Marsalis, Hubert Laws, Carlos del Pino, Paquito de Rivera, John Lewis, et al – a truly great musician will perform in both traditions.

Although both genres are expressions of modern western art music, Jazz is the musical Gumbo that was conjured up in the clash and diffusions of West African and European culture as it was played out in the United States.  Wynton recognized this vital cultural connection when he composed A Tribute to Congo Square, an extended work of several movements written as a remembrance of that hallowed ground in New Orleans where the roots of Jazz were formed, for performance by the JALC in collaboration with Adada! a Ghanaian percussion ensemble. The uniqueness of this cultural amalgamation can be seen in the fact that Jazz is strikingly different from the other neo-African musical forms that developed in other parts of the African Diaspora in the Americas.

Offering a Musical Libation to the Ancestors
           Wynton and the Aficans
Photo by: Frank Stewart

There are of course the obvious similarities that are common to all neo-African music, which is a reflection of their common origins, the most important characteristics being polyrhythm, antiphony and polyphony, but while the  music of Cuba and Brazil has remained dance oriented and thus rhythmically restricted to the needs of dancers, jazz is a complex instrumental music in which experiments in melody and harmony were as important as rhythmic innovation; and since the advent of bop it has become increasingly divorced from the dance, evolving into a concert music designed for listening, or deep intellectual and spiritual musings.

Yet what finally sets Jazz apart from any other music of the western tradition are the elements of blues and swing guided by a democratic philosophy that values individual freedom and promotes innovation, which are quintessential American values and thus Afro-American music is a product of the unique experience of Afro-Americans.

We are the only African people who grew up in the belly of the most powerful and technologically advanced nation in the world and played an integral role in its development since birth. The USA is inconceivable without the input of Afro-Americans. From the five thousand patriot/soldiers who fought in the American Revolution that ushered in the bloody birth of our nation, to the quarter of a million black men who bore arms in defense of the Union when the southern aristocrats led the red neck rabble into a treasonous rebellion against our government that tore the nation apart in defense of human slavery, to the many others who fought in the rest of America’s wars that preserved the nation and helped it grow powerful.

And the most powerful defenders of the unique American concept of freedom have been Afro-American clerics, activists and intellectuals. Then there were the unsung millions who cleared the land and tilled the soil, turning the south into the cotton kingdom and making New Orleans the wealthiest city and biggest sea port in the nation by 1850.  A financial empire built on unrequited black slave labor.

But in a grand historical irony, out of this bitter and shameful history came a percolating cultural stew that produced Jazz and Gumbo.  And we had a generous serving of both at Wynton’s crib that enchanted evening, as Matt Dillon not only prepared the Gumbo, he also pre-programmed the music on his computer and we were serenaded with classic recordings from the jazz tradition past and present.  

Joe Temperley, looking as contented as a Carnation cow, gave me a nod, an assured wink, and then declared: “This Gumbo is so delicious eating it is more fun than playing the saxophone.”  Coming from a great Jazz master of the baritone sax, whose big lush silky tone and flawless flow marks him as the rightful heir to the legacy of the late great Harry Carney of the Ellington Orchestra, That’s a rave!

When I was invited to Duke Ellington’s party thirty four years ago I gave not a thought to the fact that I would be an eyewitness to history; I felt the same way about Wynton’s party.  Yet in during the course of the event I realized that it was an event that should be recorded for posterity. So I preserved Ellington’s party for history in the essay “An Evening with Edward Kennedy Ellington.

The Duke!

Duke+Ellington - paragon of elegance

The standard to which the JALC Aspires 

The present soirée will be commended to the historical record as Jazz and Gumbo.  And,fortunately, this time I had my camera…and I remembered the words of James Vanderzee, the photographer who set out to preserve for future generations the images of elegance, accomplishment and pride exhibited by African Americans during the cultural awakening of the 1920’s known to history as The Harlem Renaissance: “A picture will last forever!”

********************

Double Click to see Wynton Warming up Before the Gig

 http://youtu.be/ZqtHqCIMyMs

 D0uble Click to see Ahmad Jamal with JALC Orchestra
– Picture Perfect –
http://youtu.be/NBLIhUOWm9Q
Flight to Russia
http://youtu.be/iW7SRlaLrgE
Photographs and Text
By: Playthell G. Benjamin
*Photos of Wynton, Adada!
and Joe Temperly in Sax Section. 

By: Frank Stewart.

Posted: June 24th 2014
*** The event was held at an earlier date.
 

   

Praise Songs for a Master Musician

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, You Tube Classics with tags , , , , , on April 8, 2014 by playthell
MODELE ARMSTRONG
Louis Armstrong: His horn and voice changed the world of music

A Fitting Tribute to a Great Artist on the Centenary of his Birthday

On the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Louis Armstrong a celebration in his honor was held at Columbia University, one of America’s most distinguished institutions of higher learning. Titled The Artistry of Pops: Louis Armstrong on his 100th Birthday,” three of the nation’s most outstanding intellectuals and artists – Robert O’Meely, Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis – conducted an ancestor veneration ritual in memory of Louis Armstrong, a great American original.

Robert O’Meely is a Professor of English at Columbia, Director of the Institute for Jazz Studies and a serious Jazz scholar who wrote an important book on Billy Holliday; Stanley Crouch is the nation’s premiere Jazz critic and biographer of Charlie Parker; and Wynton Marsalis is Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center – the most important Jazz performance and education venue in the world – and leader of the internationally renowned Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, an aggregation of great musicians who can play every genre of jazz without accent.

It is a certainty that almost anyone who takes the time to view this video will be greatly enlightened by the experience.  My certainty lies in the fact that I was enlightened by it and I have been writing about Jazz for over 20 years and have published essays about the music in some of the most prestigious journals in the English language.  The video begins with an opening address by Dr. O’Meely, rich in eloquence and erudition, it paints a complex portrait of Louis Armstrong that demolished the stereotypical view of him as a simple minded entertainer and borderline clown.

What emerges from Professor O’Meely’s succinct but learned lecture is a compelling portrait of a great artist who changed western music and won devotees among musicians and music lovers all over the world.  We learn that the ability to play and instrument and also sing well enough to have a lasting influence on both arts is a very rare feat; the province of genius.  Yet, he tells us, this is precisely what Louis Armstrong did.

       Pop’s Armstrong Singing
                         Louis Armstrong singing
Recording with the magnificent Ella Fitzgerald

Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitgerald

                    One of Pop’s many artistic “children”

In his professorial fashion Dr. O’Meely cited a scholarly text to provide evidence of the influence of Louis Armstrong on the major singers who dominated American jazz and pop music for most of the twentieth century and set the standards many singers still emulate. The Book, “Pops Children,” lets us hear it from the horses’ mouths through the author’s interviews.  Among those who pay homage to Pops as an artistic inspiration and guide are Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Lady Day, et al.

O’Meely’s lecture was the ideal introduction to Louis Armstrong, because he enumerates the many facets of Armstrong’s interests and talents and defines the elements that characterize his style and innovations in western music. Although he teases us with glimpses of Armstrong’s multi-faceted personality and varied interests, he reminds us they are laboring under the tyranny of the clock and thus must confine their discourse to the matter of music.

Despite the fact that he is a Professor of English Dr. O’Meely is a fine music critic.  Like Crouch and Marsalis he is a protégée of the novelist, essayist, musician Ralph Ellison, and Albert Murray, the recently departed Harlem sage and blues philosopher whose masterpiece, “Stomping the Blues,” is a canonical text on Afro-American music…especially Jazz. Thus O’Meely’s analysis is well informed by a broad knowledge of the history and nature of artistic creation and innovation, and his discussion of Louis Armstrong is conducted within the comparative context of all great art.

As a literary man beguiled by the blues in its many splendored guises, Dr. O’Meeley conjures up the memory of Professor Sterling Brown, a Harvard educated pioneer blues poet and longtime Professor of English at Howard University in Washington, who had jazz musicians play for his class live and who is called out by name as the hippest intellectual in the nation’s capitol in Ledbelly’s famous song “Washington is a Bourgeois Town.”  

It was Professor O’Meely who was called upon to make the keynote speech at the dedication of the monumental statute “Invisible Man,” created by Elizabeth Catlett, outside of Ellison’s residence on Riverside Drive, not far from Columbia’s campus. Unlike Sterling Brown, O’ Meely does not need jazz musicians to play for his class because just a few blocks down Broadway from campus is Jazz at Lincoln Center, where the greatest Jazz musicians in the world perform nearly every night.  O’Meely is immersed in the Jazz milieu being centrally located in the Jazz capitol of the world he has seen it all, which makes him an ideal critic fully equipped to evaluate the place of Louis Armstrong in American music.

I got a taste of the depth of his erudition when we debated an essay on music and literature written by Albert Murray in a seminar at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Debating the Learned Professor O’Meely at the Sorbonne
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        A Joint Meeting of the US and European Associations of American Studies  

At the conclusion of his learned commentary on the character and contributions of Pops Armstrong, Professor O’Meely turned the floor over to Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis after reading their impressive bonafides to the audience, calling them “two of the smartest people talking about Jazz.” Crouch was introduced first to tumultuous applause, but when Wynton walked on stage, trumpet in hand, the crowd went wild.

In an extended discussion Crouch compared the heroism of people who invent major movements in art or intellectual ideas to those in classical Greek mythology, and Wynton dazzled with his in-depth knowledge of the art of trumpet playing and the history of its development in the USA. As always, his lecture became a “show and tell” when he would demonstrate his point on the trumpet.

This video is a wonderful portrait of Pops which require no further comment, since we have the film. However it is impossible to overstate the importance of the work that O’Meely, Crouch and Marsalis are doing by institutionalizing Jazz in elite, well funded, American cultural and academic institutions such as Lincoln Center and Columbia University.

It is both fitting and proper that this effort should be led by Afro-American artists and intellectuals.  Jazz is, after all, Black America’s gift to the nation and America’s gift to world culture.  Look, listen and learn about one of the greatest artists and most interesting American men of the 20th century, the trumpet virtuoso that invented both the extended Jazz solo and a distinctly American approach to singing… the Jazz song.

Pops At Carnegie Hall with Kate Middleton 1947
Louis_Armstrong_and_Velma_Middleton,_Carnegie_Hall,_New_York,_N.Y.,_ca._Feb._1947_
                      A Sartorial Trend Setter Always sharp as a Tack
The Axe with Which Louis Conquored the World!
Louis Arnstrongs trumpet presented to him by King George V of England in 1933
This Trumpet was a gift from King George V in 1933
Double click on link to see the video Tribute
http://youtu.be/G0X24dJHYq4 

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

April 4, 2014

Afro-American Jazz and Black South Africans

Posted in Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators, Music Reviews with tags , , on August 19, 2013 by playthell

 Hugh Masekela

Hugh Masakela: A South African Original

 

 On the Transformative Power of Black Jazz

Growing Up in Mantzi I have been Fortunate enough to come from a Township of Soweto that in the early sixties and all the way to the rule of the ANC had electricity and telephones in our community.  Why is this important?  I grew up with uncles who were playing 78 rpm dicks on a gramophone, and we gradually upgraded to what was called Pilot FM radio (big and huge like caskets which contained a turntable and a FM radio.  Eventually we came to be exposed to Hi Fi systems in the late 1960’s and 70’s and graduated to more sophisticated name brands like Marantz and the like.

Music was the driving force in the evolution and American Jazz was one of the most powerful influences that we were exposed to.  Our elders, uncles and big brothers collected all of the great artist such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and all the seminal figures Playthell Benjamin cites in his essay “Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art, as the produced this music. And we sought to get in their favor by our recognition and approval of the importance of their treasure troves of LP vinyl Jazz albums.

Furthermore, we were living amongst musicians who played Jazz and formed big bands here in Mzantsi; we were also imbibing a lot of South African Jazz that embodied all the diversity characteristic of South Africa in its sound.  As we grew older we extended our listening and appreciation of the music by forming Jazz Clubs in the late Sixties whilst still in high school.

Our weekends were spent getting together bring new vinyl recordings we might have bought on Friday, and sample it with other members.  If they could not identify the record one was made Jazz Appreciation King for the day and it lasted the entire week until we met again.  Exposure to American Jazz was very important for us and it affirmed and solidified our beliefs that we were not mere “Kaffirs” (niggers) who were backward in all we did or were – African American Jazz told us, that those who looked like us, that those who looked like us, were the best in the world in this art form.

The Great Edward Kennedy “Duke Ellington”
Duke+Ellington - paragon of elegance 
Composer, Pianist, Bandleader, Paragon of Male Elegance
Dollar Brand
Dollar Brand
South African Pianist, Composer

This told us too, that we are the better people in the world, just from the Jazz perspective.  We imbibed art forms and so forth from our African American brothers, but Jazz was paramount in entrenching and embedding beliefs about ourselves.   Some of us went as far as to walk, talk, and dress like our Afro-American brothers.  Others named themselves accordingly.

As we became more mature and refined in our understanding of the wide world of Jazz, we began to travel overseas to Jazz concerts all over the states, Canada and Europe.  This expanded our horizons beyond the brutal apartheid world of South Africa.  We became well marinated in the Jazz Milieu, which knew no national boundaries because of the recording industry.  What has all this to do with Wynton Marsalis, the subject of Playthell’s recent essay?  Everything!

Playthell’s analysis of the heroic role of Wynton in the advancement of Jazz as a vibrant art form supports the fledgling arguments of those among us here in South Africa, who have been insisting that Wynton has advanced Jazz beyond what the hard core Jazz classist here in Mzantsi think of a real Jazz, in fact they insisted that Wynton was not playing Jazz at all.

Wynton Marsalis

0827969262023
The Most Versatile Trumpeter in the World

I think the fact that he came from the Baroque side of classical music was lost to these detractors here for they knew nothing about the fact that Wynton had become the Master Jazz/Trumpeter /Composer/Innovator of the art and literally lifted and elevated Jazz into the 21st century.  They just couldn’t wrap their minds around that fact.

I also suspect that they have lost touch with what Wynton was doing and saying, and hung on to the old ways of understanding Jazz.  Wynton blew some of us away when he merged modern Jazz with African drummers on the same stage.  We were amazed and fascinated as we watched his rehearsal sessions with these Africans, especially the way that he was able to show the similarities and the origins of Jazz as an African art form.

Conducting the performance of Congo Square
DSC_0224
The Lincoln Center never witnessed anything like it!

Soul to Soul

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The Rhythmic circle remains unbroken

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The drum choir blended perfectly with the band

This edified us and lifted our long held beliefs that the music we were listening to called Jazz had melodic signatures which can be found in our own traditional songs and Jazz music here in Mantzsti.  Playthell’s essay “Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art,” is for me and Jazz Aficionados of kindred spirit, is so filled with erudite analysis about the art of Jazz and Wynton’s role in preserving and advancing the best of the tradition, that I feel compelled to post it on all the African sites I have access to.

There are some pretentious self- proclaimed Jazz gurus and avid fans who cannot accept anything new in Jazz.  Not since Babatunde Olatunji took his “Drums of Passion” orchestra to Carnegie Hall – industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s gift to New York City and the art of music –has anyone achieved that.  Wynton, however, took it a step further; many levels higher in fact, by merging both ensembles – African American musicians and a choir of African master drummers – on the same stage as part of one group.  To me it was one of the things Wynton did that silenced the howling jazz dinosaurs in the Appreciators here in Mzantsi.

THE GOAT

DSC_0250 

 Greatest of All Times!

I concur with all that Playthell wrote about Wynton Marsalis….and then some.  I have learned so much from reading this article that I immediately went over to my collection of Wynton’s records and have been following on some nuggets he doled/dropped in the essay.   This kind of study will upgrade one’s understanding, appreciation and listening skills; enabling you to better grasp the techniques Wynton is employing to make such marvelous music.  I am happy to have found Playthell’s article, for it confirmed what we had long believed.   Jazz is an African art form and it resonates loudly with us here in Mzantsi and wherever it is played.

***********************

Double Click to see Dollar Brand 

Double click to see Dollar Brand in a clearer video

Click to see Hugh Masakela  perform tribute to Mandela

Double Click to see Wynton conduct Congo Square with Orchestra and African drums 

Double Click to hear the Winston “Mankunzu” Ngozi Quartet

 

Skhokho Sa Tlou

Mzantsi, South Africa

August 19, 2013

 ** All Photos of Wynton and Congo Square Concert 

by: Frank Stewart, official photographer for JALC

Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on August 18, 2013 by playthell

DSC_0135

 Conducting his innovative suite “Congo Square” with Ghanaian Drummers

 I have written about Jazz in the New York Daily News, The Sunday Times of London, The Guardian- Observer of London, he Village Voice et al.  And I have major essays anthologized in books.  I have also covered the New York Jazz scene on WBAI FM.  I have written about Wynton in all these venues and interviewed him on radio. I am about to put those interviews online. I have also appeared with Wynton and Ellis in a lecture/demonstration on Jazz and wrote the program notes for Jazz at Lincoln Center Concerts.  Hence I have firsthand knowledge of the jazz milieu and I have paid close attention to Wynton’s career.

The Jazz scene in New York had become so dismal by the late 1970’s that I published an essay despairing over the future of the art form – See: “Will Jazz Survive: Notes on the State of the Great American Art ” in the Freedomways Reader – because the last commercial jazz station in New York, WRVR, had suddenly gone off the air.  I wondered how the tradition could survive if the jazz community in the Mecca of Jazz couldn’t even sustain a single radio station devoted to this quintessentially American art. How could you produce new stars if young musicians couldn’t even hear the music on the radio?

Then I heard this young trumpet player from New Orleans perform with the Herbie Hancock VSOP orchestra…and my spirit danced.  I knew he was going to be the next big thing the anointed one – having seen all the great innovators from Pops Armstrong to Freddie Hubbard live, I felt qualified to make the judgment – and history has proven me right…as it often does with my political prognostications.

Later I heard Wynton play the classical trumpet; a magnificent art that most jazz fans no know nothing about and many jazz musicians can’t play….I was amazed.  As a failed trumpeter I understand the technical requirements for performing the masterworks by the great European composers.  I know what embouchure is; I understand the difficulties of triple tonguing and circular breathing; I know how hard it is to achieve great intonation, and the complexity of fingering.  All of which a trumpeter must master in order to play the European classical repertoire. Yet Wynton makes it look so easy people who have no hands on experience trying to play the trumpet are clueless as to the degree of difficulty involved.

It’s not surprising that music for the trumpet is so difficult in European art music, especially the Baroque music Wynton is so fond of; the trumpet is, after all, their instrument.  I am presently writing a piece about Wynton’s influence on the great young classical trumpeters.  Most people will be shocked to discover how many of the principal trumpeters in the great symphony orchestras were inspired and tutored by Wynton’s performances.

Yet the classical trumpet is Wynton’s second language on the horn.  He is first and foremost a jazz trumpeter, who was raised by Ellis Maralis – a great pianist who is so devoted the art of Jazz piano that he named his son after a piano player, the marvelous Wynton Kelly, who was of Jamaican background – and he was tutored in the art of jazz by Alvin Bastise, a New Orleans clarinetist who is a master of Jazz and European classical music.

I watched as a member of the New York media as Wynton became the most sought after musician /commentator for the art of Jazz by virtue of his unique “skill set” as a bilingual trumpet virtuoso who was also a serious student of the history of Jazz and European art music; he was erudite, articulate, charming and funny.  Plus he was good looking and a fabulous dresser: he was a television producer’s dream! That’s how it happened; the role was thrust upon him even as other’s would have given anything to play the role.  That’s the real reason for all the hatin.

Much of Wynton’s style on and off the stage  came from his tutelage under the great writer Albert Murray, author of the single most important book on Afro-American music: Stomping the Blues,” and whom Duke Ellington said was “The hippest cat I know.”  In 1996 I presented a paper at a conference on Afro-American music held under the auspices of the European and US Associations of American Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris exploring this relationship titled: “The Influence of the Writings of Albert Murray on the Musical Compositions and Sartorial Style of Wynton Marsalis.  But the point is that for all of these reasons I have cited here, i.e. his myriad virtues, Wynton became a favorite of television producers and hosts: And it is the best thing that ever happened to Jazz.  In fact, I believe Wynton’s advocacy for the form as artist and advocate resurrected classic acoustic jazz – which is the highest expression of the art form.  And I am prepared to argue this point with anyone!

Wynton Conducting the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra

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A Master of his Trade

As a former history professor and co-founder of the first degree granting, freestanding, black studied department in the world – the WEB DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies at U-Mass Amherst, which awarded full Professorships in black music to Jazz Masters Max Roach and Archie Shepp – I know something about the history and cultural development of Afro-Americans, and I would argue that the Jazz at Lincoln Center program here in Manhattan is the most important cultural development in the history of black America!

And it definitely would not have happened without Wynton Marsalis.  In order to get a Jazz department in the Lincoln the first task was to convince the Princes and Powers at the Lincoln Center – the world’s greatest performance emporium – that Jazz was an art form worthy of inclusion in a cultural warehouse that was stocked with classical European arts: Ballet, Grand Opera, Chamber Music, and the New York Philharmonic.  Wynton was the ideal person to sell them on the artistic merit of Jazz precisely because he had won Grammy’s for the best Jazz and Classical instrumental performances – an incredible feat that no other musician in the world has repeated!  And they bought what he was selling to the tune of 150 million dollars.

That’s why Congressman Jerry Nadler, who represents the district, said on opening day of the 150 million facility – “If Yankee Stadium can be called The House that Babe Ruth built, then Jazz at Lincoln Center will henceforth be known as the House that Wynton built.”  As for the criticism of other musicians: I say bring them on!!!!!!  Like the late great Sugar Ray Robinson I love a good fight, although, I must confess, that thus far they wither like snow balls in the sun when they cross swords with me on this question.  However I would like to conclude this little discourse with the following observations about musicians and Wynton.

All of those I have heard criticize him are clearly his inferiors as musicians and promoters of the music.  I could name names but I won’t….unless my veracity is called into question …but I’d rather not go there because my intention here is to set the record straight about Wynton not rag on other musicians.  But if properly provoked I’ll sing like a canary.  For the moment I a representative anecdote that is characteristic of what I found investigating the gripes of Wynton’s critics among musicians will suffice.

There was this very well know jazz trumpeter who used to dog Wynton’s playing; said it didn’t have enough ‘grits’ or some such inexplicable foolishness.  So Wynton issued a challenge for him to come down to Lincoln center during a concert and “cut my head,” which is Jazz parlance for engaging in a competitive duel called “cutting sessions.”  After the challenge was issued Wynton told me “That joker ain’t gonna show up…I’ll bet money on it.”  He seemed so sure about this prediction that I hesitated to accept a wager that at first looked like easy money.  So I declined the offer and instead asked him how he could be so sure the other trumpeter wouldn’t show.  “Because he can sell all the Woof tickets he wants out in the streets,” said Wynton, “but he and I have practiced together and he knows the truth!”  As Wynton predicted the dude punked out!

The affect that Wynton has on other trumpet players reminds me of the way flute players responded to Hubert laws when he first showed on the scene, another ambidextrous musical genius.  Hubert scared everybody to death and it resulted in people saying dumb stuff like “his tone is too pretty,” or “he does not make enough mistakes” or “he plays like a machine.”  I recognized it as the baseless slander of jealous peers back then, and the criticism I have heard of Wynton today does not rise above that level in my estimation.  THEY ARE ALL JEALOUS HATERS!!!!!!!!!

The World’s Greatest Trumpeter?
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Gerald Wilson Thinks So!

However let me conclude on the upbeat.  While Wynton has his detractors he also has many ardent admirers among musicians.  Dr. Billy Taylor, the Dean of musician/critics, loved the ground Wynton walked on and considered him the best hope for the music’s survival and growth.  He told me that because of Wynton’s efforts to promote the music to a wider audience many of the musicians who criticize him are working more than ever.

When I wrote a big feature story for the Sunday Times of London on Betty Carter and the jazz youth festival she was hosting at the Majestic Theater and Brooklyn Academy of Music titled “School For Cats,” all of those brilliant young musicians – which included such virtuosi as pianist Cyrus Chestnut and drummer Adonis Rose – told me that one of the main reasons why they were seriously playing Jazz was because “Wynton came to my school and gave a talk on Jazz.”

At the time Wynton was in a little feud with Miles Davis, whom Wynton tells us in the interview with David Frost was his major influence.  I asked the Empress of Swing, who had seen and heard them all, what she thought of the beef.  “Miles is just jealous!” she said.  “I knew Miles when he was Wynton’s age and has never been the trumpeter that Wynton is.”

Maestro Wilson Conducting JALC Orchestra
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A Swinging Octogenarian

When I interviewed the legendary bandleader/arranger/composer Gerald Wilson – who also happens to be a trumpeter of long standing – I asked him what he thought of Wynton’s playing. He said without a moment’s hesitation: “Wynton Marsalis is the greatest trumpeter in the world!    One of the virtues of writing in this new digital medium that is not enjoyed by writers in print publications is the ability to create multi-media presentations.  Hence by virtue of You Tube I can demonstrate Maestro Wilson’s Claim.

I have selected two performances by Wynton Marsalis: a classical European composition and a wholly improvised jazz performance.  Both performances were chosen because of the technical demands on the artist, which require the highest level of virtuosity in each genre.  The extent of the difficulty an artist must overcome is the measure of their mastery of the horn.  In the first video Wynton performs “The Carnival of Venice.”  When the great composer of martial music John Phillip Sousa formed the US Marine Corps band he billed it as “The greatest Brass Band in the World!”

The brook of fire trumpet and cornet players had to cross in their auditions was to perform the Carnival of Venice,” a composition that contain myriad pit falls into which a hapless player will be devoured.  It is a piece that demands mastery of all the elements of trumpet performance.  The second video features Wynton playing Cherokee at break neck speed.  It was the composition that those who aspired to share the bandstand with the elite players had to perform, often in a jam session when all eyes were on you.

Whereas in European art music all solos are composed, with improvisation allowed only in cadenzas, a kind of extended ornament, in jazz extemporaneous coherent musical statements is the rule.  This demands the ability to create music at the speed of thought.  Thus the more complex the musical statement – which must be negotiated within the restrictions of complex harmonic changes and polyrhythmic pulses – dictate the level of virtuosity required to perform it.   To the untutored ear it may all sound the same but, as a matter of fact, they are vastly different.

Check them out, and you need not be highly tutored in musical performance in order to recognize the Genius on display here. And you will lose any desire to argue with Maestro Gerald Wilson when he declares: “Wynton Marsalis is the best trumpeter  that I have ever heard and I played with all the greats,” So there!  You have it from the lips of the Gods….I say fuck the haters!!!!!

 

He is the best that I have ever heard and I played with them all!!!” So there!  You have it from the lips of the Gods….fuck the haters!!!!!

Me and Dr. Robert O’Meely Droppin Science at the Sorbonne

Me and Robert O'Mealy

Exploring the relationship between Wynton and Albert Murray 1996
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Double click here to see Wynton Perform Carnival of Venice  
http://youtu.be/0-jDld11jhw
This video has a million and a half views!
Double click here to see Wynton perform Cherokee
http://youtu.be/9OtZrIjQuwA
Double click to see Wynton interviewed by David frost 
http://youtu.be/mFNIvo-tx2s
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Text by: Playthell Benjamin

All photos by: Frank Stewart – except pic from the Sorbonne

August 17, 2013