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He’s often caricatured as the jazz world’s greatest reactionary. But even his detractors agree that Wynton Marsalis is one of the greatest jazz and classical trumpeters of his generation. So why is he so damn furious?

Time Out [London] 24th-31st January 2001


Interview: John Lewis


‘Critics are the enemy,’ barks Wynton Marsalis. ‘You are the enemy. Not just of music but of art in general. Pick any painter or writer you want. That adversarial relationship is a natural part of being the artist and the critic.’


These enemies must presumably include the critics who put him on the cover of Time magazine in 1982; or the ones who presented him with two unprecedented Grammy awards in 1984 for two albums, in jazz and classical categories; or the critics who awarded him a Pulitzer Prize in 1997; or those who included him in Life magazine’s list of America’s 20 most influential people. But Wynton forgets such plaudits. For this 39-year old trumpeter from New Orleans, I’m just another critic who’s here to stitch him up.


‘Do you respect a fact? he shouts, banging a table. ‘I said DO YOU RESPECT A FACT? Or will this be part of an inaccurate series of articles that have misrepresented what I’m doing?’


Blimey. And all I’ve told him is that I quite liked his playing on the recent box set ‘Live at the Village vanguard’. He erupts.


‘So you’re saying that you don’t like my playing on previous records? I didn’t change my style for that album. I’ve been playing like this for a long time. A LONG TIME. And critics suggest that I have changed my style. You have the recordings. LISTEN TO THEM.’


Oh dear. This isn’t going well. It’s a peculiar type of truculence that mistakes ‘ I quite like your last album’ for ‘everything else you have done is shit.’ Wynton is glaring at me. And I haven’t even raised any of the ‘difficult’ questions on my list -- about the total absence of women in his big band; about the racial politics of jazz; about the recent resignation of his music director, Rob Gibson; about his legal wrangles to be released from his Sony contract; about why he’s so damnably rude.


For anyone not familiar with him, Wynton Marsalis is popularly caricatured as a reactionary young fogey, one who believes we should consolidate what ‘jazz’ means, unfettered by any hyphenated definitions. Such pronouncements have made him a lightning rod for criticism. It’s come to a head in the last seven years, ever since Wynton was given a public pulpit as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center (J@LC).


The project is a new constituent of New York’s enormous Lincoln Center arts complex, taking its place alongside big guns like the New York Philharmonic, The Metropolitan Opera and the Juilliard School of Music. And, using a $103 million endowment, J@LC is building an enormous complex overlooking Central Park, housing the world’s largest purpose-built jazz concert hall.


Under Wynton’s stewardship, the programme has worked hard to raise the acceptance of jazz as a fine art. He has set up jazz education packages for high schools and universities, establishing a jazz canon, curating old work and commissioning new. It’s also where Wynton leads his 15-strong big band -- the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra -- who also tour regularly. Next month they play three nights at the Barbican, including a Louis Armstrong tribute, a swing dance ballroom session and a newly commissioned soundtrack to a 1925 silent movie, ‘Body and Soul’, composed by trombonist Wycliffe Gordon.


It’s a perfect chance to hear Wynton perform. He is a phenomenal technician. At 14 he was playing Handel’s trumpet concerto with the New Orleans Philharmonic; at 18 he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He can improvise in the style of any jazz trumpeter, from Buddy Bolden to Miles Davis. He admits he’s no innovator, but dismisses any notion of jazz as a music of innovation.


‘A handful of peope innovated, but the vast number of folks didn’t ,’ he says. ‘Does that mean they’re not good musicians? Sonny Stitt or Clifford Brown or Booker Little are not good musicians? That you have to be Monk, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington or bust? That is ridiculous! Does that mean that every writer has to be a Shakespeare or a James Joyce?’


Part of me wants to agree with Wynton. Part of me is a purist who groans when I see a jazz quartet playing with a bass guitar, or when I hear some smooth jazz fusion cobblers being played on Jazz FM. It’s difficult not to agree with him when he reiterates his much-publicised 1980s spat with Miles Davis. ‘People claim his version of Michael Jackson’s "Human Nature" is as good as his "My Funny Valentine"? That is just absurd.’


So I want him to convince me. But, for someone renowned as a great communicator and educator, he’s on terrible form. When he’s not ignoring my questions and shouting me down, he’s rolling his eyes and snorting contemptuously. He constantly infers non-existent disagreements, he fashions argument out of nothing.


I start by asking him about one of the events he’s presenting in London next week, the King Porter Stomp, a swing dance set in a converted brewery by the Barbican Centre. It sounds like a fun, defiantly retro session. Oh no, says Wynton. ‘Count Basie was playing dances until the 1970s. We don’t recreate anything. THIS IS NOT A RECREATION. It’s always developing...The swing dance is America’s national dance, just like the tango in Argentina, or the samba in Brazil.’


I ask him to tell me about Jazz at Lincoln Center, and he immediately infers a criticism of his programming policy. ‘This is a list of all the people who have been invited here over the last seven years.’ He bangs on three sheets of A4 which contain a long list of names. ‘Here’s what we’ve done. THIS ANSWERS YOUR QUESTION VERY CLEARLY.’


Okay. calm down. What are you so defensive about?


‘I an very defensive. VERY DEFENSIVE. I’ve had so many criticisms about whether our programming at J@LC is too narrow or whether we should do more progressive things. They imply that our programme has not been progressive enough. Just look at the list of people who have played it. LOOK AT IT!’


He denies any rift between him and New York’s punkier downtown jazz scene. ‘I ain’t got nothing against the Knitting Factory. Do you think I’m trying to keep other people from working?’


By now he’s almost choked up with anger.


‘I’m not going to book funk bands to play here. I started in funk bands. But they can get gigs other places. We play all kinds of music here. Some play fusion, some play avant-garde. Most play jazz, because this is JAZZ at Lincoln Center and as long as I’m here it will remain JAZZ at Lincoln Center. We are for jazz. Not against anything else. Do you understand the point? I SAID DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?’


Yes. Whatever. Let me go.


‘I’m happy to argue,’ he growls. ‘I’m ready to do battle, I’m ready to fight and that is my right as a citizen. There is a need for strong visions to be asserted so people can choose. This is just a single vision. ONE VISION.’ He leaves the room like a triumphant boxer, staring me out all the way, daring me to disagree. 

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