21 December 2008

Wynton Marsalis is the Ronald Reagan of Jazz - Not That There's Anything Wrong With That

On Monday morning I awoke to find a wonderful surprise on my RSS reader: a panoply of new posts on Do The Math examining the Young Lions of the 1980s and the jazz wars of that decade, as well as an extensive interview (and blindfold test!) with Wynton Marsalis. What a great early holiday gift from Ethan Iverson. Do yourself a favor and skim through some of the goods. Some of the material delves into historical and musical minutiae that only a specialist can really understand, but there are plenty of tidbits that will entertain even casual jazz fans.

The material as a whole brought to my mind a thought I had explored somewhat deeply during my time in graduate school. During that time, when I was mentally plotting out possible dissertation topics, I explored the idea of writing a cultural history of jazz that effectively contextualized the music in American thought and culture. Basically, I thought I would rewrite Jazz in American Culture my way. One chapter idea for the dissertation which received much contemplation was a study of Wynton Marsalis' rise to prominence during the 1980s. The idea in my mind was to connect the forces surrounding the rise of Marsalis to those surrounding the rise of Ronald Reagan.

Calling Wynton Marsalis the Ronald Reagan of jazz is not a new idea. Indeed, invoking Reagan in the pejorative sense had become somewhat of a favored mode of attack in the jazz wars. Shortly after the Ken Burns Jazz documentary aired in 2001, this screed made the rounds on the internet, in which saxophonist Mike Zilber issued a number of pronouncements against Marsalis (who was a major consultant to and presence in the documentary), Burns, and the documentary itself. The charges themselves are mostly not worth repeating, since you can read the entire piece on this page and anyone familiar with the controversy around the document is well aware of the points made in Zilber's critique.

But my idea was to examine the connection between Reagan and Marsalis in a non-pejorative, inquisitive manner. Indeed, Reagan's name carries with it an almost inconceivable amount of baggage, as this year's election cycle showed us time and again. However, if you look past the mythology built around Reagan and examine the personal feelings behind his ideology and how he resonated with a large coalition of voters in 1980, I think you will find more than a few interesting similarities between he and Marsalis that help explain Marsalis' own rise to prominence as well as the "renaissance" of jazz he helped lead in the 1980s.

The lazy critique of Marsalis posits that he does not like a lot of jazz made during the 1960s and 1970s. His detractors point out that Marsalis has never paid tribute to Marion Brown or Keith Jarrett at Jazz at Lincoln Center the way he has to Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker. This, they argue, shows his hand. As Mike Zilber put it,
Marsalis is now the Ronald Reagan of jazz and, like Reagan, has no memory of those nasty 60s and 70s, preferring to bask in the halcyon days of Roseland, Satchmo and wax recordings.
Though Zilber and others have overstated this fact, it is still important to note that Marsalis feels and is not afraid to argue that much of the music produced and marketed as "jazz" during the 1960s and 1970s is not jazz. More specifically, Marsalis has argued many times that two strains of American jazz - the experimental avant-garde and jazz-rock fusion - should not be considered jazz (he would call both styles "improvised music" instead). This, not surprisingly, rubs many musicians, critics, and fans the wrong way.*

Marsalis has made two arguments for these exclusions. The first, which Wynton expresses in his DTM interview, and which his intellectual godfather Stanley Crouch has repeated elsewhere, is that by succumbing to inclusion ad infinitum, the word jazz loses its meaning. Instead, Marsalis argues, one must draw the line somewhere. For Marsalis, swing is one of the essential traits of jazz (the blues aesthetic is another), so any evaluation of what is or is not jazz begins by determining whether the music in question swings (though it should be noted that Marsalis' tastes seem to have broadened over the past 15 years).** As Iverson argues in his DTM posts, Marsalis and his contemporaries fetishize swing to an astonishing degree. Avant-garde jazz and fusion do many things, but they do not swing the way Marsalis and his peers swing. So it is not surprising why Marsalis would argue for the exclusion of those styles from The Jazz Tradition.

The second reason speaks both to cultural politics and musical analysis. In Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making (Roth Family Foundation Music in America Imprint), Gabriel Solis explains Marsalis' has description of the 1960s and 1970s as a time when some jazz musicians lost their way. The historical trajectory of jazz was altered when a number of musicians followed the trails of either the avant-garde or fusion. Both styles were not jazz. Fusion was no better than rock music. As Wynton put it "If you were there it was a great way to meet women and have a good time... but it's a death toll for jazz musicians." And the avant garde was also decidedly non-jazz. It was merely "a reaction to the European avant-garde," which sacrificed The Jazz Tradition for the sake of innovation. Because so many musicians fell under the spell of fusion or the avant-garde, jazz ceased to exist as an artistic musical expression that also captured the ears of a substantial audience, according to Marsalis.

Marsalis sought to return jazz to this cultural moment at which jazz could be both accessible and elevated to high art status. He and the Young Lions brought a renewal to jazz following these musical upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. The excesses of the avant-garde and the crass comercialism of fusion were to be cast aside for jazz that built upon a tradition that was artistic but did not innovate for the sake of innovation. It can easily be described Morning in Jazz if you wanted to make reference to Reagan.

Marsalis was successful. He became enough of a cultural zeitgeist to appear on the cover of Time and secure his appointment as Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, where he institutionalized his program of jazz renewal. But not only that, he created great jazz that itself should be included in The Jazz Tradition. On DTM, Iverson restates the case for Marsalis Standard Time ~ Vol.1, J Mood, The Wynton Marsalis Quartet Live At Blues Alley, and Black Codes (From the Underground), and I heartily second. He may have touched off the Jazz Wars in the process, but he would argue that he also helped blaze the path for creating The Jazz Tradition.

This story of renewal following two decades in the wilderness is oddly reminiscent of the narrative employed by Ronald Reagan in 1980, just around the same time Marsalis began his apprenticeship with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Reagan saw the politics of the 1960s and 1970s much in the same way Marsalis saw the jazz of those eras. The major thenes of Reagan's 1980 Presidential campaign included critiques of the boated welfare state of the 1960s, the loss of momentum in the Cold War at the hand of detente during the 1970s, and the permissive youth culture of both decades. As Marsalis perceived his music as a renewal of jazz, Reagan presented his platform as a vehicle of American renewal (whether he achieved it or not is a whole other story).

Like Reagan, Marsalis consolidated his ideas into a movement, creating a template for his own school to follow and for his detractors to criticize. Both men placed themselves in important historic moments, at which point they were to lead the public on a historical trajectory. Both are at the center of debate in their respective fields almost thirty years afterward, in the 2008 Republican Presidential primaries in Reagan's case, and in the postmortem of the Jazz Wars in the case of Marsalis. So aside from being a superficially biting critique of Marsalis, the comparison to Reagan also reveals much about the way Marsalis may perceive of himself in jazz history.


Big h/t and a heartfelt thanks for being who they are to: The Bad Plus (DTM)

For more on Marsalis, see Eric Porter, What Is This Thing Called Jazz?: African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists, pp. 287-334 and Gabriel Solis, Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making, pp. 150-151.

*There is an undeniable amount of resentment inherent in these critiques of Marsalis. As Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, he is in a particularly powerful position as the preeminent tastemaker of American jazz. Certainly, most of his critics would enjoy that kind of critical power.
Marsalis postulates this theory, which he calls the "purist ethic in jazz," in a 1988 op-ed piece for the New York Times, "What is Jazz - And Isn't." Iverson summed up a major critique of this position brilliantly in his DTM post, writing that to his detractors, Marsalis appeared to have "a unified disdain for jazz music that wasn’t swinging, virtuosic, and informed only by the great black jazz musicians comfortable with chord changes."


Anonymous said...

very true... Wynton made jazz serious and thoughtful again... thanks!

Check me out to learn all about JAZZ during the NEW YEAR! With Obama in the White House We will have Jazz coming out of the windows!

Justin Kaw said...

Another commentator - that is, someone more attuned to the avant garde - would point out that, at times, musicians like Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Arthur Blythe, Horace Tapscott, and many more certainly do swing. It's just, at other times, they do something different.

David said...

You're certainly correct. Wynton would argue that swing needs to be at the forefront of jazz all the time, and not merely another tool in the kit.