Talkin' Loud
Wynton Marsalis at the Jazz Cafe

Wynton Marsalis was about to appear on stage before our very eyes - now isn't that something to get excited about? Yes, Wynton Marsalis at the Jazz Café! The legend, the loudmouth, the Young Lion who's not so young anymore but can surely still roar in defiance of those who dismiss his idea that there's a jazz tradition that deserves to be preserved. It was a Thursday night, about 9.30, and Wynton Marsalis was due to walk down the steps and onto the stage of the Jazz Café!

Actually, I'm not sure that he's really a ´loudmouth', not literally, although some might say that he is just because he speaks publicly, enthusiastically, about his mission. Everyone should have a mission. I haven't figured out what mine is yet, although perhaps it's to write a Great Novel, or at least lead a life that's as close to the ideal imaginary one in my head, and I don't know which is easier. Wynton's made his mission possible by hard work heaped on talent which may or may not be ´god-given'. I'm still undecided about the ´talent gene' theory.

Wynton has his theory about jazz, and it pisses off a lot of people. They say he's got no right to build a tombstone for jazz and stick it where he does, which is roughly around the late-60s in the time line. After that, he doesn't want to know. I don't know why this is so controversial because it's only his opinion at the end of the day and he happens to have decided when the end of the day came for ´classic jazz', if I may use that term.

Lot's of people have a problem with the notion of ´classic' jazz because they do they believe? Oh, yes, they believe that when Miles ´rocked' it was as good as anything that came before, and they believe that the free thing was Good too, and they might even believe, as crazy as this sounds, that pure Improv is as good as....oh, I don't know...say Ellington or Monk. Maybe they believe that. I've never met this breed, apart from a friend who once looked down his nose at me for daring to suggest that Wynton's appearance at The Proms some years back was a good thing.

People have a problem with the idea of classicism and tradition because they believe in progress, I suppose. Perhaps they can't accept the idea that anything is over, in art, music, or the movies, although I can't imagine anyone with half a brain believing in the value of Hollywood today compared to its past. It can't be over, surely? We can't be stuck with the first fifty years, can we? Is Citizen Kane the best it can produce? Oh no!

Where this need to believe in The Future, or a Present that will produce the goods, comes from I'm not sure. Perhaps, as humans, we need this optimism to make us get out of bed. Oh, we know we need to work, and that this thing we call life is better than whatever comes afterwards, but what gives us faith in culture as an ongoing vibrant, worthwhile phenomenon? Some have a vested interest, and some are just optimistic, I guess. Some are still waiting for the next crucial development in jazz, and some really think that to make it digital somehow vali
dates those efforts just because...because it's modern!

Now, cynics will say that to play in what amounts to a preservation society is to give up and be regressive. To have talent and not apply it to the task of acoustic-electro programming is to admit defeat, to deny the present, and to damn those who try - bo-o-o-o! Get thee behind me, swinger. But these people are compulsive modernists. They really think that the latest thing must inherently have value. They feel guilty if they haven't bought something modern, but do so more out of the need to try and update their existence rather than genuine belief in the Now. To recline in the easy chair of history is, after all, to finally grow old-fashioned.

Ah, to grow older is a terrible thing. To face the fact that you're not sixteen and naturally inclined to embrace whatever the latest fad may be because you're young and ignorant of historical context. Oh to be so unknowing! To wear ten-inch black platform shoes and paint your face white thinking it means something! To shout and scream at a gig featuring a band that are playing what's been played before, maybe, but not to you! To dance in clubs as if clubs were made for you and your generation have the best of them, and the fact that the DJs are playing variations on ancient themes matters not one bit because you weren't even born when Chic first freaked!

Perhaps the oldest people in the crowd at the Jazz Café looked at Wynton Marsalis and the younger one's reactions and thought to themselves: ´Well, he's good, but he's not Freddie Hubbard and I know ´cause I saw him at Ronnies in 1964'. Perhaps, but I have the suspicion that most devotees of classicism would have been only too pleased that its champion was loud and proud about all that and playing to them in a small club. After all, they want a champion. They want a heavyweight who can hit for them in a world dedicated to youth and their useless music. They want someone like Wynton who will stand up and tell it like it is, not a player preaching about how it will be when he's made the greatest hip-hop R&B jazz fusion ever and thus taken jazz to great heights on the next progressive plateau. No, sir, no thank-you.

Falling into the Right/Wrong Either/Or trap may be folly, especially if your voice is listened to worldwide, but despite that I still can't help admiring Marsalis for speaking out, for believing. The world is full of fence-sitters, fudgers, and wishy-washy liberals who are afraid of themselves, of saying what they think. It's far better to be slippery and vague, perhaps, to avoid sticking one's head above the ramparts for fear of being shot. To speak for something may involve being against something else, and to be against ´progress', or whatever is Modern, is to appear to be stuck, stupid, a slave to nostalgia whilst the world spins on and time overtakes.

Jazz didn't run a logical linear course last century; it rewound and shot forward, it was revised and revolutionised, often during the same period of time. But still, if you care, you have to ask yourself whether today's ´Nu-Jazz' is valid, and if there's any point trying to pin a badge that says ´Urban' onto a classically tailored suit. Editors of magazines need to believe in the present and the future of this thing called ´jazz', but the rest of us? Shucks, after all, after everything is considered, we're individuals, and if that means anything it means we should let ourselves, our overly-concerned, self-conscious selves, go. Wynton does. He's thought a great deal about all this, but when all's said and done and analysed he still takes a stand for what he believes, for this crazy, stupid, nostalgic notion that, yes, there was a golden age of jazz and it's clearly definable. The young fool.

Funnily enough, considering that he's the anti-Christ and mega-successful, when he walked onto the stage at the Jazz Café he appeared to be neither evil nor arrogant. He gave a shy smile and a little wave like some kid about to play in front of his parents at a school social event. Contrary to what one might expect, the septet didn't set about blowing us away in a barrage of finely-tuned improvisational fury either. Damn, they were cool. They just stepped into a mid-tempo tune and proceeded to play, thoughtfully, because, hey, they were Wynton's band, and they didn't have to prove a thing.

Everything was just fine and dandy on this night, and the styles beloved by the man were presented as well as they could be, and there are no ´buts' to come in this sentence. Of course all the players delivered, although amongst equals Henry Riley on drums and the horn section were probably more equal than the rest. One of the two highlights first came in the form of the old hymn ´Just A Closer Walk With Thee', which allowed the players to relax and expand gracefully in the beautiful tune. It created that feeling, that rare feeling when live music really is a moving, dare I say religious experience. The second highlight was the encore, when they got stuck into a funky Mardis Gras groove. A fourteen-year-old Italian kid even got the call-up for just one solo on his tenor and left everyone's jaws scraping the floor.

That was Wynton at the Jazz Café. It was a rare chance to see someone so big in somewhere so small. It wasn't the best jazz gig I've ever been to, and with a trunk full of music sheets it may not have been the best night they played during their four-night spell at the venue, but I'm not complaining. Like everyone else there I was more than happy to hear the tradition as defined by Marsalis.

© 2003Robin Tomens