Marsalis to blow in Jozi

2011-07-29 16:09

The legendary Wynton Marsalis admits to being hugely excited about coming to Joburg next month.

“It’s the first time I am coming to Africa to play. I’ve been a fan of South African music for a long time, as many jazz musicians are. I’m looking forward to performing but also learning a lot about the music,” said Marsalis, speaking from Paris where he is on tour.

The musician, nicknamed Skain, said he was familiar with a number of South African artists, especially Hugh Masekela, and “loves to hear the music of the people to whom I can relate”.

Marsalis, who turns 50 in October, is the headline act at the upcoming Standard Bank Joy of Jazz, which also features Masekela, and is a coup for the festival which has grown in stature each year – not only in South Africa but also internationally.

Marsalis is arguably one the biggest jazz artists to come to this country. The trumpeter is a nine-time Grammy Award winner and is the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for music for his 1997 oratorio Blood on the Field.

He has also garnered substantial criticism from jazz circles following his “neo-classicist” opinion piece that was published in the New York Times in 1988 titled What Jazz Is – and Isn’t, in which he argued that the post-1965 avant-garde playing was outside of jazz and that 1970s fusion was barren.

His assertions set off a dissing spree in the jazz world that would make beef among today’s gangsta rappers look like a Sunday schoolboys picnic.

According to Wikipedia, jazz critic Scott Yanow dismissed it as a “selective knowledge of jazz history”.

He was further nailed in Eric Nisenson’s 1997 book, Blue: The Murder of Jazz, where Nisenson argued that Marsalis’ focus on a narrow portion of jazz’s past stifled growth and innovation.

Pianist Keith Jarrett also lashed out, saying: “I’ve never heard anything Wynton played sound like it meant anything at all. Wynton has no voice and no presence.

“His music sounds like a talented high-school trumpet player to me.”

Furthermore, in his autobiography, Miles Davis – who Marsalis said had left jazz and “went into rock” – said he found Marsalis too competitive.

“Wynton thinks playing music is about blowing people up on stage,” Davis wrote.

Their tumultuous relationship even resulted with Davis stopping his band in Vancouver in 1986 to eject an uninvited Marsalis from the stage. Davis said: “Wynton can’t play the kind of sh*t we were playing,” and twice told Marsalis “Get the f**k off”.

More personal attacks were exchanged including Marsalis saying Davis dressed like a “buffoon”.

Proving that he’s not just the unpopular kid in the jazz class, Marsalis has gone on to receive honorary degrees from Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Columbia universities in the US for his genius, and has sold more than five million copies of his albums.

He said: “When we play in South Africa, we’re gonna play the small group of music that we are playing now.

“A lot of original compositions that come from our records such as The Magic Hour, He and She, and Plantation to the Penitentiary.

“This is the type of music we have been recording for the last four or five years.”

He said the music he and his band will play at Joy of Jazz will address the identity of jazz and this should make for some dazzling musical moments.

Marsalis will be accompanied on his South African tour by Jonathan Batiste (piano), Carlos Henriques (bass), Ali Jackson (drums) and Walter Blanding (reeds).

What he looks for in musicians is intelligence and the ability to make decisions with improvising that will influence the direction the group is going.

He said: “But I also look for a depth of historical knowledge because our music has a tremendous depth and it’s referring all the time to many different styles and types.”

He believes that jazz is the music of communication. “When you come from New Orleans you have a history and a tradition of playing grooves, of playing the blues and all the different things.

“The lineage of musicians we have that come from our city range from Louis Armstrong to Joe “King” Oliver; from Sidney Bechet, Jelly “Roll” Morton and Fats Domino, to Professor Longhair and Mahalia Jackson.

“We just have a history and a tradition in a way of playing our music. We play a style of jazz which is ultra-modern.”

Marsalis said he was inspired by the energy of life. He is currently working on an album with Eric Clapton, an album of big-band arrangements of Thelonious Monk’s music and an album of nursery rhymes for children also given the big-band treatment.

Growing up in a family of New Orleans jazz musicians, it was to be expected that Marsalis would start playing the trumpet at an early age.

He received his first trumpet at the age of six as a birthday present from band-leader Al Hirt, and at 14 he made his musical debut with the Louisiana Philharmonic.

At 17 he moved to New York, where he attended Juilliard. He then joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, assembled his own band and began a prolific composing and recording career.

In 1987, Marsalis founded Jazz at Lincoln Center, which has grown into the world’s biggest arts organisation dedicated to jazz.

“There was so much racism when we grew up,” he has been quoted as saying, “and that’s part of what inspired me, I wanted to represent my humanity. The work ethic I developed at that time – I still have that.”

Asked how he became a leader in his field, Marsalis replied that he had always been a leader on teams, whether in football, baseball or basketball.

He recalls that as a younger band leader, he was too harsh on musicians, but as he matured the people who played with him taught him how to be better.

And an important lesson he learnt was that you have to have a clear direction. He said: “If you are unclear or wishy washy, or you lack the heart, they can’t follow you.” – Additional reporting by Lesley Mofokeng
» Marsalis will be performing at Emperors Palace on August 25 and on the Dinaledi Stage in Newtown on August 27

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