King of Swing or Killer of Jazz?; Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis Has Raised the Status of Black Music, but at a Price

Article excerpt

Byline: STUART NICHOLSON

THERE'S no shortage of controversy when it comes to Wynton Marsalis's role in shaping recent jazz history. On the one hand there's the glowing view of the mainstream media, portraying the jazz trumpeter as an American cultural icon. Others claim he is more secure in jazz's past than its future.

The critics complain that by focusing on historical repertoire or his own originals in similar mode, Marsalis is turning jazz into a mausoleum of picturesque relics.

They point to his 1999 recording of Jelly Roll Morton's Tom Cat Blues, using old, scratchy 78rpm technology, or his recreation of big-band hits from the 1930s and 1940s.

There is no denying that Marsalis is a lightning rod for debate. A youthful looking 40-year-old, he can already look back on a life of achievement. A simultaneous Grammy award winner for a jazz and classical performance (he is an outstanding classical trumpet player), a Pulitzer prize winner and one of Time magazine's 25 Most Influential People in America, there's never been a jazz musician quite like him.

In 1991, he was appointed artistic director of the new jazz department in Lincoln Center, the playground of Manhattan's elite. It quickly became a powerful outlet for a cultural vision he shares with Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch, both distinguished writers and social commentators.

Between them they sought to make the dissemination of jazz a vehicle for social change in America.

Inspired by the ideas expressed in Murray's book Stomping the Blues, Marsalis sought to place black people at the centre of American experience.

Jazz was conflated with the blues as a product of black engagement with modern life and of African-American exceptionalism.

A pantheon of jazz greats, a new jazz canon, was created to exemplify black achievement, emphasising Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong who, Murray asserted, achieved their artistry through "swing".

Swing is central to the Marsalis vision of jazz, an idealisation of a musical past when jazz had a direct connection with black social and cultural expression.

His version of jazz history thus excludes free jazz, electric jazz and almost all white musicians

("Not native to the idiom," says Murray, who sees jazz as antithetical to Eurocentrism).

Since they don't swing, they have been airbrushed out. …