Jazz at the Center

By Alterman, Eric | The Nation, May 12, 1997 | Go to article overview

Jazz at the Center


Alterman, Eric, The Nation


When Wynton Marsalis received the Pulitzer Prize recently for his three-and-a-half-hour slavery oratorio, Blood on the Fields, he was the first jazz composer ever so recognized (Duke Ellington was specifically rejected by the board). But Marsalis -- whose success at 35 as a composer, popularizer, teacher and institution-builder is unrivaled -- is still an angry young man, albeit a charming and eloquent one.

Sitting in his living room overlooking the Hudson River forty-eight hours after the Pulitzers were announced, Marsalis explained that jazz musicians have three major problems: "First, we play too loud and we don't play together; second, the sound on the albums is not good; third is the critical element."

A considerable portion of Marsalis's last complaint derives from what he feels are problematic qualifications among many jazz writers. Although jazz is America's only indigenous high art form, it is also the most underappreciated and lacks a firm foundation for writers to establish consensus critical criteria. Classical music writers derive their credentials from study in generously endowed university music departments; rock writers, from the multibillion-dollar industry and the media conglomerates underwriting it. But jazz writers have neither dedicated degrees nor a secure home in the capitalist food chain. What's more, they are often plagued by an ambivalent relationship with jazz musicians, owing to a complicated interplay of race and power.

Fan magazines like Down Beat and JazzTimes frequently lack the resources to pay full-time professionals; and newspapers, even in the great metropolises, often have no one on staff with deep knowledge of the subject. On tour, Wynton, the purist Marsalis, is frequently asked, "Why did you quit your gig with Jay Leno?" or "What was it like playing with the Grateful Dead?" (Polite answer: "That was Branford.") Nevertheless, Marsalis notes, such writers have historically been in a position of greater authority firm those covering classical music, art or drama. That has led producer Orrin Keepnews to term jazz criticism "a bad idea, poorly executed."

While Marsalis admires the work of noted jazz historians Gunther Schuller, Dan Morgenstem and Martin Williams, who happen to be white, he is bitter at what he deems paternalism among even serious and knowledgeable white jazz writers. "They are cultured, intelligent men, but ... they're always dispensing from above. It's a type of white attitude to what they perceive to be the experience of being black. One I associate with the 1950s kind of informed white man who has black friends. The other I associate with the 1960s informed white man who is in favor of the Negro cause."

Packed inside Marsalis's bitterness are a set of issues that have riveted not only jazz criticism but much of our cultural conversation. Marsalis is the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, one of the few important cultural institutions in America run by a black man and staffed by black majorities. …

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