Past Master: Sholto Byrnes on Why Re-Creation Is as Important as Innovation in Jazz. (Music)
Byrnes, Sholto, New Statesman (1996)
Wynton's back in town, or at least he will be soon, and the crowds will surely flock to see Marsalis and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra toot their way through the music of Art Blakey and Benny Goodman. The reaction will probably be positive, for whatever else Wynton Marsalis may be - neo-conservative misogynist, unforgiving dictator of style - he is the world's most recognised jazz musician, and a magnificent trumpet player.
There will be one, maybe unwritten, reservation, however, among all this praise: Marsalis is revisiting the past, something more decried in jazz than in any other art form. Just a couple of months ago, the alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, like Marsalis an alumnus of the Blakey Jazz Messengers school, appeared in London to promote his latest album, Kind of New, on which he performs all the tracks from Miles Davis's classic Kind of Blue plus a couple of his own compositions in a similar vein. The headline on one review read: "A kind of new project but So What?", the last two words a reference to the opening number on Davis's original album. The headline did not really reflect the piece, but the implicit impression was that there's no value in looking back - that the jazz mantra should always he: "innovation, innovation, innovation".
When I interviewed him in New York recently, Wynton Marsalis had one very simple response to this criticism, asking: "How many people heard Charlie Parker?" A tiny percentage of those who knew Bird through his recordings, is the answer, and they would have listened to only scratchy recordings at that. To some, however, these are the sacred texts (what a fuss there was when Parker's solos were cleaned up and grafted on to newly recorded rhythm sections for Clint Eastwood's film of the saxophonist's life) and any attempt to re-create them is blasphemy. These people argue that artists like Marsalis and Harrison are trying to put jazz in a museum by reviving old arrangements instead of breaking new ground. But if there is no museum to visit, how can the glories of the past inform the next generation and allow the canon to move forward? Recordings of the originals are not enough: live performances connect in a way vinyl and disc cannot. …