Wynton Marsalis: Blowing up a storm

It doesn't take much to annoy Wynton Marsalis. Jazz after about 1965? Forget it. Rap? Don't get him started. But these days the trumpeter is turning his furious attention to some of the US's biggest issues: corporate ethics, the continued persecution of black Americans and the inadequate government response to Hurricane Katrina. Sholto Byrnes tries, in vain, to calm him down

When Wynton Marsalis steps on stage at Radio City Music Hall in New York next month, he will have achieved recognition the likes of which no jazz musician has received before. Others have been honoured with monuments or awards. Dizzy Gillespie famously performed his tune "Salt Peanuts" with Jimmy Carter at the White House. Miles Davis was also invited to the presidential residence (and, typically, got into a fight with a politician's wife). But Marsalis has been invited to address the World Business Forum alongside one former president, Bill Clinton, and another man who may well sit in the Oval Office one day, New York's ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani. And he'll be there not because of the sweetness of his trumpet-playing but because, like them, he's a leader.

From his office in the Lincoln Center near Central Park, he oversees the most prestigious jazz department in the world, complete with recently constructed multi-million dollar auditorium complex, the Frederick P Rose Hall (or the Taj Marsalis, as it is less respectfully known). A consultant to television series, a leading educator, the first son of New Orleans, Marsalis isthe public face of jazz in America; and that means much, much more there than it does here in the UK. Jazz is one of the few art forms the US can claim as its own, as much a part of the country's cultural fabric as baseball or pumpkin pie. Take a few UK-based arts panjandrums - Melvyn Bragg, Alan Yentob, and Richard Eyre, say - roll them into one then add a figure who speaks about race - Trevor Phillips, say - and you have some idea of Marsalis's stature in the US.

He tells me he senses that he was "ordained" to take the role he has. "I felt that I was chosen to do it," he says as we sit in Ronnie Scott's the afternoon before his recent residency at the London club. By whom - God? "No, I meant more spiritually," he says. "My thought was not to squander this opportunity, not to waste it with trivial things like chasing fame." Wynton Marsalis most certainly doesn't "do" trivial.

However high his public profile, I wonder if the organisers of the World Business Forum know what they're letting themselves in for. When I ask how his experience is relevant to the forum, Marsalis tells me that "jazz teaches you how to communicate with people honestly". But his "honesty" often translates as forcefulness. This is a man who once said, "I tell the kids who are angry that you should never lose your anger. You should stay mad. When you lose the anger, you lose the force." In a previous encounter with Marsalis, I made him angry by asking about controversies surrounding him in jazz. This time, he gets angry all on his own, when we talk about the forthcoming first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina which he and the Mayor of New Orleans are marking with a three day event.

"The leadership was sitting around, twiddling their thumbs, playing politics with people's lives," he says of last year's events. "Their sense of urgency was not the same as the people's. We all saw it." Does he think the federal government would have reacted as slowly if a wealthier area had been affected? "No, the response would not have been the same." Politicians are more interested in campaigning in wealthy areas, he says. "But that's the truth of the world, not just of America."

This cold anger comes out again when I ask him why he thinks there was a period when jazz was not given its due in America. "Part of the reason it happened was because of race," he says. "For a long time you had a group of people that you're always putting down, that were slaves, that were segregated, that were treated like a national joke - you know that the Minstrel show was the most popular form of popular entertainment for 80 years? Every type of law that could be conceived of was created to keep them ignorant and down. They were put in jail for every little thing. People were lynched and castrated. A town would be bombed just to keep people's businesses from growing. They had to march in the street and protest so that they wouldn't be harassed when they voted; so that they could get an education, or just drink from a regular water fountain. And you had a mythology invested in keeping them like that. It's not something," he says, his rapid-fire delivery easing off slightly, "where you can turn the switch, and suddenly all those years go away and everything is cool."

Isn't the situation much better in America now? "I don't know about much better," says Marsalis, speeding up again. "But it's better. It's better than it was in 1840. Is it better than it was in 1960? I don't know. So I'll take the long view. Let's go back to 1780. Yes, it's better." This seems a half-hearted endorsement of the current state of race relations at best, so I mention the positions of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in the Bush administrations. "That doesn't mean nothing." No? "No. Maybe you wouldn't have had that in 1843. But there were more black people in the Senate in 1867 than there are now."

Don't the positions held by Rice and Powell represent an advance of sorts? "The colour of a person's skin is not their ideology," replies Marsalis. "You've got Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, but... [he stops and splutters at the mention of the ultra-conservative judge] so what? You can say that there's this guy with brown skin. There he is. But his ideology is not helping black people in America."

Some might think that Wynton has little connection with underprivileged black areas of his home country. Success came early to the second Marsalis brother (saxophonist Branford is the eldest in a family which also includes trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason). His status as one of the greatest trumpet virtuosos has been secure ever since he joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers aged 18. Now 44, he has won numerous Grammys, taking both the classical and jazz awards in 1983, and a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his oratorio Blood On The Fields. The US House of Representatives has honoured him for his outstanding contribution to the arts, and 10 years ago Time magazine named him as one of America's 25 most influential people. Marsalis always dresses well, if formally (he wore a tie and three piece suit for his opening night at Ronnie Scott's even though London was in the middle of a heatwave), and although his accent is pure New Orleans and his tone a little raspy, he is never less than eloquent and can turn on the homespun charm in an instant.

It is of a particularly homespun variety. One of his habits is to refer often to food, as a way of illustrating a point about culture or politics. So I ask him if he cooks a lot. "Man, I'm not a good cook," he says jovially. "That's why I talk about it so much. I'm a good eater though. I like a lot of food. Vegetables. Gumbo. Sushi." Can he boil an egg? "Yeah, I can cook for myself," he says. "But I wouldn't cook for you. I wouldn't insult you. I can sauté things, put a little sauce on it. Simple stuff, you know?"

The talk of gumbo and sauce may seem a little folksy, but Marsalis's family was far from wealthy and his upbringing nowhere near as privileged as that of the more seemingly radical Miles Davis, who grew up in an upper middle class area of East St Louis. Marsalis's father, Ellis, was a pianist and teacher. Ironically, given the conservative trajectory of Wynton's career, Ellis was a modernist in a town known for preserving the earliest of jazz styles. "It wasn't the kind of music that was really popular," concedes Wynton. When Marsalis was six, he spent most of a year staying with his Great Uncle Alphonse, a stonecutter who lived just outside New Orleans. "He was born in 1883, and his parents were born into slavery," Marsalis tells me. "'Phonsie Crazy' they used to call him, because during segregation he wouldn't take no shit. He would pull his knife on someone in a second if they were disrespecting him. He taught me a lot about the world."

Great Uncle Alphonse taught himself to read, and encouraged the young Wynton to devour books. I think it's men like his great uncle and his father, Ellis, who instilled in Marsalis his keen sense of dignity and purpose. And I think it's from his perception that they were not respected as much as they should have been (Ellis Marsalis only became appreciated by a wider audience after his sons achieved success) that his anger comes. It was from their culture, after all, that jazz sprung originally.

"From these people comes an art form that defines everybody and welcomes everybody," says Wynton. "It was the national art form. Benny Goodman played jazz, man. Fred Astaire danced to jazz." But because of its Afro-American roots, claims Marsalis, the dominant white society could respect it only as popular music. "They had to put it down," he says. "After the Civil Rights Movement that became less necessary." Still, he points out, there were "400 and something years" of black oppression. "The vestiges of that remain, and we still work on it."

Marsalis's mission has been to place the music of what he considers to be jazz's golden age - roughly from 1920 to the 1960s - on the pedestal it deserves. His desire that the music of Armstrong and Ellington should be treated as respectfully as the classical music of Europe is admirable, but it also leads him to choppier waters. A necessary part of gaining that respect, he thinks, is codifying jazz, just as there are conventions for classical counterpoint. For Marsalis, the ultimate codifier is the beat: are the drummer and bass player marking out swing time (roughly speaking, four in a bar on the bass and a "tshh-ti-ki-tshh" rhythm on the cymbal)? If so, it's jazz. If they're employing anything which smacks of funk and rock, it's not. He allows no place for electric instruments. The problem is, these rules discount a large part of what most jazz musicians consider to be the jazz of the last 40 years.

I ask him about one highly-rated band which doesn't fit his criteria. Steps Ahead has included players such as Michael Brecker, arguably the most influential tenor saxophonist since John Coltrane; Eddie Gomez, the double bassist for pianist Bill Evans, and Jeff "Tain" Watts, the drummer in Marsalis's own band for most of the 1980s. "They play mainly fusion and rock-based music because the beats they play most of the night are not in the swing rhythm," replies Wynton. "It doesn't make it bad."

I attempt to ask a question, but he cuts me off. "Follow what I'm saying," he says. "Why is there such an investment in rock-based, funk-beat oriented music being jazz? I can never understand that." I pose him the question I was about to earlier. Say he asked Watts, widely thought of as one of jazz's leading drummers, if he played jazz at a Steps Ahead gig: what does he think Watts would reply? "I don't know. But it might be different to what I would say."

Few rock fans would recognise the music we're talking about as being for them. The vast majority of jazz musicians would. But Wynton doesn't. Given the influence he wields, this has far-reaching effects. We have, however, been down this route before and Marsalis is weary of discussing a subject on which he isn't willing to compromise one iota. Let us, for now, just praise him for his determination to secure a major part of jazz's heritage. His motives are good and stem from his pride in the pre-eminent American cultural achievement.

It is this pride that leads him to be so furiously dismissive of rap. "It's powerful, man," he says. "But I think any kind of ignorance and pornography is powerful, it's like dope. Anything that can deal with vice and lower things will be universal. The Minstrel show was like that. And they [the rappers] have picked up a lot of that - calling each other niggers, women bitches. All that inexcusably dumb shit. And the world will pardon you for it. They don't mind you making a fool out of yourself."

What's the answer, then? "Education is important, man. We need cultural education. I believe a person will not choose less if they know it's less. Ain't nobody gonna want you to call them a nigger if they know what it means. Ain't no woman who's gonna want you to call her a bitch if she understands. But everybody's just watching it and being entertained by it. It's painful."

Phew, I think, as I leave. It's always bracing having a conversation with Wynton Marsalis. On some matters - particularly his rules about what is and isn't jazz - I and many others disagree with him vehemently. On others, I admire his courage. Marsalis's intellectual mentor, the American theorist Stanley Crouch, once wrote about him: "You got to watch that man. He'll upset you." Crouch meant it as praise. You could take it differently. But either way, I think, it is a compliment, and one that Marsalis richly deserves. Long may he hold on to his anger.

Wynton Marsalis's 'Live at the House of Tribes' is out now on Blue Note

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