Music: Marsalis's village voice

Wynton Marsalis is a trumpet player of genius. He also has a reputation for arrogance. But not in Marciac, says Duncan Heining

Duncan Heining
Thursday 19 August 1999 23:02

As Wynton Marsalis walks into the press office at the Marciac Jazz Festival, there's no swagger, no arrogance - just a quiet grace and elegance. Cool, hip, immaculate. At that moment all around me, I can hear my colleagues from the fourth estate draw breath together. There are about 20 of us and there's a long pause when he sits down before anyone dares ask a question. When the interrogation does begin, we're just hanging on every word. Stupid perhaps, but that's just how it is.

Marciac is special for Marsalis and this small French village in Gascony, clasped him to its egalitarian bosom when he made his first visit to the festival nearly 10 years ago. They even erected a life-size bronze statue to him in 1997 and for years he's been coming back to play and teach the class of children that he sponsors. So, why is this place and festival so special for him? "I think it speaks to the international power of jazz music and really to the spirit of the people. They're just down-home people, very soulful, like the music itself."

This year, the trumpeter releases a massive eight records, classical as well as jazz, and one of those is a suite of pieces dedicated to Marciac and its people called, obviously, The Marciac Suite. He takes us through the pieces, each dedicated to some person or aspect of the region. There's "Jean-Louis is Everywhere" for its excellent mayor, festival director and college principal. There are tracks dedicated to Pierre Boussaguet, the wonderful French bass player who will accompany Friday night's "Trumpet Summit" at the festival, and another to the late French tenor player, Guy Lafitte. There are pieces named after two of the local specialities, Armagnac and foie gras, as well as one for the kids at the local school. The music is as warm and sunny and generous as these people deserve.

For someone with Marsalis's bruising schedule, he's relaxed and appears totally at ease with whoever he's speaking to - whether it's another musician, mayor Jean-Louis Guillhaumon or the small French boy backstage at the gig who asks Marsalis how he became "so beautiful". The trumpeter laughs and ruffles the boy's hair. "What does he mean? Tell him he's a hundred times cuter than me!" It all comes over as totally genuine, just as when a young Afro-French boy gets a sound from the trumpeter's horn. "I want that boy's address. You tell him I'm going to send him a trumpet and next year I'm going to give him some lessons at the festival." I just didn't expect the man to be... well, frankly, so impulsive.

Marsalis is still only 37 and he's won every major award - he's the only musician ever to win Grammy's for jazz and classical recordings in the same year, as well as winning a Pulitzer for 1997's Blood on the Fields. So, I ask him how he keeps finding fresh challenges. "Man, I'm just starting." But he said that 10 years ago. "Yeah, I was just starting then. I've been working my whole life. I like to get up and play and write. I've been blessed with the opportunity to do it and I'm not going to mess it up. I'm having a great time out here."

His career started with the drummer and band leader Art Blakey, when he left behind a Juilliard scholarship to join the last great Jazz Messengers line-up. Gigs with Herbie Hancock's Quartet followed before he formed his own group in 1981. Since then he's been leading his own bands with a dedication and commitment to his art that appears from the outside to be monk-like (or should that be Monk-like?). The best guess is - and his comments bear it out - that this is the only gig in town for him. He just wouldn't be doing anything else and he's having a whole lot of fun doing it.

We start talking about Jelly Roll Morton, a passion for Wynton perhaps second only to Duke Ellington. One of this year's eight releases is dedicated to Morton's compositions, the sixth volume in the trumpeter's "Standard Time" series. Marsalis describes the New Orleans pianist/ composer as "our first great composer and one of our greatest intellectuals. You can learn more about jazz from his Library of Congress recordings than anything you will come into contact with." The fact that Marsalis is well aware of Morton's history as a pimp takes nothing away from his crucial contribution to the music.

"Yeah, Jelly Roll, he was a pimp. That's just part of being a musician - not being a pimp, but the whole thing of meeting many women. All musicians want that reputation - it's sad but it's true. They all want that." Marsalis laughs and shakes his head. Well, I suppose that means you can forget the comment about his approach being "monk-like". "Mademoiselle de Gascony" from the new suite would give the lie to that on its own.

We'd spoken a couple of weeks ago on the phone and he'd said something really striking about the lack of recognition of Ellington among Black Americans and linked this to the death of Martin Luther King. I ask him what he meant by this. "Ellington's not that significant as a cultural figure among Black Americans because Black Americans don't know anything about him. Nobody's playing his music. In America, there's a really bad slump right now, a cultural slump. After the death of Martin Luther King, that took a lot out of the Afro-American people and the people have not recovered from that yet. That's why we're putting so much garbage into the world right now."

He goes on to say that it's not just Ellington but any Black American artist, who is "serious". They will not get their due from their community. For Marsalis, "the African-American is not really awake yet". When I suggest this is a remarkable statement, he says: "What's more remarkable than the statement is the truth of it. How could anybody dispute it? Just look at what we're putting out." To him, it seems most Black Americans would choose Kenny G over Ellington or Coltrane any day. It's a strong sentiment to end the interview.

After we've finished, he wanders on to the balcony and we're looking down on to the market square where the free stage is set up for the festival. He's complimentary about the young flugelhorn player Alexandre Tassel who is then on stage. We're just chatting and a young woman, 18 or 19, standing with her parents looks up and recognises him. She waves. Marsalis waves back and blows her a kiss. She blushes and turns away. "Oh! Now look, I've gone and upset her." I say, "Yeah, you musicians can't be trusted. You blow some young girl a kiss. Break their heart." "Yeah," he replies, "expect them to jump in your bed." He turns to me and grins, shaking his head. How it is, man. How it is.

At the evening's concert in this huge and packed circus tent, Marsalis performs a trumpet summit with seven of the music's finest. There's the wonderful septuagenarian Clark Terry. There's John Faddis and Benny Bailey, as well as the younger generation which is represented by Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Paynton. When they come on stage, Marsalis stands to one side. It's the sort of thing that invites those charges that have been levelled at him over the years, that he's arrogant or aloof. Nothing I've seen or heard during the day says that any of that is true. A fairer interpretation is that he is "the big name" here, but there's no way he wants to take this thing over. It's like a physical gesture to place emphasise on the presence and importance of the other musicians. But he is "the big name" and he's stuck with the fact that you can't help but notice him.

Each man takes a solo, some soft and swinging, some shooting for those notes above high C. Marsalis takes the last few choruses and they're about as well chosen as they could be. Nothing flash, nothing earth-shattering. Just an under-stated gem of a solo that allows the other players their thing but still succeeds in asserting his own voice.

A series of tributes to Louis Armstrong follow. Marsalis finishes the spot with Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust". He's holding a little back, but it's still a joy and there's a fresh bounce and swing in the step of the rhythm section as he plays. The set concludes with the inevitable jam session with everyone pairing up to blow. Marsalis is with Roy Hargrove and after the first polite chorus, Hargrove seems to throw down the glove. Marsalis shakes his shoulders loose like a fighter, and from there it's one-on-one. But the thing is, there's no urge to dominate or win, just to assert himself. Like he said earlier about teaching his students to "use their ears, be confident and search for their own personal identity". Somewhere along the line - from his father, Ellis, probably - he learnt that standing up for himself didn't mean that there have to be losers.

Backstage, I tell him that it was interesting watching him that night and that I thought I learnt a lot about him. "Yeah? So, what did you think you learnt about me from that?" There's no way I'm going to get into any long discussion, so I say: " I realised that there have been a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings over the years in what people have said about you."

His reply is given with emphasis. "There's been a lot of bullshit. No misunderstandings. Just bullshit." I think maybe he's right.

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