August 1, 2021

Wynton Marsalis, Guardian of Essences

It was perhaps the last great jazz concert before the world as we knew it disappeared and was replaced by the current one, that of paranoia, fear and suspicion. The virus had reached Europe, there was already a case registered in Barcelona. A few days earlier, the Mobile World Congress had been canceled. We were beginning to fear closed and crowded rooms. But on February 28, 2020, Wynton Marsalis erased or at least bracketed all of that. Leading the extraordinary Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra, he offered an impressive historical-musical parade on the magical stage of the Palau that, although embedded in tradition, for two hours protected us from all evil.

Marsalis during a concert at the Teatre Grec in Barcelona in 2013

Àlex Garcia / Archive

For jazz fans, Marsalis is a controversial character. Son of the pianist Ellis, brother of the saxophonist Branford and the trombonist Delfeayo, in the eighties Wynton Marsalis was the maximum representative of the young lions , a group of highly technical musicians, focused on the bebop of four decades earlier and who rejected both avant-garde innovations and fusions with rock. Conservatives and owners of a high technical level, to these musicians, such as their travel companions Marcus Roberts or Jeff Tain Watts, they were also called neoclassicals, reboppers and even wyntonitas . Marsalis, who after passing through Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers had explored the sonic possibilities opened up by Miles Davis’ second great quintet, ended up going further and further back in the history of this music, paying homage to Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and even arriving, as in the 2020 Palau concert, to pay tribute to Buddy Bolden, a legendary trumpeter of the early jazz.

Marsalis was always the highest representative of the ‘young lions’ of jazz, who rejected both avant-garde innovations and fusions with rock

While being acclaimed as the greatest trumpeter of the moment in both jazz and classical music, Marsalis openly criticized the electrical experimentations of Miles Davis, whom he accused of having sold, and even his own brother Branford for playing with Sting, with a rigid and orthodox view of jazz underpinned by the writings of critic and historian Stanley Crouch. Among the ideas advocated by Crouch, those that jazz is essentially black, white musicians are inferior, bebop is the maximum expression of this music and John Coltrane and especially Miles Davis are heretics and traitors for their flirtations with the avant-garde and rock. This conservatism, with its strong racial tinge, was embraced by Marsalis in his role as director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, a very powerful position in the American jazz scene and an enviable platform from which to spread his exclusive vision and, incidentally , close the path to innovation.

Wynton vs. Miles

A key moment in the history of Marsalis took place in June 1986 at the Vancouver Jazz Festival. In the midst of Miles Davis’ performance, Marsalis, who was already twenty-four years old, had great success, took the stage. Davis, offended, threw him out, it is said that with profanity. Later, Marsalis attributed his attitude to the fury caused by the repeated insults that Davis gave him. For example, when introduced to Marsalis, Davis said, “The police have arrived.”
For Marsalis, adding rock to jazz meant, in addition to selling out, eroding swing, while cool and the avant-garde brought him closer to European music and away from his black origins. Davis, the leader of both tendencies, was a double traitor. Davis, for his part, considered young lions as mere clones, to his music as “overheated turkey” and argued that turning jazz into classical music, repertoire, prevented him from renewing himself and hurt him to death.
Jazz, a music that was born hybrid and impure and that advances with action and reaction, has in Wynton Marsalis its maximum purist.

Wynton Marsalis and Miles Davis At the Louis Armstrong Auditorium in New Orleans, Louisiana, April 25, 1985.  (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Wynton Marsalis and Miles Davis at the Louis Armstrong Auditorium in New Orleans in 1985

Paul Natkin / Getty

If his jazz worldview is so charged with chiaroscuro and his records, while technically impeccable, contribute little to the history of this music, his concerts, however, can be a momentous experience. Last year, at the Palau, the Lincoln Center orchestra impressed with its imposing, both sonically and visually: fifteen elegant musicians (in Brooks Brothers suits, as the press release notes), impeccable, almost martial in their concentration, in his bearing and in his discipline, launching a forceful volley of jazz, with surprising and colorful arrangements, an overwhelming swing and a monumental set of textures. Marsalis, sitting as one of the trumpeters, only assumed the leading role to explain the history of the pieces and to make the odd comment on the childishness of the modern, with the posture of a severe teacher but capable of kind gestures, such as, for For example, sharing its privileged stage with the Sant Andreu Big Band and inviting the Catalan saxophonist Lluc Casares. Although that generosity could also be read as a way to expand his particular gospel; Ultimately, his orchestra’s self-appointed mission is to “entertain, enrich, and expand a global jazz community through performances, education, and upholding its ideals.”

From his orthodoxy, Marsalis criticized both the mergers of Miles Davies and his brother Bradford for playing with Sting

All in all, the orchestra led by Marsalis, with its exuberance and excellence, may be ideal to announce what is beginning to be seen as the exit from the tunnel, the return to that indispensable human ritual of the live concert. Which, in this case, will not only star what may be the most powerful and oiled traditional big band in recent times. For part of the planned program, Marsalis will lead a different configuration, that of the septet, a formation with which he made some of his best albums and, through whose spaces, more airy, perhaps the vitality and surprise that he would like to control so much sneak in.

Wynton Marsalis y Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra



52 Voll-Damm Barcelona Jazz Festival12th of July. Palau of Catalan Music