Wynton Marsalis…part I

This may be the first of many blogs about Wynton Marsalis. These are my personal thoughts onĀ  Wynton, not the thoughts of jazz critics, peers and anyone else who loves to have a crack at him.

When I was about 10 or 11 years old it was about 1986/87 when I first saw Wynton’s quintet perform at QPAC here in Brisbane. I had no idea what I was listening to (conceptually), and I do remember watching his fingers press the valves of the trumpet and thinking I’ll be able to play those notes someday. I was drawn to Wynton as figure because of his calm nature on stage, the way he spoke to the crowd, the way he interacted with his band and I do remember his sound, it was always really nice even in the upper register of the trumpet.

At the time my father had already bought Wynton’s albums ‘Black Codes’ and ‘J Mood’. I remember hearing some of the songs from the records at the gig, but honestly don’t remember much else other than some melodies.

For the next few years I had posters of Wynton on my bedroom walls meanwhile all my friends had posters of Michael Jordon or Bon Jovi. Whenever my friends came around to my house they all asked “who is this guy?” one friend then started to call him “Wiener Marsalis”. This did affect me on the inside, but I was still in primary school and doesn’t everything affect you at that age?

As I got into the last couple of years of high school Wynton had just released the album “Standard Time Vol 2.” I remember really liking particular tracks but again just listening and enjoy the sounds not particularly analyzing the detail in the music (which I later worked out be very complicated).

I remember telling my trumpet teacher that I liked Wynton and he immediately had a negative response to Wynton, saying “if he had the technical ability of Wynton he wouldn’t play like that”. I later found out that this was a direct quote from someone else. This confused me. I respected my teacher for all the international touring and famous people he had played with and figured there must have been some truth to this.

It didn’t take long for my teacher to convince me that I should be getting into trumpet players other than Wynton and so I stopped listening to Wynton and started on the same mantra as my teacher believing that Wynton wasn’t as good as all the other cats, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Lee Morgan etc-

After a long time of dismissing Wynton (because of the influence of my teacher) a friend of mine reminded me of his album “Standard Time Vol. 2” and commented on how beautiful and modern yet a huge understanding of the tradition there is in Wynton’s playing there is on this album. I went home and listened to it and started to realise what was really going on.

I then went back and listened to “Standard Time Vol. 1”, “Black Codes (from the Underground)” and “J Mood”. It was a revelation to me what was going on. I knew the songs and had heard them before but I was now hearing them in a different light. I realised how complex yet beautiful they are.

Many jazz critics and writers talk about Woody Shaw being the last great innovator of jazz trumpet playing. My teacher also said this which I then believed and now am happy to accept.

Recently a local musician told me that they didn’t like Wynton’s playing as it sounded like a classical musician playing jazz. This comment is common from older musicians (and critics) not all but a great deal of them. I replied politely with silence.

Now, I think Wynton is by far the most innovative and creative jazz musician in the modern era. Wynton captures everything that has come before him from King Oliver to Woody Shaw. You can hear the whole history in his playing. He has developed his own language from understanding the whole history.

It is too easy to compare Wynton Marsalis to Louis Armstrong, Clifford Brown or Lee Morgan and think that he’s not this or that. But I think it’s important to understand that Wynton came after these guys and isn’t trying to sound like them.

If you listen to the Miles Davis album from 1965-68 E.S.P, Sorcerer, Miles Smiles and then listen to Wynton’s albums, “Think On One”, “Hot House Flowers”, “Black Codes” and “J Mood” you can hear a much more similarity than Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan. One difference is that Wynton is so perfect with his execution of ideas yet his ideas are rhythmically and melodically more complex or modern than the Miles albums. This is not to dismiss Miles but rather again understand that Wynton has encapsulated all this information and taken it further.

I am scraping the surface here and will dedicate more posts to Wynton Marsalis, but I will leave with this personal comment. I feel Wynton is one of, if not, the most important figures in Jazz today. Wynton’s musical achievements are forward thinking giving the music the opportunity to push forward. He plays with joy yet it’s so serious and articulate that it gets mistaken by the naive listener who only wants to hear jazz from a bygone era. His sense of time and ability to place a note in the right spot is beyond anyone since he has come on the scene.

If you’re keen to listen to some classic Wynton Marsalis I’d suggest “Standard Time Vol 1 and 2”, then head back to “Black Codes” and “J Mood”, then move forward to the septet stuff “Citi Movement”, “Standard time vol 4” the Jelly Roll Morton album this is where you really hear the old and the new coming together, then if you’re really serious check out “Blood on the Fields”, and you will start to understand the magnitude of what Wynton has done and realise that none of the the trumpet lineage before him has done all this and at the same time created something new.

Now that I have got this off my chest, I will, in my next post about Wynton Marsalis, talk about specific albums of his in detail.

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