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April 23, 1998
by Lee Jeske
- Wynton Marsalis

- Brass Bands

I didnít go to the last big Jazz at Lincoln Center show--the one that featured new writing by Wynton Marsalis--so I canít comment on the quality of the music played. But I can comment on my feelings about Wynton Marsalis' writing in general: I'm usually somewhat less than entranced by it, which is probably why I skipped the show. But I did read Peter Watrous' review in the New York Times. Watrous, generally, is more than entranced by Wynton's composing--indeed, with almost everything the man does--but he called "Big Train," the concert's one-hour [!] centerpiece "a curious failure."

The piece, as do most of Wynton's compositions, apparently owed a great deal to Duke Ellington who, in his long career, wrote so many works about trains that Jazz at Lincoln Center devoted an entire concert to them some years back. Watrous' review pointed out that "Mr. Marsalis spread train themes throughout the piece, the coarse dissonances of the whistles blowing, the repetitions of the train's rhythms, its speeding up and slowing down."

And then I thought, "Why the hell is Wynton Marsalis writing about trains?" Duke Ellington wrote about what he knew--and, brother, with the amount of dates his band played around the globe beginning in the '20s, the man knew trains, and train sounds, forwards and backwards. Wynton Marsalis, however, is not writing about what he knows; he's writing about what Duke Ellington knew. Duke Ellington was a man of his time, and Marsalis is himself desperate to be a man of Duke's time. But he's not, and therein lies a secret about many of his attitudes about jazz and, probably, life. With all his popularity, Wynton Marsalis is not a man of his time. (This idea, by the way, is a key element of the Broadway hit "Art.") The same can not be said of the great jazz composers Marsalis admires, from Jelly Roll Morton to Ellington to Mingus to Coltrane.

This is a true story: About seven or eight years ago I was at the Village Vanguard and Wynton Marsalis, who was not performing that night, was there as well. We both left about the same time and, chatting on the way out the door, decided to share a cab up to the Upper West Side where we both lived. After a stroll to Sheridan Square to pickup the newspapers, Wynton grinned and said, "Let me get the cab." He stepped into the street, stuck out his arm and we watched cab after cab zip by him--a young, casually dressed black man on the streets of New York. He was laughing, of course, but his point was made and eventually I took over, easily hailed us a taxi, and home we went. "If you ever need a cab," I joked, "call me."

Wynton Marsalis is not writing about getting cabs in New York--something he knows quite well--he's writing about trains. Craig Harris, a splendid New York trombonist who has been playing Monday nights at the Bowery Bar (or B. Bar, or whatever the hell they're calling it now), is also a black man living in New York. On his new album, "Istanbul," he has a rollicking song called "Cab." "Somebody call me a cab," he sings repeatedly. "Because they don't pick up black people, black people!"

It's a fast, funky, and funny song--Craig leads a fast, funky, and funny band that moves from post-bop jazz to dub reggae to out-and-out funk at the drop of a hat--that is entertaining, pointed, and very, very real. Harris, a perennially underrated talent, is very much a man of his time. "Going back is fine," he says of the jazz neo-conservatives. "But for a black person, if you go back far enough, you're going to end up in some chains." Duke Ellington wrote a lot about Harlem, because he lived there. Craig Harris, on "Istanbul" does an original called "Harlem," because he lives there. As far as I know, Wynton Marsalis has not written a song called "The Upper West Side."

At the end of the Times review of Marsalis, Watrous wrote that he "came forward as an emotionalist, moved by history." And I thought of Wynton's role model, Duke Ellington, who might have been moved by history, but who wrote about what he lived, and in the process made quite a bit of history himself.

If you feel that jazz is getting a little too serious for you, and you're not hip to the very lively and active contemporary brass band scene in the Marsalis hometown of New Orleans, check out a snappy new compilation from Shanachie Records called "Kickin' Some Brass." Over the last decade, without too much fanfare outside of New Orleans, a bunch of young musicians have revitalized the city's ancient brass band tradition--the tradition that bred the earliest jazz musicians--and I dare you to slap on this CD and to not get up and dance. If you are familiar with the names New Birth Brass Band, ReBirth Brass Band, Coolbone, New Orleans Night Crawlers, and Treme Brass Band, you know what I mean. If not, this 12-band set (which includes two non-New Orleans ringers) is a great place to start, and a great way to get your hips ready for this month's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

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