The “real jazz” of Wynton Marsalis

By Chris Stevenson

Part I of II

I get upset when I hear a black man who knows nothing about Jazz pretend he knows. It’s painful to listen to and insulting. Jazz is deeply personal to whatever taste, or whomever artist you choose to favor. My father for instance had a decent Jazz collection and even got into blues. His artists were Jimmy Smith (his favorite), Count Basie, Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis, Charles Earland and even those funky New Orleans brothers the Meters. He and my mom and some of their friends loved to go to see B.B. King and/or Bobby Bland. Now me, my love of Jazz began back in the mid-‘70’s with a genre called Jazz-fusion.

In 1975 me and a couple of my buddies York Turner and Leonard Holton occasionally broke away from basketball, chasing girls and listening to Motown, James Brown and the funk bands (we were big on Parliament/Funkadelic, Graham Central Station and the Ohio Players), and began checking Jazz bands of our era, Chick Corea and Return to Forever, John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tony Williams Lifetime, Weather Report, Passport, the late great Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, Roy Ayers, the Laws brothers (name both of them), etc. Other brothers in the ‘hood got into Bob James or Deodato, and the really, really down pro-black brothers in their early 20’s was listening to Ahmad Jamal, Pharoah Sanders, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman and Wayne Shorter. Leonard’s older brother James was into some of those bands, but the three of us, we loved the way out, the fusion, our s-t was deep. These bands were called fusion because they merged rock and jazz into some rather limitless ideas and sounds, and they boasted some of the greatest musicians of all time. Shorter’s Weather Report; whom many consider the greatest jazz band off all time, was very much into fusion. Listening to them is like viewing a great painting. Passport was Germany’s take on fusion, Germany had lots of progressive tight little bands that jammed long and heavy. Return to Forever had Chick as keyboard player, Stanley Clark on bass, Al Dimeola; possibly the fastest guitarist of his day, and Lenny White on drums. Weather, Mahavishnu and Lifetime boasted dynamic young musicians who got their first major exposure as members of Miles Davis’ ‘60’s bands.

I never got into Pop’s collection until one day he bought home a brand new release by Miles that would become his last LP release before he went into seclusion back in ‘75; \”Agharta.\” I took his Delta 88 for a spin and wore that tape out (yes it was on 8-track). You hip-hop kids know nothing about this. Back then there were only 2 radio stations in Buffalo that consistently played these artists; the old progressive rock free-form station WBUF FM-92 and the jazz station that’s still around today UB’s WBFO FM-88.7 (Gary Storm’s overnight \”Oil of Dog\” show in particular is still a missing void) were both good important outlets for albums that needed airplay. After that the corporate world really went on a mission to eliminate fusion and prog-rock because they no longer wanted listeners to think, to them these stations played too many black singer/songwriter artists and Reggae with it’s political message was emerging. This conspiracy crossed the board to most popular music and even R&B stations began playing disco, and the FM progressive stations were taken over by the all-white Album Oriented Rock format.

There is something very suspicious about radio being confined to just Michael Jackson, Madonna, bad rap, Country and Western and conservative talk shows, while fusion, folk, reggae, progressive music and political rap had to fight for exposure because there were only scant few stations playing and promoting their new releases. When it came to jazz, the suits would later figure out a different plot. They started using a single individual to discredit jazz fusion, in fact this jazz artist was only too happy to criticize not only the fusion movement that started before him in the late ‘60’s, but the avant-garde jazz that preceded fusion. The man in question? Wynton Learson Marsalis; premier jazz trumpeter, national director of Jazz at the Lincoln Center, winner of 9 Grammys and 1 Pulitzer.

Marsalis of course first came into national prominence in the early ‘80’s, the first in a long line of a great jazz family. Don’t get me wrong, he is one is the greatest trumpet players in music history period. I bought a couple of his albums back them \”Black Codes: (From the Underground),\” and \”J Mood,\” as well as a couple of his classical albums, it’s when Wynton takes the horn out of his mouth that the problems begin. The boy makes great music and then gives stupid commentary. It is well known to those who follow jazz and Mr. Marsalis in particular, that he does not like jazz fusion, avante-garde or basically most of the jazz released after 1965. That’s all well and fine, he has a right to his opinion just as I gave you my opinion on musical preferences, and obviously you have yours. By misusing his prominent voice to classify only the timeline of jazz to just pre-65, he is only identifying bebop music and Big Band as being authentic versions of the music.

Part II continued next week

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