Unique Biographical Road Story Sets New Standard for Jazz Journalism
Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life is quality literature, whether you love or hate Wynton Marsalis. And chances are you"re dead-set in one of those camps.
By applying the time-honored tradition of call-and-response, Marsalis and co-author Carl Vigeland offer a rare glimpse at the daily goings-on of a traveling jazz band. They scratch way beneath the surface on a wide range of issues: music, philosophy, race relations, sibling interactions, barbeque and basketball. You"ll see him in concert, at the festival, in the studio, at the school assembly, orchestrating a ballet, giving and taking trash-talk, busting his butt and procrastinating, entertaining the rich and poor, young and old. You"ll hear his tastes in food, drink, and women, why he hates rap, his crazy great-uncle the stone-cutter, how he approaches the trumpet, and of course, his uniquely affirmative jazz conception.
"Jazz improvisation is the creation of blues-based melodies in the context of harmonic, rhythmic, and timral variation. Theres a logic to its imposition of order on what would otherwise be chaos. And we all create the logic as we go along. The most important emotion in jazz is joy. But you don"t create that joy just by feeling good. You create it by feeling terrible. Worse than that. About all the bullshit that has been put on people and continues to be heaped on. You have an empathy a desire to improve things to say stuff can be another way not just about black people but the spiritual condition of all people. You"ve got to play. Together. You can"t play jazz alone."
If you fall into the aforementioned hater camp this is a perfect chance to "walk a miles in someone else's shoes." It's time to forgive Marsalis' past offenses and recognize a sincere jazz exponent. As the good book says "let him who is sinless cast the first stone."
"Wynton tried to tell the kids that one of the things that related jazz and democracy was how you overcame the difficulty of getting along with someone who didn"t like you or didn"t think like you. And disagreement was part of Wynton's ideal of dialogue in democracy like it was part of the conversation of jazz."
Jazz is all about ideas and Marsalis has always been full of them. At the very least co-author Vigeland ensures we are only presented with the good ones. A similar strategy applied to the 1994 prequel Sweet Swing Blues on the Road (co-authored by Frank Stewart) a wise stroke given Marsalis' somewhat controversial reputation with jazz puritans. Vigeland who toured with the septet for full-effect Pro Golf Tour and numerous articles on other topics. It must have been quite a trip these co-authors from different worlds. Thankfully Marsalis and Vigeland make it easy for their readers to tell them apart: Marsalis' own entries are always italicized (an arbitrary but effective editorial device.)
If you bring Marsalis and Vigeland's book into your life they"ll bring you into theirs. You still feel like an outsider but in that jealous and inspiring way like when the high school band visited your grade school. In this case you"ve been placed on the tour bus after a show and you have to figure out who everyone is as you go. An experience like this transcends your everyday boring life and reminds you why you got into music in the first place.
"The hardest part of hearing jazz is understanding what the musician is saying to you. On the bandstand when you play something someone can relate to they break out with "uh-huh" or "yes!" or "Preach. Speak to me tell it" or they just laugh in recognition."
Featuring a cast of characters with convoluted names (even the authors have multiple nicknames) this travelogue reads a bit like a heady Russian novel. In more than one sense Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life is a foreign language book or a rough translation of these close-knit musicians' native tongue and customs. Jazz traditionalists live by a strict code but your probably never knew so much about it. While holding himself to the highest standard Wynton Marsalis aka "Skain" expects and receives the same discipline from his side-men: Reginald "Swing Doom" Veal Nathaniel "Marcus" Roberts aka "J. Master" Herlin "Homey" Riley David "Sugar Rob" Robinson aka "Toon" "Toon Yab Sab" just "Sugar" or just "Rob" Todd Williams aka "Deacon" Wess Anderson aka "Warm Daddy" Wycliff Gordon aka "Cone" Jeff "Tain" Watts Mike Basden Ronnie Carbo Keith the bus driver and others. Just like famous era-defining bands before them the septet's lifestyle dress-code and daily decision-making all show respect for capital-J Jazz.
The legend of Wynton Marsalis has grown even since the 1990s tour described therein. But he was huge even then which makes it most impressive that he remembered and followed-up on skilled young musicians he met at schools. He called them periodically over the years checked-in as he traveled through and kept tabs on their musical progress. Wynton learned this from his father legendary jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis.
"E. always said talent doesn"t mean nothing. What matters is finding a place that can nourish it. That's the tragedy for so many young jazz musicians today. To learn they also have to provide a healthy environment for themselves to work in. And that's very hard. Damn near impossible."
Wynton was an environmental protectionist for Todd Williams saxophonist in the septet legendary trumpeter Roy Hargrove and many others.
Throughout Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life Marsalis' trademark wordy titles force you to look at stale phrases from a fresh perspective. The authors' vocabulary keeps with jazz tradition. Marsalis' branding of hometown New Orleans "country" folk is reminiscent of Miles Davis' disdain for St. Louisans in his autobiography. This and other passages reveal Marsalis' exalted self-regard though not to the same narcissistic degree as Miles. On one hand it's a confidence that comes from hard work over 20 years on the road and a catalog of undisputed successes. It's a confidence without which he (or Miles) could never have reached such heights. It's pride and it's earned. On the other hand Marsalis is often accused of portraying himself as the lone shining beacon of jazz hope in an otherwise dark and lifeless world. This narrative theme isn"t as obvious here as in his Ken Burns' stuff but it is here. If you can indulge the artistic license you"re in for a great ride.
Although the narrative is modeled around a travel itinerary it is nonetheless full of witty and wise vignettes. Once while playing a show in downtown Chicago Marsalis meditated on the contradictions of urban life a beach volleyball tournament the nearby hustle and bustle the original migration of blacks up the Mississippi river another river quietly flowing between the skyscrapers the freezing weather a hip but tired audience a little Indian restaurant and a missed opportunity to visit Dave Monnette's custom trumpet shop before he moved to Portland. Marsalis' conclusion can be applied universally "the coming and going that makes life free has a melancholy."
You"ll be sad when it ends as every journey must. Alas with Marsalis in the permanent position of Artistic Director of Jazz at the Lincoln Center these circumstances could probably never be recreated. Thanks to Marsalis and Vigeland's shared memories jazz fans at least have a beautifully crafted keepsake.
Highly recommended reading for all jazz fans make that required for all aspiring musicians. CNN.com called it "A towering monument to the music and the people who make it." Only time will tell but it's possible Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life will stand as one of the great American music books. File between Murray's Stomping the Blues and Kerouac's On the Road.
Available in a beautiful compact hardcover or standard paperback editions. Other titles by Wynton Marsalis include:
Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life
To a Young Jazz Musician: Letters from the Road
Sweet Swing Blues on the Road
Marsalis on Music
Jazz ABZ : An A to Z Collection of Jazz Portraits
Understanding Jazz: Ways to Listen by Tom Piazza Intro by Wynton Marsalis Random House