Wynton’s Blues

On January 16, Wynton Marsalis will make his debut as CBS’ newest cultural correspondent. Ostensibly, this move makes sense: Marsalis is one of jazz’s most visible figures, and has had a successful tenure as the artistic director of the New York City-based Lincoln Center’s jazz program. Marsalis is a genuine virtuoso, and he’s an eloquent, engaging speaker as well.

But this is a terrible idea. It’s bad for jazz as an art form, and it’s bad for the public. The only people it’s not bad for are Marsalis and CBS, who both stand to profit handsomely: CBS for having someone as “hip” as Marsalis as a correspondent, and Marsalis for furthering his own cult of personality.

The problem mostly stems from the fact that Marsalis is jazz’s reigning classicist. He spent a large part of his early career trashing nearly every one of his peers whose music didn’t fit with his rigid definition of “jazz”. His is a sensibility deeply steeped in New Orleans tradition and heavily indebted to the music’s “classic” era–between 1945 and the mid-’60s, basically. Marsalis attacked the avant-garde movement that hit jazz in the ’80s in literally every way: his own backwards-looking music was a reaction to their weirder, genre-blending sounds, and even his dapper Brooks Brothers look was calculated to position him as far from people like John Zorn’s t-shirt and jeans approach as possible. He wasn’t shy about slamming people verbally, either: at one point, Miles Davis famously said of Marsalis, “Motherfucker talks like someone asked him a question.”

Using his position at the Lincoln Center, Marsalis has continued to promote his idea of what jazz is and should while ignoring everyone else’s. A brief look at their event calendar reveals tributes to Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, and Clifford Brown: all well and good, but essentially a preservationist’s program.

This is especially chafing considering jazz ceased being a financially viable genre a long time ago. The highest-selling names in jazz today are people like Harry Connick Jr., Diana Krall, and Michael Buble: essentially lounge-singing crooners. There’s nothing “wrong” with any of their music, and they’re all talented individuals, but nothing about their music is innovative, particularly visceral, or exciting. Jazz is living music, based on improvisation in the moment–it needs an element of danger to thrive, not safety.

The sad thing is that there are hundreds of artists doing new and exciting things with jazz: the Bad Plus, Vijay Iyer, and Robert Glasper, just to name a few. They’re all innovators, and none of them are household names. They’re known in certain circles, yes, but they don’t have the visibility of Marsalis or Krall. And it’s highly unlikely they’ll ever get it: what someone like Glasper is doing is heresy to someone like Marsalis.

The fact is, “jazz”, the music (as people think of it), died a long time ago. The finger-snapping, beret ‘n shades music is long gone, and it’s only summoned anymore as parody, or ritual–something people can slip into as another form of self-identification. But jazz, the art form, can’t die, as long as there are musicians to push it forward. What we owe to those people is support. People like Marsalis need to use their position and influence to help lift those people up, not bury them. But he’s content to act as a museum curator rather than an explorer, and it’s the music’s loss.

Jazz is a rich, infinitely exciting form of art: the possibilities within it are literally endless. But narrowing it down to a certain formula or model chokes it, cuts it off from its essence: creativity and improvisation. We need people to get excited about jazz again, and we’re not going to do it by trotting out the same old show again and again. I have the records–I don’t need to hear them in a new setting, by different people. Stop playing the same Charlie Parker compositions, the same damn Great American Songbook selections. I want to hear something new, as a fan, a musician, and someone that cares deeply for this music. But Wynton Marsalis isn’t going to give it to me. You can find it if you look hard enough, but not everyone’s able or willing to. And with Wynton in charge, they might never find it. That’s a blues worth singing.