Jazz Today: A Tale of Two Trumpets

Let’s invent a pair of rivals — two guys representing different places and different values in the same field. Let’s make them jazz musicians.

Let’s make them trumpeters, because in jazz that’s always been the royal instrument, the one that attracts the big personalities — Armstrong, Eldridge, Dizzy, Miles.

What will they look like? One black and one white. One from the down-home south and one from … New Jersey! One slicked out in a three-piece suit, one a balding guy in jeans and comfortable shoes. One conservative, one avant-garde.

Then, let’s make them both feverishly talented.

Let’s name them Wynton Marsalis and Dave Douglas.

They are the two most important trumpeters in jazz today, and arguably the two most important jazz musicians, period. They seem to represent the two poles of the music: inside and out, establishment and rebel, moneyed and indie, purist and mongrel. And, I would argue, they almost require each other.

Marsalis’ story is well known. He’s the leader of a jazz dynasty — son of a famous New Orleans jazz educator and brother of three other impressive talents — who won twin Grammies in classical and jazz in a single year at the age of 22. After playing with Art Blakey and Herbie Hancock as a teenager, Marsalis signed with Columbia Records, producing a series of albums and compositions that led him to win the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in Music (the first ever awarded to a jazz musician) for his jazz oratorio about slavery, Blood on the Fields. As the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the leading institutional exponent of jazz — he is the leading force behind making jazz a “classical” American art. He’s Wynton Marsalis, trumpeter beyond-belief in a fancy suit — the most important (and most arrogant) man in jazz, bar none.

Who is this guy, Dave Douglas? Unlike Marsalis, he hasn’t graced the cover of Time magazine or played with the storied forefathers of The Music. In 1993 downtown mogul John Zorn put together an Ornette-ish quartet to record the soundtrack to Joe Chappelle’s independent film, Thieves Quartet, and he called on Douglas. The group sounded great and went on to record an album of klezmer-inspired Zorn themes under the title Masada, then the group became huge — by out-music standards.

Douglas started recording prolifically on his own for small labels (Soul Note, Arabesque, Winter & Winter, hatOLOGY, DIW) before being picked up by RCA in 1999. As likely to be playing with DJ Olive, classical/jazz wizard Uri Caine or Dutch out-cat Misha Mengleberg as he is to be wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt at a gig, Douglas is pure (but understated) maverick. He is the anti-Marsalis.

OK. Then what were Douglas and Marsalis doing sharing the stage at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater a month ago?

In jazz, a music born from an American collision of European and African styles, opposites not only attract but, in fact, may not be opposites at all. Marsalis and Douglas are both central figures in jazz because of all they have in common despite their differences. The key similarity is the way in which each has been blithely misjudged and underestimated as a pure exponent of a single musical point of view. In fact, each is an intelligent assembler of many styles from all over the jazz spectrum. Douglas and Marsalis matter so much to jazz today because they each unite multiple styles.

For example, for all his downtown credentials, Douglas has joined jazz to classical music just like Marsalis. His early disc Parallel Worlds, featured liner notes by Thirds Stream maven Gunther Schuller and lead off with an adaptation of a Webern string quartet. The same disc goes on to tackle Stravinsky, Weill and Ellington. Which of our trumpeters has done three full-length tributes to the compositions of jazz icons Mary Lou Williams, Booker Little, and Wayne Shorter? That’s not Ken Burns’ boy Marsalis, that’s Douglas. So — the maverick is a bit of a classicist?

Fine, you might say — Douglas has done what any jazz musician must — he has worked in the tradition on his way to more progressive and free territory. The rap on Marsalis is different — he’s a man not merely on his knees before the altar of Jelly Roll Morton and Pops, but a man actually stuck in the past. And yet Marsalis’ most recent project with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is nothing less than a total re-imagining of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, the Mount Rushmore of ’60s “New Thing” jazz. What Marsalis has done with it is dramatic and revolutionary. Scoring it for big band, he does not drag A Love Supreme into the past as much as he connects it to an equally bold vision that was its contemporary: Charles Mingus’s Epitaph. Marsalis’ arrangement begins with the simplicity of Coltrane’s melodies and tempo changes but then spins increasingly dense and harmonically ambiguous variations that continually build in effect and suggestion. By the end, Marsalis’ Love Supreme is a prayer that bridges Ellington’s sacred music, Mingus’s gospel stomps and Coltrane’s spirit tunes. It’s the act of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

No wonder, then, that Marsalis invited Douglas to share the Rose Theater with him last month. Both are haunted by the legacy of Miles Davis, and both have run away from the connection (in both their project choices and trumpet playing) only to come back to Miles every once in a while. Both are prolific and astonishing composers, though the climate in jazz today is such that no else is playing their tunes yet. Both have found footholds in academia and institutions yet remain primarily public performers. Both are given to bold, political statements made with little regard for career consequences. Both play with a combination of modern cool and old-fashioned growls and smears that make their playing state-of-the-art unpredictable.

On the other hand, maybe Marsalis invited Douglas to play the Rose out of simple solidarity: both were recently dropped by their major labels for not selling enough records.

For a while it was the most astonishing fact in jazz: Marsalis didn’t have a record deal. On the other hand, folks probably didn’t expect Douglas ever to have a major label deal. Yet both their stories were similar. Marsalis, of course, had the patronage of nothing less than Columbia Records. And while he started his career by recording a string of mainstream records (modern bop, romantic ballads, a “with strings” collection) that sold well, he quickly moved on to quirky projects that had little commercial appeal — traditional New Orleans styles (The Majesty of the Blues), a three-CD exploration of blues variations (Thick in the South, Uptown Ruler, Levee Low Moan) and several extended compositions modeled on church service (In This House, On This Morning) or written for dance (Citi Movement). This was an audacious run of recordings, particularly given that it corresponded with the rise of so-called “smooth jazz” as a radio-friendly instrumental music.

Douglas, clearly a risk for RCA from the git-go, gave them Soul on Soul, his Mary Lou tribute, at first, but then delivered an album from his accordion band (A Thousand Evenings), followed by a densely arranged and highly political album, Witness, featuring strings, samples, and even a Tom Waits recitation. Douglas then produced a quintet record featuring electric piano (The Infinite, a Bitches Brew-inspired disc with processed beats and Marc Ribot on guitar (Freak In), and then another quintet album using guitarist Bill Frisell as a concerto-like soloist (Strange Liberation). It was a dizzying run of only semi-saleable but highly creative music, and you almost admire RCA for sticking with it as long as they did.

But Douglas found himself homeless again last year, and he was quick to dump the baggage and pack light — forming his own label (Greenleaf Records) and quickly recording a new set of music that was designed, in fact, to be hiked up an Italian mountain and played for the trees and the wind. Mountain Passages is as good as anything he ever did for RCA, but it feels freer somehow, as if Douglas were unburdened of RCA and moving more quickly on his feet.

Marsalis got the boot from Columbia and also seemed to grow unburdened. While he signed quickly with Blue Note (now run by his old Columbia boss, Bruce Lundvall), his first new record, The Magic Hour, is goose-loose in a way that few Marsalis projects ever are. Featuring a young new rhythm section and a couple of easygoing vocal guests (Diane Reeves and Bobby McFerrin), the latest from Mr. Pulitzer is a late-night session that doesn’t care quite so much about every little note. And after decades of reading those inevitably grandiose and over-pious liner notes by Stanley Crouch, well — what a relief.

So here they are: the two best trumpeters and most vital composer-musicians in jazz, both cut loose from big labels and pursuing more personal statements. The maverick who’s not so weird, really, and the traditionalist who insists on defying expectations: Dave Douglas and Wynton Marsalis. Unlikely brothers in arms.

I could ask you to choose your guy, but — of course — why not dig them both?

Editor’s note: This column was Will Layman’s first installment of Jazz Today. However, due to server changes and software upgrades, it was lost from PopMatters archives, until 18 January 2016, when PopMatters re-published the column from Will’s files, and back dated it to its approximate original publish date, 1 October 2006.