Those of you who missed Jazz Week last month missed a good deal of great music.
Courtesy of the University of Louisville's jazz department, Jazz Week brought us performances by Don Braden, James Moody, Diva (an all-female jazz big band) and, among others, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
Wynton was, without a doubt, the shining star of Jazz Week. Not only were we won over by his fantastic quartet and their performance at the Palace Theatre, we were won by the man himself. Many of us have heard things Wynton has said in interviews and more than a few of us disagree. But if you meet him personally it's hard not to like him and it's hard to take issue with him when he puts the trumpet to his lips. Wynton will always take the time to talk to anyone who wants to speak with him. This became evident when he stayed an additional day in Louisville to give a master class at U of L and to participate in an informal jam session at the Rudyard Kipling. The next night, after Wynton had left for another city, those of us playing at the Rud's weekly jam session could still feel the energy in the air. It was the week Louisville was high on Wynton.
It was during that same week that I had just finished reading a book by Gene Lees called "Cats of Any Color" (Oxford Press). This book is a collection of essays on the rich and varied cultural heritage of jazz and the musicians who have played it. Essays range from those that chronicle different musicians to those that discuss racism in jazz and when Wynton's name comes up in the last chapter, you couldn't find a more different portrait of the man if you tried.
Lees says in this final chapter that while jazz in the past found a good deal of white discrimination against blacks, jazz in the present finds the discrimination to be black on white, with Wynton leading the way. How he argues this is too complex to explain completely here but Lees' commentary on Wynton's way of running the Lincoln Center Jazz Series is a good example of the types of things he says in the book.
Marsalis was appointed director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Series in 1987. Since then the number of members of the orchestra who are white and over thirty has shrunken steadily. Lees claims there was even an attempt to fire all the members over thirty at once (a move that was reversed because age discrimination is illegal). When the Lincoln Center series started to give commissions to new compositions, Marsalis gave the first to himself and since then has handed them out to his "tight circle of friends" — all young and black. Not a single commission has gone to a white man, nor has a single composer celebrated by the program been white. Lees maintains that in every tributary concert, Marsalis has chosen from his own small circle of young black musicians even when the original members of the celebrated band are still alive.
In addition to these and other criticisms of Wynton's decisions as artistic director at the Lincoln Center, Lees cites several passages from interviews Marsalis has given which betray an anti-white attitude. On the television show, Tony Brown's Journal, Wynton was purported to have said, "Blacks have been held back because the music business is controlled by people who read the Torah and stuff."' In short, Lees condemns Marsalis as one who "seriously misrepresents jazz history in an unwavering attempt to exclude white musicians." "Nowhere, in more than ten years of interviews with and articles by Marsalis, do I find praise for, or for that matter even mention of, one white American musician." Lees maintains that it is not one particular action or utterance from Marsalis that leads him to these conclusions, but the pattem that can be found throughout.
Is this the same guy who was making us feel so good just a month ago? If you're interested in more of what Lees is saying, check this book out. I've seen people take issue with Wynton in print, but never this strongly. I'm sure there will be plenty more on this.
See you next time.