There is, unsurprisingly, no trace of lock neglect like the picture of Wynton marsalis appears on my laptop screen. The jazz maestro is known for the sharpness of his appearance as well as his playing, and here he is dressed in a suit and tie for our early evening conversation, sitting purposefully next to a piano. I say the first time I saw his band at a London Jazz Festival concert I was struck by the finely crafted cut in sight, which seemed to make the music cleaner, tighter, more directed than that of the groups that had preceded it. .
“We were trying to do it,” he says. “I’m just trying to play, I’m trying to be serious.” There was a time, he recalls, when the “bogus liberal establishment equated me with Ronald Reagan because I wanted to wear a suit.” It was seen as a sort of subversive attack on ghetto mythology. “
The improper race around the boundaries of the personal, the cultural and the political has been a hallmark of Marsalis’ long and distinguished career. He was born in New Orleans in 1961 to a house filled with music – his father was a musician and jazz teacher – and in a country still mired in explicit racism. “My trumpet teacher was from the North,” he said, “and he wasn’t as prejudiced as many others. But his wife didn’t want me to take lessons with them.
“The fact that I have an afro and that I play classical music concertos
a problem. A white man gave me an album one day, because he saw my trumpet case, and he entered the back of a streetcar where there were only blacks [to give it to me]. It was the life we were living. I don’t talk about it that much. People have been through much worse things. But everything was marred by it.
Half a century later, these issues still resonate across America, and Marsalis, Grammy and Pulitzer-winning trumpeter, composer and director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, continues to address them in his work. A fall tour with his septet is provocatively titled “The Sound of Democracy”, while his new album, The always crazy truth, is a rambling and ambitious analysis of the material and spiritual corruption he sees around him, and of the new wave of populism which favors its pernicious spread.
The “truth” is guided by a narrator, Mr Game, voiced by Thread Wendell Pierce, who is a satirical amalgamation of con artist, preacher, lawyer and businessman. “Mr Game is not Trump,” Marsalis points out, when I say that it sounds like a perfectly suited album right now. “It’s anyone that’s in that line, people who bullshit. Take your pick: Julius Caesar, Adolf Hitler, even PT Barnum.
The work’s rowdy and eclectic score, referencing the sound of Marsalis’ hometown big band and propelled by a chorus of Greek-style singers, is anything but uniformly sad. But it ends with a plaintive chant, “I know I have to fight,” solemnly repeated over and over again. “At some point, you have to put down your flag,” says the composer. “And you have to do it wherever you are, because corruption is so great, so endemic to the human condition. We must first fight it within ourselves. I made the decision not to talk about a specific battle, because all battles are important.
For such a serious message, I say, people may be surprised at how playful the album is. Its very title is a double meaning: a “truth” is a summary of important facts, also a way of describing immoral behavior; “Fonky / funky” describes a good sound and a foul smell. This is hardly a call to arms.
“No, but the heavy injustice does not always have a strong emotion around it. All these judges condemning these children to prison, ruining their lives, they do not go home with a heavy heart. Dude, they’re kidding! Kurt masur [the German conductor] was in Nazi Germany, a member of the army. He told me that there was a parcel of cheerleading in progress. Heavy emotion came at the end, with the defeat.
“We tend to excuse this aspect of humanity which can be quite cruel,
like children in the playground, but then bring devastating consequences as adults.
Marsalis remembers another incident from his childhood: meeting a nun who taught at his school, who he says cheated on him on a note. “It was because she didn’t want a black man to be number one. I told him after the last day of school, ‘I know I deserve the best price and you cheated on me.’ She said, “How do you know that? And I said, “I clean after school and look at the notes. “
“She looked at me and said, ‘Mmm, you shouldn’t have looked at the notes!’ And I just had to laugh. There was something so funny about it, just me and her in the room. The irony of it! “
I ask about the last tour: what exactly is the sound of democracy?
“Jazz,” he replies simply.
Just jazz? “Jazz,” he repeats. “You have your individual rights, it’s improvisation. You have your responsibility towards the group, it is the swing. And you have your optimism and your belief that your will, your reasoning, and your choices can make the difference – it’s the blues.
Can an art form really become a way of life, a moral code?
“My dad used to say, ‘Dude, leave people alone, they’ve got enough problems.’ The code of jazz is very alive and let live, not sitting down to judge others. I remember talking to John Lewis [former musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet], and complain to him about all those generations of New York Times writers who insisted not to take our music seriously. And he said to me, “Marsalis is deliberately withholding the words from his memory: ” Too much talking about self-criticism is a form of selfishness, just as much as it is boasting. ‘ “
There is the sound of a mic drop from the annals of jazz history.
They say jazz learns to listen, I say. “To listen and to follow. Follow the line and anticipate. There is the pressure of time and harmony, a lot of pressure. And you have to be honest because you don’t have time to lie.
He has said in the past that the blues were some sort of “age-old optimism,” which surely was a bit too far away, even for someone with the engaging positivity of Marsalis? He turns to his piano and begins to play melancholy chords. “If you feel bad, he comments, it’s like that” and he starts to moan: “Whoah, whoah, everything’s alright baby. Whoah, baby, everything is fine.He repeats the phrase on each progression of the blues scale, until its final resolution.
“When you play the blues, what you say is sad: ‘You broke my heart baby, but it’s okay.’ But then it is silly, silly, silly, silly, ” he vocalizes the big chords he plays: “I’m coming back, I’m coming back.” This is the furrow. Groove is optimism.
I will think about it on November 4, I say. “Let’s see what happens. We have to decide who we want to be. And no one knows. Let’s see.”
‘The Ever Fonky Lowdown’ is out now on Blue Engine Records
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