Wynton Marsalis 1984 at the Grammy Awards
For those who have nothing better to do, we’ve been putting some thoughts on line for some time now. Our blog is called by me “The Zero Comments Blog”, for reasons I think I don’t have to align.
The fact that art critics can’t be objectively valued (as art itself) encourages us to say the things we say without fear of being objectively contradicted. The fact that we talk about jazz puts our responsibility still farther and, being laymen as we are, father still.
The other day, I was watching a TV program about Wynton Marsalis. It was an old one, as he was still mustached, slim and very young. Probably his famous once contractor Art Blakey was with us by that time. By them, Marsalis was already a great instrumentalist, better than today. He was still sporting, in his playing, that inner flame he’s lost for a long time now and was, in that program, alternating playings with fierce criticisms about jazz critics. The playing was faultless, the critics were terrifying and showed, to big effect, an autocratic man, filled with prejudice, unable to receive any appraisal with which he didn’t concur. In his mind, laymen assessments were no more than exercises of belittlement or shallow praise.
According to his words, one cannot make any negative statement about jazz, and – who knows? – even a mere suggestion, unless he understands the fundaments of playing music. So, if you don’t know key signatures, pitches, modes, glissandi, textures, compass, scales and the likes, please, don’t ever open your mouth to say you didn’t like some playing, OK? If you don’t cook, eat anything they give to you in silence…
Oh, I almost forgot: it’s also sine qua non to know and understand an entity called New Orleans to have the right to be any derogatory or complimentary about this art…
He was also critical of those who found Louis Armstrong as an “intuitive genius”. He said he didn’t know what this could mean: “’Intuitive genius’, what is it?” If Armstrong was a success for so long, he obviously knew what he was doing and that was no doubt a consequence of hard work.
So, in this domain, no laymen can express his opinion! “Intuitive geniuses” like Erroll Gardner, for instance, a distinctive piano player who never learned to read music and composed “Misty”, was just a fictional entity which infests the minds of certain dumb-opinionated ones.
Composers like Antônio Carlos Jobim, Cole Porter, George Gershwin and many other creative music composers were only by-products of hard work in conservatories and their very peculiar styles were given to them by their teachers!
Well, I have no doubt Marsalis studied in better music schools than Jobim (Julliard, for instance) and, most probably, was a more diligent student, if we judge this by the personality of each one. But, would you say Marsalis’ compositions (not his playing, for that matter…) bettered Jobim’s in any reasonable way? I think not. So, time to talk about innate talent: that factory equipped asset that comes along with certain products… Jobim was one of them, as was Gardner and, obviously, Armstrong.
Why does music exist? Is it to please those knowledgeable enough to dissect it in all its structures; those who can quantify and qualify all its components or was it created to please the senses, to make our thoughts wander, to give us goosebumps, to give us all sort of emotions, after all? I think even Marsalis will agree: music exists to enliven our souls!
As a subjective mean, it is prone to cause the most mixed emotions and, therefore, be the subject of all kinds of appreciations. Some will like a certain song as much as another will hate it or be completely indifferent. On account of this, considering its intangibility, the praise of one is the scorn of another and any artist should be receptive to take both.
I have a hunch there’s much more to learn from a bad honest critic than from a praiseful one, but it only works if the receptor is humble enough to accept it in its own terms, irrespective of the ‘possible intention’ of its author. To begin with, let’s accept it as truthful; let’s consider it a viable truth and let’s learn from it. Let’s work with it, make comparisons to other views and make our certainty. Then, use it in our benefit…
Of course, those inhabited by aggressive narcissism, having a grandiose sense of self worth and lacking somewhat to accept responsibility for his own actions, will have a predilection to never feel receptive to critics and, therefore, won’t pick up any lesson from them…
Marsalis, a recipient of an inordinate number of awards, probably the most honored of contemporary jazz musicians and certainly one of the most heralded musicians of these days, has received many critics from his jazz colleagues, but not only on account of his aversion to pundits. Although he’s never produced an ill note using his super-duper wind instruments, he has, in the esteem of many jazz musicians, a narrow view of jazz: too traditionalist and this has had (I guess) a great weight in his playing, which, as much as I’ve seen, lacks spontaneity and radiance. Everything is too much in the right place, being the old established cannons always de rigueur followed. But, where is the brilliance, the adventure, the unexpected? You should search elsewhere… Like someone has said, as a jazz musician, he’s a good classical instrumentalist. I wholeheartedly agree with it!
(I don’t know, but I suspect that those hi-tech trumpets he uses, whose structural body seem to be made out of a single billet of brass take away from the music some of its intrinsic vibrations and, in turn, give it a touch of coldness; a kind of sterility that deprives it of their natural warmth. Musicians like Tomasz Stanko and Enrico Rava (which, to the best of my knowledge, use more conventional instruments) sound extremely vibrant and the sound of their horns seem much stronger and richer, as opposed to the constricted sound of their more up-to-date counterparts. Sometimes, ultra perfectionism, as much as art is concerned, results in backward movements…)
Nobody is critic-proof, even and specially the critics themselves. After all, they will be evaluated by their readers… The profession of playing music in front of an audience is certainly risky and those who make up their minds to do it may be always sure they will be the subject of appraisals and scorns.
As a jazz player, Marsalis is his fiercest critic and this showed undoubtedly when he decided to give up the natural life of a jazz musician, deciding not to expose himself in abandon for fear of not being up to the task. So, while refraining to accept all unwanted critics, he decided to follow other paths which, I admit, he’s done with considerable merit, although at the cost of jeopardizing somewhat the jazz in his country for a long time now.
At what extent? I don’t know.
Why talking about a register done so long ago? Because it represents a turning point in the story of jazz in the USA, which has been trapping the opinions of many of its aficionados to these days…