Ever since his emergence in the early ’80s as a leader of the Young Lions movement in jazz, Wynton Marsalis has been unapologetically doctrinaire about the form, whether as a trumpeter, author or educator. And while his neoclassicist views have won him both admirers and detractors, his voice has carried as much weight with young acolytes as that of Leonard Bernstein in the ’50s.
Now the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and Pulitzer Prize winner is reaching beyond his Jazz for Young People curriculum to launch a two-year series of lectures and performances at Harvard beginning Thursday. Marsalis will visit the campus for two to three days at a time to address a variety of topics with the aid of his quintet, dancers and even the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.”I’ve never dealt with the issues with this level of difficulty and specificity, with this type of adult-level depth,” Marsalis says.
Among other things, Marsalis will expound on, as he says, “the relationship of American ritual to innovation. I’m going to deal with the hybrid: What brings us together? What is the melting pot? I submit the blues as that because it plays across regions and across styles.”
Marsalis will also link such forms as march and ragtime, and the roots of folk as illustrated by the myth of John Henry and such traditional songs as “Frankie and Johnny.” At one point Marsalis referred to jazz as protest music, which might be news to many listeners.
“In the 1930s and ’40s, jazz was the protest music of the nation,” he explains. “Benny Goodman, when he hired two Negroes to be in his band, he protested against segregation long before baseball did. Louis Armstrong? Everything he did was a protest. Duke Ellington, with his presentation, was protesting against the minstrel conventions of the day.”
He even senses rebellion in the music of younger players he admires, like pianist Aaron Diehl. “You can get to a point of close to absolute sellout where (jazz) is co-opted,” Marsalis explains. “So for you to create tension (between the orthodox and innovation), there has to be enough people who are interested in that tension.”
Did Marsalis consider jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding’s controversial Grammy win in the new artist category a triumph for the tradition? “I think it’s a boost to musicianship because she’s a great musician,” says Marsalis. “And I feel like, why shouldn’t a musician win it? Why should only non-musicians win these awards? Why is she not the best new artist?”
As for a renewed interest in jazz, academically or commercially, Marsalis views the glass as half full. “I’ve been playing gigs for 30 years with people who are interested in jazz of all kinds,” he says. “I think the fact that Esperanza Spalding has as much jazz as she has in her music says something about the popularity of jazz for younger people.”