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JAZZ : The Young Lions' Roar : Wynton Marsalis and the 'Neoclassical' Lincoln Center Orchestra are helping fuel the noisiest debate since Miles went electric

September 13, 1992|RICHARD GUILLIATT | Richard Guilliatt is a free-lance writer based in New York

That means collaborating with classical orchestras and ballet companies. It also produces some pretty high-flown theorizing, such as this passage from Marsalis' notes in the 1992 Jazz at Lincoln Center program: "Jazz is first and foremost about swinging. And swinging is about coordination, specifically the coordination of constantly shifting agendas for the construction and maintenance of equilibrium." Little wonder that Marsalis' playing is sometimes criticized as too academic.

Gene Seymour, jazz critic for New York Newsday, praises the virtuosity of the new players and their rediscovery of jazz's neglected past. But, he says, "when I hear the young guys playing, I hear them approaching it as an intricate exercise. I am only beginning to hear them get emotionally involved in the music."

Indeed, it is sometimes hard to reconcile the resolutely sober and schooled approach of the Wyntonites with the lives of their idols. After all, Louis Armstrong was an enthusiastic pot smoker, the prewar big bands were often rambunctious outfits, and the be-bop pioneers--Gillespie, Parker, Monk--were iconoclastic rebels. Wasn't jazz shaped by their idiosyncratic personalities?

"That's a romanticized view of art," Marsalis says. "Every person you meet has some idiosyncratic behavior because we're all individuals, but when you elevate the idiosyncratic behavior above the artistic achievement, you make the mistake that has been made with jazz."

Jazz has been dogged by this kind of thinking, he argues, the mythology that it is a "lower-class form" like rock music, that its creators were unschooled rebels.

"The rebellion in jazz is a different rebellion--it's the creation of something beautiful and enduring that addresses the fundamentals of the form," Marsalis says. "And in the context of the society that today's young players are growing up in, just the fact that they play jazz is a rebellion against the decadence and ignorance they're surrounded by. So when somebody like Steve Lacy or these other musicians (criticize them), they don't understand the world these young musicians are growing up in.

"They're not growing up in a world where everybody knows who Charlie Parker is. They're not growing up in a world where people are listening to Monk's albums. So the fact that you are 15 years old and you know who Thelonious Monk is--let alone that you try to play his music or by some miracle can imitate him--makes you totally different from everybody else in your environment."

As if on cue, a bashful young girl accompanied by her mother waves to Marsalis from across the plaza. The trumpeter smiles, contemplating the face of this pre-pubescent jazz fan. From the passion in Marsalis' voice, it's clear he sees jazz as a social lifeline to such kids, a source of discipline and pride.

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To see the other side of this purist-versus-progressive debate, one need look no farther than Marsalis' older saxophone-playing brother, Branford. Where the former scorns commercialism, the latter has played with Sting and leads the band on "The Tonight Show." Wynton denounces rap's vulgarity and divisiveness, but Branford played soprano sax on Public Enemy's "Fight the Power."

Like Quincy Jones, Miles Davis and saxophonist Greg Osby, Branford believes that a bridge can be built between hip-hop and be-bop; to Wynton, the idea is sacrilegious.

"We need to get our kids thinking more long term, being able to address the classics and the sophistication of classical music," he argues. "It should be provided to kids instead of being attacked and considered corny. It's not as corny as someone cursing over a beat--that's as corny as you can get. Or someone kicking over a mike stand and hollering and screaming something you can't understand at 2 million megahertz."

Does he hate pop music?

"No. It's not the music; I hate that imagery. It's ignorant and it's corny. Now you tell me how a Beethoven symphony is cornier than that. To see musicians in tuxedos on a stage playing music of great genius, there's no way in the world that can be corny. The fact that it is (considered corny) in this half of the 20th Century will be seen as something very strange later."

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