The First Family of Jazz: Ellis Marsalis and his Boys
A Classic Afro-American Art Wins Hearts Everywhere!
As the learned and insightful music critic Henry Pleasants tells us in his seminal book on modern music “Serious Music and All That Jazz,” the Afro-American musicians who created jazz were the only musicians to introduce a new musical terminology since the Italians did it back during the Renaissance. The point Mr. Pleasants was making is that Jazzmen created an art music using instruments of European origin, as well as their system of melody and harmony, yet invented something really different from anything Europeans had ever heard…or imagined.
Pleasants was uniquely positioned to see this because of his extensive training in the classical music of Europe, and he was writing about the modern music scene in Europe for the New York Times. And he has much to say about the way Jazz influenced modern European composers. However, apart from whatever influence Jazz may have had on European composers, the way in which jazz captured the imagination of musicians and won the allegiance of music lovers around the world, is the real story.
Whether we are talking about writers, businessmen, diplomats, Presidents, artists or kings, Jazz has found passionate fans. It is safe to say Jazz musicians do wondrous things that fascinate both fools and kings. The British critic Stanley Dance devoted his career to writing about Jazz. Ahmet Ertegun – who founded Atlantic Records and first recorded Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin – was the son of a Turkish Ambassador to the US, who was such an avid Jazz fan he once expelled a white Southern US Senator from his diplomatic residence because he insulted a black jazz musician who was his guest!
Ahmet expressed his life long love affair with this music by contributing the “Hall Of Fame Room,” a multi-million interactive display of the great virtuosos of the tradition. It is located in Jazz at Lincoln Center at 60th and Broadway, in the heart of Manhattan, and the viewer can just push the panel with portraits of their favorite artist and a video of them in performance will appear, accompanied by a biographical essay.
I interviewed Ahmet at the grand opening of the 150 million dollar edifice to Jazz, and it can be read in a forth coming book “Jazz At Lincoln Center: Magic moments In The House Of Swing,” with photographs by Frank Stewart and text by this writer. In a nutshell he said: “Jazz is the greatest music in the world. It is America’s contribution to the great artistic heritage of mankind. And it has influence more musicians than any other music.”
Then there is the legendary jazz crazy king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej – “”Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power” – and his Queen Sirikit. At a time when Jazz virtuosos were ignored by the princes and powers who fashion cultural policy in the US, and the thought of playing in the White house was unimaginable, Jazz musicians were hanging out in the Palace jamming with King Bhumibol, who was a devoted jazz clarinetist.
The King is very proud of the fact that he played with clarinetist Benny Goodman and Saxophone master Wayne Shorter. Although the King is believed to have descended from the gods, he is democratic in political style and philosophy. Some observers attribute these democratic instincts to his deep involvement with the art of Jazz.
In Eastern Europe Jazz music became a metaphor for freedom and democracy, especially in Czechoslovakia where a whole school of philosophy based on the democratic principle of jazz developed as a counter-statement to communist totalitarian rule. They were known as “The Velvet Philosophers,” and they were part of an organization know as “The Jazz Section.
In 1995, I participated in a seminar with one of those philosophers at a conference sponsored by the European Association of American Studies, chaired by Dr. Justine Talley, and heard him tell how they used the values and ethics of jazz to teach lessons about the advantages of democracy and the virtues of individual liberty. The authorities felt so threatened by it they arrested and imprisoned the philosophers in the Jazz Section.
It is not surprising that people who crave freedom and democracy would be attracted to Jazz. After all, as the quintessential American art, Jazz embodies the most cherished ideals of American civilization. Jazz is democratic, values individual freedom, promotes invention, and grooves to the complex rhythms of a modern urban society. As a genre of western art music Jazz distinguishes itself by overthrowing the tyranny of the composer and the iron discipline of the conductor’s baton.
The emphasis on freedom and democracy in Jazz is both a reflection of the American creed, and the persistent struggle for freedom waged by African Americans against white oppression. This struggle is the major theme of African American history. And since, as the Afro-American cultural theorist and brilliant Jazz Critic Albert Murray notes: An Art style is the refinement and elaboration of a lifestyle; it is in the nature of things that the highest creative achievement of Afro-American culture is an art that celebrates freedom and practices democracy.
Thus the jazz man is always looking to free himself from the restraints of convention and explore new territories. But, as it turns out, this search for freedom is a universal value; which is why Jazz appeals to serious musicians and music lovers across class, color, nationality and geography. Along with freedom and improvisation jazz also conveys a unique blues sensibility that speaks to something so profoundly human that it touches the hearts of people everywhere.
This explains the appeal of Jazz to South African musicians under apartheid as well as French musicians in the aftermath of World War I, a period when one write recalls that had they been left to listen to European Classical music they would all have committed suicide. It was the heroic optimism in the spirit of Jazz that spoke to disillusioned European intellectuals and artists, who were deeply depressed after witnessing their civilization degenerate into barbarism and mass murder.
Another reason for the universal appeal of Jazz early on in the twentieth century is that it is a synthesis of several musical idioms and offers the opportunity for musicians to add their flavor to the performance of the music. Hence if you listen to Jazz harpist Edmar Casteneda on the album “Cuarto de Colores” you will hear a Columbian approach to Jazz composition and performance.
The harp he plays is of Columbian origin and is very different from the European harp that one hears in symphony orchestras. When I first head him perform at Dizzy’s, a beautiful night club in Jazz at Lincoln Center especially engineered for the acoustic requirements of Jazz, I kept looking for the bass player.
Eventually I discovered that he was playing the bass with his left hand, along with chords and on solos. The sound was amplified so that it sounded like an acoustic bass fiddle, and the complexity of the rhythms he was playing sounded as if he were playing the bass line with both hands. The rhythms ran the gamut from swing to Samba, and his wife sang in voices that came deep from her Afro-Indio culture. They were no doubt playing Jazz, but it had a decidedly Columbian flavor.
Japanese Virtuoso Chimi Nakai
The nation that is producing the most impressive crop of young Jazz virtuosi outside of the United States is Japan. It seems that every time I look up I see another gifted young Japanese jazz artist. And they are distinguished by the fact that so many of these virtuoso instrumentalists are women, especially key board players. One of the most impressive of these is Chimi Nakai, a consummate master of the acoustic piano. Ms. Nakai is one of the new jazz virtuosi who are multi-lingual in musical terms. She is equally at home in Jazz, European classical and Afro-Cuban music.
Cuban Virtuoso Carlos Del Pino
I have seen her perform on several occasions with the great Afro-Cuban conta-bassist Carlos Del Pino. Carlos is a top shelf jazz bassist – Afro-American virtuosos Ray Brown and Paul Chambers were his inspiration and tutors via recordings – but he is equally brilliant playing the classical European repertoire for the double bass violin, and he is master of his native Afro-Cuban Son Montuno and other forms.
Wynton Marsalis: Trumpet Virtuoso
Artistic Director Of The World Famous JALC Orchestra
However the model for the multi-lingual virtuoso instrumentalist Jazz star is Wynton Marsalis, arguably the greatest trumpet player in the world. That is certainly the impression I’ve gotten from interviewing other great trumpet trumpet players, classical and jazz artists – professors who teach advanced courses on the instrument, and vintage Jazz masters on all instruments.
Because Wynton has won nine Grammys – four for European classical music and five for Jazz – plus a much coveted Pulitzer Prize for composition, musicians and music lovers all over the world are interested in his work. Hence great performances by Wynton are all over internet on You Tube, where musicians and fans can see him perform on video at will!
As a result of this vast exposure, sharp intellect, knowledge of Jazz tradition – he was born and raised in New Orleans, the birthplace of Jazz – easy eloquence, and genuine warmth and southern charm, he is the most effective ambassador Jazz has ever known. And the Marsalis family is the First Family of Jazz. Their contribution to keeping the Jazz tradition alive is so important that on January 11, 2011 the National Endowment for the Arts bestowed the prestigious “Jazz Masters Award on the entire family.
Aside from his four sons, Ellis Marsalis, the patriach of the clan, has trained other world famous Jazz musicians like the pianist / singer Harry Connick Jr. and the great trumpeter and prolific composer of movie scores, Terrance Blanchard. These New Orleans bred Jazz musicians are constantly travelling the world and exposing audiences to the classical tradition of American Jazz, the gift of African Americans to world culture. And as the representative anecdote for American civilization, “America as she is swung” in the words of Albert Murray, Jazz is also the great American contribution to the classic arts.
By: Playthell Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Photos of: Ellis and his boys, and portraiat of Wynton, by Frank Stewart.
Photos of Chemi and Carlos by: Playthell G. Benjamin.