What Wynton Doesn't Hear

Lester Bowie explains

In a recent Utne Reader article, grandly titled "The Music of Democracy," neo-conservative Wynton Marsalis blows off the last three decades in the evolution of jazz. He implies that all new-music developments in the years since Coltrane have been driven by an "avant-garde conception of music that's loud and self-absorbed." It's hard to take Marsalis seriously on this issue: Any enthusiast of the vast range of so-called contemporary avant-garde knows that the relentless sounds of late-period Trane in no way represent the entire movement; but Marsalis' view of "real jazz" doesn't include this reality, even though he's no doubt been exposed to a few records and concerts. Specifically, he disregards the innovative achievements of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the World Saxophone Quartet. "It's not interesting to me to play like that," he says. "I don't know any people who like it. It doesn't resonate with anything I've experienced in the world."

Given Marsalis' status as artistic director of jazz at the Lincoln Center and as a high-profile educator who conducts "master classes" on the essential character and history of the art form, his narrow perspective rankles the music's more exploratory practitioners. In a recent Jazziz article, saxophonist David Murray derides the puerile lion king and his pride ("all these little dudes with three-piece suits") as "neo-con artists" who offer little but ultrapolished reworkings of bebop traditions. "They're conning the public into thinking that nothing happened in jazz since the '50s [and] that they're the guys who actually created this stuff," he writes, "when actually they're just playing a tired version of some music that really had some fire to it."

Now, Marsalis frequently pays homage, in word and music, to the canonical figures of eras past such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie; he's not trying to pass himself off as the "creator" of these forms. But he does seem to think that there's only one correct way to swing, and that the recapitulation of tradition equals jazz invention in the '90s. His statements smack of exclusivity, while the music he's talking about is by definition inclusive.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago's horn doctor, Lester Bowie, is renowned for a singular slur-and-murmur blowing technique, inventive compositional strategies, masterful parodic timing, and tireless advocacy for a progressive modern jazz approach. He's known Marsalis since his initial rise to fame in the early '80s; today he sees a man who is "just misusing his talent."

"Here's a guy who should be playing some things that no one ever heard before," says Bowie. "He's got the skill, but he's brain-dead." Brain-dead? "I believe he's retarded," he responds. "Either that, or he is deliberately sabotaging the music."

The deep-seated ideological chasm between the traditionalists and the avant-gardists would matter little if it were only rhetoric. But the divisive words translate into a dearth of opportunities for players whose visions extend beyond bop. Consequently, fewer and fewer up-and-coming jazz musicians, particularly those of African-American descent (who dominated the music's prolific development during the '60s and early '70s), are willing to put themselves out on the adventurous fringe. "These cats are what we used to call 'scaredy-cats,' " Bowie says. "They're just afraid, afraid to do anything different because they fear they won't be able to make a living, won't be able to play, won't be able to get a contract. But they don't realize that all of us are out here surviving without contracts, because of the quality of the work that we've done over the years."

For nearly three decades, the Art Ensemble of Chicago (Bowie, co-founder/multireedist Roscoe Mitchell, multireedist/poet Joseph Jarman, bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut, and percussionist Famoudou Don Moye) has persevered as a rude awakening for the somnambulists of mainstream jazz. Emerging from the widely influential AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), the group infuses percussion-heavy elements of indigenous Africa and a deep sense of silence, space, and color into an expansive vision. Their bold compositions and collective improvs marry theatrical ritual with a focused musical concept they call "Great Black Music -- Ancient to the Future." It's rooted in race, but beyond identity politics. "All kinds of people have contributed to this music," Bowie acknowledges. "[But] going all the way back, the impetus to this music was black. That's our contribution to world culture." Ultimately, he suggests, "the music is about humanity."

So why doesn't Marsalis support the Art Ensemble's humanitarian efforts? Maybe, suggests Bowie, "he really is mentally ill. Because if he's not," cracks the trumpeter, "he's evil." More seriously, it could be that Marsalis' rarefied position has put him out of touch. "Wynton's been given so much money," Bowie notes. "He's trapped in some opinions that he had at age 21, and he's still got to stand by those at 35 because he's been paid to." Bowie gives up. "I would like to think that he just doesn't know any better."

The Art Ensemble of Chicago plays Tuesday through Sunday, Sept. 17-22, at Yoshi's Nitespot, 6030 Claremont, Oakland; call (510) 652-9200.

 
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