Trumpeting Mediocrity

Was Wynton Marsalis ever that good?

How good is this guy?

For 20 years, Wynton Marsalis has probably been the most famous living jazz musician. For the first 10 of those years, he was also among the most acclaimed. This is no longer the case; nor should it be. His latest album, The Magic Hour, is so stupefyingly mediocre—for eight songs and 62 minutes not a damn thing interesting happens—that it ought to compel a reappraisal of Marsalis’ entire career. How good was this guy, ever?

Expectations for The Magic Hour were very high. It’s Marsalis’ first jazz album in five years and his debut recording for the Blue Note label, which signed him up in 2003 after two years of negotiations following his disgruntled departure from Columbia. Bruce Lundvall, Blue Note’s president, said, upon signing the deal, “I believe Wynton is on the cusp of an innovative, new, creative period musically.”

Blue Note has a history as the landmark label of modern jazz. Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, to name a few, all recorded for Blue Note, nourishing the “jazz tradition” to which Marsalis claims lineage. Marsalis’ last several albums on Columbia were weak, even in his admirers’ estimation. Many figured that on his first Blue Note album, he’d stake new ground, write daring compositions, or at least reconvene the best musicians of his past bands.

Alas, no. The songs he’s written for The Magic Hour are trite, and the band he’s assembled is lame. The album begins with a rendition of Ellington’s ” Feeling of Jazz” that has no feeling, least of all for jazz. The drummer, Ali Jackson, pounds a stiff 4/4 beat; he might as well be a drum-machine. The pianist, Eric Lewis, plays the same sluggish chords over and over; he might as well be a tape-loop. Marsalis’ trumpet solos are clichéd, the occasional bray subbing for emotion. If this is the feeling of jazz, Charlie Parker wouldn’t have had to shoot heroin to nod out; he could have just listened to the guys on the bandstand.

On one tune, “Big Fat Hen,” Lewis takes a one-minute piano solo, and plays exactly the same chords that he’d been playing while accompanying Wynton. You almost wonder if the engineer made a mistake in mixing the track.

These are good jazz musicians. So what is going on?

Marsalis, who’s now 42, is a superb trumpeter and a brilliant educator. (His schoolhouse lectures on music, which aired on PBS a few years ago, are the best of their kind since Leonard Bernstein’s telecasts in the ‘60s.) But he has never been a great bandleader or a composer. He’s written and recorded scores of compositions, but I defy anyone to hum a few. On The Magic Hour, there’s a ballad called “Sophie Rose-Rosalee” that pays homage to the sorts of ballads Miles Davis played in the mid-’50s. It’s nice. But compare it to the real thing or to ballads played by vast numbers of today’s horn players in their 40s or younger—Dave Douglas, James Carter, David Murray, Don Byron, Marty Ehrlich, Mark Turner, or Greg Osby, to name a few—and there’s no comparison: It’s the difference between someone describing an emotion and someone experiencing it.

Marsalis made his reputation in 1981, at age 19, as the trumpeter in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. His first album as a leader featured the rhythm section from Miles Davis’ great mid-’60s band—Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams—as sidemen. On his best album of that era, Black Codes (From the Underground), he shared the front line with his brother, Branford Marsalis, a tenor saxophonist who had more adventurous jazz instincts. The album had a genuine swing, a restless rhythm, and a slick urban feel reminiscent of great classic jazz of the ‘50s, impressive but not yet original.

For a while in the late ‘80s, it looked as though Wynton might be as great as his publicists claimed. His 1989 album, The Majesty of the Blues, eschewed virtuosity for a thoughtful, soulful blues. His new pianist, Marcus Roberts, whose influences ranged from Monk to gospel to Leadbelly, gave him scads of rhythmic space and played unusual chords that pushed Marsalis to explore territory he hadn’t yet charted. On what might be Marsalis’ best album, 1991’s Thick in the South, Elvin Jones on drums and Joe Henderson on tenor sax pushed him to greater heights of passion, swing, and surprise. This was the feeling of jazz.

Then things took a dreary turn. Marsalis became an institution—literally, through his directorship of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. He started to believe the absurdly extravagant liner notes that Stanley Crouch wrote for all his albums, describing each as a work of greater genius than the one before. Emulating Duke Ellington, he wrote vast symphonic works. The biggest, Blood on the Fields, won a Pulitzer (the first jazz work to do so), but bored everyone who squirmed through it. (At Avery Fisher Hall in New York, where I saw it, half the crowd left at intermission.)

The conventional wisdom about Marsalis is that he brought jazz back to life. According to this view of jazz history, the ‘70s were a dreadful decade dominated by fusion sellouts and tuneless screechers. Then Wynton came along. He dressed clean and played to match. An awesomely versatile musician (Maurice Andre called him the greatest classical trumpeter in a generation), he returned jazz to the basics. He also gave feisty interviews, painting himself as a keeper of the jazz tradition and—to the great annoyance of many musicians and critics—castigating those who followed more commercial or experimental paths.

There is something to this story line. The 1970s saw a lot of lousy, dumbed-down jazz. But by the time Marsalis came along, the air was already starting to clear. The most inventive avant-gardists had begun to revive the jazz tradition, in their individual ways while Wynton was still in high school. In 1974, alto saxophonist Anthony Braxton put out a two-volume album of standards called In the Tradition. Arthur Blythe made an album of the same title, on Columbia, in 1979. The same year, Chico Freeman recorded Spirit Sensitive, a gorgeous album of standards in the vein of early ‘60s Coltrane. In 1980, still pre-Wynton, Sun Ra made Sunrise in Different Dimensions, which included inspired rearrangements of Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and Jelly Roll Morton.

Out of this trend grew an informal movement, which some dubbed “neoclassicism.” It consisted of avant-garde musicians who spent the ‘70s developing their own styles and then applied them to traditional forms, seeking an expressive synthesis of tradition and innovation. By contrast, Marsalis found his voice in a study (and imitation) of those historical forms and, except for that brief period in the late ‘80s, never developed an individual style. Instead, he developed an ideology of jazz (his notion of tradition was “jazz”; others’ notions were not jazz). And, as with all ideologies, his music gradually calcified.

This was the true nature of the intense clash that erupted between Marsalis and more progressive jazz musicians (and critics) in the early ‘80s. Marsalis and his mentor, Stanley Crouch, claimed that this was a debate between the keepers and the betrayers of the flame. Instead, it was an argument between those who saw jazz as a historical body of work to be preserved and those who saw it as a living, evolving art. This may explain why The Magic Hour, possibly the worst album of Marsalis’ long career, sounds like a dusty museum exhibition, a rundown pocket watch.

Marsalis has always been at his best when he plays with peers or betters—those either more accomplished or free-wheeling—who push him beyond his usual range. Listen to his solo, 10 years ago, on Shirley Horn’s You Won’t Forget Me, or, more recently, on Ted Nash’s Still Evolved: bristling with spunk, blues, wit, swing, passion. The man can play when his bandmates egg him on.