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Dr. Jazz has a soft side

As the seconds pass before Wynton Marsalis picks up the phone in his Portland, Ore., hotel room, the mind sends a decree to the body: Be on guard.

And have the recorder running too, because a few choice quotes are bound to be in the offing. Marsalis, the man often heralded as the ambassador of jazz (or jazz czar, or Ronald Reagan of jazz, or whichever title you prefer), isn't known for grunting one-sentence responses in interviews. He is known for expressing sharp opinions — sometimes, apparently, at the volume of a John Coltrane solo.

A story a few years ago in the British newspaper the Independent declared that it "doesn't take much to annoy Wynton Marsalis" — the "much" in question ranging from musical styles to politics.

Another recent article reports that the trumpeter "almost explodes with rage when he talks about hip-hop" and describes "his gruff holler getting louder and angrier" as he dissects the subject.

Maybe those reporters were thin-skinned, or maybe Marsalis' comments were perfectly in character for a man who has both exalted and divided the jazz community for decades. But when a raspy voice finally comes on the line from Portland, it sounds sedate, even warm.

"Oh, just call me Wynton," he says casually when asked for the best way to address him.

For the first few questions, he offers short replies: Yes, he's played before at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, where he'll stop again March 14 with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Yes, it's a beautiful venue. Yes, one of his favorites in the region.

Marsalis gets more verbal — while remaining genial — when the names of the composers who will be the focus of his Segerstrom show come up. The orchestra will play a series of selections that night from two 20th-century giants, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and Marsalis, whose work has touched on classical as well as jazz, makes a ready comparison.

"Basie and Ellington, that's like Bach and Beethoven," he says. "If you like European classical music, you like Bach and you like Beethoven. If you like jazz, you like Basie and you like Ellington."

Marsalis' definition of liking jazz may not always mirror that of other people. He's been a critic in the past of fusion styles — including, sure enough, hip-hop jazz — and over the course of the conversation, he outlines the fundamentals of what he considers the music's true form: a swing beat, improvisation and blues flavor.

He points out that he doesn't dislike other genres simply because they're not jazz. But he's keen on using the right terminology.

Even if you don't accept Marsalis as Dr. Jazz, however, there's at least some reason to trust him as an authority. With the Lincoln Center in New York, he has promoted the genre for more than a quarter-century through tours, recordings and educational programs.

He's won nine Grammys and served as a cultural correspondent for CBS. AllMusic.com proclaims him "the most famous jazz musician since 1980."

At Segerstrom, though, he won't necessarily be in the spotlight. He didn't choose Ellington and Basie for the program — the venue made that request — and his orchestra will play the original bandleaders' arrangements rather than his own.

But whoever gets top billing doesn't always matter to Marsalis. For him, jazz is bigger than any one person.

*

When Marsalis expounds on the implications of jazz, the delivery sounds like a speech suited to the Oval Office as much as the Hollywood Bowl.

"Well, first, the fact that you can improvise against a ground rhythm is like [how] our Constitution can be amended," he says in response to a question about how jazz mirrors cultural identity. "And, in fact, there's a complex series of checks and balances in that improvisation — like the softest instrument, the bass, unamplified bass, is forced to play on every beat with the loudest instrument, which is the drums. It's like the two parties having to negotiate a deal with each other."

Like a trumpeter improvising on a theme, Marsalis keeps building: The journey from the beginning to the end of a tune is like driving cross-country; choruses stacked on top of each other are like skyscrapers; the soloist is like the citizen who balances his own interest with that of society's. He sounds like someone who would work well with American documentarian Ken Burns, which, come to think of it, he has.

Marsalis cares about music as intensely as he cares about society at large — and it doesn't take long for the two subjects to intertwine. He sounds particularly concerned about youth culture, which he considers at the mercy of adult label executives.

And don't even get him started about hip-hop. On second thought, do get him started. It's sure to be entertaining.

"It speaks for itself," Marsalis says. "I don't even have to say anything. All you have to do is look at what it is. It says it in its words, and it presents it in its videos."

A moment later, he adds with a laugh: "It's like you asking me, what do I think about crack? What can I tell you about it?" And he's keen on noting that he started hating hip-hop around 1985 (or 1986, he's not sure) because "I always want the record to show how soon I knew."

If you haven't guessed, Marsalis has the standard complaints about the urban genre: the profanity, the imagery, the perceived sexism. Does that make him conservative?

No, just the opposite. Politics enters the discussion again.

"The conservative position in my era was the position of kind of embrace of adolescence, or just the direction something like hip-hop went in, where it just became so over the top with the profanity and the ignorance and misogyny," he says. "That's a conservative position. It was embraced by the whole culture."

He pauses for a beat, then adds, "Why do that?"

*

No one will ever mistake Marsalis for Kanye West, but some viewed him as a provocateur in his own right when he came on the scene in the early 1980s. One of six sons in a New Orleans musical family, Marsalis helped spark a movement of musicians who came to be labeled the Young Lions — jazz players who eschewed pop fusion and modeled their style after the classics.

That style turned out to have more than a few willing listeners. In 1981, when Marsalis was 20, Los Angeles Times critic Leonard Feather bestowed not only praise on him, but portent. Calling the trumpeter "bewilderingly mature," he dubbed him "Young Man of the Year" and nudged his name to the top of the music's pantheon.

"As a jazz soloist, he seems to have become a symbol for the fledgling decade, just as Woody Shaw was at the beginning of the 1970s, Freddie Hubbard in 1960, Miles Davis in 1950 and Dizzy Gillespie in the early '40s," Feather wrote. "His maturity and creativity make one wonder what new avenues he will find in what will unquestionably be a formidable career."

By the time Marsalis reached drinking age, he had studied at Juilliard, played in Art Blakey's band and toured with Herbie Hancock, among others. He also became known for his candor. In an interview with Feather, he was quoted as saying that some black listeners' preference for funk and soul over jazz "has to do with not being educated for four centuries and dealing with complexes that are forced on us by society," and he took a swipe at "enforced trends" and "bad taste" in jazz in a 1984 Grammy speech.

Marsalis suspects that that unabashed approach helped get him branded as an ambassador. He's self-deprecating about that label — "I was not savvy about the media when I first came out, so I would just say whatever I thought was true" — and jokes that he eventually grew too old to learn to change his approach.

Whether Marsalis represents the form's past, present or future, there's no doubt he's a popular attraction at Segerstrom. This month's show will mark his fifth appearance at the venue. The first four spanned the years from 1987, when he headlined in the first year of Segerstrom's jazz program, to 2009, when he joined the Lincoln Center orchestra there for the second time.

Senior music programming director Aaron Egigian, who calls Marsalis "a significant force for jazz" and "quite a gentleman," says later by phone that, not surprisingly, he considers him a master of interpreting the canon. The Ellington and Basie program, he notes, was his idea.

"When we look at the jazz in the 20th century, those were, I believe, the two most significant bandleaders we had," Egigian says. "And certainly, the people that Wynton has assembled in his orchestra, the caliber of those players, I thought, would be the best to sort of bring those charts alive again."

Back to Marsalis, then. One of his favorite sayings is "all jazz is modern," an adage that comes back to him when he introduces young listeners to the old masters. For him, music equals responsibility, and if he can turn on a new set of ears to a form that long predates the iPod, he's done his job.

"I think the ambassador that we need in our country is called education," he says. "And that's for the arts in general. It's not just for jazz."

The interview over, there's time for one last question: Does Marsalis want to add anything to what's been said before?

"Oh, no," he says pleasantly. "That was good."

Phew.

If You Go

What: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

Where: Segerstrom Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. March 14

Cost: Starts at $39

Information: (714) 556-2787 or http://www.scfta.org

*

Starting your jazz collection? Let Wynton help

Asked which three albums he would recommend to a listener first getting into jazz, Marsalis offers three titles — and then tosses in a fourth by Charles Mingus "for people who are used to kind of loud, wild, raucous music." Here's the basic info on all four discs:

'John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman'

Artists: Coltrane, Hartman

Year released: 1963

In a nutshell: Saxophone icon Coltrane teams with vocalist Hartman on "Dedicated to You," "Autumn Serenade" and other chestnuts.

AllMusic.com says: "At only half an hour, one wishes there were twice as much music, but what is here is classic, essential for all jazz collections."

*

'Kind of Blue'

Artist: Miles Davis

Year released: 1959

In a nutshell: The trumpet master leads an all-star instrumental ensemble: Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb.

AllMusic.com says: "[A]n album that towers above its peers, a record generally considered as the definitive jazz album, a universally acknowledged standard of excellence."

*

'Duke Ellington's Far East Suite'

Artist: Ellington

Year released: 1967

In a nutshell: Eastern-themed opus by the venerable bandleader, inspired by a State Department trip and mostly written in collaboration with Billy Strayhorn.

AllMusic.com says: "Duke Ellington could have been forgiven if, by the time he was 67, he had gradually lost his creative desire not to mention his writing skills. But his genius never dimmed ... one of his more memorable recordings."

*

'Mingus Ah Um'

Artist: Charles Mingus

Year released: 1959

In a nutshell: Wide-ranging collection that varies from tributes to Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton to a dig at Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus.

AllMusic.com says: "It simply isn't possible to single out one Mingus album as definitive, but 'Mingus Ah Um' comes the closest."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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