In his newest book, the jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis comes a good deal closer to the goal that he’s been moving toward in his previous writings: A unitary theory of American culture, with jazz at its heart as explicator and savior.
Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life, written with Geoffrey C. Ward, has the same kind of sermon-like feel of his To a Young Jazz Musician, his 2003 collection of Rilke-in-swingtime letters about the importance of jazz and of living a life of creative integrity. It has the same kind of relentless exhortation, but here he’s trying to reach a wider, more general audience.
Moving to Higher Ground has the feel of a book put together for a very busy man: It’s short, loosely episodic, and the writing reads as though it were dictated to Ward, with some of the thought-jumps that can result from that approach. Nevertheless, the book is engaging, interesting, at times quite funny, and overall, persuasive.
The book is structured as part primer, part essay, with a chapter featuring 13 prose portraits of great jazz masters with suggestions for further listening. Marsalis’ basic jazz worldview is this: Jazz is at once an art form of personal expression and careful collaboration, and it lives in the spirit of the blues and swing, two other artistic styles that he feels are either poorly understood or ignored.
But he also sees jazz as a way to bridge America’s racial disharmonies; recognizing its primacy in our country’s music is the same thing as understanding that while it originated with black Americans, it belongs to all of its citizens:
Jazz music is America’s past and its potential, summed up and sanctified and accessible to anybody who learns to listen to, feel, and understand it. The music can connect us to our earlier selves and to our better selves-to-come. It can remind us of where we fit on the time line of human achievement, an ultimate value of art.
That’s nicely put, but Marsalis is as aware as anyone that many of today’s Americans find jazz music incomprehensible, outmoded or boring. He argues that there are so many definitions of jazz now current that it’s time to return to first principles and sort out its most vital components, which is where swing in particular comes in.
For him, the disappearance of swing (except as a briefly popular fad a few years back when clothiers were making zoot suits again) amounts to the loss of the element of jazz that connects the music to dance, and to romance. He explains swing’s technical definition reasonably well for non-specialists as basically being a shuffle rhythm (he uses the Mickey Mouse March as an example), but it’s the larger implications of swing that really grab him. If you’re swing dancing, you’re dancing close to your partner; if you’re in a room of people listening to swing, they’re all grooving along with it. And that means togetherness:
We need to brings swing back, not out of dumb, misguided nostalgia, but because swing is a modern rhythm, much more suited to the increasingly integrated world of today than anything pounded out by a drum machine and recorded by people who are not even in the same studio together.
These are the kinds of things Marsalis has said before, but what makes this book more interesting is some of the stories he tells about growing up in suburban New Orleans. He talks about his family, his schooling , and his first experiences in the wider world of jazz.
What is compelling here is his explanation that as a teenager, he was like most of his African-American peers an angry black nationalist, a young person who wrote off Louis Armstrong as an Uncle Tom and couldn’t be bothered to learn about why Benny Goodman was an important figure in American popular music.
But his view changed, at least in part because Marsalis has been singularly fortunate in his intellectual mentors, beginning with his parents, and then the arts magnet school he attended in New Orleans, which he still describes with palpable excitement: “The faculty was unbelievable. Just the conversations they had with one another made you want to learn things….I still look back on that experience with gratitude.”
A good foundation, then, for meeting the writers Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray, who taught him the lesson that it was the quality of a person’s ideas, not what that person looked like, that mattered. He even writes a long, Murray-like sentence about the force with which these intellectual revelations struck him:
…and (Murray) was excited about you, that you wanted to learn about something, and he told you the blues was the truth, and gave you a book he wrote about it, and you took it home and read it, and it was full of stuff that you had experienced your whole life but had never considered important or special, but now you knew that the specialness was based in its universality and that the idea of reducing the blues aesthetic to race was impoverished, and now, because you had actually felt exactly that before he told you, him telling you was like a cue from a conductor: You know when to come in, but his cue makes you doubly secure; it guides you to where you were going anyway, and now it’s going to take much les time and things won’t feel the same because you’re not alone. You have help. Plenty of it.
Marsalis is absolutely right when he points out that black Americans are not in any sense other than numbers a minority; they are central to the identity of this country and major creators of its culture. He bemoans the unhappy fact that black Americans don’t seem to realize this when it comes to jazz, but ignorance of America’s place in the world of the arts is true of every group in our country. That’s one of the reasons Gore Vidal and others like to call it the United States of Amnesia.
In the sixth chapter of his book, Marsalis takes a look at some of the very greatest jazz figures: Ellington, Monk, Coltrane. John Lewis is given a loving reminiscence and one of the best stories in the book, while Miles Davis comes in for the same criticism Marsalis has leveled against him before: He sold out in his middle age to funk and rock, and almost destroyed his legacy.
Marsalis also spends a good deal of time lauding the pianist Marcus Roberts, so much so that it’s made me want to seek out more of his work (I haven’t liked it much up to this point, but it’s clear from this that I don’t know enough of it). If Roberts is celebrated as a titan of jazz 40 years from now, Marsalis will have been right.
Wynton Marsalis is one of those people, who because of his early fame and continued stature as a leading voice in jazz, comes in for a lot of attacks as a hidebound young fogy who hates innovation and wants to live in the past. I can understand some of that: I’ve never been persuaded by his composing, and I find him stiff as a jazz player (he sounds more natural as a classical player, frankly).
But he is one of the most important spokesmen in the country today — in fact, almost the only prominent one I can think of — for the arts in general (here’s an interview he did for the book on NPR). He winds up Moving to Higher Ground with the notion that jazz can inspire even non-musical people to seek out the wellsprings of their own creativity, and that is what the arts are all about.
Jazz itself, despite Marsalis’ best efforts, will remain a closed book to a lot of people, which is lamentable. But he can justifiably be proud of his work on behalf of American arts and human creativity in general, and that’s no small thing. What he has done here is unfashionable but courageous, and he deserves to be recognized for what he really is: A national treasure.
Here he is playing a 5-minute chorus on Cherokee with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra:
(Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life, runs just 183 pages and is an easy read. It’s published by Random House and retails for $26.)