Carvin' the Bird

by Leon Wieseltier | January 22, 2001

Who's afraid of Wynton Marsalis? Except for people with ears and brains, everybody. Or so it would appear from the reception of Ken Bums's stupefying Jazz, for which Marsalis served as "senior creative consultant" and as senior on-camera exegete. In a symposium in the Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times, the centrality of Marsalis in Burns's epic provokes resentment from a jazz historian ("with Wynton Marsalis arriving like a jazz Dalai Lama, after the deaths of Ellington and Armstrong"), and "angry blues" from the trumpeter Jon Faddis, who is incensed that the "philosophy" of Marsalis is "presented as fact, rather than opinion or interpretation." Faddis is also "angry that the music from 1961 until now was given only one episode of two hours": this is the old complaint about the neoclassicism of Marsalis and its allegedly reactionary character. Meanwhile The Weekly Standard reached all the way to The Washington Times to find someone to accuse Marsalis of racism—pardon me, of "racialism." The writer, who seems to think that Mel Powell was the equal of Thelonious Monk, cites the "searing" opinion of the freelance philistine Terry Teachout that Marsalis propounds "an ideology in which race is a primary factor in the making of aesthetic judgments," and reports that "the racialist ideology has played out in a series of jazz programs [at Lincoln Center] based on the work of black players, composers, and arrangers."

Jazz programs based on the work of black players, composers, and arrangers? Imagine! In truth, the attempt in recent years to deny African Americans pride of place in the evolution of jazz has been stupid and ugly, Bix and Benny and the rest notwithstanding. And the imputation of racialist standards to Marsalis's view of jazz is a willful misrepresentation of his music and his institution. In this regard, his livid brothers on the left understand him better than his livid brothers on the right. It is precisely because he has championed an aesthetic point of regard toward jazz—as a serious art that is pledged, like all serious art, to the beauty of structure and the morality of structure that Marsalis has not pioneered a reconsideration of the achievement of Albert Ayler. Unlike the downtown expressionists, Coltrane's idiot children, Marsalis does not consider feeling the enemy of form. But formalism is a variety of universalism. It establishes itself at the highest level of generality: at the level of the human. For this reason, an aesthete who is a racialist is a bad aesthete, but an aesthete who is a democrat is a good aesthete, and Marsalis is one of the most accomplished aesthetes of his time. "God don't like ugly," he wrote in Blood on the Fields. Maybe God don't like The Weekly Standard.

Is it really controversial to suggest that jazz is historically more black than white but spiritually neither black nor white; that personal expression is the beginning but not the end of art; that spontaneity is hardly a promise of truth; that improvisation is an activity of the intellect; and that the alto playing of John Zom represents a falling off from the alto playing of Johnny Hodges and Lee Konitz and Jackie McLean and Omette Coleman? But fall off, I say, fall off. This is a free country, and everybody can produce any noise that he wishes to produce. Still, the noises will be judged, because judging is what minds do. From the standpoint of pleasure, the judgment will not be severe: my pleasure is not more valuable than your pleasure. Indeed, I will confess gladly to the pleasure that Lester Bovide's version of "The Great Pretender" brings me. But I will not mistake my emotional attachment to that slumming masterpiece for its musical excellence. For decades Chet Baker's singing has furnished the soundtrack for my imperfect man's heart, but I will concede that, artistically speaking, it is just junk that I love. Distinctions of quality may be nothing more than classifications of delight, but still they must be maintained. And no apology need be offered for the belief that the art that asks more of you is the art that should be more precious to you. We are here for more than fun.

 

In Burns's 19 hours of hollow hagiographies, Marsalis stands out like a soloist whose rhythm section is lost somewhere behind him. His is the only analytical voice in this interminable starstruck rhapsody. (His little lesson about "Epistrophy" alone is worth a sea of sepia.) Sure, there are good things on these tapes: I will not soon forget the sight of Coleman Hawkins watching Monk sublimely poke the piano; or of the battered and lovely Lester Young stepping up to play a pellucid chorus of "Fine and Mellow" before the battered and lovely Billie Holiday; or of Soupy Sales introducing Clifford Brown. But Bums suffocates the jazz tradition in his superlatives. He deadens everything with his wonder. He has come to be ravished. A helpless hero-worshiper, his success threatens to make hero worship into a respectable historical standpoint. It is easy to see why Bums flourishes in this culture of worthless admiration. He is really just a fan: Bob Costas with an NEA grant.

In the book that accompanies Jazz, Burns admits that "when I began the project, I had perhaps two jazz records in my fairly large music collection," and it shows. The music in these programs is mainly the background for its edifying narrative; I do not remember a single piece that Burns allows to be given in its entirety. Alas, you cannot have the mystic chords of memory unless you have the chords. So piety stands in for comprehension, and the music is made into a parable of everything good and beautiful and true. Jazz is freedom, love, joy, sorrow, creation, destruction, risk, responsibility, sex, friendship, the body, the soul. Burns's series is another document in the religion of jazz, which is a fine bulwark against the experience of jazz. After eight hours or so of these doxologies, I wanted to reach for Journey's greatest hits, for anything with the integrity of being only what it is.

But jazz for Burns is, above all, America. This accounts for the vaguely official tone of Burns's script. This is the story of our nation told by a national treasure. "In Jazz" he says, "we complete our trilogy on American life," after The Civil War and Baseball. His trilogy on race in American life, he should have said. In any event, Burns finds "in the music's lines and phrases and riffs ... not only a meditation on American creativity, but a joyous and sublime celebration of its redemptive future possibilities.... [J]azz has kept the American message alive." There are many such homilies. They sound rather like the citations on presidential medals. There is also too much celebration in Jazz. For a fearful quantity of pain, individual and social, went into the making of this music. Burns is not comfortable with pain. He turns it into tragedy, which is the condition of triumph. Jim Crow was terrible, but here is Armstrong; dope was terrible, but here is Parker. Burns makes you almost grateful for their adversity, which is indecent. The happiness of sad people is not so easily grasped. Jazz is the sound of stoicism, and it, too, is not so easily grasped. There are secrets even in the swing.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

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