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Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center March 7, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Cultural critiques, Jazz.
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As a black American jazz musician Marsalis obviously owes a strong debt to the African American tradition, but he has become a somewhat controversial figure within American jazz because of his commitment to presenting jazz as America’s classical music. In doing so he is aliening his own music, and of jazz as a whole, with traditions of the European art discourse. This position is further emphasised by the role that he takes at the prestigious New York Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, a vast complex of theatres for symphonic, operatic and theatrical arts in Manhattan. Jazz performance spaces within the center rival those for art music, and this physically asserts the cultural significance given to jazz. As Artistic Director and leader of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Marsalis has a strong influence over the performances, educational and broadcast work undertaken there.

A technically impressive trumpet player, Marsalis has tended to play forms of jazz that were associated with a period from the 1930s through to the late 1950s. He has been particularly critical of jazz that took influences from rock and later R&B or hip hop, using ideas from European art theory to argue that jazz reached its classic zenith during the period he champions. Like those of classical musicians, his performances are highly skilful interpretations of older music, and he performs in concert halls rather than clubs. The trumpeters is also associated with some important US cultural critics like Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray who argue that jazz is a uniquely American music created by black Americans and should be celebrated and nurtured as the equivalent of great European composers. Marsalis played a central role in the influential Ken Burns music documentary, Jazz, which was based upon exactly this idea.

The key ideas of the European art tradition are clearly apparent in this approach to jazz. Commercial use of jazz is criticised, and Marsalis sees himself as an artist, rather than an entertainer. The Lincoln Center has a strong commitment to excellence in performance technicalities, a cannon of great music has been developed, and there is an emphasis on educating audiences as well as musicians. From this position jazz is definitely not a popular music. There is little room for the idea that art can be a disruptive influence, or that artists should be breaking rules in the Marsalis/Lincoln Center discourse, and both musician and institution have been heavily criticised by contemporary jazz players who see their music as progressive or avant guarde.

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