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Marsalis and His Men

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis blew into Ithaca, New York yesterday on the damp and swirling tresses of Tropical Storm Nicole, but even the relentless rains and flood warnings couldn’t keep the sell-out audience away. Marsalis’s fifteen-piece band kept things hot but by never dry inside Cornel University’s cavernous Bailey Hall, where so many great groups—from the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski to Duke Ellington’s legendary ensemble— have played over the century of its existence.

Much is made of jazz as America’s Classical Music, and no one articulates this view more often or more loudly than Marsalis, the most famous jazz musician of his time. He also has plenty of recordings of European art music to his credit, Grammy awards in both jazz and classical, and even a Pulitzer Prize to secure his prestige. Indeed, his Ithaca appearance comes only a week or so after the triumphant American premier of this Third Symphony with the New York Philharmonic and the JLCO at Lincoln Center. Perhaps nothing reflects this classical standing of the JLCO, which should be accorded a place in the pantheon of the best orchestras of all time, than its maleness.

When the Ellington band, the Chicago Symphony and other fabled orchestras came to Bailey Hall back in the days when they too could guarantee filling the hall’s 1,500 seats, not a single female player was to be seen among their ranks. Today the picture is different. Even the reactionaries of the Vienna Philharmonic admitted their first woman at last in 1996, and named their first female concertmaster earlier this year.

Outside of same-sex institutions such as the Vienna Boys’ Choir and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, it’s nowadays almost startling to see such gender uniformity in a musical ensemble. There is perhaps no clearer sign of the classicizing impulse literally and figuratively trumpeted by Marsalis, than the fact that he’s got not a single woman in his band.  Since the group came here in a census year, I can probably get away with also pointing out that unlike the old Ellington band and the Philadelphia Orchestra of yore it is racially mixed, with about two-thirds of its members African-American, another third white, and a brilliant young Hispanic bassist by the name of Carlos Henriquez.

Marsalis registered the issue of race when he introduced Henriquez’s composition (one of two of his outstanding arrangements heard on the program), a piece entitled Adventure in 2-3s—two threes being an Afro-Cuban clavé rhythm. Marsalis joked about Henriquez’s guarding against “being put in a ghetto”—i.e., as a musically Latin one—“but then,” quipped the band leader, “he goes and writes a piece like this.” Obviously, to be a member of Marsalis’s orhcestra, Enriquez must be a tremendous musician with a command of many styles, from up-tempo burners to greasy blues. Henriquez also nourishes a towering talent for improvisation, as the he demonstrated to the delight of a spellbound house in his long and dynamic solo on his own Adventure. But, as Marsalis’ comments made once again clear, race remains an issue in jazz, just as it does in America. When it comes to gender, however, Marsalis is no quota queen. In a smaller jazz group, even a sextet, one can look past this, but when the score is fifteen to nil it becomes a lot harder.

The public seemed largely unperturbed by the orthodox absence of women in such an important and prestigious musical institution as the JLCO. When I mentioned what seemed to me the startling lack of women to several people at intermission, they admitted they hadn’t noticed, and seemed to be a little bemused that I’d even brought it up. The inference, I suppose, is that even an enlightened university audience accepts jazz as a predominantly male enterprise.

One can hardly accuse Marsalis of opting for inferior talent in order to keep women out his men’s club. The JLCO is a proverbial army of generals: that that the venerable military metaphor goes back to the very birth of the orchestra in the 18th-century, the great age of the standing army, speaks yet again to the male origins of both. Not only is each JLCO member an exacting and committed ensemble player, but also an improviser with a unique and powerful voice and impressive technical accomplishments.  One of the many wonderful things about the JLCO is that individual soloists are given far longer and more satisfying space for creative expression than were allowed on the cramped 78s that immortalized the great Ellington band of the 1930s on just three minutes a side.

Marsalis took more solos than the other fourteen players, but each of them got sufficient time at least once to demonstrate that he’d earned his four-star rank. One could be forgiven for the audacity of hoping to hear a tad less of Wynton and something more of many of these other fine musicians, not least trumpeter Ryan Kisor sitting just on the leader’s left in the back row of the band. Kisor’s only solo came on Ellington’s Limbo Jazz and sent legato lines searching through cluster of pitches before expanding out to wider intervals in search of a larger message. These ceaselessly inventive investigations were commented on by the plunger in the trumpeter’s deft left hand, adding winks and smirks and a few doses of tropical storm bluster to the smoothness of his curving melody.

Solos such as these extended to several choruses, allowing improvisers ample room not only to demonstrate their skill and technique, but time to build long and persuasive orations. One could perhaps better say sermons, especially when things got churchy and/or down-home rural. Such unabashed preaching encouraged many more of the brass effects with an assortment of mute, such as those deployed in the alto saxophonist Sherman Irby’s return to the bluesy barnyard  in his arrangment of Baa Baa Blacksheep, an agricultural setting first visited by his neighbor on the front line of the JLCO ,Ted Nash, in a creative and enlivening treatment of Old MacDonald Had a Farm. The genius of jazz, when wielded with this kind of skill and imagination, can transform that old homestead into a very hip place. Nowhere in musical performance can one experience more refreshing and entertaining combination of unashamed fun with impressive artistic achievement than with JLCO. The group has as wide a stylistic reach as any band, even if it is all falls under the banner of Marsalis’s definition of jazz, often criticized for being needlessly restrictive, as music based ultimately on the blues and swing.

Aside from several originals and new arrangements by members of the JLCO, the band paid homage again to their famed forebears with the exuberantly virtuosic Ellington classic, Braggin’ in Brass, featuring a tremendous demonstration of ensemble which manages—one played with this kind of dazzling polish—both raucous and precise. Trombonist Eliot Mason’s solo, alternating between bursts of high-speed figures and arcing melodies that soared above the searing pace of the rhythm section, was one of  innumerable pinnacles. The band that is as a mighty and impressive as a great mountain range, with individual peaks rising up in all their unique and fascinating glory. The whole is impressive, but the individual spires hold an equal fascination.

Still, it is hard to deny that the strutting off of instrumental prowess, whether at slow and ribald  pace or at Usain Bolt hundred-meter dash tempos, is energized by large doses of testosterone. And when one of the trombonists, Chris Crenshaw, a gifted composer and improviser, sang the Count Basie blues I Left My Baby Standing the Backdoor Crying, with the band nudging each other musically and physically with their elbows, the lockerroom—or perhaps poker table—cockiness became just a little hard to take.

The maleness of jazz has long been commented on. One has only to slog through Ken Burns’ ten-part PBS documentary Jazz, for which Marsalis was an adviser and the main on-screen talking head, to get a sense of how male America’s Classical Music has been over the century-and-some course of its history. Despite the progress represented by the JLCO racial integration, to look at the phalanx of men on stage is to look into a very long musical past (and not just in jazz) where women were excluded from public performance.

This morning the JLCO visits the Ithaca Public Schools as part of their admirable mission of outreach and education.  The students will be captivated by Wynton’s message heard in his music and in his often preachy words, and will be inspired by his musicianship and that of his rightly prestigious orchestra, one that has ascended to the heights of American culture and financial security in its home at Lincoln Center. The kids will listen and they will look. One doesn’t have to spend too much time wondering why there are still so few women in jazz.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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