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Wynton Center


This skirmishing led to much intemperate commentary. New-wavist saxophonist David Murray slammed JLC's reliance on standards as "fuckin' macabre necrophilia or some shit." Pianist Keith Jarrett said Wynton was "jazzy the same way someone who drives a BMW is sporty." Wynton gave as good as he got, even if sometimes "I had no choice but to laugh." Case in point is an Internet page titled "Livingston Squat . . . a place devoted to mirth at the expense of Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch," in which one finds the one-act play Branford Tells Wynton, a retelling of the traumatic 1985 scene when Branford informed his earnest younger brother he would be leaving the Wynton Marsalis Quintet.

"That's cool, Steeplone," Wynton (referred to as "Minton Bursitis") says. A jazzman should broaden his horizons. "Will you be going with some legendary veteran of the bebop tenor battles on Central Avenue in Los Angeles . . . or perhaps an underappreciated modern giant who cut his teeth during the fertile period of swinging sixties modernism?"

"Well, no," Branford replies. Actually, he says, he is going to play with Sting, describing the former Police singer as "a down cat," adding, "I can't be doing that historical shit all the time!"

Wynton wails: "Pop music! Pop music! My own brother!"

Nowadays, Wynton claims he doesn't read what people write about him anymore. "There was a really bad article in the Times, and I wrote this long letter of rebuttal. I was wondering, should I send it? My son, Wynton Jr., said I had to send it. 'Daddy', he said, 'if you don't, then they'll write it all over again.' After that, I couldn't take it seriously anymore."

Besides, Wynton says, stretched out in his bedroom, he doesn't have time for jazz wars. He's just gotten back from a month on the road with the LC Jazz Orchestra and another two weeks with his septet. "Playing, every night, playing." That's the easy part, he says, going from town to town, driving in the bus, playing ball, scheming a way to beat Walter Blanding in chess, spreading jazz love along the highways and byways. What's hard is "working for free . . . this nonprofit thing. When you're working for free, you're tired all the time."

Looking at the plans of the new building on the wall, Wynton says, "First, everyone was talking about $50 million. Then it was $74 million, $81 million. Now it's 115 . . . $115 million! When I was growing up, if you got 115 pennies for jazz, you were doing good. Now we need $115 million, and have around 80, maybe 85. That's $30 more million. Got to get it."

Chances are he will, since, along with the other things Wynton Marsalis can do really well, raising money is one of them.

Gordon J. Davis, founding chairman of JLC (and until his recent resignation Lincoln Center's president), testifies to Wynton's magic with "lead donors." "He's kind of the ultimate weapon," says Davis, who has drummed up "untold millions" for a variety of groups and causes. "You open the door, and in walks Mozart. Fund-raising-wise, that can be a compelling argument."

It worked with Herb Allen, the fabulously secretive broker of such high-stakes media deals as the Disney-Capital Cities/ ABC merger and Seagram's $5.7 billion purchase of MCA. A fraternity brother of Allen's at Williams back in the early sixties, Davis once managed to get Allen to write a $250 check for a campus civil-rights campaign. But Allen had little interest in jazz until Davis, as a personal favor, asked him to have breakfast with Marsalis.

"Wynton came over and started talking, the way he does," Davis said. "As it turned out, Wynton and Herb had similar views on the corrosive nature of today's popular culture, how it undermines everything." Allen said he might speak to Steve Case, the AOL founder, who had also attended Williams and was often present at the Sun Valley confab Allen hosts annually for the likes of Bill Gates, Sumner Redstone, and Rupert Murdoch. Case was a jazz fan, Allen said.

"I told my secretary, 'If Herb Allen calls, get me, no matter what,' " Davis recalls. "My heart sank, because he said he hadn't gotten the money from Case. He didn't feel right about asking him. I was about to hang up when Allen says, 'So I'll give you the money myself.' Ten million bucks. He said it was meeting Wynton that did it. He believed in him."

The grand jazz patroness Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter may have sent her personal car to bring the junked-up Bird to the Stanhope and put up Monk in her Weehawken estate, but Wynton's philanthropic reach far exceeds that. Watching Wynton work a room, as he did the other night at JLC's gala "Tribute to Tito Puente," pausing unhurriedly at every single $1,000-a-plate setting, is to see another bit of marvelous Marsalis class-defying technique. The contact of the winking eye, the squeeze of the genius's hand upon the shoulder, the wordless Chaplinesque dance with the head and spreading cherub smile -- you could call him Wynton Clinton, how he fits it all together with his understated preacher's zeal, how he listens. It is a jazzman's gift, after all, listening to others. How else can you play? Talk to Wynton on the phone, and there will be a pause. A silence on the other end. "You still there?" is the question. "Yeah," Marsalis says, "I'm listening to what you're saying." Oh, you say, surprised and pleased at the novelty of it all.

Yet you wonder how long Wynton can stay in the window of the jazz temple he's building over on Columbus Circle, and what might happen without him. "They've painted themselves into a corner at Lincoln Center, pushing Wynton so far out front," says one prominent jazz critic. "He's very good, but he's not Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington rolled up into one, as they'd have you believe. Everyone knows, including Wynton, I bet, those long compositions like All Rise don't work. They've set up a cult of personality, Wynton and the Wyntonettes, and there's no turning back now."

Certainly, JLC is exceedingly Wynton-centric. Jonathan Rose, son of Frederick, says, "The whole idea of the facility is to make it welcoming and warm, the way Wynton is -- for it to be a manifestation of Wynton's personality." Russell Johnson, the noted famous acoustician working on the new JLC, says, "It is rare a hall is built so clearly for one artist." Asked shortly before his death if Wynton was so central to JLC that the organization would be robbed of identity without him, Ted Ammon said, "No one is indispensable. No one. But to lose Wynton . . . that would leave a big hole, a very big hole."

Even Albert Murray, who has an opinion about everything, demurs when asked if Wynton's extra administrative duties might be hampering his playing. "That's my boy," Albert says. "Don't ask me to say anything about my boy."

Wynton, who says he's "a scrub, like everyone else," figures he can take the weight. Besides, he's too busy checking over this new translation of The Iliad and convincing me he is right about the popular culture and I am wrong to worry about his own mortality. It is part of a long-running conversation, the kind Wynton likes. I contend that if Sonny Rollins could work with "Surrey With the Fringe on Top," current musicians should be able to make jazz from today's pop songs. Wynton, who hates anything with even the hint of a backbeat, disagrees because "all the pop songs they make now are so sad you can't even mess with them."

Isn't there one he likes? One single tune? "No," Wynton says. What about Nirvana's "Come As You Are" -- that's got an interesting line. Wynton considers this, singing through Kurt Cobain's changes. "No, man," he says. "I'm looking to play the melody, and there's none."

So it goes. Wynton says the definitions of hip and square have never changed: The jazzmen remain eternally cool. "That's the reason I can't get with the so-called avant-garde. All jazz is avant-garde. Sidney Bechet is still avant-garde. The squares are those fools on MTV, with gold teeth and the baggy prison pants. Minstrel-show shit. I won't let my kids watch it. 'But it's Jay-Z', they say. I tell them, 'I don't care if it's F-Z, you ain't watching.' Not when I'm around. Let them sneak their shit. That's what I had to do. My parents were strict. We always had to sneak our shit."

Then the phone rings, which it often does. You can always tell when it is a babe, especially one Wynton, who has never yet had to say he doesn't get around much anymore (and has never been married), doesn't exactly want to talk to. His voice gets low and his eyes roll about in their sockets. "I didn't say I didn't want you to call anymore. I said I didn't want you to call me 30 times a day," he says. When he hangs up, I say, "Don't make any entangling alliances."

"What?" he asks.

"Don't make any entangling alliances." The quote is from Thomas Jefferson.

" 'Don't make any entangling alliances' -- Wynton repeats, writing it down in his looping handwriting on a napkin, which he shoves into his pocket. "Thanks," he says. "I'll remember that."

It is a nice day, so we walk across the Lincoln Center campus, as Wynton has been doing for more than twenty years. You forget how stitched into this community he is. He knows everyone, cops, maintenance guys, doormen. By Avery Fisher Hall, we run into Brandon Lee, whom Wynton introduces as "from Houston, one of the baddest motherfuckers on trumpet out here." Seventeen and rail-thin, Brandon attends the new jazz program at Juilliard. Largely because of Wynton and Victor Goines, who now heads the school, Brandon did not have to play Mahler or the Brandenburgs at his audition. He could choose from tunes like "Cherokee," "Round Midnight," "Con Alma," and "Willow Weep for Me."

Approaching Wynton's apartment house, we run into Beverly Sills, the former diva who now runs Lincoln Center. With a deft side step, Wynton slips ahead, opening the door for her. Rumors have been flying about that Sills was instrumental in pushing Wynton's friend Gordon Davis from his job as president, but the jazzman claims to want no part of the culture-industry politics that has recently beset Lincoln Center, calling it, perhaps disingenuously, "grown-up people's business." (Both Davis and Sills deny that she had anything to do with Davis's exit.) Kissing Sills on the cheek with a great flourish, he says, "She's always been great to me."

From the moment the elevator door opens on Wynton's floor, you can hear the music. Someone's almost always playing something at Wynton's, a horn or his grand piano. The sound beckons you forward, into this zone of sanity, this world where art lives. Why isn't your house like this? you wonder. Maybe Marsalis is a genius, maybe not, but this vibe might be his greatest achievement.

As usual, the pad is packed. Tony Parker, the gray-eyed cop from Detroit, is here. Ditto Mo the cook from New Orleans, dishing up mounds of gumbo and jambalaya. In the living room, where the LSU game is on the TV, Wynton has left notes for a composition he's been writing on top of the grand piano. "Emphasis on these elements," it says on a pad: "1. strength, 2. speed, 3. glamour, 4. pain, 5. heaven." A few minutes later, Jumaane Smith, a Juilliard trumpet student, arrives with a tallish, cornrow-sporting 13-year-old.

"This is Steve," Jumaane says, introducing the kid, who's come down from the Bronx with his mother and sisters. It is a bit of a continuum, since Jumaane has been one of Wynton's protégés and Steve, a young trumpet player, is now under Jumaane's wing. Jumaane has been talking about the kid for several weeks, touting his moves to the basket as well as his horn tone.

"How good are you?" Wynton demands. "In basketball?"

Not bad, not bad at all, Steve answers, attempting modesty, looking Wynton in the eye, the way his mom told him to. He's got an outside shot, can also go to the hole.

"Why don't we go over to the court," Wynton says, getting that look. "Beat me, I'll do 200 push-ups. I beat you, you got to practice your horn two hours a day."

Steve thinks that will be fine, taking the ball and bouncing it between his legs.

An hour or so later, the boy returned. How'd he do? it was inquired.

"It was an ass-whipping," Steve remarked glumly. Then, brightening, he said, "So it looks like I got to practice two hours a day. That won't be so bad."


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