“Let the ass-whipping begin,” Wynton remarked, a bit of opening commentary as he walked onto the 65th Street project courts. Nothing personal, Wynton said; with him, ass-whipping need not be adversarial. It can be more a statement of loving engagement with the material at hand, be it Mahler, “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” or a supposedly friendly game of one-on-one.
Still, it was probably a mistake, snickering when the musician started in about his jumper, how sweet it was. Somehow it seemed unlikely, unfair, creepy even, that Wynton – only 40 but already into his second decade as the semi-officially anointed “most important musician of his generation,” the only jazzman ever to get a Pulitzer Prize (for his symphonic-size Blood on the Fields), winner of both jazz and classical Grammys on the same night, one of Time magazine’s “25 most influential Americans” – might be good at basketball too.
But here they came, the jumpers raining down. “Money in the bank,” Wynton noted, canning his seventh in a row, a bitch when you’re playing winner’s out, the way Win-tone, as he is sometimes known, likes to play. There was nothing to do but watch the perfect ball rotation and flawless follow-through, all that immaculate Apollonian form. Then again, a lot of things, nasty and nice, have been said about Wynton Marsalis since he arrived on the scene with his brother Branford back in the late seventies, a Jazz Messenger with an unbeatable New Orleans pedigree, formidable upper register, and decided lack of shyness in matters of cultural-aesthetic polemicizing. No one, however, through twenty years of workaholic touring and nearly 50 CDs, has ever knocked Marsalis’s technique. Except now our contest had taken a critical, potentially calamitous turn. You see: When Wynton’s got that J going, you’ve got to play him close. In such proximity, a defender’s elbow might, inadvertently, come in contact with the jazzman’s wry, moon-shaped face. That elbow might even bash into Wynton’s lip. Hard.
“Uh,” Wynton grunted, checking for blood.
“You all right?”
Wynton did not answer, only smiled, that chubby-cheeked best-boy-in-the-class smile, so down-home sincere, so full of you’re-going-to-get-yours. In the face of such a smile, you can forget the business at hand. Like those scowly gym rats uptown. They took one look at the trumpeter’s somewhat stumpy body and scoffed, “Hey, Winston, where’s your flute?” But once Wynton unfurled the grin and canned a dozen or so in a row, those boys just shook their heads in genial surrender. That’s the secret of Wynton’s game. The way he does it, you don’t even mind the ass-whipping.
This was a relief, because you don’t want to be the guy who split Wynton Marsalis’s kisser. Only the night before, in the claustrophobic kitchen-dressing room at the Village Vanguard, after playing three sets of (mostly) bop with Charles McPherson’s quartet, hot on “Night in Tunisia,” mournful on “Pork Pie Hat,” Wynton had been talking about his lip, how sore it was. It happens to trumpet players, that puckered stress on the obicularis oris. During the thirties, Satchmo’s own immortal chops were beat for years from hitting those high C’s every night. But throughout a history that includes the classic lips of Roy Eldridge, Sweets Edison, Clark Terry, Rex Stewart, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Lester Bowie, and a hundred other bugle geniuses, never has so much been riding on singular embouchure.
So much was clear a couple days later, 100 feet above Columbus Circle, amid the swing of giant cranes and the hot blue blind of welding torches. They’re building the new Twin Towers here, a pair of 80-floor, 750-foot-tall spires, on the former site of the squatty old New York Coliseum. The biggest construction project under way in post-September 11 New York, the $1.7 billion complex will include the new headquarters of AOL Time Warner, a five-star hotel, 200 or so condos (with Trump-priced penthouses), and a vast, no doubt brutally upscale shopping mall. Also there will be the new home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis, Artistic Director. And today, Wynton, hard hat over his close-cropped hair, has arrived along with other J@LC board members and officials to inspect the progress of their $115 million, 100,000-square-foot facility.
Whether it first arrived channeled through the singing horn of Buddy Bolden and soon became “the most abstract and sophisticated music anybody has ever heard, short of Bach,” as Wynton contended, among several hundred other things throughout his near-omnipresent appearance on Ken Burns’s nineteen-hour documentary Jazz, the music of Mingus, Monk, and Charlie Parker has never seen anything like what’s happening here on Columbus Circle, where, in 1910, a new music then called ragtime made its New York debut at Reisenweber’s café, with its $1.25 blue plate of fried frog.
Touted as “the world’s first performing-arts facility built specifically for jazz,” this joint, when it opens sometime in 2004, will have three separate performance spaces: the 1,100-seat, concert-style Rose Hall, named for the late, civic-minded Frederick P. Rose, who provided funds for the new planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History; the 600-seat, nightclub-style Allen Room; and a smaller “café” slated to accommodate 140 fans. Also in the plan are recording and rehearsal studios, plus a large jazz-education center. On square-footage alone, you could fit twenty Village Vanguards in here, the whole Cotton Club, several Five Spots, Slugs and Minton Playhouses, and still have hall space for strung-out musicians to fix in, not that any Wynton-fronted organization, however tradition-minded, is likely to condone such self-destructive habits.
Wynton has long been thinking about a “permanent home” for the music he first played marching through the Vieux Carré streets with Danny Barker’s Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band. The topic often came up back in the eighties, during the semi-legendary conversations-plotting sessions Wynton engaged in with his great friends and mentors (some say Svengali figures): the combative yet pithy essayist Stanley Crouch and the novelist-philosopher Albert Murray, a longtime confidant of Ralph Ellison and Duke Ellington, who called the dapper 85-year-old Murray “the most unsquarest man in the world.”
It was up in Murray’s apartment on 132nd Street and Lenox, surrounded by “all these books, Faulkner, Hemingway, Malraux, most of which Stanley and Albert had actually read,” Wynton says, “that I began to envision my life on a bigger scale than I previously thought possible … I mean, you go to the bathroom and there’s a photograph of the Army Air Corps, 1943. There’s about 200 uniformed officers, and Albert – the only black guy in the picture … I knew a few things about music because my father was a musician. I’d grown up around jazz musicians. But I was just a kid, from New Orleans, with a New Orleans education, which is basically no education. This was something else altogether.”
Amid much holding-forth on the issues of free will in Thomas Mann and the majesty of Louis’s solo on “Potato Head Blues,” conversation always came back to the future of jazz, how this priceless heritage would survive the dark ages of ascendent pop idiocy and fusion. The need for the establishment of a jazz canon and a place where the music could be preserved through both repertory performance and instruction was paramount.
Already involved with a Lincoln Center “Classical Jazz” series, Wynton was the logical point man. Armed with Crouch’s social critique of how to play Establishment (read: white) organizations, that smile and country-boy manner (even though Kenner, where he grew up, is a New Orleans suburb), Wynton offered an undeniable package. He was, after all, the ultimate crossover artist, arguably the best single jazz and classical trumpet player in the world, a most presentable and courtly young black man who had performed Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto with the New Orleans Symphony at 14 – someone to whom race and class barriers simply do not apply. “That really amazed me,” says one old-line Lincoln Center board member, “watching him play Purcell. I said to myself, ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime individual.’ If we ever wanted to do something with jazz, he had to be the one.”
“Look,” Wynton told the blue-blood board of Lincoln Center, his voice so deep and smoky, the informality of his manner only adding moral authority, “I play classical and I play jazz and jazz is harder.” There was no reason, Wynton said, no reason at all, that jazz, America’s “greatest art form, a democratic triumph of order and beauty over chaos,” shouldn’t be accorded the same status as “European” Lincoln Center “constituents” like the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, and the New York Philharmonic.
Jazz at Lincoln Center was accorded full Lincoln Center constituency status in 1996. However, it wasn’t until 1998, when un-hepcat mayor Rudy Giuliani idiosyncratically mandated that any plans submitted for the highly sought-after Coliseum site include a performance space for JLC, that Wynton devised his “Ten Fundamentals of the House of Swing.”
Written on cocktail napkins during a red-eye flight, “The Vision,” as Wynton calls it, reads like what it was intended to be: “the metaphorical blueprint of a groove, to be articulated into design.” According to Fundamental No. 1, “the entire facility is the House of Swing … we want all 100,000 square feet to dance and sing, to be syncopated and unpredictable, but not eccentric.” Fundamental No. 5 says, “The two main performance spaces should represent two sides of the same thing, like night and day, or like a man and a woman.” The Rose Hall, representing “woman, or night (this is not Jazz at Lincoln Center’s main hall, because like a family we play no favorites), should sound like Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Paul Desmond, and Miles Davis.” The front, or “male,” Allen Room “should have the feeling of a street parade … an ancient Greek theatre … there should be a question of where the band ends and the audience begins … the room should feel like Duke Ellington’s Orchestra – sensuous, spicy, and able to accommodate all tempos.”
The project’s lead architect, the flamboyant Uruguayan Rafael Viñoly, who jokes that he’s a former Tupamaro revolutionary and is noted for designing massive convention centers, found Wynton’s manifesto to be “immediately translatable into the language of art and love.” A copy of the “Fundamentals,” accompanied by Viñoly’s plans, now fills a bedroom wall in Wynton’s homey and spacious river-view pad on 66th Street, directly behind the Juilliard School he once attended as a 17-year-old trumpet prodigy. It is a minute’s stride, gig bag at his side, from Wynton’s place, past Balducci’s, to the stage door of Alice Tully Hall, where he’s conducted the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for the past decade. Columbus Circle will mean a longer walk to work, but it will be worth it. “Sometimes I’ll get up in the middle of the night and look at the plans,” Wynton says. “It’s like a dream, one I always knew would happen.”
Truth be told, however, Wynton, unhappy with heights and deep water, isn’t thrilled be on the rickety catwalks of the rising House of Swing. Still, he looks slick, in his Brooks Brothers casualwear. It is part of being the star, the front man, the artistic director. Brooks Brothers is a corporate sponsor. This is no problem, since Wynton, who’d rather play backup for Kenny G than be caught dead in Phat Farm, is pretty much Brooks Brothers to begin with. Hands on, he does all his own ironing, the board in the cedar closet of his bedroom, alongside twenty or so hats, each on its own hook. On the road, he sometimes irons the clothes of the guys in the band, too. “They bring them to me because they know I’ll crease them right,” Wynton says.
“Jazz steel,” Wynton notes, clutching a naked girder as the late-fall wind whips through the open superstructure. It is a phrase he likes, “because we’re not after something that is going to disappear. We’re building an institution.” That’s what people don’t understand, Wynton says – the need for permanency. It is an issue, after all – this notion of an institutionalized House of Swing, especially a $115 million one crammed into the middle of the commercial colossus of the AOL Time Warner corporate headquarters.
“Institutions create institutional music, and that is not what jazz is about. This is a music where nothing is ever played the same way twice,” says Howard Mandel, a writer who’s president of the Jazz Journalists Association, echoing the often-heard objection against the supposed canonization of what is referred to as “the Marsalis-Crouch-Murray version” of the music. Not that anyone doubts Marsalis’s 100 percent dedication to the future of jazz (of the opinion that knowing the chord changes to “C Jam Blues” will absolutely save your soul, he’s a tireless jazz educator, offering several dozen lectures and demonstrations each year). Problems arise with Wynton’s alleged “neo-traditionalist,” anti-avant-garde bias against everything he personally deems as “unswinging” – i.e., much of the past four decades. The fear is, while the legacies of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington will be forever celebrated on Columbus Circle, such post-Coltrane artists as Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, and Sun Ra will be written out of the music’s history.
Some just can’t stand the imprimatur of the uptown big-money squares. For her part, Lorraine Gordon, who owns and operates the Vanguard, the club started by her husband Max 66 years ago, says, “I love Wynton; he’s my favorite. But jazz in a shopping mall? What’s that about?”
Even Ellis Marsalis, father of Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason, reveals mixed feelings. Ellis, considered by some observers to be the “hippest” of the Marsalis clan, once drove all the way to Los Angeles to see Ornette Coleman, whose “harmolodic” approach has been found deficient in swingingness by the JLC brain trust. Accompanied by fellow New Orleans player and teacher Alvin Batiste, Ellis told Ornette he dug him, then got in the car and drove home. Now, standing in the crowded Vanguard dressing room, Ellis, a large, friendly man, casts a loving gaze at his famous son and says, “Jazz at Lincoln Center is a great thing. A lot of musicians are going to get work because of it. But this New York, you know, it’s not my New York. My New York had clubs, little places to go, to relax and just play. This New York, it’s kind of cosmetic. But times change; you have to accept that.”
Wynton, of course, has heard it all before. Like a jazz Howard Roark bestride six-inch-thick rubber “isolation pads” that will muffle the rumble of the A train Billy Strayhorn said was the quickest way to Harlem, he decries, “Who could be against this? … Jazz is about both change and tradition. Who says it has to be played only in dark rooms filled with curls of cigarette smoke? Always on the margin. That outlaw thing. That’s a romantic, limiting fantasy. This is the greatest music ever produced in this country, made by the greatest musicians. You think it doesn’t deserve something first-class, like any other great art?”
Yet even now, with people talking about him as one more Balanchine or Bernstein, a New York cultural leader-commissar, there is another kind of permanency to think about: the tenuousness of life around here these days. Wynton was in L.A. during the WTC nightmare, getting ready to put on his most recent magnum opus, All Rise, at the Hollywood Bowl: “I saw it on television. The planes, over and over. All I could think about was how perishable everything was.”
Indeed, our little tour of the future home of Jazz at Lincoln Center was held up for about half an hour that very morning. Bruce MacCombie, the JLC executive director; Laura Johnson, the general manager; and Jonathan Rose, the chairman of the building committee, were there. But Ted Ammon, the chairman of the board, was not. It was strange, everyone said, because Ted, the investment banker-jazz fan who had contributed more than $2.5 million to JLC, was not the type to be late. It wasn’t until the next morning that people heard Ammon was dead, murdered in his Hamptons home.
A week later, at a memorial service for Ammon at Alice Tully Hall attended by several representatives of the Suffolk County homicide squad, Wynton eulogized, “We want to know the particulars of death – it repulses us, it calls us, it fascinates us … but only the dead know the facts of death, and they never tell.” Then, along with Wycliffe Gordon, Victor Goines, Walter Blanding Jr., and others from the LC Jazz Orchestra, Wynton broke into “Didn’t He Ramble” – “Didn’t he ramble … Rambled all around, in and out of town … till the butcher cut him down” – a tune that has been played at New Orleans jazz funerals since the days of Bunk Johnson, 100 years ago. They really ripped into the tune, with Wynton, seemingly on the verge of tears, playing the happiest music he could think of. It was a priceless kind of thing, because even if Ammon’s much-battled-over estate was worth $100 million, no amount of money could buy this: being sent off by Wynton Marsalis. Except the people at Alice Tully didn’t quite get it. They sat there mute. Eventually Wynton said, “You know, you don’t have to be so quiet.”
A couple hours later, Wynton, up in his apartment overlooking the Hudson playing chess with saxophonist Walter Blanding, remained a little puzzled. “To me,” he said, “death is not morbid; it’s people’s reaction to it that’s morbid … nothing lasts, that’s a given, but that’s exactly why you’ve got to keep on working.” It was like on the final cut of the album Last Date, when Eric Dolphy, who would die less than a month later, says, “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone in the air forever. You can never capture it again.” It was like Charlie Parker dying at 34. If you’re a player, you take that as an inspiration to keep playing, harder than ever. Impermanence only increases urgency, said Wynton, whose first extended work was Griot New York, a 1991 three-movement piece performed in collaboration with the Garth Fagan Dance company.
“That summed up how I felt about New York,” Wynton says. “In the middle, the city is destroyed. Then the lovers, the two dancers, build it back up again. Heal it. I really wanted it to have this feeling of myth, urban myth, ultimate danger and redemption. To me it is a heroic story.”
The challenge is to battle disorder, things flying off into meaninglessness. There has to be a center, says Wynton, paraphrasing Yeats, his favorite poet. That’s how it is in music, and buildings, too, Wynton said, especially “a temple” like the new JLC. Wynton addresses the issue in No. 8 among “The Fundamentals of the House of Swing.” It says: “We must have an icon that serves as the symbol for the facility everywhere.”
Certainly that icon will be the jazz temple’s most spectacular design feature, the 50-foot glass wall facing Central Park South that will rise above the bandstand of the Allen Room. It will be something new to see in this beleaguered, beloved city. Soon a guy and his girl will be able to stroll through the park, ride west in a taxi or hansom cab, incline their eyes, and look at what Wynton has called “this gleaming jewel, a beacon of civilization and American expression … one more beautiful vision of New York.”
“They will see Wynton,” says architect Rafael Viñoly, who invented the idea of the glass wall after reading No. 8 of the “Fundamentals.”
“Wynton in the window, blowing his horn.”
Sitting on the ledge that surrounds the fountain in the middle of the Lincoln Center campus, Wynton is contemplating what Albert Murray, in his book The Hero and the Blues, refers to as the epic “journey … the fundamental commitment” of the artist, a heroism “measured in terms of the … complexities of the obstacles it overcomes.” In a few hours, he’ll be inside Alice Tully Hall, leading the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, including Victor Goines, Wess Anderson, and Herlin Riley – musicians Marsalis has known most of his life – to play in a 75th-birthday-celebration concert for saxophonist Jimmy Heath. But now he is remembering when he first came to 66th Street, in 1979, to try out for Juilliard.
“I was nervous. My teacher thought I could make it. But you never know. I just wanted to do good on my audition, get a good scholarship. I didn’t want to stay in New Orleans, the shit I had grown up around. The segregation. I thought it would be better in the North. As I found out, New York was a segregated town, too, in a different way. I performed all my music from memory. I played the Haydn Trumpet Concerto. I played the Brandenburg, played Petrushka, overtures from Beethoven, Mahler’s Fifth. The common repertoire, what you have to know if you play orchestral trumpet.”
Wynton would be out of Juilliard by 1980, touring with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers along with his brother Branford – a whole other kind of education.
“That was exciting,” Wynton says, ticking off, with his usual total recall, the various apartments he lived in during those early, wild times when he first made his name. “I lived at 137th Street near Lenox, 108th between Broadway and West End, 99th and Broadway, 20th and Park, Bleecker and Broadway, in Brooklyn … I loved Harlem, I loved Brooklyn. The musicians looked out for me. Art Blakey. John Lewis. Philly Joe Jones came and picked me up in his car. We’d pass a place and he’d say, ‘There’s where this musician lives, there’s where to get the best suits, the really good Italian sausages.’ He wanted me to know these things, thought it might be useful to me.”
One of the dumber, more patronizing misconceptions about Wynton is that he arrived in New York a malleable Mr. Natural, a Willie Mays-Joe Hardy tabula rasa of the brass section, to be molded by the neocon-ology of whatever mentor he encountered. The fact is, Wynton has always had a sense of his own destiny, from the time Al Hirt, the Bourbon Street tourist macher his father was playing with, gave him his first trumpet at 6: “Trumpet playing is as old as dust, you know … Joshua didn’t knock down Jericho with a saxophone. A trumpeter announces himself, a trumpeter is a priest, a shaman. It gives you power.”
We were talking about “Psalm 26,” the cut that both opens and closes Wynton’s 1988 disc Uptown Ruler. Looking through a Bible as we sat beside the Lincoln Center fountain, I wondered what so interested Wynton about this particular Psalm of David. Well, he said, it wasn’t this George W. riff about hating “the company of evildoers,” how “I have not sat with the wicked.” How else would you learn the ways of the wicked unless you sat with them? No, what mattered to Wynton was the phrase “but as for me.” “But as for me, I walk in my integrity. Redeem me and be gracious to me… . My foot stands on level ground, in the great congregation,” Wynton read aloud.
“But as for me … like in all this magnificence, all creation, one individual voice could still be heard. That really jumped out at me.”
That’s why, Wynton says, “you’ve got to work on your legend,” something the jazzman did most notoriously in his long-running feud with Miles Davis. Wynton (named for Miles’s onetime piano player Wynton Kelly) had been viciously attacking Davis, claiming the inventor of “the cool” – an early influence on Marsalis’s own playing – was “tomming” by playing his Bitches Brew-style fusion. In retort, Davis said that Wynton was a “nice young man but confused” who should “mind his own fucking business.”
“You’re afraid of Miles,” mocked Wynton’s band members, betting him $100 apiece that he would not confront the irascible Davis when the two trumpeters played a festival in Vancouver, Canada. Taking the dare, Wynton jumped up onto stage right in the middle of Davis’s show.
Wynton recalls: “Miles was playing the organ on a blues song, ‘C.C. Rider,’ when I got onstage. ‘I’ve come to address the dumb shit you have said about me and my family,’ I shouted. But Miles just keeps playing. Doesn’t even look up. I had to say it again. ‘I’ve come to address the dumb shit … ’ Finally, Miles says, ‘Come back tomorrow.’ ” Then we got into it, him telling me to get the fuck off the stage, which I eventually did. But as I was going, he picked up his horn and played. I guess he was trying to put me in my place, show me who was boss, but he played some sad shit. He had nothing left. That made me unhappy, to see a great player challenged like that and be without a response.”
Not that Wynton regrets the incident: “No, man. Miles knew what was up. He knew the Oedipal deal, he’d done enough of it himself when he was young. Besides, it was fun.”
Other incidents, generally falling under the rubric of “the jazz wars of the nineties,” have been less amusing. In 1993, reports leaked of an “artistic decision” by JLC to hire “an entire band of guys under the age of 30.” Given the JLC credo, firing people like altoist Jerry Dodgion, trombonist Art Baron, and baritone man Joe Temperly, who had played with Duke Ellington’s band, was a strange, possibly illegal (and soon to be withdrawn) move that opened Marsalis up to accusations he was packing the band full of easily controllable crony-clones.
More inflammatory have been recurring charges of so-called reverse racism at JLC. In 1996, much was made of the fact that of all the musicians given “nights” at JLC, only one, Gerry Mulligan, who had already died at the time of the show, was white. What happened to Bix Beiderbecke and Bill Evans? critics asked. “Blacks invented jazz, but no one owns it,” complained Whitney Balliett in an oft-quoted New Yorker piece.
Marsalis was floored by the criticism: “I’m thinking to myself, This is Lincoln Center and they’re talking about no white people?” To this day, Marsalis discounts the race issue, saying it was “all about resentment, about me using my power as artistic director, which is what I was hired to do.” Today (when five of the fifteen LC Orchestra chairs are held by whites, including saxophonist Ted Nash, trumpeter Ryan Kisor, and the thankfully still-extant 72-year-old baritone-sax player Joe Temperly), Wynton insists, “I just want to have the best players who I feel good playing with.”
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.”