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Wynton Marsalis on jazz, and jazz criticism

February 5, 2011 |  6:30 am

WyntonTalking with Wynton Marsalis about jazz is a pleasure, as I discovered while interviewing him for a Sunday Arts & Books profile (you can read it here). He plays at Disney Hall on Feb. 12 and 13.

Well, the conversation is more listening than talking. But even after all these years of celebrating "America's music," educating kids about its traditions, and of course performing it, Marsalis still speaks with boundless, captivating energy, as if he had just discovered Duke Ellington.

It's interesting, though, to realize Marsalis is most often celebrated as an ambassador of jazz, as he was last month in a "60 Minutes" profile. It seems his music, notably his trumpet playing, almost escapes comment and criticism. Despite his virtuosity and numerous awards, he has not been immune to some pretty serious takedowns.

Jazz critics Gary Giddins and Whitney Balliett, to name two, have never been big Marsalis fans. Perhaps their views could be summed up in Balliett's comment that for all of Marsalis' dazzling playing, he "fails to stir the feelings, to jar the heart."

As we talked, I was thinking about Marsalis' apparent immunity from criticism, and so I asked him about it. He warmed to the subject and seemed delighted to talk about it.

"I grew up in the South and our way of dealing with each other was teasing, ribbing, making fun and scrapping in the street," he said. "Criticism doesn't bother me so much. It actually made me, when I was younger, more aggressive. But you get into middle age and you lose interest in that stuff. It's not serious. I have friends who will critique me much harder than any review.

"I always tell my 14-year-old son to sit in my lesson when I'm talking about music with my friend [conductor and arranger] Bob Sadin. Sadin will come to my house and we'll sit down with scores and talk about them. Once I came in with a notebook full of what I thought was wrong with one of my symphonies. I said, 'I think this is a problem, this is a problem.' He looked me and said, 'Yeah, I'm sure that notebook is full of valid observations. Of course, what's really wrong will be stuff you have no idea is wrong.' So I learned a lot from him.

"A lot of times, reviewers don't really know enough about what you're doing to have an intelligent comment on it. It's hard to sit down and listen to something one time. A musician has worked on something, it has a lot of references, and it's full of things the reviewer doesn't know. A person doing a jazz review -- how much jazz do they know? How much symphonic music do they actually know? I understand the practical aspect of it. Yours is a piece they reviewed on Tuesday. They have a piece to review on Wednesday. I'm not mad at them. I'm just lucky to have the type of friends and musicians and people dedicated to my music that I do.

"Besides, I'm not afraid of you being yourself. That's America. You know what I'm saying? Elvin Jones told me something once. He was at the Village Vanguard, playing with John Coltrane, and somebody said, 'You know, Elvin, a lot of people don't like what you all are playing.' And he said, 'They better start liking it, because we're going to keep on playing it.'"

-- Kevin Berger

Photo credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

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