Wynton Marsalis: At 50, At The Vanguard, In History : A Blog Supreme At his half century, we consider: What is the artistic legacy of the trumpeter and composer? We start by having a listen to one of his great live recordings.
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Wynton Marsalis: At 50, At The Vanguard, In History

Wynton Marsalis receives the French Legion of Honor during a 2009 ceremony in New York.

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Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Wynton Marsalis receives the French Legion of Honor during a 2009 ceremony in New York.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

This is the new ABS feature where, on Tuesdays, I will be recommending things I find interesting as a way of talking about them more in depth. Mostly recorded music to listen to, but probably also other jazz media to consume. There are a lot of these good things being produced in jazz, and we don't discuss enough of them, and this is a jazz blog, so that needs to be fixed. It'll be kind of like an "editor's picks" section. In fact, it will be that. Here's last week's for reference.

This week: Wynton Marsalis' recordings from the Village Vanguard in the early 1990s.*

I'm going to ask this again at the end of all this. But let me start off with the question I most want answered: What are the great Wynton Marsalis albums?

It seems appropriate to ask about now, as Wynton Marsalis turned 50 one week ago.

Honestly, this blog celebrates birthdays so irregularly that it didn't initially occur to me to take note of it. But Wynton and his legacy have been on the brain ever since last Tuesday, when I received in the mail a press copy of Swingin' Into The 21st, a box set that compiles the seven (!) Wynton Marsalis studio albums released in 1999, The Marciac Suite from 2000 and the 2002 orchestra + big band + choral work All Rise.

Also in the box set: Selections From The Village Vanguard Box, a "highlights" compilation culled from the 7-CD Live At The Village Vanguard box set. That box documents the Wynton Marsalis Septet from 1990-1994 at the Vanguard, but also dropped in late 1999.

I have been listening to this Selections compilation, and it is so very good.

Here, Wynton has this intuition for a certain sweet spot that the best '50s/'60s small-group composer/arrangers had. I'm talking about the Clifford Brown/Thad Jones/Gigi Gryce/Benny Golson/Charles Mingus sweet spot: How to get horns to get along with each other in tricky ensemble sections, how to deal with the blues without sounding cliched. His rhythm sections give master classes in swinging sensitively at all tempos and dynamics and settings. And he throws in a healthy dose of early New Orleans polyphony, tweaked to accommodate modern postbop language.

Some of what I'm talking about is captured in this video. "Buggy Ride" was played at the Vanguard; here's another live performance of it from around that time:

It's very much of the jazz mainstream. I suppose that makes it "safe," aesthetically, but who says you can't be "gutsy" or "risky" playing "in the pocket"? Again, it's very good, and that's what matters.

The entire Wynton Marsalis Septet Live at the Village Vanguard box has gone down as something of a classic recording. In the seven-disc set, there are songbook standards, Monk tunes, plenty of originals, two extended works of 40+ minutes, "Winter Wonderland" and "Happy Birthday," and lots of jovial Marsalis introductions. It's a good introduction to what Wynton's music is about (or was about, at least).

Cover art to the Live at the Village Vanguard box set.

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It also captures the great Marsalis bands of the era, featuring reedmen like Wess Anderson, Todd Williams and Victor Goines; trombonist Wycliffe Gordon; Marcus Roberts or Eric Reed on piano; Reginald Veal or Ben Wolfe on bass; Herlin Riley on drums. And they're live, which has always been the true test of a jazz musician.

I'll confess that I haven't heard the whole thing in a while; I've been separated from my copy for several years now. So I can't recommend the whole thing outright. But the quality of the sampler — which is still available by itself — it certainly warrants further investigation into the seven-disc set. The box is a far superior value: It can be downloaded from Amazon or iTunes for $40 (no indication if you get a digital booklet, which would be important), or you can buy the box itself online for around that much on eBay. You can read the liner notes at Wynton's website.

A JazzTimes review from early 2000 notes the "modest price" of $35, and the roughly contemporaneous AllMusic writeup says $39.98. Both reviews, plus two different AllAboutJazz reviews, had good things to say about the music too. So there you go.

If you look back at this stuff alone, you can glimpse Marsalis the very talented arranger and effortlessly fluid trumpeter. But somehow, for highly committed jazz fans, it's become very difficult to disassociate Marsalis the musician and Marsalis the opinion-haver/administrator/influential spokesperson. Some of the above reviews testify to that.

I mentioned this briefly when I saw the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra early this year. But if we're going to take stock of Wynton at 50, it bears a reprise. When people talk about the impact of Wynton Marsalis, they often sum two things into one:

  1. Wynton Marsalis the artist.
  2. Wynton Marsalis the person who has made things happen in the jazz world.

Regarding thing number two: When the histories of jazz are revised to accommodate the last 30-odd years, they will surely note how Wynton's arrival has changed the game from an infrastructure, industry and popular reception standpoint.

What he has helped to build at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where he is artistic director, is a major, highly visible and perhaps even disruptive institution. Its approaches to curating, education and fundraising are seen widely in jazz presenters today. He released albums on a major label at a fantastic rate (as the Swinging Into The 21st box set demonstrates), setting the tone for how recorded jazz was marketed in the CD era. His argument for jazz as central to the American experience, especially the African-American experience, has proven to be a rallying cry for the jazz community. His advocacy and ambassadorship is unparalleled in his generation.

The histories will also note his divisive points of view about what jazz is and isn't, among other debates. But controversy surrounds him because he's been so effective (and good at music). The thrust of what he's created business-wise, and the narrative around it, has deeply impacted the way jazz is presented and generally thought of in this country.

As for Wynton Marsalis the artist: I think the jury is still out. It's generally agreed that he's a fantastic player, and at least some folks think he's a remarkable composer/arranger too. But is that it?

How has Wynton been influential as an artist? Do the kids these days take after Wynton? Do they transcribe his solos, play his compositions, buy each of his records? Do they take note of his stage presence? Do they aspire to be in his small group or in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra which he directs?

Is Wynton a neo-conservative or traditionalist, as was once the line about him? Or is he is some way a postmodern musician — one who feels free to pick and choose from far-flung points in jazz and cultural history however he pleases? What other narratives can you tell about his influences, his interests, his artistic innovations?

This is an awful lot to consider. So let's do this one step at a time. Again, I ask: If history will remember Wynton the artist, what are the great Wynton records? What are the key compositions, the masterworks, the great performances? Which ones will future generations look at and say, "Wow, that was hip"?

I've suggested one. Now, you go.

*I have learned, through reading the liner notes, that these recordings were made by NPR for its 1996 documentary series Wynton Marsalis: Making The Music. I wasn't aware of this when I started writing, and I've never heard that series. I figure one ought to disclose that sort of thing, though.