An Inveterate Ass

But genius trumpter Wynton Marsalis can still blow you away

Trumpet maestro WYNTON MARSALIS tends to inspire either devotion or loathing among jazz fans. His many detractors would have you believe he's a hack, wasting his formidable technical gifts by militantly endeavoring to chain jazz to its past, rather than allowing the music to thrive and grow. The other camp praises Marsalis as a savior of the genre, a righteous and mighty force against diluting jazz with base commercial compromise in the misguided name of progress. However you view this controversy, it's undeniable that Marsalis has had a big impact, inspiring and mentoring legions of great young players, including Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Payton.

I tend to fall somewhere between the warring tribes. While I greatly admire Marsalis' formidable skills as a player and composer, there's no denying that the man is—as I've pointed out in these pages before—an inveterate asshole. This insufferably smug accused racist suffers a pointed superiority complex so profound he's actually been known to publicly pick fights with his elders—and his betters, such as Miles Davis, whose style Marsalis "simulated" early in his career. More understandably, he bitterly feuded for years with saxophonist brother Branford for accepting commercial work in Sting's group (this is known as "giving aid and comfort to the enemy") and for serving as bandleader on The Tonight Show, which was a relatively harmless and financially enriching gig for Bran.

Still, while Marsalis has been undeniably slavish in his worship of such past masters as Davis, Freddie Huber, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington at various stages of his career, he's never been what could fairly or accurately be described as an imitator. Even when obviously delving into the compositional theories of Ellington (such as on Blue Interlude), there's never been a point where you could say, "That song is a dead ringer for 'Black & Tan Fantasy,' and this one is a straight cop on 'Cottontail.'" While his influences have been transparent (admittedly so, to his credit), Marsalis has harnessed those influences to create his own take on the music—and the results have often been sensational.

This much is certain, though: Marsalis' respect for and adherence to jazz traditions could mute the importance of his life's eventual legacy. While he is arguably the best-known musician in jazz today, he will never enjoy the revolutionary reputation of an Armstrong, Ellington, Davis or Coltrane without smashing some barriers, boldly going where none has gone before. That, however, may be easier said than done. As veteran saxophonist Bud Shank once told me, "Look, we haven't had a messiah since John Coltrane, and that was more than 30 years ago. There's a reason for that. We went so far so fast, from 1946 to 1966, that most musicians couldn't absorb it. So much happened in that period that we're still trying to assess it, get it sorted out. And from this eventually will come somebody with a new direction."

It's debatable whether Marsalis will turn out to be that somebody if he continues on his present course. Vocally disdainful of avant-garde, free jazz and fusion, he's given his heart firmly to the traditional music of his native New Orleans. Hey, nothing wrong with that!

Best to enjoy Marsalis at face value rather than unfairly expecting him to be the next savior, a position he never asked for and doesn't want in any case. The man is a masterful musician, composer and arranger and an outspoken advocate of traditional jazz, which is more than enough for me, even if his frequent, self-aggrandizing, misguided tirades have at times been a serious piss-off; maybe he ought to moonlight as a music critic for the OC Weekly.

Marsalis appears Saturday night at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra on a program billed as "For Dancers Only" that will feature "new dance music and timeless classics by Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman, augmented by professional dancers." Sounds wonderful, but is the danger of encountering legions of loathsome neo-swing trendies a viable threat? Nahhhh—those people wouldn't be caught dead at a real jazz concert. Attend and enjoy without fear.

ROBERT LOCKWOOD JUNIOR was for years billed as "Robert Junior Lockwood" because he learned to play guitar from none other than Robert Johnson, the undisputed heavyweight champ of all country-blues artists and the subject of numerous books and films. Whatever the reason, Lockwood is a piece of living history whose talents remain undiminished even at his advanced age (he's closing in on 85), as his recent, superlative album Got to Find Me a Woman clearly demonstrates.

Lockwood channels Johnson's mojo with chilling accuracy, both technically and spiritually, but his talents are much more well-rounded than just being Johnson's primo disciple—he's a surprisingly sly swing and jazz picker and T-Bone Walkeresque electric-blues guitarist as well. And ho-lee shit, as much as this guy's seen over the past near-century, I'd be perfectly happy to sit and listen to him tell stories all night, even if he never picked up the guitar or sang.

While seeing Lockwood will be the real treat Saturday evening at Blues Unplugged V at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, John Mayall, Shuggie Otis and Sonny Rhodes, who are also on the bill, are no slouches themselves, especially the underrated Otis.

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