WYNTON MARSALIS is standing in the bathroom of his hotel room, putting the final touches to his grooming routine. He pulls a Q-Tip™ from his left ear and observes just the tiniest hint of orange wax nestling on the cotton tip. Disgusted with himself, he snaps the personal-hygiene implement in two, tosses it into the trash and renews his drive for ocean-fresh ear holes until he's satisfied and dandy. Wynton now carefully cleans his immaculate rows of pearly whites with minted, three-ply floss, removes it from his mouth, sniffs the soiled, waxy twine and grimaces; the barest hint of coffee and last night's decomposing filet mignon is still reporting itself beneath his disapproving nostrils. For extra protection, Wynton gargles aggressively with Cepacol™ mouthwash, swishing this way and that with the No. 1 choice of dental professionals. Wynton gently pats up the final remnants of moisture from his pursed lips with an aloe-embedded Kleenex™ tissue, admires his Cupidesque perfection in the mirror and flashes a triumphant smile. Show time is but an hour away, and America's preeminent jazzman will soon honor yet another teeming throng with his heroic presence. Addressing no one in particular, he makes this announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, eat your peas!" The words resonate off the tiles in the bathroom, delighting him to no end.
I've never understood why Wynton Marsalis doesn't have some surgeon extract the stick embedded so far up his ass that his tonsils sunbathe when he takes a seat. Here's a guy with all the talent and knowledge in the world, yet like a boring, sadistic, high school teacher, he manages to bleach all the joy from any subject matter at hand—which is, in Marsalis' case, jazz and its history, of course. Perhaps it's due to Marsalis' early background in classical music; perhaps it's because Marsalis was born a smug pain in the ass. Whatever this guy's problem is, I am gripped with a powerful urge to give Wynton an atomic wedgie whenever he opens his mouth for any purpose but to blow his trumpet.
And therein lies the rub: Marsalis is a sensational musician and arguably an even better composer. Many of his CDs—including his current effort, rife with brassy, upper-register growling la Bubber Miley atop a set of classy, blues-based arrangements—are eminently rewarding listening experiences. But the sense of exultation and release essential to most great jazz (think Mingus, Coltrane, Ellington, et al.) is curiously absent. His superiority complex somehow transcends his mere carriage and manifests itself in his music—as I've mentioned before, one can easily visualize squinty-eyed musicians reading notes off a chart when listening to Marsalis records rather than jumping for joy in the sheer rapture of improvisation.
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In his self-appointed role as Spokesman for Jazz, Marsalis brings himself off as an African-American William F. Buckley. He talks down to his audience, seemingly oblivious to the fact that jazz is a product of the street more than the classroom, and so misses a point no history book will ever teach him: the common denominator of all great music is emotion; it's more important to recapture what Charlie Parker was feeling when he laid down "Hot House" or "Now's the Time" than the actual notes he played.
Luckily, cold fish doesn't always equal sour soup in Marsalis' case. If his records are often chilled by his emotional frigidity, the playing is reliably hotter than the trail of agents following Osama bin Laden. Marsalis' LINCOLN CENTER JAZZ ORCHESTRA is nothing if not professional, the chops zooming by this way and that like Beemers on the Orange Crush. One just gets the feeling that under looser, more passionate stewardship, the orchestra's intensity factor would soar, giving the music the fullness and sense of completion it sometimes lacks. In short, Marsalis is a study in contradictions: the respected, high-profile spokesman jazz needs and deserves, with a personality so grating he may well turn more people from the music than on to it; a master musician who confirms the working class's darkest fears about the insignificance of virtuosity; a composer of great skill whose sterling technique shines so brightly it can blind that same lumpen. Nope, I'm never sure whether to give Wynton that wedgie or plant a nasty, un-flossed kiss on his precious, powdered, cupid lips. Maybe I'll try both when Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra appear the night of Thursday, Sept. 27 at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.
I have a theorem I call the Kenny Problem. That is, any musician named Kenny will inevitably be a useless milquetoast who deserves to be fed till he pops on the very saccharine he produces. While this principle doesn't apply to the wondrous jazz pianist Kenny Barron, it's disturbingly manifest in the music of Kenny G, Kenny Loggins, Kenny Rankin and KENNY ROGERS, who brings his extra-fancy brand of wuss-bag country for lovestruck bluehairs to the Sun Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 27. Will I be at this concert? Hell, I wouldn't even eat the man's goddamned chicken for fear of it making my testicles atrophy like a slug in a salt shaker. Never let it be said I don't know when to hold 'em. . . .
Wynton Marsalis and Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra perform at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Dr., Cerritos, (800) 300-4345. Thurs., Sept. 27, 8 p.m. $60-$70. All ages; Kenny Rogers plays at the Sun Theatre, 2200 E. Katella, Anaheim, (714) 740-2000. Thurs., Sept. 27, 8:30 p.m. $72. All ages.