Marsalis Revives Acoustic Jazz Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis galvanized the jazz world with an acoustic approach to improvisation that explored new directions while drawing on jazzdom’s great stylistic traditions.


One of the keys to Marsalis’s mercurial rise to prominence was his capacity for excelling in both jazz and classical music. In many ways, the first decade of Marsalis’s career paralleled that of fabled jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, Goodman, Benny who in the 1930’s wowed classical audiences with exquisite performances of “serious” works such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A. For Goodman, such demonstrations of classical musicianship served to legitimate, as well as to publicize, the jazzman’s already highly successful swing band and combo projects, the latter with pianist Teddy Wilson, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, and drummer Gene Krupa. Jazz;acoustic

For Marsalis, the back-to-back Grammys as best classical soloist of 1983 and 1984 provided dramatic proof, even for classical purists, that the young trumpeter was a special, even singular, talent. His simultaneous lionization by the classical and jazz worlds as well as by the popular press provided a level of public visibility unprecedented for a jazz musician.

By 1984, however, the pressures of maintaining simultaneous classical and jazz careers had become a burden, largely because of Marsalis’s self-imposed demands for excellence. Stating that he was essentially a jazz musician who could also play classical music, Marsalis concluded: “It takes a lot to develop as a jazz musician, and I couldn’t find the time to keep my classical technique up. Finally, given the choice, I had to take jazz, because it’s what attracted me to music in the first place.”

It was a sanguine decision, and one that allowed Marsalis to intensify his focus on resurrecting and revitalizing the great traditions of jazz, from the New Orleans styles of trumpet masters Louis Armstrong and Rex Stewart to the bebop of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and from the rich harmonic densities of Duke Ellington to the brooding modal approach of modernists Miles Davis and tenor saxophonist John Coltrane.

Indeed, Marsalis’s 1980’s recordings reveal the trumpeter’s commitment to honoring the still-living legacies of the jazz pioneers. In projects such as Black Codes from the Underground Black Codes from the Underground (Marsalis) (1985), J Mood J Mood (Marsalis) (1986), and The Majesty of the Blues Majesty of the Blues, The (Marsalis) (1989), the great traditions of jazz are brought to vivid life by Marsalis’s ability to invoke and yet reconfigure the past simultaneously. Also significant is the trumpeter’s angular and poignant reframing of songs from the repertory of such classic American popular composers as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Fats Waller, and Duke Ellington. In Marsalis Standard Time (1987), for example, the trumpeter offers burnished and bracing renditions of such evergreens as “April in Paris,” “Autumn Leaves,” and “Foggy Day.”

Throughout the 1980’s, Marsalis was often described as a neoclassicist. Writing in 1983, critic Gary Giddins, after decrying the sterility of the so-called avant-garde and fusion mercenaries, pointed out that “musicians such as Marsalis are needed to restore order, replenish melody, revitalize the beat, loot the tradition for whatever works, and expand the audience.” That is precisely what Marsalis accomplished through his own work, and through the work of the many young players who followed in his path. By the late 1980’s, glowing stories in the popular press chronicling the burgeoning “Jazz Renaissance” all positioned Marsalis as the movement’s central and galvanizing figure.

The Marsalis phenomenon affected the jazz world in several salutary ways. First is the example of his music. As a player, he demonstrated a virtuosic capacity distinguished by a sweeping range, an incisive edge, a ringing tone, and remarkable inventive flights. His expanding catalog of recordings stands as an ever-enlarging landmark and a continuing source of inspiration. Indeed, that so many young musicians in the 1980’s and 1990’s have been seriously pursuing jazz as a vibrant mode of self-expression is a tribute to Marsalis’s influence. Like the groups of Art Blakey and Miles Davis, moreover, Marsalis’s units have nurtured an array of young talents, including the pianists Kenny Kirkland and Marcus Roberts.

By insisting that jazz be presented with the same dignity and preparation as classical music, Marsalis has also helped immensely in improving the conditions under which jazz is produced and presented, whether in concert halls, recording studios, or nightclubs. He has even influenced other neo-bebop players by the example of his dress and serious demeanor. The crop of young jazz lions Marsalis inspired have typically been attired in crisply pressed double-breasted suits; they have also tended to disdain the kind of antics and clowning that have long been a part of the business of playing jazz. Most significant, Marsalis has influenced younger players by stressing the importance—indeed the necessity—of knowing the history of jazz, its great styles and its great innovators. Thanks to Marsalis, too, acoustic jazz—without the buzz of electronic processing and thump of rock—has regained a pivotal place in the contemporary jazz pantheon.

In the program notes for a 1993 Marsalis concert tour, the trumpeter summed up his overall intentions: “My ultimate goal is to see the whole of American public education transformed and to see the arts in America, specifically the musical arts, achieve the place of prominence in our education that they deserve, because culture is the identity of the people, and one of the centerpieces of American culture is jazz music.” In 1997, he became the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize Pulitzer Prizes;music in music, for his Blood on the Fields. Blood on the Fields (Marsalis) Winner of numerous Grammy Awards, he continues to produce both jazz and classical recordings. Jazz;acoustic Music;jazz

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berg, Chuck. “Wynton Marsalis.” In Encyclopedia of the Twentieth Century, edited by John Drexel. New York: Facts On File, 1991. Presents a brief summary of Marsalis’s rise to prominence during the 1980’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, Richard, and Brian Morton. “Wynton Marsalis.” In The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP, and Cassette. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1995. An excellent overview of Marsalis’s career, with incisive reviews of his major recording projects of the 1980’s. Includes detailed discographic information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Giddins, Gary. “Wynton Marsalis and Other Neoclassical Lions.” In Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Improvisation in the 80’s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Village Voice critic Giddins describes Marsalis as a “conscientious neoclassicist” who has taken on the task of restoring order to bebop and the other great traditions of jazz.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jeske, Lee. “Wynton Marsalis.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, edited by Barry Kernfeld. Vol. 2. New York: Grove’s Dictionaries of Music, 1994. A brief but informative essay by a noted American jazz critic. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marsalis, Wynton, with Selwyn Seyfu Hinds. To a Young Jazz Musician: Letters from the Road. New York: Random House, 2004. Wynton’s epistolary work is both a critical defense of the art of jazz and a motivational work for young people.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reich, Howard. “Wynton Marsalis: ’It’s Time for Jazz.’” Down Beat, December, 1992, 16-21. Excellent interview in which Marsalis talks about his career, his hopes, and his concept of jazz as a means of transcending such socio-cultural barriers as racism, educational sloth, and artistic mediocrity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stokes, W. Royal. The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Stokes, a former editor of Jazz Times magazine, lets the musicians, including Marsalis, speak for themselves on the history, sociology, and techniques of jazz. Compiled from hundreds of interviews conducted by the perceptive Stokes, whose commentaries frame the subject for laypersons and experts alike.

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Categories: History