Thursday, July 16, 2009

Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life

I just read this 2001 book by Wynton Marsalis and Carl Vigeland. All in all, a forgettable little travelogue by Wynton and his just-about star struck companion, journalist Carl Vigeland. In the first 10 pages, Vigeland gushes about how he earned his nickname with Wyton's crew, explaining each incarnation and its meaning like a little sibling that won't shut up: "Then he began good-naturedly taunting me about the number the number of women I must have slept the number three was added the word piece. Three piece, as in a a cab, three became tre, and piece became swig, because it sounded a little like the beginning of my last name..." Seriously Carl, if you're that proud of the fact that you're down, you're probably not. Admittedly, a taste of the jazz life might leave me similarly wild-eyed, but jazz writing has enough hero worshipers.

At one point, Vigeland lapses into a sort of faux poetic romp complete with unnecessary capitalization, fun with pronouns and Wynton spelled Wintone (acutally WINTONE) that almost ended my read entirely. I guess that's his attempt at jazz, but again, you're trying too hard Carl.

I understand that this is supposed to be a combination insider/outsider perspective on Marsalis' Septet, its music and travels. Problem is, in this case, the outsider doesn't contribute much. His portion of the book reads like a long newspaper article (in fact, some of it is just a bunch of newspaper articles). He gives us some helpful background, but no real analysis of the music, the people, the life, the stage. Needless to say, there's no criticism of anything ever. A more thoughtful outsider, or one less enamoured with his eighth wheel status, could have given us all of that. Instead, what we have here is stories. Bland ones. This guy writes for The Atlantic. That's where this book belongs, minus about 200 pages.

Wynton's passages--interspersed throughout--are significantly more interesting, both stylistically and substantively. His debt to the Albert Murray/Stanley Crouch (he mentions both in the both) school of jazz aesthetics are on full display in these lyrical, homey vignettes. It's as if the blues sensibility shapes his literary phrasing as much as it does his musical phrasing. The same is true of both Murray and Crouch--see the first section of Stomping the Blues, in which Murray uses those literary blues in an effort to define what exactly the blues are. It's that down home--Crouch likes to say gut bucket--approach. Even if it sometimes seems like pure showmanship (what in jazz isn't?), more often it's just great craftsmanship.

Since the blues in all their majesty are so hard to define and are more of an I know it when I hear it type of phenomenon, I find these sorts of informal musings on life, love and the music itself sometime captures the blues best. The blues need to be felt deeply. That, I think, is why Wynton writes for all the senses, to try in words to evoke that feeling. It's about the familiar taste of homemade Louisiana dinners, the expression of unrepentant sexuality, the vague melancholy of a solo Monk performance playing on endless loop on a long drive. It's the natural beauty the rises and falls with the road across the entire country. It's inseparable from and so valuable as a companion to the music. I listened to this Septet's Village Vanguard box set as I was reading. That's not a set that's gotten much play time from me, but with a little context it worked just fine.

Wynton's contributions are where we get some heart and a little thought as to what it all means, where it comes from and where it's going. Unfortunately, they're largely buried in pages and pages of pedestrian journalism.

I have my problems with both Crouch and Murray by the way, and Wynton Marsalis for that matter, whose music I generally find, put simply, boring. But their passion for jazz, blues and the richness of black life in America are undeniable and admirable.

I hope to write a post about the serious problems I have with Albert Murray later on, but that's a much bigger project.

As far as this book goes, I would have rather read a short travel memoir by Marsalis alone. He's a soulful, engaging writer who certainly has more to say about life on the road than some uninitiated wannabe. We get some nice peeks into what it means to be a modern day jazz musician in this book, but I guess I should've known by the $6 price tag that I wasn't getting much.