Jazzy: One Birthday, Two Visions

As I am writing this it is October 18th. The day was the birthday of two people who in their relatively young ages have shown different perspectives on how music should be evolving. In this case it is specifically jazz I am referring to. The highly regarded Esperanza Spalding has been breaking boundaries in her short career, seeing to reestablish the progression of the genre and show that it still can be the music of a younger generation. Meanwhile, several decades ago Wynton Marsalis was at the helm of the movement to retain what was and is believed by many to be quintessential jazz. Both were born on this day and possess great talent, yet greatly differ on what is happening in the music they love. It may be through these narratives that the future of this music will be defined by.

When many think of jazz being in retrograde or focusing on the essence of what it is, Wynton Marsalis’ name is often the one associated with this argument. There was once a point where he did not seem to disagree with having other genres mixing with jazz, and in fact showed brilliance on his early recordings when he was searching for his own style. Throughout his career he has built a respectable catalog and is one of the best players in jazz since the 80s. Even as a composer he has crafted masterful suites that advanced the prior experiments of incorporating classical music into jazz pieces. But that may not be what he will ultimately be remembered for. In a transformation facilitated through his mentors Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray and the time he spent in Art Blakey’s band, he started to champion a neoconservative perspective of what jazz is and is not. As he rose in stature this stance became widely popular and caught on as the general consensus in the mainstream, leading many to disregard electric keyboards and clean studio productions like DJs burning their disco records several years before. This has led him to be the criticism of many musicians including Stanley Clarke, James Mtume and Miles Davis. Some will argue he was one of the people who derailed the genre, some will say that he helped it gain respectability. Anyone who is given that much credit though is undeniably influential in their field.

Esperanza Spalding on the other hand has embraced a centrifuge mix in her music, rarely if ever trying to stick to one specific style. This has been the approach of many of her peers as they seek to reestablish the fusion and smooth jazz eras as not only wrongly vilified, but being legitimate expressions of the canon worth exploring and teaching. Whereas earlier attempts to do this were made, especially when Wynton’s brother Branford famously did, the prestige of being a purist has seem to of worn off in recent years and many appear to be ready to acknowledge this error. The skill she has in balancing the ideas in her music and how she uses her talent has also given this cause more weight. Her brief but highly praised time as an recording artist has positioned her to be the face of this new generation. The only major controversy she has encountered is pissing off a legion of Bieber fans when she won a Grammy over him.

I do not view them as polar opposites, for simplifying them would also lessen their magnificent body of work and the complexity of what they think. They both have proven to be leaders in different eras, and their actions are reflective of this. Wynton helped to make jazz visible again with his stardom as the face of the Young Lions movement of the 80s and convinced Lincoln Center to support the music when it was snubbing the genre. His work through the center has brought a needed injection of money into the genre in the form of grants and funding for those who would pursue it as an academic endeavor. Esperanza, who taught at Berklee at a young age, has emerged out of the music school in Boston with many young faces alongside her to signify a shift that perhaps is so new it has not been named yet. She has used her fame to bring attention back to the genre through noteworthy performances for president Obama as well as getting more press coverage than any other jazz musician since Wynton. Their status as icons, albeit reluctant ones, is pretty clear and they have leveraged this to prevent the writing off of the music that occurs often in the amnesic critics circles.

There is also something else about the both of them that is a bit unusual: they openly acknowledge the lineage of the music. As a native of New Orleans Wynton invokes the famous history and traditions in his music, crediting Congo Square and marching funeral bands as being precursors. He also not only incorporates blues sensibilities into his music a lot, but also portrays it as part of the jazz expression. Esperanza’s embrace of the fusion era is also a rejection of the genre being strictly the music of a upper west side culture and has become disconnected from the black community and culture that gave birth to it. Some of her songs and words in interviews points this out and tries to speak to the the problem of relating to a contemporary minority audience. Many musicians of the experimentation of the 70s like Miles Davis were seeking to remold it into music that could be popular again and speak to youth. As jazz is often taught as existing in some sort of a a vacuum that somehow became America’s classical music, this historical context is often left out.

Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

In a profile of Esperanza in The New Yorker a few years ago, it was noted that the two are aware of each other but in a distant way. For the story itself Wynton declined to comment on her citing a busy schedule, but at the end of the piece it was said that he has seen her perform at least twice in person. In those cases though it was suspected that it was more of him checking to see if she was truly talented rather than a silent nod to her ambitions. While it was mentioned in the story that Wynton has never publicly talked about Esperanza, at the end of article a different cue was given as it said that his road manager ventured to a performance of hers one time. To the best of my knowledge they still operate in this way, focused on their work. Whether the jazz world can let both of their approaches coexist has yet to be seen. Funny how one day can celebrate all of this.

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