Masters of the Past: How Wynton Marsalis Learned to Appreciate the Art of Louis Armstrong
At times the enthusiasm of youth impedes a just consideration of the legacy of the past.
It’s typical of new artists to resist, to some extent, what’s been done in the past. It’s a kind of foreseeable dialectic. Perhaps it’s even one that’s necessary to keeping moving against the interminably impetuous current of art and creativity. A style, a school, a means of expression usually arises, opposed, to some dominant other. It raises its voice, puts its proposal out there, and gradually gains ground and acceptance before solidifying and reaching a hegemonic status. Only then will another rise up against it and push it into that same place once devoted only to predecessors.
When youthful ardor decreases, often it’s also common to witness the recognition youth gives to the great masters of the past, the legacy of which is nearly always unfading. One may even think them beyond the limitations of time or epoch.
This is partly what happened to Wynton Marsalis, the most noted trumpeter of our time and certainly one of the best musicians in the history of jazz. While Marsalis has won wide recognition, the mere mention of these two characteristics – those of being a jazz musician and playing a horn – inevitably lead one to recall another name: Louis Armstrong.
Marsalis himself knew of, and even disdained Armstrong’s legacy. And while he was aware of the importance of that legacy:
I grew up knowing who he was. I didn’t necessarily like his music, because I grew up in the Civil Rights era and the post-Civil Rights era and we felt like he was an Uncle Tom, always smiling with a handkerchief. His image was not something that was popular at that time. So I didn’t discover his real genius until I was 18.
This discovery alighted on Marsalis with “Jubilee,” a song the young trumpeter listened to carefully and tried to imitate. Especially the solos, and with no success. In Marsalis’ time, the dominant interpretation would have preferred a rapid style and a sophisticated execution in the manner of Freddie Hubbard. The way Armstrong played the instrument appeared rather flat and without much apparent difficulty.
While studying in detail a recording of “Jubilee” sent by his father, Marsalis realized that something was happening that could hardly be described as easy or simple.
According to the musician, the true revelation in Armstrong’s solos is the soul and feeling with which they were executed. These two qualities seem hardly technical, much less objective or measurable. Yet they’re the definitive qualities of authentic music. Without the subjectivity that remains in the realized work of art, it simply would not be as such. It couldn’t even reach that state.
Marsalis surrendered, then, to Armstrong’s genius. That’s say, he began to study it, to understand it and to learn from it. He put aside generational prejudices and closely followed New Orleans jazz. Perhaps surprisingly, this genre previously ignored by Marsalis and his contemporaries, constituted a paramount era in jazz’s formation, purely in musical terms, but also as one of an undeniable political importance.
Since then, Marsalis has not hesitated to recognize Armstrong as the best trumpeter of all time, comparable to Bach or Beethoven in classical music. More recently, upon the arrival of the new director, David J. Skorton, at the Smithsonian Institute, Marsalis was invited to play one of the trumpets that belonged to Louis Armstrong, a model made by Henri Selmer in Paris in 1946 and in the custody of the Smithsonian since 2008.
“It sounded better than I thought it would sound,” Marsalis said. “In terms of music, his horn sounded good because of him.”
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