The blues in NYC

My column in City Arts – New York’s Review of Culture, focuses on America’s deep, dark musical strain as it is today in a blues-challenged city. It doesn’t mention that Wynton Marsalis is the world’s greatest blues trumpeter, as he proved last night playing “bread and butter” from the Count Basie songbook with the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra, a show repeated tonight (2/12) and Saturday.

There may not be much competition for that post (outside of New Orleans; I haven’t heard Kermit Ruffins in quite a while) but even if there were, Marsalis’s boundless flow of vocal-like ideas enspirited a concert meant to celebrate two eras of the Basie orchestra: the Old Testament (1935-1946) and New Testament (1952 – 1984). Musical director for this concert was trombonist Vincent Gardner, who chose mostly lesser-known pieces of Basie’s blues-drenched repertoire, ranging from Buck Clayton’s fast and furious “Seventh Avenue Express” to the sarcastic “Your Red Wagon” (originally a feature for Jimmy Rushing, here sung by guest vocalist Gregory Porter, who also delivered the Joe Turner/Joe Williams/B.B. King-identified “Everyday I Have the Blues“) to Neal Hefti’s non-somnambulant “Sleepwalker’s Serenade.”

Pianists Dan Nimmer and Cyrus Chestnut alternated in evoking the Basie touch — light, fleet, spare; guitarist James Chirillo strummed quarter notes four-to-the-bar all night in emulation of Basie’s self-effacing rhythm-holder Freddie Green; Walter Blanding took a good couple of tenor sax solos, without insistent reference to Basie’s tenorists Hershel Evans and Lester Young, and alto saxist Sherman Irby played the one statement of the concert that focused on a wrenching blues cry. Other soloists — Joe Temperely, Marcus Printup — stood out; the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s section blends and synchronism were not audibly hampered by having lost a day of rehearsal to snow. But it was Wynton who sparked this music, launching long, detailed, narrative trumpet phrases that captured the joys and follies of the blues in a jazz vein. The concert steered clear of the bluesy-blues, the downhearted expression and morose mood usually associated with the term, the genre, “the blues.” 
After the show, Marsalis, Printup and drummer Ali Jackson addressed a roomful of high school students, emphasizing how the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has a way of life centered on intense devotion to the highest standards of music. I had accompanied both high school and college students to this performance, and most of them seemed delighted to be in elegant Rose Hall, though several of the younger bunch mentioned they wished they could hear this music in a looser, less formal venue where there was room to dance. 
To my ears, the concert for all its bright moments didn’t build excitement or convey the irresistible pulse that would get me on my feet. The stop/start of applauding each solo, introducing each soloist at the end of a tune and Gardner giving brief explanations before every count-off seemed contrary to the bipendal motivation that was point of Basie’s Old Testament, if not the more complex, arguably “artier” charts by Hefti, Frank Foster (“Discommotion”), J.J. Johnson (“Rambo”), Frank Wess (“Magic”). But that’s the compromise accepted by the jazz repertoire movement, which the JALC Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis today exemplifies: revisiting classic jazz (or blues) means putting in onstage with respectful listeners in their seats, as if we were at a symphony or chamber music performance. 
This keeps the music at some distance from its audience, and the low-volume mix characteristic of sound management in Rose Hall also makes it something to appreciate more than feel. I don’t believe that’s the intent of Marsalis and his men, but it comes with the territory, which wasn’t the case when Count Basie led history’s greatest territory band out of Kansas City to conquer New York, rival both Duke Ellington and (later) emerging rock ‘n’ roll and tour the world. Good as it is to hear classic jazz played live, well, presentation that makes it precious, something to be admired as if under glass, gives me a touch of the blues. Marsalis at his best provides relief, but not a cure.
Subscribe by Email or RSS
All JBJ posts

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Noreen says

    Having had the privilege to hear the Basie Band in person many times when Count Basie was at the helm, that feeling of the music pouring through you when you sat in front of the band can’t be touched by anyone, even one as great as Marsalis seems to be. I appreciate the desire to preserve, but let ‘er rip so people can get the real concept of this great music. Stop putting it under glass and making it museum music. That is what put jazz into this bag of second best when it is the best! Get it into the joints again!
    HM: I agree. I spent the day after this concert listening to Basie recordings of 1930 to ’39, and the band had a whoosh that the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for all the excellence of its intentions and abilities didn’t touch. It’s because jazz is made in the moment — it’s own moment — which we can’t and shouldn’t deny. We can pay tribute to the past but not really recapture it. The marvelous element of Wynton Marsalis’ playing is that his trumpet playing is happening now, as he blows; it partakes of all the past he’s studied but he completely projects immediacy, not anachronism. Perhaps it’s possible for a player to do that but not for an ensemble to match such temperament for all the effort. In jazz, originators have the edge.