Wynton Marsalis and George Lucas

May 2001 by Simon Weil
Part 3 of 3


Part 1: Bitches Brew
Part 2: A New Hope


I

The extent of Wynton Marsalis' effect on jazz is hard to quantify. Part of that is the paucity of figures available. What does seem certain, however, is that jazz was in crisis in the late 70s - a crisis one might compare to that facing film in the mid-70s, which, as Philip French put it, seemed in "terminal decline". Basically jazz had lost its audience. Jazz had never regained the popularity it had in the fourties, but, an important stage in its decline set in in the 60s:

"...by the end of 1967...the jazz world...was losing currency, and one of the reasons for this was the momentous rise of rock music...Rock music with its massive amplification, its use of electronics, its thrusting rhythms, and its flamboyant stars with their colourful clothes and rebellious images, had become central to the whole era - the music of the 1960s - just as jazz had been the music of the previous decade."
Carr p210 and 212

From a rock-haters perspective:

"...by 1970, things were beginning to go bad for jazz. The phenomenon of fusion was on the build and it was debunking swing, in all its magnificent variety through static rock and funk beats, electric pianos, and bass guitars. At the same time avant-garde jazz of the sort distinctly separate from the swinging version of Ornette Coleman brought to New York in 1959 had dispensed with jazz rhythm altogether. Major figures in jazz either sold out to pop trends or abdicated while those with serious integrity continued to swing in contexts of increased obscurity. Those given to premature autopsies were sure that this time, jazz was on its death bed. So when [Wynton] Marsalis moved to New York in 1979, things looked fairly grim for jazz... Marsalis changed that situation dramatically. By example, through recruitment, teaching, and his own accomplishments, he became, as Betty Carter said, "the fate of the music. I believe he arrived here to bring the music back."/Sleevenotes to Wynton Marsalis Septet Live at the Village Vanguard/ Stanley Crouch 1999

The late 70s:

"I was doing about five gigs a year at that time, between '78 and '82. So a working band...(laughs) Nobody was working. I certainly wasn't. When I had a concert, that was a big deal for me. I hadn't been around and Europe was out of the question. I hadn't even thought about it. Where do you play in New York? Every time I did a gig, I had to rent a loft for 100 bucks. I certainly wasn't playing any clubs. When I was studying with Julius Hemphill, that's how he was doing it in New York. Everybody was doing it, just playing for the door. When I met him, he was doing two gigs a year and he was already established. There wasn't any place to play otherwise, except for Tin Palace or Studio RivBea. The really established guys were struggling for those gigs."
Tim Berne Perfect Sound Interview

And:

"We speak lovingly of the AACM, BAG, UGMAA, JCOA, the loft movement and the Wildflowers albums, and so on. We forget that these organizations formed because musicians, having no outlets for their music, reacted by creating their own. We also forget that none of them were able to sustain their membership, who either had to move away (to Europe or wherever) or take up day jobs, to survive. We also forget that virtually NO ONE was at all these wonderful gigs.

I remember the lost days of the late 70s. It was the same 30 people, gig after gig..."
Marcel Franck Simon usenet post 13th June 1996

That Wynton Marsalis had an impact on audiences is, I think, undeniable - though I do not believe it was for the reasons Crouch outlines. In the early 80s there was a buzz about him as the thrusting young man of jazz. On record, such as Album of The Year (Art Blakey) he came across as thrilling, re-energizing the seemingly defunct 1950s hard bop ethic (or later,1960s modal music). What was important here was how much his image fitted his age. Young, stylish, aggressive - a winner - he was very much in tune with the times.

People bought his records, people copied his style - both musically and sartorially. I don't think that there can be any argument that he led the movement to making jazz once more hip - As it was for a time in the 80s. The music he played was relatively easily digestable. He wore a suit. He seemed to evoke past glories in an age sick of defeat. The audience increased - In an important sense he "brought the music back". As I indicated above, however, I think that in this he is a comparable figure to George Lucas.

This is firstly because I believe that both did genuinely draw the American audience back to their respective forms - and at about the same time (late 1970s/early 1980s). But why is the interesting thing. There are a few fairly clear parallels. Both present work that is essentially rooted in the past - a past before the traumas of the 60s and 70s - when, as it were, America was whole. This is particularly obvious in the case of American Graffiti, but Lucas pulled the same trick in Star Wars, though more subtly, by using a melange of time-honoured themes which create a rootedness for the audience. One has the sense of familiarity with Star Wars. Both films owed part of their popularity to the reassurance associated with this sense of rootedness. Marsalis' approach to jazz somewhat parallels Lucas's use of time honoured themes - except with him it's a melange of time-honoured styles. I don't think there is much doubt that reassurance and familiarity is part of his appeal. This is an essentially conservative appeal - and in the clean-cut, nicely-spoken heroes of Star Wars, as indeed in Marsalis, one has the conservative antidote to the youth rebellion of the previous decades. In contrast to this rebellion, there is a respect for father-figures in both Lucas and Marsalis - in the person of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars and in Marsalis' mentor Albert Murray. And, of course, Marsalis's whole ethic of respecting the tradition extends this into the practise of the art itself.

II

To slow down somewhat. I want now to do some analysis to see if we can dig out some less straight-forward parallels and reasons. A fairly obvious reason is that Marsalis and Lucas' message was positive in a time of overall gloom. We saw that with Lucas in his approach to Star Wars and American Graffiti - who wanted to make people "feel, 'We could really make something out of this country, or we could really make something out of our lives.'" But it's true also of Marsalis who asserts:

"[Jazz] gives us a glimpse into what America is going to become when it becomes itself. and this music tells you that it will become itself. And when you get a taste of that, there's nothing else you're going to taste that's this sweet. That's a sweet taste, man."
Jazz, A History of America's Music/ Ward and Burns p460

Lucas was interested in:

"... getting children to believe there is more to life than garbage and killing and all that real stuff like stealing hubcaps - that you could sit and dream about exotic lands and strange creatures. Once I got into Star Wars it struck me that we had lost all that - a whole generation was growing up without fairy tales. You just don't get them any more, and that's the best stuff in the world - adventures in far-off lands. It's fun

I wanted to do a modern fairy tale, a myth..."
Lucas Interviews/Stephen Zito 1977 p53.

So his approach was mythic. But so also is Marsalis's:

The connection between jazz and the American experience is profound. Believe me, that's why the fact that it has not been addressed has resulted in our losing a large portion of our identity as Americans. Because the artform that really gives us a mythic representation of our society has not been taught to the public."
American Heritage Oct 1995

In fact both see what they're doing as providing heroic myths for Society to learn by - in contrast to Miles and the socially aware film-makers of the 70s, who were reflecting Society. In this Lucas and Marsalis are active, impregnating society with their vision - optimistic myths that seek to inspire, rather than reflective (there are exceptions, but this is still basically the case). Both have been influenced by Joseph Campbell who sees art in these terms - as providing "Myths to Live By" (The title of one of his books) - Lucas directly and Marsalis through Campbell's influence on Albert Murray (though Murray himself has got Marsalis to read Campbell's work). This means that the myths that Marsalis and Lucas present are quite closely related - and this is the basis for a number of parallels in their work.

"[Campbell asserts that] we are in what the Greeks called the time of the "metamorphoses of the gods." The images of the new gods, the new creative myths, the global vision, are being born not anew "out there" but in the mythogenic zone of the awakened human heart. There, re-formed for our different times, are the different metaphors to express the constant truths; and therein the courage can be found to join "with youthful participation in the sorrow of the world."
The Hero's Journey/Campbell xix

Campbell made clear that, in Star Wars, he thought Lucas was one of the new creative myth-makers.

III

"For Campbell, the hero of a myth is heroic for two reasons. He does what no on else either will or can do, and he does it on behalf of everyone else as well as himself...The hero may be a prince a warrior, a saint, or a god. He can be a local hero or a universal one. He can be seeking it for only his people or for all humanity. At the same time Campbell's hero is always male."
Joseph Campbell: An Introduction/Segal p33-4

Luke Skywalker is a hero for both these reasons. It is he, and ultimately he alone who destroys the Death Star in the climactic battle in Star Wars - and he does it for the good of all. But, if one looks at Crouch's quote in section one above, Marsalis is seen as a jazz version of this template. He and only he saved jazz - for the good of all.

In general, Marsalis sees the jazzman as a hero because he battles the void (see my essay The Lincoln Center Democratic Jazz Aesthetic vs Anarchy):

http://www.allaboutjazz.com/articles/arti1200_16.htm

But beyond this is the hope of saving America:

"Today, America's only possible hope is that the Negroes might save us, which is all we're trying to do," Murray recently told the New Yorker. "We've got Louis, Duke, Count, and Ralph [Ellison], and now we're trying to do it with Wynton [Marsalis] and Stanley [Crouch] That's all we are - just a bunch of Negroes trying to save America."
Conversations with Albert Murray p96-7 199

IV

That Campbell's heroes are all male is a reflection of his own sensibilities:

[Q]: Do you feel that women need to begin to feel better about themselves again or that society needs to change and re-evaluate some of its values.

[Campbell]: No. All they have to do is stop looking at the boys and wondering whether they are in competition with them. Just realize what effect they are having on the boys. It came to me at Sarah Lawrence [the college where he taught]. I was teaching three courses on mythology and at the end of my last year there this woman comes in and sits down and says, "Well Mr Campbell, you've been talking about the hero. But what about the woman?"

I said, "The woman's the mother of the hero; she's the goal of the hero's achieving; she's the protectress of the hero; she is this, she is that. What more do you want?"

She said, "I want to be the hero!"

So I was glad that I was retiring that year [1972] and was not going to teach any more [laughter].
The Hero's Journey/Campbell p93

In Star Wars, Leia is a damsel in distress. She evinces some substantial aggressiveness as well - firing blasters etc. - but this is largely surface. A character concocted in the 70s, she reflects some of that decade's ideal of female liberation. She pays for this by becoming asexual. But still her role at the end of the film sums her up. She gives out medals to the men - the true heroes of the film and the characters around whom the action almost entirely revolves. This is a film about men, set in action by a woman's call - and duly, at the end, rewarded by those medals. In American Graffiti, the idea that the women were secondary was conveyed at the end. The male characters' stories after the film were given in little capsule biographies. The female characters received none. The message is they were only there in the story to act ask foils to the main - male - characters.

'What it all boils down to is, he's a male chauvinist pig,' says Bunny Alsup. This at least was one element of the Zoetrope [Film production company] model which Lucas had retained. Except for Marcia [Lucas, his editor wife], women had no place in Lucas' professional life above that of secretary or aide. His personal discomfort with women rendered them near invisible.
Geroge Lucas/Baxter p157

V

This lack of women in Lucas's professional life is paralled by the lack of women in Marsalis's band, the LCJO. It also follows the treatment of women in his book, Sweet Swing Blues on the Road - which is deeply conservative. They fulfil, very largely, the passive role. Only one female instrumentalist appears, and she's a classical player. Before Wynton can play with her, he traumatically breaks his trumpet and has to have it repaired. A couple of years ago, I pressed Doug Wamble (guitarist on Marsalis's Big Train) about this:

"...Wynton's _Sweet Swing Blues On the Road_ certainly give me the impression that Wynton thinks woman's place is in the kitchen. The only approximation to a female Jazz instrumentalist in it is an airhead."

His reply:

"So tell me the names of some females who would sound good playing Wynton's music? I can think of one....Jennifer Vincent, a great bass player. Plus, Wynton and the LCJO on the road? That's a men's hang, Simon. If you think that's sexist, so be it. Sounds to me like just another example of a cat looking for something to bitch about in regards to Wynton."
Usenet Posts March 15th 1999

And indeed, Marsalis's ideal for jazz would appear to be a "men's hang". He refers to his ideal jazz players in a deeply phallic way as "old oak tree of men" and talks of them forming "a fraternity" (SSBOTR p160). This is made up of: "Old-style Negroes. Hat-wearing, shoe-shined, thin-mustached, hair-swept, sweet-cologne-smelling, thin-razor-shaved...Negroes."(SSBOTR p152). He came across as not caring at all when confronted with the lack of women in his Lincoln Center band by a Village Voice reporter.

VI

Archetypally, men sit round discussing the performance of their engines - the latest wiz-bang technology - the number of gizmos on their HiFi, while women discuss their relationships. This has a rather direct result. The "male hang" nature of both Lucas' and Marsalis' worlds leads to a concentration on technical wizardy at the expense of emotional expressivity. And it is felt in the people who follow them. Marsalis' legacy is a slew of players who can play all the notes and have nothing much left to say. All they can do is compete. Lucas's disciples are to be seen in the increasingly effects dominated film industry. Big bangs, loads of bucks, little emotional depth. For Marsalis his obsession with the technical is so great as to subsume emotional expressivity under technique:

[Musician Magazine]:...there's the Berklee School of Music approach, where you learn technique. And some people would say, "Well as long as it's coming from the heart, it doesn't matter about technique."

[Wynton Marsalis] That's the biggest crock of bullshit in the history of music, that stuff about coming from the heart. If you are trying to create art, the first thing is to look around and find out what's meaningful, so automatically that implies a certain amount of emotion. Anybody can say "I have emotion." I mean, a thousand trumpet players had soul and emotion when they picked up trumpets. But they weren't all Louis Armstrong. Why?

[Herbie Hancock] He was a better human being.

[WM] Because Louis Armstrong's technique was better.
....
[WM]... Soul is part of technique. Emotion is part of technique. Music is a craft, man.
Wynton Vs Herbie (1985) in Keeping Time ed. Walser p340

VII

How does one explain the fact that these two men brought the public back to their forms? Because Marsalis and Lucas are not reflecting Society (section II) but rather feeding it heroic myths, the reason for their popularity must be that these myths are telling Society something palatable. Much of this has to do with their reassuring nature. Lucas' myth comes in the form of the Star Wars film, Marsalis' is presented in the person of Marsalis himself. As I have attempted to demonstrate, they revolve around male hero figures - Marsalis being presented as the living embodiment of a hero. The male hero is a very traditional figure - one in whom Society has become accustomed to see itself.

But, in the 60s and 70s, this was under threat - the whole idea of society seeing itself through a male figure was under threat - For these years saw the rise of the feminist movement. As Campbell's interlocuter said, women wanted to be heroes too. But, around 1980, the feminist movement ran out of steam - Since then there has been a world-wide backlash. This was an element of the conservative retrenchement that began circa 1980. My view would be that the popularity of Lucas and Marsalis is in part because they are represent this backlash culturally - that part of their popularity has to do with their presentation of traditional male heroes who exist in a world where, effectively, only men are heroes. This, amongst other things, makes Marsalis and Lucas reassuring.

In fact this is a return to the 50s, the decade before feminism. And that is representative. Lucas and Marsalis offer a return to the time before. A time when Americans still believed in their country and their leaders. This is what makes the two popular and brought audiences back to their respective forms. They offered a return to the Status quo ante - a denial that those traumatic years of the 60s and 70s, and what happened in them, ever occurred. A place where Americans might once again see themselves and their country in simple heroic terms. But in reality, that's an impossibility. Those years did happen. America was not heroic in them. What Marsalis and Lucas offer is a delectable fantasy of myth lovingly concocted to keep out the real world - to erase those years from the conscious.


Part 1: Bitches Brew           Part 2: A New Hope

source: http://wwww.allaboutjazz.com/articles/arti0701_01.htm

maintained by Thomas Hönisch TOP last update: August 12, 2001