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"Moving To Higher Ground" A Review/Discussion Of Wynton Marsalis' Book

Wynton Marsalis is one of the leading jazzmen in our country and he takes on the role with more than stride than Art Tatum's left hand. He is the author of 5 books, the artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center and has worked in volumes over the years to advocate, educate and play the "truth" of jazz. So when I came across "Moving to Higher Ground" I could feel the wave of anticipation behind it's title. You know, when you see a book and get that itch that it's the book you need to read at that moment.

I found myself transcended as I flipped through the pages vivaciously, dog-earing pages left and right. Just when I thought he'd hit me with the most insightful comment I'd heard.... I'd get another. I compare this to the likes of listening to a great musician take his big coda thought he was done but he plays a thousand versions of a one chord exploring every possibility of the one chord.

The book affirms everything true about jazz, as well as life. Marsalis has a witty way of storytelling; a library of metaphors that allow the reader to disengage from any preconcieved notions of what "jazz" is to them and to paint a new picture of jazz as a valuable, complex and ingenious African-American art form.

"It was easier to forget that only during the Depression were Americans so troubled they were willing to embrace the proud content of this music, like a politician who discovers both his wife and his religion after he's caught doing something wrong. It was easier to overlook the entire 1930s generation of great white musicians because they were inseparable from jazz. It was easier to accept pop music that exploited teenagers than to embrace any notion of national significance coming from the Negro. It was easier to accept groups like the Rolling Stones, who imitated black Americans and came from England--the country we fought for our own independence--than to accept our own people. It was easier to watch swing, the national dance, slip away, to watch as the minstrel show returned through hip-hop, to watch our musical culture devalued and exported around the world as a backdrop for ass-shaking, wealth-celebrating videos. It was so much easier to define musical innovation in terms of technology, record sales and street-level pathology."

Wynton Marsalis makes a great case for the jazz's fade into America's cultural background. What is more winning and motivating especially to jazz players though is his strong belief that jazz is indeed a music that is still ahead of it's time and even suggests:

"We need to bring swing back, not out of dumb misguided nostalgia but because swing is a modern rhythm, much more suited to the increasingly integrated world of today than anything pounded out by a drum machine and recorded by people who are not even in the same studio together. " pg41

Unfortunately, the corporate music industry has taken a sad turn for the worse in it's preference to novelty over nuance. Every few years someone comes out with some "fresh beat" but the beats are usually just slight derivations from jazz, soul or older RnB tunes. While there is nothing wrong with recycling beats and harmonic progressions, if theres no depth, or souled purpose behind one's work, it carries a different vibration. Jazz is a peculiar type of "new wave church" because it seems to touch the individual at their core-essence self; it encourages a true expression of oneself in an array of colors and vibrations.

While pop can be likened to an elementary grammar class, jazz is a music that is like a mix of college-level philosophy, science, psychology, history and art courses. It's not that one is better than the other, however, jazz as genre (and many sub-genres) has always allowed musicians to set their own standards as high as they like. There is a craftsmanship found in jazz that is hard to come by in other genres.

There is also a sense of spiritual expansion, empathy and insight that come with playing and listening to jazz. Marsalis rides a fine line between appealing to jazz players and appealing to newcomers of jazz. He spends an entire chapter outlining the basic concepts of jazz so that anyone who is listening to jazz can understand how it functions. As a jazz musician it was inspiring to hear the antidotes and roasts of the jazz greats from Coltrane to Dizzy. When speaking on Ornettte Coleman Marsalis says this:

"He teaches the power of empathy. When you're talking to him, you feel that, somehow, he already knows all of what you are saying and can see and respond to its deeper meaning."

Later he goes on to say:

"Many times when you are speaking a musical language, you become frustrated because your colleagues don't understand what you're saying. You leave spaces and there is no appropriate response. You play softly. They play loudly. You play polyrhythms. They barge ahead. You ask after a solo, 'What was I playing?'. They say, 'Huh?' Ornette not only heard what I was playing he heard what I was thinking about playing. His way of improvising often tells us much more than the approach of many musicians."

Again, Marsalis in my opinion is right on target with a common issue in ensemble playing. Listening is critical to a great performance. Learning to listen more deeply through jazz can not only improve musicians' playing but can also improve our everyday relationships. It is the interconnectedness found in jazz that allows us to play (no pun intended) life. To play the ups, the downs the in-betweens...the silences.

Often, we are caught in a society that urges us to move forward to push forward to be something. Jazz carries a spectacular momentum of social progress with it as it swings past stereotypes and cuts deep into the hearts millions daily... silently. Marsalis is all to aware of this as in the book he plays the role of the wise jazz sage, he gives a multitude of perspectives and just enough information to allow you as the reader to color in the whole picture. His speech in writing reflects his musical intellect; both are sharp, but soft and integral. Not a word is wasted or a note overplayed by Mr Marsalis. He reminds jazz aficionados as well as novices that:

"Jazz calls us to engage with our national identity. It gives expression to the beauty of democracy and of personal freedom and of choosing to embrace the humanity of all types of people. It really is what American democracy is supposed to be" pg104

Photo Credit:

Sources:Marsalis, Wynton, and Geoffrey C. Ward. Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life. New York: Random House, 2009. Print.

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