Thursday, March 08, 2007

Citizen Wynton

There is no more cutting insult for Marsalis than the word “minstrelsy.” He applies it repeatedly to hip-hop culture in an interview with Bill Milkowski in the April Jazz Times. With From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, his most explicitly political CD in several years releasing this week, Marsalis is front-and-center in the jazz magazines.

Despite the feature stories, the reviews of Penitentiary, have been mixed (JT) to negative (DB). The lyrics Marsalis wrote, particularly his rap on “Where Y’All At?” have been particularly panned. It is an ironic turn, given the controversial response to Marsalis’ frequent criticisms of hip-hop for its vulgarity and misogyny. When Milkowski compares him to Cosby, Marsalis responds: “I was speaking out about it long before Bill Cosby.”

Marsalis seems to be a sort of Rorschach for jazz fans. They either see everything they like or dislike about the music embodied in the trumpeter. His detractors label him a neo-conservative, for his neo-classical approach to the jazz canon. In a separate JT review of the disc, Geoffrey Himes writes: “Marsalis sounds downright Republican when he attacks taxes, ‘modern-day minstrels’ and womb-vanquished dreams.’” This seems to overstate matters in what is an overall evenhanded review, particularly given the “Supercapitalism” track critiquing consumerist society.

On the subject of rebuilding his hometown, Marsalis is bluntly outspoken, yet more nuanced than one might expect. When given a cue to bash Pres. Bush, does not bite as hard as one might expect, telling Milkowski:

“it doesn’t really make a difference what party is in control. Like I said, ‘It don’t make a difference if it’s the left or the right/They’ll both get together and make your pocket light.’ Who do you want to rob you? It’s not like there’s been a big cry from the Democrats to get New Orleans right.”

Perhaps this political agnosticism is why many critics have not embraced Penitentiary and his jujitsu-like attempt to use the rap which he has scorned for years. Marsalis has never sugar-coated his opinions, so some seem to have a knee-jerk reaction to him. It is hard to argue when he blasts hip-hop for sexually objectifying women and deriding the benefits of education. Those who take issue with his every utterance seem to be harkening back to past arguments over the validity of Miles Davis’ electric years.

There is no question Marsalis is an enormously talented musician. There is also no denying he can be curtly dismissive of the styles he does not embrace, but even his harshest critics will give him credit for his educational outreach efforts. After his meteoric rise and his establishment of J@LC, Marsalis is probably the only jazz musician today for whom one name is sufficient with the general public—Wynton, like Miles. The second act of his career will probably be defined by his efforts on behalf of post-Katrina New Orleans, and may yet bring the inkblots into sharp focus.

(An ironic post to go up a day after giving credit to OutKast’s Idlewild. I can’t speak to their CDs, but the film did not have anymore adult language or sexuality than the average Hollywood release. The violence is actually presented in a moral context and the film concludes with a major character choosing his family obligations over the fast life. Whether Marsalis would enjoy the film, I would not want to guess and be wrong.)