JAZZ IN THE BITTERSWEET BLUES OF LIFE
By Wynton Marsalis and Carl Vigeland
Da Capo Press -- 249pp -- $25
Wynton Marsalis, at 39, has built a career that surpasses that of any other living jazz musician. He has won a whole shelf of Grammy awards for jazz and classical performances. He has distinguished himself as a composer, winning the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in music for his composition Blood on the Fields. He has charted a new course for jazz, arguing forcefully for greater attention to the music's history. And as artistic director for the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, he revisits that history by resurrecting and performing some of the greatest works of his jazz forebears. He has nurtured many younger jazz artists, and he stands out as a jazz educator.
You won't learn much about any of that in Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life, which Marsalis co-authored with writer Carl Vigeland. Admittedly, the book is not intended to tell Marsalis' whole life story. It is a chronicle of his life on the road during the 1990s, when he led a now-disbanded septet that some critics considered to be among the best working jazz groups in recent years. Sadly, however, the book isn't very revealing about the years on the road, either. What you get is a series of impressionistic monologues, alternately in Marsalis' voice and in Vigeland's, that don't say much of anything. Here's an example from Vigeland: "I have heard that horn all across the United States...felt the release of air in its valves as if they were the pumping chambers of the human heart and the sound...the breeze blown to every corner of the country." And one from Marsalis: "Miles Davis once asked me what I thought music sounded like on Mars. I said I didn't think about that kind of dumb [expletive]. He said, `Oh."'
That's one of the few passages where Marsalis talks about music, but he never gives away much about the creative process. "Since I really began shedding on my horn, I've always played it every day...I always tell young people...be sure to practice at least a little every day..." Good advice, but anyone who has ever taken a music lesson has already heard it. One might guess that Marsalis' late-night conversations on the road would include stories about the jazz greats he reveres, but there's hardly a word about them here either. This is Marsalis, Marsalis, Marsalis.
The one thing the book does reflect is Marsalis' unwillingness to reveal anything deeply personal about himself. He talks and talks but says little, and he uses more nicknames than George W. Bush. In the end, his observations provide little insight into Marsalis the musician or Marsalis the man. It's the same reserve that is sometimes evident in his music--music that can be flawless, beautiful, and yet somehow remote.
"The overwhelming joy of having lovers, and critics, and compositions, of having fans, students, die-hard friends, personal dramas, not to mention a great band of musicians, to discover the world with, cannot be expressed with words," Marsalis says. If this book is the measure of that, he's right.
By Paul Raeburn