Beauty, Joy, Tradition: Wynton Marsalis’s Live at the House of Tribes

By Daniel Garrett

Wynton Marsalis
Live at the House of Tribes
Producer: Delfeayo Marsalis
Blue Note Records, 2005

“My strength comes from Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Rushing, Hot Lips Page and people on that level, Duke Ellington, Mrs. Breaux, Mark Twain—all kinds of American figures who have been influenced by and contributed to that complex interaction of background and cultures which is specifically American.”
—Ralph Ellison, Living with Music (The Modern Library, NY, 2001; page 286)

“Playing covers four essential bases: the expansion of your musical vocabulary, employing charisma in your sound, locating your personal objective, and embracing swing.”
—Wynton Marsalis, To a Young Jazz Musician (Random House, NY, 2004; page 42)


From the beginning of Live at the House of Tribes, in a performance space on Manhattan’s lower east side, with the performance by Wynton Marsalis and his musical associates of “Green Chimneys,” the quality of the music and of the recording is quite good. The song, written by Thelonious Monk, begins with short energetic and energizing exclamations, and features Kengo Nakamura’s bass accompaniment to Marsalis’s trumpet, which has a nearly warm, flutey sound before becoming more angular and more pristine. The mastery of Wynton Marsalis seems unquestionable to me, someone to whom he first came to attention years ago as a young prodigy: like many I was impressed by his playing of both European classical music and African-American improvisational music. He has since become a principal figure in American culture. “You have to understand and locate your distinct approach to the music, and then infuse your playing with that sentiment. Whatever your approach turns out to be, deliver it with force, power, and conviction. With fun, man. This is playing,” Marsalis advised in his To a Young Jazz Musician: Letters from the Road, written with Selwyn Seyfu Hinds and published by Random House in 2004 (page 44).

The beauty of a swinging sound is apparent in the beat, melody, and rhythm of “Just Friends,” written by J. Klenner and S. Lewis, and featured on Wynton Marsalis’s Live at the House of Tribes. Wynton Marsalis manages to chant, sing, and strut with his horn. In his book To a Young Jazz Musician, Marsalis said, “Well, what makes a thing quintessential is that it reflects the values of the thing it is supposed to be quintessentially about. In the case of an art form, it not only reflects the values, it embodies them, it ennobles them, and it emboldens them. That’s why people study art forms with such intensity, because the artist channels the spirit of the nation. In the case of the swing, no one person created it; democracy is a collective experience. And swing is a democratic and quintessentially American concept” (46). Wynton Marsalis dances with his trumpet.

Wynton Marsalis is a wise man—and the proof of that is that he has been able to express and test his thoughts not simply as discussable logic in conversations and books but in his music and in the programs he has organized as an administrator at New York City’s Lincoln Center. Marsalis has been controversial among some for his affirmation of the African American improvisational music tradition, and for his assertion of both musical and critical authority. (There has been resentment—professional resentment, racial resentment, and male resentment—in some of the response to him: and though resentment may be a lasting as well as destructive force in society, Marsalis’s apparent commitment, integrity, and obvious superiority, have allowed him to prevail.) Sometimes a sense of history can embitter, sometimes it can embolden—and for Marsalis, recognizing the resources of form and personality that came before him, history has been empowering; and he is heir to both Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein as composer, musician, educator, and entertainer. There is often confusion in America between image and identity—and so Marsalis’s image as a conservator of African American improvisational music has given some people the sense that he is indifferent to contemporary issues of creativity and society: the exact opposite is true, as he criticizes the diminution of dedication, logic, morality, and passion in contemporary culture, and points out the foundations of useful activities and values. Wynton Marsalis is a disciplined, hard-working, and talented man, but he has been lucky enough to find intelligent support rather than the ignorant love and undependable charity that too many artists must survive on. What are we to make of art, we who are less beautiful, less intelligent, less passionate—less perfect—than Wynton Marsalis? What are we to do, we who are less certain of our faith and goodness? Believe, feel, think, try—for it is better to be a little good, and to want to be better, than to give up goodness altogether.

Wynton Marsalis’s partners at the House of Tribes, when the performance was recorded in December 2002, were: Wessell Anderson, alto saxophone; Eric Lewis, piano; Kengo Nakamura, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Robert Rucker, tambourine; and Orlando Rodriguez, percussion. On Live at the House of Tribes, Wynton Marsalis performs the song “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” a song by G. DePaul and D. Raye, a song I was familiar with after hearing interpretations by singers I like, including those by Billie Holiday, Cassandra Wilson, and Rachelle Ferrell. Hearing Marsalis’s take on the song, I thought the sound of the piece somewhat sad, but not quite the naked melancholy or the complaint I am inclined to hear in the song. (“You’ve got to use all the nuance and shading of your tone to create sounds that make a ballad come alive,” counseled Marsalis in To a Young Jazz Musician; 52) It is interesting to compare an instrumental version with a sung version, with lyrics: and the lyrics of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” include the lines “You don’t know what love is/ until you’ve learned the meaning of the blues./ Until you’ve loved a love you’ve had to lose,/ you don’t know what love is” and also “You don’t know how hearts burn/ for love that can not live yet never dies./ Until you’ve faced each dawn with sleepless eyes,/ you don’t know what love is.” The song is the assertion and the lament of a bruised lover. Hearing Marsalis’s trumpet-centered version again, I hear more of the solitude and the sadness—how his low notes seem ruminative and near despair, how his high notes seem yearning, how he makes his trumpet sing lines of beauty.

“A pristine technique is a sign of morality. If you don’t want technique, you can’t really be serious. You’d be like the guy who comes to a game out of shape. The other team will just run you to death and exploit you as the weak link. You thought you were rebelling against the team regimen, but now you see that your laziness was really self-crippling stupidity. Don’t start professing a love for the game. The love is what would have made you get your ass in shape,” says Marsalis (62), in a book that is an expression of creativity, empathy, intelligence, rhetoric, and values: To a Young Jazz Musician.

How does one hear jazz if one is not trained to understand instrumental music? One listens—again and again, and pays attention to one’s own pulse. What kind of meaning does instrumental music have? That is up to the listener. In notes published and presented with Marsalis’s House of Tribes recording, Marsalis’s admirer, friend, and sometime collaborator Stanley Crouch writes that “Marsalis has been selling out clubs and concert halls throughout his career as a bandleader. The endless standing ovations, the packed dressing rooms of well-wishers and autograph seekers, the many presents brought by listeners, the small army of students he has inspired or taught or given instruments, and the family dinners to which he has been invited, all add up to encouragements to continue on his chosen task, which is to deliver the artistry and the feeling of jazz wherever and whenever he can.” Crouch recounts the admiring words for Marsalis articulated by Greg Osby, Woody Shaw, and Betty Carter; and Crouch himself calls Marsalis’s collaborators Wess Anderson a “startlingly original master of the alto,” Eric Lewis “another of the fantastic piano players that Marsalis has introduced to the jazz world” and Kengo Nakamura and Joe Farnsworth “two of the most prominent rhythm section players of the day,” and “top-of-the-line professionals with artistic sensibilities. The same can be said of guest percussionist Orlando Rodriguez.” Crouch concludes by saying, “When you put that all together, you get everything a jazz lover needs: swing, melodic invention, harmonic surprise, rhythmic freshness, and a collective sense of improvising impassioned and logical music on the wing, surely the great performance gift that jazz has brought to Western music.”

Marsalis flutters and strolls and plays impressively fast on the uptempo Charlie Parker song “Donna Lee.” Marsalis’s trumpet seems to emit mellow, heated curls of melody and rhythm in Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love,” and, for me, here, that does not mime speech: rather it seems analogous to both emotion and also abstract painting: the expression of perception and feeling, like a sigh or moan, like a circle or a line. At one point, in the song, there is a kind of ululation that seems African. The music is more than one thing—more than one kind of sound, feeling, or thought: and that is the freedom it offers. Marsalis seems the bringer of both fire and light: and it is easy to recall Ralph Ellison’s connection of jazz with myth and ritual. The last song on the recording, Paul Barbarin’s “2nd Line,” is jubilant music: a festive song, it seems a celebratory march.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett is a writer of journalism, fiction, poetry, and drama. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo,The City Sun, Film International, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Option, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. His commentaries on books, films, and music, including as subjects the work of Louis Auchincloss, James Baldwin, Nietzsche, Alain Resnais, Luchino Visconti, Brando, and Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy, Saverio Costanzo’s Private, The Devil Wears Prada, and Frank Sinatra, Streisand, Diana Ross, Al Green, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor, Leela James, Lizz Wright, among others, have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com

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