Wynton Marsalis: A kind of homecoming

You can take the boy out of New Orleans, but you can't take New Orleans out of the boy.

The last time I saw Wynton Marsalis perform was in 2009, when he brought his Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra to the Barbican. I wrote about the show on this blog: "It's a wonderful band, and they come off like a glassily perfect facsimile of Duke Ellington's Strayhorn-era ensemble. Which, of course, is part of the problem, since Marsalis's life-project is to preserve the 'classical music' of America in the aspic of his own genius."

Marsalis has been back in London this week, but this time for a series of club dates with a quintet (at Ronnie Scott's in Soho). The trumpeter's curatorial instincs are intact - at the show I saw on Thursday, he described the first number the band played as a tour through "the different stages of jazz" - but the transition from concert hall to sweaty club seems to liberate him somehow; in this setting, his demeanour (and his playing) is less professorial, more relaxed.

It helps that he's got such a compelling young group alongside him: Walter Blanding on tenor and alto sax; Carlos Henriquez on bass, drummer Ali Jackson; and - the pick of a very talented bunch - pianist Jonathan Batiste. They began in sinuous post-bop mode, bringing to mind nothing so much as Miles Davis's mid-1960s quintet, with Batiste playing spiky, Hancockish lines, before the (unidentified) tune morphed into driving hard bop - a reminder that Marsalis's first appearance at this venue, 30 years ago, had been with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Batiste is just as adept at wearing the guise of, say, Horace Silver as is he is at channelling Herbie Hancock, while Blanding did a passable impersonation of Hank Mobley.

There was a limpid ballad, in which Marsalis played a solo of startling precision, before the band was joined onstage by the veteran clarinettist Bob Wilber. That was the cue for Marsalis to return to the music of his hometown, New Orleans, which, you sense, is where he is happiest.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis