Past master

Music - Sholto Byrnes on why re-creation is as important as innovation in jazz

Wynton's back in town, or at least he will be soon, and the crowds will surely flock to see Marsalis and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra toot their way through the music of Art Blakey and Benny Goodman. The reaction will probably be positive, for whatever else Wynton Marsalis may be - neo-conservative misogynist, unforgiving dictator of style - he is the world's most recognised jazz musician, and a magnificent trumpet player.

There will be one, maybe unwritten, reservation, however, among all this praise: Marsalis is revisiting the past, something more decried in jazz than in any other art form. Just a couple of months ago, the alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, like Marsalis an alumnus of the Blakey Jazz Messengers school, appeared in London to promote his latest album, Kind of New, on which he performs all the tracks from Miles Davis's classic Kind of Blue plus a couple of his own compositions in a similar vein. The headline on one review read: "A kind of new project but So What?", the last two words a reference to the opening number on Davis's original album. The headline did not really reflect the piece, but the implicit impression was that there's no value in looking back - that the jazz mantra should always be: "innovation, innovation, innovation".

When I interviewed him in New York recently, Wynton Marsalis had one very simple response to this criticism, asking: "How many people heard Charlie Parker?" A tiny percentage of those who knew Bird through his recordings, is the answer, and they would have listened to only scratchy recordings at that. To some, however, these are the sacred texts (what a fuss there was when Parker's solos were cleaned up and grafted on to newly recorded rhythm sections for Clint Eastwood's film of the saxophonist's life) and any attempt to re-create them is blasphemy. These people argue that artists like Marsalis and Harrison are trying to put jazz in a museum by reviving old arrangements instead of breaking new ground. But if there is no museum to visit, how can the glories of the past inform the next generation and allow the canon to move forward? Recordings of the originals are not enough: live performances connect in a way vinyl and disc cannot. For anyone under 30, Marsalis's comment about Parker applies just as well to Miles Davis.

This reluctance to celebrate the history of jazz is extraordinary when one looks at other art forms. Imagine a conductor pouring scorn on the London Symphony Orchestra for feasting on Beethoven and Sibelius instead of an unremitting diet of Birtwistle and Boulez. Innovation rightly co-exists with re-creation; but if the innovators have no knowledge of re-creating (or are not capable of doing so), their work may be characterised by the empty statements of the ignorant. If we have Courtney Pine today, it is only because we had John Coltrane yesterday.

Jazz lovers should remember what is available to the new listener today. Pity those whose idea of the music is formed by that purveyor of watered-down, crossover pap, the most inaptly named Jazz FM, shunned even by those elevators with which it is inextricably associated. The alternative is often a brand of jazz that makes no effort to connect with the audience, and which to a novitiate sounds merely cacophonous. Introducing someone to this kind of jazz is akin to presenting a child with a book by Samuel Beckett - bound to put anyone off for life.

This is one of the most curious flaws in the argument of those who dismiss all re-creation projects. They expect jazz to be treated as a major art form, complex and not necessarily obvious, and yet they seem to see no need for education, which is one of the purposes of re-creation. An understanding of Shostakovich is greater when one is already familiar with Mahler, just as, without a prior knowledge of Goya's Disasters of War, Jake and Dinos Chapman's Great Deeds Against the Dead is incomplete. So with jazz.

There may be grounds on which to criticise Wynton Marsalis. But for bringing the music of Blakey and Goodman to those who couldn't catch them in the flesh, he deserves only praise.

Rhythm Is Our Business: Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra are on tour in the UK from 18 January, ending at the Barbican, London EC2 on 30 January

Sholto Byrnes is a staff writer at the Independent and the Independent on Sunday

Next Article