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26 July 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 4:08am

A night at the museum

Wynton Marsalis pays homage to the history of jazz

By Jonathan Derbyshire

On Friday night, I saw Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra at the Barbican. 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” America in the aspic of his own genius. Among his collaborators in this project are the critic Stanley Crouch, whose journey from defender of the avant-garde to heritage curator was traced in a 1995 New Yorker profile reproduced here, and Ken Burns, in whose landmark PBS documentary, Jazz: A Film (clip below), Marsalis plays a prominent role.

Crouch is a particularly interesting figure. The last time I came across his work was when I re-read recently Saul Bellow’s 1970 novel Mr Sammler’s Planet in the 1995 Penguin paperback edition, to which Crouch contributed an introduction. That introduction is, among other things, a record of Crouch’s own long journey to a sort of cultural conservatism. Crouch treats Bellow’s novel, which places the eponymous Mr Sammler, a Holocaust survivor, in the “spiritual jungle” of late-60s New York, as the work of a diagnostician, a historian of the present:

We are now mightily perplexed by the vulgarity and the brutal appetites of our culture, which Mr Sammler sees so, so clearly, startled from page to page and in passage after passage of Saul Bellow’s 1970 novel. The terrible children of our day, the worst of our politicians, and the rampant sleaze that slides up and down the classes, across the races and religions, from the cynical students to the unrepentingly jaded and old, can be traced back to the elements that are so alarming to the protagonist of Mr Sammler’s Planet.

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You get a whiff of this almost apocalyptic vision in some of Marsalis’s pronouncements – for instance, in his recent book Moving to Higher Ground, in which he wrote that

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the average black person has no idea and no understanding of the rich legacy of African-American arts and doesn’t know that there is something to know. Common knowledge has led us right back to the minstrel show by way of rap music and corrupted church music of people hip-humping while singing about Jesus.

Marsalis evidently sees himself as a kind of spiritual physician, administering to the “souls of black folk“.