A Review of Wynton Marsalis’s Moving to Higher Ground

The artistic and creative personae of a performer or composer is a manifestation of his entire life experience, everything that he has listened to, and his basic constitution, and his personality. Whereas in the hard or social sciences we care little about the person who discovers a truth, because it is “out there,” with the arts, we wish to know about the painter or composer, because it comes from “inside,” it is of “them.”  Thus, in his book, Moving to Higher Ground, by the great jazz trumpet player, Wynton Marsalis, there are stories about his family, upbringing, educational and listening experiences, conversations with other musicians, artists and intellectuals. The style is simple and down-home, while at the same time filled with elevated truths about music and its relationship to life in all its complexities, from the ordinary to the sacred.  And it is all about — what else — jazz.

Wynton grew up in and around New Orleans and began playing the trumpet at an early age. His father was a well-known jazz piano player. Wynton grew up in a home of love and discipline. His daddy took him to play with a well-known old timers’ jazz band early on. It taught him that jazz is about tapping into your own creativity, that it is a group activity, that it is about bringing out the individual nature of your instrument and your soul, as the music that you create is an admixture of both. You have to say something, and whatever it is, it should be authentic. But you must have a vocabulary to speak or play, and where does the jazz performer or composer find this? It is in all that music that has gone through his ears and into his brain. At twelve, Wynton began listening to many great jazz trumpet players, including Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, and Freddie Hubbard, not to mention the great saxophonist, John Coltrane (known as ‘Trane. Jazz greats are often called by their first name or a moniker. Jazz is a democratic art form, and even the greatest are “of us”). Coltrane played cascades of notes, and is known for this. But it was the sweet slow moments in Trane’s and others’ music that made Wynton’s breath stop. He learned to really listen, to the jazz, and to himself.

Jazz is about “the importance of expressing the core of your unique feelings and the willingness to work things out with others.” Wynton is smart and well versed. He mentions the masterpieces of Bach, Beethoven, and Matisse, and that these must remain, and in fact are, alive in our culture. And that they are masterpieces and the result of an individual’s creativity, dedication, and hard work. For Wynton, jazz raises the blues, essentially a folk music, to a higher, and therefore a truly artistic, level. This is because jazz musicians, whether Armstrong, Ellington, or Davis, were virtuosos of their instruments and compositional craft and art.

Time is the lifeblood of jazz. Being in it, to swing, is the goal. To know when to be in or out, loud or soft, or how to respond to what just happened, is all part of the experience. Jazz is also about the process of giving birth to an idea, and then seeing how that idea will develop, in real time, as improvisation. It is done on the fly and you can’t take anything back.

There are teaching chapters on the blues and jazz, curiously in reverse order to what I just wrote. Marsalis gives a good, if somewhat simplistic, explication of both. Remember, music of any sort, is a language, and it is hard to teach even the basics of a language in such short order. But it will do.

Soon after arriving in New York City at a young age, Marsalis met Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray, intellectuals who engaged with jazz as part of the larger culture of Western civilization. In The Omni-American, Murray writes that Americans are all of one culture formed of black and white, and that our similarities are much greater than our differences. And he, and now Wynton, argue that all that matters is what you have to say and whether you have the equipment to say. Which is to say jazz, like any other art form, is hierarchical based on the artistic capabilities of the individual. Jazz might be about the response of the group to each other, but each individual member is a virtuoso. Both men note that, from the beginning jazz, was a place of integration, where quality and integrity were all that mattered. “Social order on the bandstand is determined by ability.”

The stories are about how musicians interact, what someone said about someone else, how to think about a particular tune. Musicians can often be hard on each other, or nice. You choose your way depending on who you are and with whom you are communicating. Old-style conductors were tyrannical, current ones not so much. String quartet members can be brutal with each other, or gentle. But either approach is useful because the music is so important; after all, it is the language of the spirit and soul. It is what makes us most human.

Much of the history of jazz is on disc, as it began at the same time as the emergence of recordings. These documents often take the place of musical scores, and they are what young musicians listen to, to learn certain compositions or how a particular player plays them. They are, to a large extent, the history of the medium. But like any music, it really must be heard live to have the fullest experience. As Charles Mingus said: “If you weren’t there — you missed it!”

Marsalis devotes an entire chapter to the great masters of jazz and their recordings, because jazz is based more on those recordings and stories than it is on written scores.  Each performer is accompanied with a list of their best recordings, according to Wynton. He is opinionated — for example, he takes great umbrage at Miles’ Bitches Brew and anything of his thereafter — but, given his stature and comprehensive view of the landscape, he is entitled. Generally, his comments, mostly anecdotal, provide insights into the nature and character of each man or woman, and the nature of their personal style.

At the book’s end, Wynton weighs into the connections of jazz, creativity, the arts in general, and their place in society. Like in many improvisations, there is some dross, but there are also nuggets of wisdom. He decries our impoverished cultural agenda, which includes popular music of most forms, the sell-out of the arts for fame and fortune, our moral corruption, “with wild, out-of-control young people”.

Finally, he makes the case for the need for all the arts and creativity to be raised up in America, because 

[T]hey are…. an expression of feeling and a supreme expression of our humanity. We have an artistic imperative to understand and reengage creativity and innovation, not merely as tools for economic growth but as tools for democracy and accomplished scholarship… The best jazz has always been the embodiment of integrity and conviction.

It is the individual speaking her innermost feelings. In the words of the famous jazz composition by Norman Mapp, “jazz ain’t nothing but soul,” and in our world now, we need that individual voice and soul more than ever.

This review originally appeared in the American Institute for Economic Research. For more information, please visit https://www.aier.org/article/a-review-of-wynton-marsaliss-moving-to-higher-ground/.