Amid rancorous critical infighting over free jazz in the early ’60s, A.B. Spellman lobbed the following rhetorical hand grenade: “What is anti-jazz, and who are these ofays who’ve appointed themselves guardians of last year’s blues?” Along with free’s legitimacy as a new form of jazz, at issue was the contention by advocates like Spellman and Amiri Baraka that its screaming saxophones gave vent to growing black impatience with the goal of racial integration as an end in itself. Spellman, the author of Four Lives in the Bebop Business, a polemical oral history that’s become a standard college text, was really asking what gave his white colleagues—onlookers to both the struggle for black liberation and the actual making of jazz—the right to decide. The taunt lingers four decades later, only today’s self-appointed tradition-keepers aren’t ofays. And in lieu of a regular byline, today’s most influential jazz critic—the one whose word most shapes public perception of jazz—boasts a trumpet, his own stage at Lincoln Center, and the ear of Ken Burns.
Criticism means calling into crisis—that’s been Wynton Marsalis’s modus operandi since the early ’80s, when he first decreed that the avant-garde’s excesses and fusion’s commercial accommodations were leading jazz astray. Plenty of veteran musicians shared that opinion and had been saying so for years. But their grumbling could be dismissed as an older generation’s opposition to change, and it was quoted mostly in the jazz press, then as now a short step away from speaking in private. What granted Marsalis a megaphone was the shock value of hearing the complaint from a brash newcomer. He’s held onto it all these years because he’s talented, personable, and articulate—but also because working the media is no different from working a crowd, and like the Right since Reagan (by pointing out which I don’t mean to tar him with the same brush), Marsalis goes on hammering home his talking points with an outsider’s righteous indignation despite having long ago acquired an insider’s power. He and his confidant Stanley Crouch may be disciples of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray in matters of music and race, but their pronouncements on both are closer in tenor to vintage Baraka and Spellman—the language of black exceptionalism, this time in support of an essentially conservative aesthetic.
By virtue of being so closely identified with jazz—which most kids think of as a safe haven for burned-out swells in suits and ties—the one area in which Marsalis truly remains an outsider is contemporary popular culture. On From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, he branches into social criticism. That’s the hype, anyway, though in proselytizing for jazz, when has he ever held back from taking swipes at the infantization of pop and black self-stereotyping in the name of keeping it real? He’s just more specific here, making his debut as a lyricist and rapper (the latter thankfully only on the closing “Where Y’All At?”) to call out “thug-life coons” and their white “safari seekers,” “raggly public schools,” rampant materialism, the burgeoning prison industry, ’60s radicals who “started like Eldridge and [wound up] like Beaver,” and hip-hop’s “modern-day minstrels and their songless tunes.”
I side with Marsalis on most of these issues, and he occasionally evinces a knack for wordplay. But the clunkers far outnumber the stinging rhymes and alliterations, and Penitentiary‘s worst offense may be wasting the considerable talents of Jennifer Sanon, a young discovery of Marsalis’s whose dreamy, behind-the-beat, Peggy Lee-like phrasing deserves lyrics more singable than “I see women dragging/Souls of their womb vanquished dreams/Never to be” and “All you con men can hang up your schemes/Pimps and hustlers/Put up the Vaseline.” The latter is from “Love and Broken Hearts,” a ballad from the point of view of a woman insistent on being courted and cherished, not just played—in this context, a conceit that might have been better served if Marsalis had interrupted his haranguing and let Sanon show her stuff on “Let’s Fall in Love” or another of the great standards she was born to sing. She’s simply miscast on the title track, a sodden chant not even Abbey Lincoln or the Sun Ra Arkestra’s June Tyson could’ve raised.
Instrumentally, though, it moves along nicely as it segues from 6/4 to 6/8 for solos by Marsalis, saxophonist Walter Blanding, and pianist Don Nimmer, with Carlos Henriquez’s nimble bass ostinato supplying the common thread. Sanon aside, the saving grace throughout is Marsalis’s gift for melody and orchestration. “Doin’ (Y)our Thing” is instrumental from start to finish, its corker of a trumpet solo reminding us what sparks Marsalis can light when he’s not out to make a point.
The whole thing becomes embarrassing only on “Where Y’All At?,” when ego escalates into hubris and Marsalis tries to beat “big baggy-pants wearers with the long white T-shirts” at their own game. “They’re rapping straight in the time,” he criticizes the hip-hop his teenage sons listen to in a recent JazzTimes Q&A. “I told them, ‘I’m gonna come up with a rap that goes all across the time.’ ” When I interviewed him years ago, around the time he was still being accused of copying ’60s Miles, Marsalis replied it might sound that way to someone who didn’t listen to much jazz, the same way all string quartets might sound alike to someone who hadn’t heard very many. I take it from “Where Y’All At?” that Marsalis hasn’t heard much recent hip-hop. Neither have I, but I’ve heard enough to know it’s become a producer’s medium—the polyrhythmic tension comes from the way the rhymes move in and out of the samples and the abrasive string arrangements. A New Orleans shuffle and a chorus refrain worthy of a junior high school assembly sing-along prove to be no substitutes, Marsalis comes off sounding like a cranky grandpa, and the entire exercise reeks of misguided noblesse oblige—an attempt to “improve” hip-hop by means of better musicianship and high-minded ideals.
Even before reading Marsalis say in JazzTimes that “Supercapitalism” was inspired by ATM fees and hidden charges on his credit card bill, I found myself thinking someone featured in Movado watches was on shaky ground dissing anybody else for wanting to live large. But Penitentiary‘s drawback as social criticism isn’t just its hypocrisy in omitting Marsalis’s own penthouse from the alliterative equation. This is a protest album staunch Republicans could get behind, inasmuch as it preaches the gospel of personal responsibility as the only foolproof way out of poverty and degradation: “Don’t turn up your nose/It’s us that’s stinkin’,” Marsalis rants on “Where Y’All At?,” “And it all can’t be blamed on the party of Lincoln.” “No Vietcong ever called me nigger,” Muhammad Ali famously proclaimed while resisting military induction in the ’60s. Marsalis’s message to black youth often seems to be “No white man ever called me nigga,” and while it’s a message not without merit, it’s simply not enough. I’m not saying go back to blaming Whitey, but don’t let him wiggle off the hook, either.