Jazz has periodically seen the rise of so-called “young lions.” The phrase was first used in 1961 as the title of a Lee Morgan LP put out by Vee-Jay Records, a black-owned company, with cover art that sports a photo of four lions lounging on a stone ledge. Then, in 1983, Elektra Records released an LP that was also titled The Young Lions, featuring Wynton Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin and a number of other young musicians who were focused on reclaiming the bebop tradition.
Now, in late November, as Marsalis celebrated his sixtieth birthday with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at the Rose Theater, his baritone saxophone player Paul Nedzela (as the New York Times reported) called out during a rehearsal, “It’s the Young Lions!” — referring to four trumpeters that Marsalis recruited to play for an evening of music that he called a “birthday present to myself.” At the actual concert, billed as “Wynton At 60,” Summer Camargo, a junior at Julliard, lit into the opening stanzas of Freddie Hubbard’s “Windjammer” with the ferocity of a driver at the Daytona 500 stomping the gas pedal in the final lap. She and her colleagues — Tatum Greenblatt, Giveton Gelin and Anthony Hervey — finished with a blazing joint chorus that brought the house down.
It was a fitting tribute to Marsalis. His detractors, of whom there are more than a few, are wont to depict the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra as a kind of glorified Preservation Hall Jazz Band, wallowing in a sterile nostalgia for a lost golden age. Visiting Lincoln Center on successive nights, first to listen to the orchestra itself, then to the young trumpeter Riley Mulherkar with his septet at Dizzy’s Club, offered a potent reminder that there is a lot more to it than that.
As Marsalis’s own remarks during the breaks between songs made abundantly clear, he is a man on a mission. That mission is to draw upon the past to break new ground in the present. In many ways, he is bringing forward the legacy of his father, Ellis Marsalis: a New Orleans patriarch, a renowned jazz educator and a gifted pianist who collaborated with his son on the third volume of the wonderful album Standard Time.
Wynton’s innovation was best captured by the Los Angeles Philharmonic trumpeter Boyde Hood after he performed Marsalis’s jazz-gospel suite All Rise: “Wynton has managed to take all these disparate elements, from Stravinsky to gospel, all this varied musical language that we have as composers and performers, and made it work as a single piece of music, without being self-conscious about it. I find that really extraordinary.”
The advantage that Marsalis had, of course, was not simply his home turf, but also that he underwent a stringent classical training, playing the Haydn trumpet concerto with the New Orleans Philharmonic at the age of fourteen before going on to study at Juilliard. There was never any clowning around. The cover of his first classical album for Sony in 1983 displays Marsalis as the very picture of conservative sobriety — wearing spectacles and a tuxedo, leaning forward intently with a silver E-flat trumpet in his right hand and a silver piccolo trumpet in his left. Touring with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, a venerable proving ground for young musicians, prompted him to focus on jazz. In 1983, he declared, “I am the result of a great tradition and I’m trying to live up the standards of that tradition.”
He has. As the sheer variety of music that the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra plays testifies, Marsalis has not allowed tradition to become self-serving traditionalism. Instead, it’s an inspiration. He pays homage to it. The night I attended, the Orchestra played the gospel song “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” movingly sung by trombonist Chris Crenshaw. Marsalis dedicated their performance to the trombonist Slide Hampton, who had just died, and he was careful to note the influence of several original Ellington Orchestra members on the current band. But tunes like “BeesBeesBees,” “The Caboose” and “Nightingale” showed off the versatility of the orchestra to good effect. Marsalis observed during one break that the quality of the band’s players (the permanent members of the trumpet section, including Ryan Kisor and Marcus Printup, are brilliant soloists in their own right) meant that he could take it in pretty much any direction. And Marsalis, incidentally, hasn’t lost a step: he opened the concert with a sizzling solo that cut through to the back of the hall.
Just how profound and indelible his influence has been came home to me when I heard Riley Mulherkar and his smaller group brilliantly play Marsalis tunes the next evening. Mulherkar recounted that he had grown up listening to Marsalis’s songs, and that meeting him in Seattle as a teenager had been a pivotal moment for him. “Practice slow,” Mulherkar said was the advice that Marsalis gave him. Right now, though, Marsalis remains in overdrive, while his disciples roar ahead.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2022 World edition.