Why jazz? Wynton Marsalis’ answer is simple: “Because it’s the national art.” For him, jazz is perfectly suited by its history and its structure to be morphed and meatphorized as an expression of the American identity. His words and his music convey this conviction, a conviction that is very much a part of his own identity. One need only listen to him for a few minutes to be completely won over by the passionate poeticism and swinging tones that infiltrate even his speaking. He is, as University President Drew Faust said when she was introducing him, “an infectious and energetic advocate for the arts.” And so it was on April 29. “Music as Metaphor,” first of six scheduled performance lectures to be given by Marsalis over the next two years, moved a packed Sanders Theatre by its end to a standing ovation—both for his skill as an orator and a musician as well as for the art form itself, renewed in its relevance in the minds of the audience. His message was as powerful as his delivery impeccable: “This music [jazz] cost us a lot. Not knowing what it means costs more.”
The story of his ties with Harvard began with Faust and Marsalis’ acquaintance when he received his honorary doctorate in music in 2009. “President Faust had been talking to Wynton Marsalis and he wanted to do something with Harvard,” recalled Ingrid Monson, Quincy Jones Professor of African-American Music. “She asked him to write a proposal, and asked me what I thought of it. I thought it was a wonderful idea. That was a while back.” After much preparation, Marsalis’ thoughts began to take form, and the final product was a performance-lecture series that will span the course of two years. “One of them will be on New Orleans, another on the blues, and one will be about big band and jazz composition,” said Monson. The lecture in the fall will be about jazz and dance.
While the variety of topics covered and the series’ capitalization on Marsalis’ specialty is reminiscent of Harvard’s famed Norton lecture series, the University has added an element apart from the performance aspect to his involvement that will set it apart from what has come before them. “It follows in the tradition of Norton lecture series given throughout the past by Igor Stavinsky, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein,” wrote Associate Provost for Art and Culture Lori Gross in an email. “That said, Marsalis’ engagement with the University will be something very different from the Norton series. Apart from lectures, Marsalis will be interacting with students and the community at a very grassroots level.” During his visit on the weekend of April 29, Marsalis hosted a master class for high school and Harvard musicians at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.
These students who had the opportunity to interact with Marsalis during his visit were in the company of an extremely accomplished musician, and many others will learn from him in the next two years. Indeed, Marsalis can really play. “He can do anything on the instrument. He is possibly the most skilled person you could imagine on an instrument,” said Monson. “He is incredibly virtuosic.” During “Music and Metaphor” he employed extended techniques on the trumpet ranging from growling, microtones, and several different vibrato effects. Ever the versatile musician, he showed off his vocal talents, singing a smooth and lethargically mournful rendition of blues standard “Baby, Will You Please Come Home.” Even his whistling was clear, flourished, and completely in tune.
As for his lecture, Marsalis flexed his interpretive muscle, using jazz as a metaphor for the American identity. “Every metaphor has its insights that it offers for interpretation,” said Monson. Marsalis touched on the aspects of jazz—its interactivity between a soloist and the ensemble, it’s history embedded in roots of protest and change, the collaborative birth of the art form—and related them in a way that magnified its utility as a tool to understand who the American is. “Americans are unpredictable; American musicians syncopate,” said Marsalis.
He spoke of the oppression of the people in America’s history, and the way the people had to struggle. For Marsalis, the birth of the blues was a victory that set Americans on their way. “The only win is the one that satisfies a deep truth,” Marsalis said. As a teacher and a musician, Marsalis makes it his mission to spread the good news. Over the next two years, with Marsalis’ help, the Harvard community will delve into its repercussions still visible in what America is today.
—Staff writer Susie Y. Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Harvard Today: January 28, 2014