Tag Archive for Wynton Marsalis

Jazz Counter-Diplomacy: Wynton Marsalis Evades Venezuela

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (Photo: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (Photo: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

It is hardly a secret that the U.S., with the cooperation of mainstream American media, has been seeking to effectively overthrow the Venezuelan government at least since the late Marxist anti-imperialist Hugo Chávez (democratically) rose to power in 1999. Who can forget Chávez’s 2006 speech at the U.N. General Assembly when he called Bush II “the devil” who thinks he is “the owner of the world.” Pretty much nailed that one, it must be said, no?

Well, things are no different now that Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, is the president of the oil-rich but economically impaired, in a year of plummeting oil prices, Bolivarian Republic. As Eva Golinger, author of The Chavez Code: Cracking U.S. Intervention in Venezuela, wrote in Counterpunch in February, 2015, “There is a coup underway in Venezuela. The pieces are all falling into place like a bad CIA movie.” She traces the U.S. media’s toeing of the State Department line (“The New York Times has a shameful history when it comes to Venezuela”) and goes on to note, 

This year President Obama approved a special State Department fund of $5 million to support anti-government groups in Venezuela. Additionally, the congressionally-funded National Endowment for Democracy is financing Venezuelan opposition groups with over $1.2 million and aiding efforts to undermine Maduro’s government. There is little doubt that millions more for regime change in Venezuela are being funneled through other channels that are not subject to public scrutiny.

Things heated up further in March, 2015, when, as noted in Al Jazeera America,

U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order last week saying the Latin American nation poses an “extraordinary threat to the national security” of the United States. He imposed sanctions on seven Venezuelan military and intelligence officials, accusing them of human rights violations, and extended the sanctions to members of their families. The individuals are barred from doing business with American citizens, traveling to the United States and could have their assets in the U.S. seized.

An extraordinary threat to national security, eh? Is Venezuela earmarking $5 million to support Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant‘s re-election bid for the Seattle City Council? Perhaps that explains Wynton Marsalis’ last-minute scratch of Caracas from Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 12-city South American tour, as reported by the AP on 3-12-15, in a widely distributed article whose gushing lede reads, “American jazz legend [italics added] Wynton Marsalis has canceled concerts in Venezuela at a time of rising tensions between the two nations.”

The AP story continues:

The New York-based trumpeter and composer was scheduled to perform his Swing Symphony on Friday alongside the Simon Bolivar Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, the first of three concerts planned in Caracas.

Marsalis and other musicians from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra also were supposed to lead a series of workshops with Venezuela’s world-famous El Sistema network of youth ensembles. Both that organization and the orchestra are supported by Venezuela’s socialist government.

Further on, Greg Scholl, executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, is quoted to puzzling effect:

Jazz “is a powerful tool to bring people across cultures and geographies together,” he said in an interview from New York. “But it’s important that it’s performed in conditions when the music can be heard. Intentionally or otherwise, if our performances there and the work that we were doing with them there was to become politicized those conditions no longer exist. And that could be harmful to both of our institutions.”

Ignoring the routine jazzocratic froth of “bringing people together,” exactly what “conditions” would cause the music not to be heard? One can only hope Marsalis will address the issue on his blog and clear the diplomatic fog. Meanwhile, the astute Norman Lebrecht of the classical music blog Slipped Disc interprets the AP story thus:

This may be a precedent.

Jazz king Wynton Marsalis has pulled his musicians out of this weekend’s concerts with the Simon Bolivar orchestra in Caracas, citing political differences.

[. . .]

Last week, Venezuelan president Maduro imposed new visa restraints on US citizens. Although Marsalis and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra members were provided with visas, they decided that worsening political and economic conditions in Caracas were not conducive to music.

Or perhaps, as John Halle, director of studies in music theory and practice at Bard College Conservatory, put it on Facebook when he shared the Lebrecht post: “Joining a long history of jazz musicians carrying water for the State Department.” Or getting a bit part in a bad CIA movie.

 

 

Pulitzer Prize in Music: Jazz Notes

pulitzer-prizeA Pulitzer Prize, even outside of its traditional journalism purview, is a weighty honor indeed, conferring incalculable credibility, though, at $10,000, it doesn’t have much pecuniary punch. The Pulitzers are not federal policy, of course, but with respect to the music prizes they can be considered a form of American institutional cultural policy (in this case administered by Columbia University).

Of particular note from an improvocracy perspective, Wadada Leo Smith’s monumental Ten Freedom Summers was nominated for a 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music, but lost out, somewhat ironically, to a 30-year-old White woman, Caroline Shaw, who, according to The New York Times, did not consider herself a composer, but simply a musician. I haven’t heard Partita for Eight Voices, and I’m sure it’s terrific, but it’s not Ten Freedom Summers. At any rate, the Pulitzer Prize in Music goes back to 1943, but jazz-based Pulitzers are few and far between. There was a brouhaha in 1965 when the Pulitzer jury wanted to honor Duke Ellington, then 67, but the board rejected the notion, allowing Ellington to add to his collection of quotable witticisms with, “Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young.” In 1999, the Pulitzer committee awarded Ellington, who died in 1974, a special citation, commemorating the centennial of his birth. These posthumous jazz citations, in contrast to Jazz Masters, which awards living artists only, are a periodic Pulitzer peculiarity. Scott Joplin was so honored way back in 1976; George Gershwin in 1998; Thelonious Monk in 2006; and John Coltrane in 2007.

Gunther Schuller, who lives in both the classical and jazz worlds (and who is a Jazz Master), won in 1994 for a classical composition, “Reminiscences and Reflections,” but the first out-and-out jazz Pulitzer was awarded to Wynton Marsalis (also a Jazz Master, along with his entire family), who is one-third of what is known in Ka-ching as the Axis of Reaction, for a three-hour oratorio, Blood on the Fields. Nat Hentoff, who reported Ellington’s fury in 1965, thereby immortalizing the “too young” quote, writing of “Blood on the Fields” in 2004, said, “With respect to Wynton—and I mean that because he keeps growing not only as a musician but also as an educator and composer—that composition does not measure up to Ellington, Mingus and Monk.”

Nevertheless, the Marsalis award signaled a revision in the Pulitzer music rules, allowing more leeway for jazz and the citing of recorded works in addition to compositions. This resulted not only in the aforementioned special citations, but, in 2007, Ornette Coleman won the music prize for “Sound Grammar“—not a composition, a record, which is the first live jazz recording to win the award, notes the Pulitzer site, which goes on to point out that the prize is for “distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year,” though Sound Grammar was recorded in Germany. Whatever. While singling out this particular quartet record for a Pulitzer may seem a bit bizarre in the context of Pulitzer music history, at least Coleman was alive to receive it.

Between Coleman’s win and Leo Smith’s nomination, nothing happened on the jazz front but for Don Byron’s “Seven Etudes for Solo Piano,” a finalist in 2009. Byron, who is best known as a reed player, particularly a clarinetist, wears a variety of musical hats spanning everything from the avant-garde to the traditional. His Pulitzer-nominated work would not be categorized as jazz, of course, but the composer notes, “At this point in musical history, post-Stravinsky/Schoenberg, playing complicated rhythms correctly enough to create a groove may be the new frontier for the modern classical player.” Not only was Byron a Pulitzer finalist in 2009, he created quite a groove that year, also winning a Rome Prize for music composition.

 

 

Anthony Braxton: Vibrational Jazz Master

Braxton NEA speechAs noted in the epilogue of Ka-ching, it was indeed quite a surprise when the ultra-avant-gardist Anthony Braxton was named a 2014 Jazz Master. Braxton is only the fifth name to be added to what I consider the Jazz Masters free-jazz pantheon—“free jazz” continuing to stand in for all iterations of the avant-garde, and the four earlier members of this select group being Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Muhal Richard Abrams. Braxton, only 68, is a professor of music at Wesleyan University and one of the most rigorously, intellectually out-there musicians on the scene, and that would be any scene, since in one way or another he’s on every scene. The quote that opens his bio on the Tri-Centric Foundation site (linked above) is interesting, to say the least: “I know I’m an African-American, and I know I play the saxophone, but I’m not a jazz musician. I’m not a classical musician, either. My music is like my life: It’s in between these areas.”

How does someone who’s not a (mainstream) jazz musician become a Jazz Master? Via a very expansive notion of what jazz is, i.e., a notion several light years beyond jazz as defined by the Axis of Reaction (Crouch, Murray, and Marsalis). At the 2014 NEA Jazz Masters ceremony, held at the potentially anti-avant-garde enemy territory of the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center on January 14, Braxton offered an acceptance speech, which has been most helpfully transcribed, in which, right off the bat, he noted his “outsider” status. “Boy, was I surprised,” he said of his Jazz Masters acknowledgment. “I mean, for the last fifty years, my work has been viewed as not jazz, not black, not contemporary classical music, [and] my work doesn’t swing.” And yet he’s a Jazz Master, and precisely the same can be said of Cecil Taylor, who was named a Jazz Master way back in 1990. Some particularly relevant remarks from Braxton’s speech:

The award of the Jazz Masters is a profound honor. It’s understood that the men and women of the Jazz Masters group— their work has provided a vibrational factor that has helped define present-day reality. What an honor to go from the spy who’s out in the cold to a guy whose work can be brought back into the family, whose work can be brought back into the community.

Wow, this was a surprise. And I’d like to hope that inside of this surprise is a reconcilement. We need to have a reconcilement, not just in the music but in our country. We find ourselves in this time period as a country in a complex kind of way.

In his acceptance speech, Braxton, quite understandably, didn’t go into detail on the “complexities” of what ails America, nor did he raise the issue of race, but I think his comments speak directly to the sometimes subversive federal policy implications of Jazz Masters and the NEA, even if those implications ultimately carry little or no weight in “present-day reality.”