Viewer's Notes - Wynton Marsalis on '60 Minutes' - The King of Jazz?

     The profile of Wynton Marsalis on 60 Minutes has stirred up a small amount of controversy – or could it be called resentment? – for a few people in the jazz community.  On the jazz programmer’s mailing list that I subscribe to, one person writes, “It's really time for us to say it's a better thing for the artist being featured. It does little or nothing for other jazz artists out here trying to make it to get exposure for their work and opinions; consequently, [a profile like this is] not doing much to help jazz in general. I'm not blaming Wynton, but [the story is] so one-dimensional now, it's silly. It's time the mainstream media recognizes there are more creative, articulate and informative jazz artists out here who can play, teach and deliver a message that brings a fresh perspective to the masses.”
     While I would go along with everything stated above, it’s important to point out that a profile on 60 Minutes, to a great extent, is a profile on a mainstream show begun in 1968 on a mainstream broadcast network that’s been in existence (in one form or another) since 1927 and whose content is produced by journalists who are, well experienced.  Morley Safer, the reporter on the Marsalis story, is almost 80 years old.  There’s going to be a certain cultural reserve coming from any program with that pedigree.  You’re going to get the usual watered down Edward R. Murrow, Person to Person feel to things.  In short, what do you expect?

     It's an easy story to put together.  Pick one of the most prominent jazz artists of the past 30 years who helps run the cultural juggernaut that Jazz at Lincoln Center has become -- with an annual operating budget in excess of $40 million -- in New York, where 60 Minutes is produced.  Hell, the two institutions are literally a 15 minute walk from one another.  And, with the tendency in mainstream journalism -- particularly broadcast journalism -- to have a human interest angle on most stories, Marsalis is your lead and your story.  The other guys in the should feel good about getting some time on screen and some substantial quotes for themselves.

     I would argue, however, that to go through the usual heroification of Marsalis as the spokesperson for jazz and goes right back to those early days when the mainstream labeled Paul Whiteman as "The King of Jazz."  While Marsalis is a gifted virtuoso on the trumpet, a fine composer, and a canny entrepreneur, critics are correct in pointing out that Marsalis is not the face of jazz -- not with the recent death of Dr. Billy Taylor -- not ever.  From where I sit, Marsalis (but not necessarily JALC) looks a bit too much to the past, as if Miles never went electric.  And the whole neo-primitive riff in the 60 Minutes piece had too much of the aroma of the Cotton Club about it, as Marsalis seemed to lean into the stereotype of sexual, sensual primitivism: "The more refined your concept, the more primitive you have to be."  Marsalis may be a genius and know what he means, but mainstream America likely missed the point.  The pairing of New Orleans and Havana as "sultry" and "exotic" sister cities, complete with shots of dancing girls, didn't help matters. Furthermore, the presentation of Marsalis as "America's Musical Ambassador" likewise ignores too many people. Back during the Cold War, jazz was a carefully deployed cultural force by the US State Department -- read Satchmo Blows Up the World or listen to Dave Brubeck's The Real Ambassadors. These days, I'd be curious to know who's paying for those overseas JALC gigs.

     Maybe Stanley Crouch, one of Wynton's brothers-in-arms, got it right when he wrote recently about a crisis in black culture made all the more evident by the passing of Billy Taylor.  Who will articulate what the music means to the culture, and, in doing so, make the argument for the importance of culture in general?  Indeed, as Marsalis says to Morley Safer-- on most solid ground -- the state of cultural education in the US is shameful.  There is something good for the mind and the soul -- and for us all -- in learning about our own culture, whether it's Duke Ellington or Walt Whitman. We would make much better decisions as a society, argues Marsalis, if we knew our cultural history better.

     If anything comes of the usual mainstream heroification of "The Spokesperson for X," it would be that other voices would feel compelled join in the mix, that those in jazz and in other areas of the arts who have differing perspectives would step up and add their interpretation of the tune.  While I will fault 60 Minutes for falling into the same old jazz and cultural cliches, I'm not going to fault Marsalis for being himself.  If a man stands up and calls the tune, so be it. 

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