On the Construction of Wynton Marsalis’ Cultural Authority

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On the FAQ section of his website Wynton Marsalis writes: “When we [Jazz at Lincoln Center] started [late ’80s-early ’90s], nobody was thinking about Duke Ellington’s music and the seriousness of jazz as an art form.”

Curious.

No check that.

Not curious.  Straight up untrue.

Two options: 1. Ignorance, or 2. Strategically fudging the truth.

When I came across the above quote when doing research for my forthcoming Grove encyclopedia entry on Marsalis it struck a chord with me for two reasons: first, as I study the history of jazz criticism and the general reception of the music I know that what Marsalis said is just incorrect; second, he is a smart guy, who knows the history of the music better than most.  Why would someone so well versed in the history of jazz say something so wrong?  I argue that the answer may lie in the construction and maintenance of Marsalis’ cultural authority.

Following Max Weber, Paul Starr defines the social effects that people with cultural authority have as “the probability that particular definitions of reality and judgments of meaning and value will prevail as valid and true.” (Starr, The Social Transformation of American Medicine, pg. 13).  Those with cultural authority, such as Marsalis, control institutions and are able to shape the ways in which we think about the world.  Cultural authorities have power because they are seen by laypeople to have specialized knowledge, experience and insights.  What cultural authorities say matters, in varying degrees, and they have power to help define the world, which in the end can often lead to exclusion and marginalization.  To be a cultural authority is to wield a certain level of power.

Now, it should be noted that the first few times I read and pondered Marsalis’ comment I initially interpreted it to mean that nobody had ever considered Ellington’s music to be fine art.  But…that’s not what he is saying here.  Notice the past progressive tense – “nobody was thinking.”  Slick.  Marsalis isn’t saying that he and his inner circle and mentors (namely Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray and the folks at Lincoln Center) were the first ones to consider jazz to be a serious art form – they know better than that.  They were specifically referring to that moment.

I offer that what Marsalis is doing here is slyly constructing himself as a cultural authority.  As Paul Lopes notes in his book The Rise of the Jazz Art World, once the jazz renaissance of the 50s and 60s faded (which Lopes argues succeeded in convincing the American public that jazz was high art), the 70s found jazz to be receding in popularity, thus the “is jazz dead” theme in much of the jazz discourse of the time.  In the mid-80s jazz found itself in a new jazz renaissance, with Marsalis and the other young lions at the forefront.  At this time Marsalis was establishing himself as a cultural authority – and before long he achieved that status and became the most visible spokesperson for jazz and one of the most authoritative voices in this renewed jazz renaissance.  But…one must continually construct oneself as a cultural authority to maintain that status, maintain that cultural power.

Thus, we find Marsalis saying “When we [Jazz at Lincoln Center] started [late ’80s-early ’90s], nobody was thinking about Duke Ellington’s music and the seriousness of jazz as an art form.”

Who exactly does Marsalis mean by “nobody”?  If he means other jazz musicians, that’s certainly not true.  If he means critics, historians and other writers, that’s certainly not true either.  If he means the general public – then maybe he could make an argument, as jazz had long since been popular with the public.  But even if that’s what he’s getting at, using the word “nobody” suggests that Marsalis and his cohorts were the only people who considered Ellington’s music as art.  “Nobody” suggests that Marsalis et al represented cultivated views; views that were not held by the layperson; views that were important, that needed to be proselytized from voices of authority to an unknowing public.

I’m not suggesting that Marsalis is a liar – perhaps the FAQ section on his website was ghost-written and he doesn’t know what’s up there (entirely possible).  Perhaps he conveniently forgot about the long tradition of critics, musicians and fans fighting to have jazz considered a high art.  I don’t think that’s it either.

What I suggest is that what Marsalis is doing here is betting that the general American public, long after they had embraced jazz en masse, had either forgotten or simply did not know that there have been people arguing that Ellington’s music, and jazz in general, was art music, and had not only been doing so for the better part of a century, but that those sentiments still existed in the 80s.  By making this bet, i.e. positioning himself as one of the lone champions of jazz at the time, Marsalis is attempting to maintain his status as a cultural authority and the power that comes with that status.  The stakes of this bet are high – by winning Marsalis can continue to wield cultural power and to continue to shape the ways we talk about jazz.

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A few sources/additional  reading….

Ron Welburn writes about how some of the first jazz critics – who were actually primarily classical music critics – became convinced of the aesthetic worth of jazz after hearing Ellington’s music – and this was decades before Wynton was born.  Welburn, “Duke Ellington’s Music: The Catalyst for a True Jazz Criticism,” in the International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 17, no. 1 (1986), 111-122.

In the 1940s and early 1950s Steven Elworth writes about how the jazz press was arguing that bebop was a high art form. Elworth, “Jazz In Crisis, 1948-1958: Ideology and Representation” in Jazz Among the Discourses, edited by Krin Gabbard.

Paul Lopes refers to the mid and late 1950s as a “Jazz Renaissance.”  He argues that the “jazz art world” succeeded in that jazz had reached the status of high art, implying the existence of a huge group of people who felt that jazz was art.  Lopes, The Rise of a Jazz Art World, pp. 1, 217.

Eric Porter discusses saxophonist Marion Brown’s 1972 essay “Music is My Mistress: Form and Expression in the Music of Duke Ellington.”  In the essay Brown compares Ellington to Charles Ives and argues that African American improvised music is a high art form.  I’d be surprised if Brown jettisoned those views in the 80s. Porter, What is This Thing Called Jazz?, pg. 253

4 thoughts on “On the Construction of Wynton Marsalis’ Cultural Authority

  1. “as I study the history of jazz criticism and the general reception of the music I know that what Marsalis said is just incorrect; second, he is a smart guy, who knows the history of the music better than most. Why would someone so well versed in the history of jazz say something so wrong?”

    So, this is an intriguing question but I’d like to see you ask him why and get his direct response. That’s what I’m more curious about.

  2. Chris: Thanks for pointing out the inconsistencies in Marsalis’s website material. It would be interesting to read his response.

    I played off and on in the mid-’80s through the early ’90s with the American Jazz Orchestra, a repertory ensemble which was organized by writer Gary Giddins and pianist John Lewis. The band played classic jazz, and recorded three nice albums.
    http://www.allmusic.com/artist/american-jazz-orchestra-mn0000745524

    The American Jazz Orchestra had some funding, but was never flush with financial resources. The AJO eventually folded about the time that Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Smithsonian Masterworks Jazz Orchestra were coming into their own. I recall on numerous occasions seeing Stanley Crouch in the audience at AJO concerts, and I spoke with him a couple of times about “bass sound” and bass technique (gut strings, amplification, playing acoustically, etc). He was very interested in how a big band playing with no amplification could fill a hall with sound (the AJO played in the Great Hall at Cooper Union in Greenwich Village).

    Preceding my time in NYC, in the ’70s through the early ’80s, bassist Chuck Israels led the National Jazz Ensemble, which was a repertory band playing music from all eras of jazz.
    http://www.allmusic.com/album/national-jazz-ensemble-1975-1976-mw0000213969

    As you suggest, to write that JALC was the first organization to promote jazz repertory and present a canon of representative works and composers is quite a stretch. To write that “nobody was thinking about Duke Ellington’s music and the seriousness of jazz as an art form” until they (Wynton Marsalis & JALC) came on the scene is completely absurd. But, history belongs to those who write down the way they see things. Thanks for your blog!

    1. Hi John, thanks for the great comment and sharing your background. I had obviously overlooked the American Jazz Orchestra (perhaps indicative of how well Marsalis and JALC has shaped the narrative regarding their importance to the perception of jazz in the 80s and 90s). I was unaware of Chuck Israels’ group, so I will definitely check that out. Thanks so much for your insights and for reading. best, Chris

  3. To quote Stephen Vizinczey “We now have a whole culture based on the assumption that people know nothing and so anything can be said to them.”

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