being perfect aint so bad

Wynton Marsalis doesn’t like set breaks.

wynton marsalis

“We just wanna play, but they ask us to do these intermissions,” Marsalis told the packed house at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley this week. “If it was up to me, we’d just keep right on playing.”

Marsalis is the award-winning artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. He’s also a tireless music educator. Time Magazine, which printed his “Saving America’s Soul” column about racial problems provoked by Hurricane Katrina, named him one of America’s 25 most influential people.

Marsalis takes long pauses when he speaks. His comments tend to be brief and straight-ahead, but he can veer off into longer diatribes. Sometimes he makes jokes without trying, and people laugh in response.

“I saw the little boy out there running up and down the aisle during the first set. Man, me and my brothers used to do that too, and we had some fun. But we sure got in trouble when we got home. That’s how we remembered those concerts, not for the music, but for the whoopin’ we got afterwards.”

His observations of the world around him can be provocative – so much so that one thought can leave a crowd dead silent. One audience member blurted out a “thank you” and an “Amen” when Marsalis introduced his original composition, “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary.” Performed live, the song surged with sweeping dynamics, strong, distinct rhythm patterns and intricate chord progressions and complicated dissonance.


He’s honest, he’s in the moment, he’s dynamic and he’s political. Come to think of it, the way he speaks is similar to the way he plays his trumpet. When he picks up his horn and puts it close to his mouth, you know something powerful is going to happen. And you know that you better listen and pay attention.

I’ve seen Marsalis twice now. The first time was in 98 at an intimate performance hall in Valdosta, Georgia with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. They were doing a tribute to Duke Ellington and his music. The group swung hard, and had a blast doing it. Horn players paraded through the crowd during the show’s finale while the crowd jumped to their feet, dancing and clapping. We all celebrated Ellington that night.

About the only thing I can offer, as a critique of Marsalis is that he’s almost too perfect. Even when he does make “mistakes” or something resembling a mistake, it sounds planned. He’s never sloppy. Never seems to have an off night. His classical recordings are seamless. His jazz recordings are so finely tuned that it’s almost too good, if that makes any sense.

You can hear flubbed notes and imperfect tones on recordings of Clifford Brown, Don Cherry, Louis Armstrong and Chet Baker. A piece of skin allegedly came off Miles Davis’ lip once during a recording and he kept on playing and the tape kept on rolling. I’m just curious if Marsalis, in the same situation, would go for another take.

This recent performance in Berkeley was Marsalis with his quintet, which had less bang but more sass than with the orchestra. They were five musicians – and for portions of the set, one female singer – who were locked into arrangements that were beautiful, strangely dissonant, pretty, emotional and powerful. Songs moved through changes with brilliance and, to use one of Marsalis’ words, tenacity.

The band was having fun, too. They laughed onstage, pushed each other and improvised with such style and tact that I was speechless.

Having seen Marsalis twice now, I feel like I’ve seen and heard a little piece – make that a huge chunk — of American history in the flesh. And I’m looking forward to the next show.

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