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  Wynton Marsalis vs. John Zorn  
  by Dustin Garlitz  

January 2005:

There are currently two dominant schools in New York City’s jazz scene.  Wynton Marsalis leads the Lincoln Center’s traditionalist school while John Zorn is the cover-boy for Downtown’s avant-garde movement.   In 2000, they were featured in a Jazz Times cover story about the current state of jazz and the future implications of the music.  Both musicians continue to shape the character and direction of jazz’s next generation of musicians (improvisers and composers). 

Wynton Marsalis comes from a musical family in New Orleans.  His father is pianist Ellis Marsalis and his brother is saxophonist Branford.  Wynton went to school at Julliard, where he studied classical trumpet.  His first big break came with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.  After this gig he was caught up in recording the Fuse One project that included In the Celebration of the Human Spirit.  In the mid to late 1980s he was the first musician to win Grammys in both jazz and classical categories (on the same night).  This launched him into the public’s eye and he became only the fourth jazz musician to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine (preceded only be Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk).  In the 1990s he became the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize with his album Blood on the Fields (which featured vocalist Cassandra Wilson).  In 2000, his band played for President Clinton at the White House. He is now signed to Blue Note and has just recently opened the new Jazz at Lincoln Center complex (which is inside the AOL Time Warner building at Columbus Circle…the jazz complex has three venues all acoustically designed for the music).  Marsalis continues to lead the Lincoln Center band (I caught them in 2002 at the Apollo Theatre’s workshop on John Coltrane).  Wynton is more caught up in sounding like Louis Armstrong more than any other musician, which some have criticized while others have praised.   

John Zorn was brought up in a traditional Jewish family in Queens, New York.  He went to college at Webster University in the St. Louis, Missouri metropolitan area and studied with one of the alto saxophonists from the World Saxophone Quartet named Julius Hemphill.  Zorn began to make noise music with people like Eugene Chadbourne in the late 1970s and was found at Richard Forman’s Wooster Street loft (my theatre teacher told me his performances included making music for weird acts such as rolling cabbage down the floor, etc.) His early album The Classic Guide to Strategy featured his unique extended technique for the saxophone.  A classic album is Spy vs. Spy, which features Ornette Coleman’s music played in a punk-rock setting.  When he formed the band ‘Naked City’, Zorn became popular all over the world for his heterodox conception of music. The album Ganryu Island shows Zorn’s interest in East-Asian culture.  During the late 1980s and early 1990s he started living in Tokyo for part of the year (sometimes for up to a half of each year).  During the 1990s he became best known for his all-star band ‘Masada’ that featured Dave Douglas on trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass, and Joey Baron on drums.  Zorn’s ‘Tzadik’ label produces more creative music than almost any other record company today, plus it has re-issued some of his earlier material.  Tzadik is a good starting place for anyone interested in modern avant-garde music.  If you are a New York City area resident, make sure to stop by his new performance space in the East Village of Manhattan called “The Stone”.

The issue is this: should jazz move forward with new music never heard before (a style that is original and all its own), or should today’s music embrace the past (mimicking all the other eras that have preceded ours?)  Jazz critics and listeners need to make a decision on what music to support.  The music will shift in the direction supported by the consumers.  With the momentum created in this paradigm shift, other composers, improvisers and lyricists will follow the new tradition (either conservative or liberal).   Instrumentalists need the jazz world to make a decision for them: should they mimic Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong or should they follow in the directions of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman?  It can be argued that nothing is new under the sun and that all musicians are primarily influenced by a certain style from the past.  What the jazz scene is confused about is the certain style that should be emulated.  The leading interpreters of the jazz tradition are Marsalis and Zorn.  The next generation of musicians will need to make a huge decision and join one of these two divergent camps on the jazz scene.  Who would you rather follow? I lean towards Zorn since I partially agree with what one of my high profile music teachers told me: “Marsalis has set jazz back 100 years”.