So far, that has not been the fate of Marsalis. Full disclosure: When it comes to Marsalis, I am most assuredly biased. We’ve been friends since he became a New Yorker in the early ’80s; we have worked together on various jazz projects over the years. I have watched his evolution closely and have seen him mull over his artistic directions.
For at least 20 years, Marsalis has redefined virtuosity, firmly basing his technique on the elements that distinguished jazz from the beginning. Having been a master of European concert music from early in his career, the trumpeter disappointed his concert-music fans by devoting himself to jazz, which he knew was actually harder to play. This was evident to him in the range of techniques that were present in every jazz style until the music floundered into rock during the late ’60s.
Jazz will never again be what it was during its heyday as dance music. As was shown at the Apollo, the present importance of jazz is that its players symbolize — as they always have — the perfect relationship between human beings and machines in an Avatar era. Technological gimmicks have been pushing humanity out of our films and our music for far too long, and novelty is usually mistaken for the kind of innovation that cannot truly be itself unless grounded by matters of the human heart.
Jazz virtuosity is most relevant when it takes on the task of revealing the constancy and infinite nuance of human feeling, memory and dreams. At the Apollo, the audience heard instruments sing, speak and imitate both natural and mechanical phenomena.
That the musicians were able to play in the style made popular during the 1920s was particularly important because black audiences, we are always told, have no interest in “period” films or anything else associated with earlier times. Sociologists and academics have largely defined the black American experience as no more than a halting march through one woe after another, all exclusively distinguished by bigotry.