Wynton Marsalis looked on, slightly bemused. The man with thirty-one honorary degrees from American universities including Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Howard and Yale, nine Grammy awards, a Pulitzer prize, an honorary membership of the Royal Academy of Music, the National Medal of Arts, a statue in bronze in Marciac, the title of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour….knew what to expect as he walked onstage this lunchtime with Guildhall School Principal Professor Barry Ife.
Professor Ife made a short speech, and duly handed Wynton Marsalis an honorary fellowship of the school.
But Marsalis, in his keynote speech of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s Barbican residency, was keen to acknowledge a higher power. “Drummers,” he said, have the “final authority” on time in a jazz ensemble. The drummer is the “referee” Americans use the word referee to signal respect (Now wouldn’t that be a nice idea to import?)
Marsalis talks about responsibilities rather than rights, about selfless behaviour, about leaving space, about not playing too loud, about making sacrifices. In a word, about civility. The ultimate hero in jazz, then, is that powerful understated presence, guitarist Freddy Green.
Marsalis made his point by describing what happens when the assertion of rights crowds out all sense of responsibility. He entertained a friendly Barbican audience with a vision: the jam session straight out of all of our nightmares: where all of the rhythm section players arrive early to set up monitors and amps which they can crank up to drown the others; where every horn player insists on playing more mind-numbing choruses than the previous player; where each tune lasts a minimum of 53 minutes….
Marsalis then brought the talk to a close by drawing the parallel. The right etiquette of the bandstand is the right way to live life.
From where I was sitting, with a group of Guildhall School jazz students in the row behind me, it was heartening to hear that model of collective leadership and collective responsibility being instilled. The models of cultural leadership which thought-leaders in the UK such as John Holden and Robert Hewison are currently proposing based on their work with the Royal Shakespeare Company do not have anything of the simplicity, directness or communicability of these down-home and basic truths emerging from jazz.
I found it fitting that softly spoken drummer Ali Jackson should have the last word.
“Once you get to the age of 20 you know whether you can play or whether you can’t: our music is about listening, it’s about how well you listen.”