After reading one book by Wynton Marsalis, To a Young Jazz Musician: Letters from the Road, I went looking for more. I have an awesome public library, one that was rated the best in the nation a few years ago. They have a couple more books, including one that’s part biography and part auto-biography, Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life. It is writted primarily by Carl Vigeland, with comments here and there by Wynton Marsalis.
The book chronicles some of the travels and Marsalis and his band and in a lot of ways is an inside look at what it’s like to be an ensemble on the road. I say ensemble instead of band because when we think of bands, we often think of rock and pop bands that have made it big, and their experience is certainly different than those experienced by Marsalis’ crew. After all, Marsalis’ group played all over, from big gigs to ones in small towns. Also, because they were an ensemble looking to play “real jazz,” which isn’t so popular anymore. So you see a group that is going from destination to destination, usually low key, never really knowing what kind of crowds they’ll have, but a group of top notch musicians who are there to play. To play is everything.
And that’s what you realize what these cats have given up. What they have sacrificed. Those of us who have been musicians probably have dreamed of being on the road and just playing. It sounds like a great life, until you really consider what it costs you. These men struggle with their family lives. They struggle with the expectations of themselves, of the people that come to see them, of other musicians, and of the critics. They struggle with trying to balance playing with studio time to record albums. They struggle with playing. Nobody can always be on all the time. But when you’re a musician playing a gig and you care as passionately as these guys do, you give it your all. The folks who have come to see you deserve it.
Speaking of deserving things, after reading this book, I have a new found respect for Wynton Marsalis and his passion for nurturing other musicians. The same goes for the folks accompanying him. His group didn’t just work gigs. They did workshops at all levels. And you see cases where kids and youngsters have been able to get to a performance and he ends up giving an ad hoc lesson. Like one case where he helps a young trumpet player with her breathing. Some folks might be thinking, “Breathing? How hard could that be?” It can be very hard. As a flute player, it was something I struggled with early on. When I got to college and we were playing a lot longer frames, it meant I had to have more air capacity. A lot of that is based on how you breathe. Breathing is critical for any instrument requiring the power of your lungs. It was a lesson I learned on flute, but I had reinforced when I branched out and played trumpet and french horn, too. So for him to take the time for a lesson like that, without prep, likely without pay, says a lot.
Now, would I recommend this book? If you’re a musician or you a music type, especially someone who loves jazz, absolutely. If you’re easily offended, however, no. The language can be rough at times, as can some of the political and social views that are presented. If you want to gain an appreciation for someone working so passionately for their art and craft, this is a good book. As a minister and as a DBA, I gained new perspective on how to approach what I do. And I was humbled by what I read. We talk about passion. These guys have it.