Moving To Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life

Florence Wetzel By

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Moving To Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life
Wynton Marsalis with Geoffrey C. Ward
208 pages
ISBN: 978-1-40006078-8
Random House

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis' passionate and inspirational Moving To Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life is not only an ode to jazz, but a call to creativity in all its forms. It's a meditation on life and art, and an invitation to live an energetic, artistic life. "I testify to the power of art, and more specifically jazz," says Marsalis, "to improve your life." As the book progresses, he takes on issues bigger than jazz itself, and, at times, what he writes is controversial.

Marsalis starts the book not from an expert position, but talks about his experience as a child who was exposed to jazz. Despite growing up with his jazz musician father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, and starting trumpet at age six, like most Americans he grew up listening to three-minute pop songs, and had to find an emotional entry into jazz. Marsalis gives a vivid description of his journey as a young musician, which despite being marked by early success had its share of rough moments, including being called "Flash" by older musicians whom he respected.

During the course of his career, Marsalis had the good fortune to meet and play with some of jazz's brightest luminaries, and throughout the book he shares personal conversations with drummers Art Blakey and Elvin Jones, saxophonists Benny Carter and Ornette Coleman, trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison and other greats. He also includes thoughtful sections on several of jazz's great musicians, and what he learned from each of them.

In addition to the book's wealth of personal stories, Marsalis offers succinct meditations on the components of jazz, such as the solo, call and response, scat singing, the shout chorus and so forth. He also gives a real sense of what it's like to play this music, with its constantly shifting interaction between self and sound and other.

But the book is not just about jazz. Marsalis relates his highly personal story of being an eight-year-old who was one of two black children in an "integrated" school. He takes this section of the book further by including a number of stories illustrating his own moments of ignorance and arrogance. The history of his personal experience as a black American expands into a thoughtful consideration of race relations altogether, and is certainly one of the most compelling sections of the book.

Marsalis is an engaging narrator throughout. His conversational, easygoing tone is eminently readable, and the book is bursting with the anecdotes that make any jazz autobiography so enjoyable. He has a lot of opinions and some tart comments (including plenty about jazz writers, ouch), but he doesn't spare himself, which gives the book a nice balance.

Best of all, Moving To Higher Ground is full of inspiring insights. Marsalis offers a wealth of comments on how one can achieve higher levels of human consciousness by engaging in art in all forms, and the exquisitely crafted prose (kudos to cowriter Geoffrey C. Ward) makes the reader feel these concepts by the beauty and clarity of the words. For example: "Music is the art of the invisible" and "Each musician opens a chamber in the very center of his being and expresses that center in the uniqueness of his sound."

However, it must also be said that some of Marsalis' insights are sure to repel many readers. Marsalis is not a fan of avant-garde jazz, and he does his best to explain why. His explanations include wince-worthy moments such as his description of the "so-called avant-garde movement," and lamentations about saxophonist John Coltrane's post-classic quartet music.

Marsalis is of course entitled to his opinion, and he is certainly not the only one who feels this way about avant-garde jazz, or Coltrane for that matter. Things get sticky because Marsalis is, arguably, the most well-known living jazz musician, and is considered by many to be the spokesperson for American jazz. Also, as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, he has tremendous influence in the jazz world and beyond. As a result his dislike of avant-garde jazz is not just an opinion: it sets an agenda. This creates resentment among those struggling to create, promote and listen to non-traditional jazz, and therefore there are many people who do not want to hear anything Marsalis has to play or say.

But that might be a mistake, particularly where this book is concerned. Moving To Higher Ground is a thoughtful, passionate book, and there's a wealth of material here to inspire the reader to live a richer, more creative life. Marsalis aspires to make the reader a better listener, a better player—and yes, go that large—a better person. And ideally this book could inspire those from the "other camp" to write their own books, to explain from their own hearts what non-traditional jazz means to them. And perhaps even to find a way for both camps to co-exist in peace.

Of course, for listeners who enjoy all forms of jazz, this is a non-issue. As Marsalis himself says in this book, "The best musicians know this music isn't about 'schools' at all."


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