Wynton Marsalis on Satellite Radio


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As the evolution in technology accelerates exponentially these days, it becomes difficult to decide which gadgets are necessary for meaningful aesthetic participation and which are simply an attempt by corporate America to filch more money from our dwindling resources.

I recently purchased a car and it came with a 3-month trial subscription to XM satellite radio. Immediately, I scanned the stations to acquaint myself with the programming of this commercial-free service and found several stations which were important sources for the music I need to hear, the sports I need to follow and the traffic and weather news I need to monitor. This essay is certainly not a plug for XM radio so I won't go into the different features, formats and favorites. There is only one "real jazz station and one "high standards station (featuring singers and instrumentalists performing the music from the American Songbook) among some 200 stations in all. The jazz station (XM70) presents music from legends of old and newer performers of note similar to many fine NPR stations across the country. Of course, the technology of satellite radio means that the music can be heard anywhere so listeners can readily dial up such regular favorites and access them on their computers as well as their radios. Some of the formatting of material reflects immature skills on the part of the programmers so there are problems with the new gadget. But I found one show on XM70 which was truly first-rate.

Wynton Marsalis hosts a series dubbed "Swing Seat which explores jazz history, reveals formulas of interviewed performers and educates listeners in various other ways. What is different about this series is that it does not indulge listeners in the hero-worshipping, gushy exchanges between host and guest that are often the bill of fare on most jazz talk radio shows. The discussions are extremely educational and occasionally so technical that they can be too spurious for most lay listeners. This is a risk that Marsalis takes but it may pay big dividends for the future of jazz. It is about time that people realize that this music often requires technical sophistication on their part if they are to glean all of its aesthetic merit. This has always been true when listening to Mozart and listeners need to understand that it is also true when listening to Ellington.

On a recent show Marsalis interviewed the present day master of tenor saxophone repertory Joe Lovano. His questions to Lovano were specific inquiries into the mysteries of improvisational construction. Lovano articulated well and was able to punctuate his theories by playing unaccompanied solos which isolated the various techniques. On another show Marsalis compared the trombone stylings of Wycliffe Gordon and Ronald Westrake. His careful analysis was particularly successful because he found onomatopoetic phrases ("swoops" and "loops") to describe the various voices of this strange instrument and dig deeply into its essence by illustrating the different approaches of two contemporary masters. Another show studied the contributions of Louis Armstrong in the light of the development of this instrument from its bugle origin to the work of early classical pioneers (Clark) to the innovations of the first jazzmen (Bolden, Keppard, Oliver).

Despite its technical flavor, Marsalis manages to make the show colorful, humorous and even entertaining. This is remarkable given his uncanny schedule as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, world traveling musician and leader, composer, and cultural ambassador. I often wonder if he gets any sleep.

If "Swing Seat is any indication that satellite radio can provide such quality programming and will not merely be the setting for tired formulas and sensationalism i.e. Howard Stern already extant in FM and internet broadcasting, then we may be the recipient of something truly beneficial.

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