Wynton Marsalis: The Struggle Continues


If you're too lazy to move your eyeballs in order to read this post,
you can listen to the podcast edition. (lazy ass).

Wynton Marsalis and I have been locked in an epic struggle between good and evil for the past fifteen years. It is a soul-wrenching battle that goes back and forth and often it is difficult to tell which one of us will emerge victorious. At stake is nothing less than the hearts, minds and soul of all of humanity. And though at times I grow weary of the constant skirmishing, I push myself to continue the fight, if not for me then for the children.

Did I mention Wynton Marsalis has no idea who I am? Nor does he realize that we've even been engaged in this monumental conflict?

No matter.

In college, Wynton was part of my introduction to discovering "real" jazz on my own, moving away from the likes of David Sanborn and Michael Franks. At the time nearly my entire catalog of albums consisted of ska and reggae. When asked if I liked jazz I would have said, "Sure!" and would have immediately put on Kenny G., exclaiming "Listen to how fast he plays those scales!"

At the time, I hosted a radio show at the Black radio station, playing reggae music after which was the jazz show hosted by my friends Shawn Wallce and Robert "Goody Box" Goodwin. Shawn was a short, stocky, music major. He was pigeon-toed and walked like Fred G. Sanford. Goody was taller, barrel-chested and was well versed in jazz, having been raised in it his entire life. They were best friends and roommates and are famous for giving birth to "The Typical Shawn and Rob argument™." These are debates which eventually degrade into arguing over semantics. "Well it depends on what your definition of rub-it-up-and-smack-it-down, is. Where I grew up in Carbondale, this clearly referred to the use of the left hand." When this point of the conversation has been reached, it indicates the end of the debate at which point one person must say, "Well now we're just in a typical Shawn and Rob argument™, so we might as well go home and make some sandwiches."

I looked forward to seeing them walk in the back door of the African American Cultural Center, where the radio station was housed. I would sometimes sit in on their show and listen to their disputes while they were off the air. (Most often I would find a way to spur the arguments on, because that's what I'm good at). They began every show with Herbie Hancock's, Maiden Voyage. Goody would swing the microphone around the desk and talk over the intro in his low, baritone voice.

When I asked them what they thought of Kenny G., they both laughed. "Man that's not jazz. All he does is play scales really fast." Shawn said chuckling. "Ha ha… yeah, I know…that's stupid." I said nervously. "You want to hear something really good." Rob said, "Check this out." He reached over to the crates fishing out, Black Codes from the Underground by Wynton. They played the entire album over the radio while Shawn explained the musical fine points. My jaw went slack in amazement.

The next break I went home and raided my father's albums for jazz. "Pop, have you ever heard of a fellow named John Coltrane? I hear he's pretty good." He walked away from me shaking his head, mumbling under his breath.

After college, my jazz catalog had expanded exponentially and it included nearly all of Wynton's albums. One year, Wynton was signing a picture book he had published, chronicling his life as a musician. I thought it would be a great birthday present for my father and a bonus if we could get it signed. I called my brother to go in with me to buy the book. I needed his help because I was working my first job out of college as a designer and was therefore, broke. "Fine." my brother sighed. "Who the hell is Wynton Marsalis anyway?"

We ventured up to the Border's Bookstore in Deerfield, a suburb north of Chicago. My brother was working in my father's accounting firm at the time and was dressed in a suit. Since I was working as a designer, my uniform was pretty much the same one issued to the homeless. We arrived just as he was finishing up a question and answer session, after which we all queued to have our books signed. I was surprised to see that my brother and I were the only Black faces in the entire crowd. This gave us a distinct advantage. When we reached Wynton, we were able to talk as if we were old friends."Hey what's up fellas." He said as we approached the table "What's up Wynton." We said, giving him dap. As always, Wynton was dapper. He wore a dark, pin striped, three-piece suit. We told him the extremely clever thing what we wanted him to sign in the book and he laughed. We joked for a few more minutes after that.

As we walked away from the table, I was elated that I had just talked to Wynton Marsalis. In fact, we were pretty much best friends now. He called to us as we left, "Hey man." He said pointing to my brother's feet, "Nice shoes." "Thanks." my brother said. Wynton then pointed at my homeless-people shoes. "I don't know what you're doing though."

We emerged into the crisp October night, not speaking a word. My brother finally broke the silence. "Ha! Wynton liked my shoes! Ha! Isn't that your boy?" "Not anymore he isn't." I hissed between clenched teeth. I turned, shaking my fist at the bookstore. "I'll get you Wytnton, if it's the last thing I do! Damn you Wynton Marsalis! Damn you to hellllllllllll!" I immediately went home and threw out all of his albums. (All except for Black Codes. I'm not crazy.) "Take that Wynton Marsalis!" I said to no one in particular.

The next day my friend Russ called me. "So what did you think of Wynton?" "Pfffft!. Wynton is overrated. I can't stand him." "Yeah." He said, "Dre told me he dissed your shoes." "Whatever man!" I said a bit too loudly, "He's overrated!!" "Uh-huh." Russ said calmly, "Can I have your Black Codes then?" I hung up on him. I had just come to the conclusion that Russ was overrated as well.

A few years later I was listening to one of the pledge drives on NPR. I had listened to them for years without a thought of contributing because I had always been broke. Even though I was no longer broke, ignoring the pledge drive had become a habit. That's when Wynton came on the radio. His plea went something like this: "Hey homeless-shoe guy!" "Leave me alone Wynton, I'm trying to drive." "Yeah, yeah, I know." He said, "And I know you're still pissed at me for your jacked-up shoes." "I was broke!" I protested. "Uh-huh", he said "But that's my point. You're not broke anymore and you've been listening to NPR for what? ten years now?" "Seven." I corrected. "OK, seven. Don't you think it's about time we put our differences aside long enough for you to give them some money? I mean c'mon, it's only fair, you listen to them every damn day."

"Plus I did make Black Codes from the Underground."

I thought about it for a minute before relenting. "Alright." I said, dialing the radio station on my Motorola Startac© cellphone. When I had finished making my pledge I said, "This doesn't change anything between us Wynton Marsalis. You may have won this round, but I will get you if it's the last thing I do." "Not in those shoes you won't!" He said laughing through my radio.

"Damn you Wynton Marsalis! Damn you to hellllllllll!"

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