sat 13/07/2024

All Das Jazz: the Berlin Phil swing with Wynton Marsalis | reviews, news & interviews

All Das Jazz: the Berlin Phil swing with Wynton Marsalis

All Das Jazz: the Berlin Phil swing with Wynton Marsalis

The jazzer reaches out to Simon Rattle and the world's finest orchestra

It don't mean a thing? Wynton Marsalis performsFrank Stewart

"It was only on Monday afternoon that the final scores of three of the movements were put into my hands," says Sir Simon Rattle, chuckling at the memory and casting a mock glance of disapproval at the composer and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis who is sitting next to him looking rather sheepish. "It makes us realise that composers are human beings just like we are," the conductor adds. "I'm just praying I get all my tempos right by tonight."

Even by the usual stressful standards of world premieres, the run-up to this one was a particularly nail-biting affair. I attended the dress rehearsal for Marsalis' new work, Swing Symphony, which the jazz supremo's Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra premiered with the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of its artistic director Rattle last Wednesday. The general verdict is that the performance was a triumph. The mutual respect and enthusiasm was obvious on the stage and came across to the audience in waves of joy. The usually hard-to-please Berlin crowd give the musicians three standing ovations.

Swing Symphony kicks off the JLCO's latest European tour, which after several nights in Berlin will see them travel to London for the first events in a new Jazz at Lincoln Center residency called “United in Swing” at the Barbican Centre. It then moves on to six other UK venues. With this, his third symphonic work, which was commissioned by the joint forces of Berlin Philharmonic, Barbican Centre, New York Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic, Marsalis has taken on the ambitious task of tracing the lengthy and rich history of jazz, creating a piece for full symphony and jazz orchestra which exploits the wide-ranging powers of both ensembles.

“The Swing Symphony brings together the concepts of a symphony, which is a song for orchestra, or in this case two orchestras”, Marsalis explains, “and swing in jazz terms means to come together. Simon and I talked for many years about doing a piece, maybe 15 years. So the thought was something that would bring us together and that would celebrate all of the great achievements of jazz music in the 20th century from the perspective of a jazz musician, starting with ragtime, and going through the 1920s - every style of our music we believe is present and modern.”

The result is an intoxicating blend of rhythms - from New Orleans march and the playful character of Charleston along with erotic tango beats, the virtuosic sounds of bebop, together with jazz fugues from the 1950s. Skilfully stitched together, the various swatches of styles create a rich musical fabric influenced by Bernstein, Scott Joplin, Gershwin and Duke Ellington. Listening to it in the Philharmonie, I kept hearing the Ellington phrase: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Although not explicitly mentioned, it was regularly hinted at, lingering in my ear well into the next day.

WyntonMarsalis06standingI had seen the JALC for the first time two months before at the jazz-friendly Savannah Music Festival, in Georgia, USA. They performed band member Ted Nash’s new suite, Portrait in Seven Shades, at the Johnny Mercer Theater. Neither the concert setting nor the audience could have been more American. Now here we were in Hans Sharoun’s great concert hall in Berlin, the Philharmonic in their conventional suits and white bow ties, the jazz musicians in their sunglasses and sharp shiny garb. It was an unlikely coming together of Prussian discipline with the coquettish, laissez-faire but nevertheless tightly knit American sound.

The final movement of the symphony ends on an optimistic note, with a life-affirming sigh. “The last movement is our style that we play today,” Marsalis (pictured above right) says. “And it features clapping, and a groove that we all play together and it has a long melody and a space for everyone to play. And it brings together many different feelings. Then it goes into the church groove ‘cause the centrepiece of a lot of Afro-American music is church music. And then it breaks down into something that is at the end of your life and you reflect on everything. It’s a wistful type of feeling that is not sad, and it’s not happy, it’s just like a feeling of contentment and a quiet celebration and that’s why at the end I have us go ‘Huuuuh’. It’s like that last breath that you take. Like ‘we did this, and we had a good time’. That’s what we conclude in jazz, it’s an optimistic music.”

So many people in the orchestra said, "You know, the trouble is we just feel so stiff in comparison"

Marsalis’s champions argue he is the most active ambassador for jazz alive today, particularly thanks to the education work he has done with children from the inner-city areas of New York and London, as well as the socially deprived parts of Berlin. This past weekend hundreds of children who had never been on stage before danced to the Swing Symphony in front of an audience of over 3000 at an old Berlin bus depot. He is also the only musician ever to have won classical and jazz Grammy awards, not to mention a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his jazz symphony Blood on the Fields.

So it would be fair to assume that he attracts nothing but admiration from across the jazz world. But for years he has provoked equal doses of love and loathing. Those who disapprove say he’s an enemy of innovation as he attempts to put jazz in a box, precisely define it and set down a canon of the greats. As the notes of the Berlin Phil programme put it: “By and large he follows a classical path and vehemently rejects the avant-garde development of jazz after 1965 as well as the fusion movements of the 1970s. It’s a position that, by its very nature, is polarising.”

Marsalis is not fazed by the fact that he has enemies. “I love the music, which is why in my symphony I’ve been dealing with the history of jazz and the fact that it is present all the time, and in spite of the fact that that’s counter to what the critical establishment believes - that music goes from one place to another. I don’t subscribe to that. I feel that music is like life. I’m not going to throw this cup away [he picks up a cup] just because people drank from it. So I believe in the totality of the music, the sweep of it, and I don’t believe the conclusion of it was no time and no blues. In the symphony we can’t play like a ragtime the way Scott Joplin played it, nor do we try to play it that way. We try to re-speak those things in our style. The thing we bring to bear on the music is the sweep of it.”

He says ultimately it’s the music that proves itself, not its critics. “I’ve never lost faith in the power of music. Music and the arts rise on a stream that has nothing to do with what’s happening in your immediate environment. The truth of it will go so far past that because it’s about the human condition. Just take Shakespeare and Wagner. Which is why I never lose faith in the human condition and the upward ascent of human kind, which is unshakeable.

“Charlie Parker played bepop despite the people who said they didn’t like it. In this time I’d say a lot of Americans are not listening to that music. But did he lose the battle? No, his music still exists, and you can listen to it and it stands.” Marsalis even draws on the example of Bach. “In his lifetime he wrote St Matthew’s Passion and the people he worked for didn’t like it. It was too operatic, too long, it was too difficult for the singers to sing, so they demoted the guy. Did he win the battle? Well, we’re still playing his music."

Having first picked up a trumpet at the age of eight, Marsalis didn’t begin to venture into orchestral music until the 1990s. “I set out to learn about it after Kurt Masur asked me if I was afraid to write for orchestra,” he says. “I said, ‘I’m not afraid, I’m just incompetent, I don’t know how to do it. But I started to learn how to do it, like, systematically. And still I try to learn, and how to become better.”

"The experience of this will affect the way we play everything from now on,” says Rattle


The collaboration between the Berlin Philharmonic and the JALC (pictured above) – arguably the best classical orchestra in the world and the best jazz band – has been a valuable experience for both, Marsalis and Rattle readily concur. “The idea was not to do the normal thing”, says Rattle, “where you get the jazz band playing and then the orchestra doing something stiff in between or long notes, rather something where we’re really two orchestras, like a concerto for two orchestras, a conversation. And the experience of this will affect the way we play everything from now on.” But he adds how overwhelmed the Berlin Philharmonic initially felt about playing with the musicians of the JALC. “So many people in the orchestra said, ‘You know, the trouble is we just feel so stiff in comparison.’”

Marsalis immediately responds: “And we’re looking round every time someone plays and saying, ‘Damn, did you hear that?’ When the bass section played everyone in our band was, like, ‘Gee!’ When the trombonist played and his sound opened up the bassoon, and the flutes. There’s a certain deep respect and collegiality which is genuine.”

Even though Marsalis had just about completed the score by the time he arrived in Berlin, it didn't stop him, in the tradition of many great composers before him, from making tweaks and changes to it during the three intensive days of rehearsals. "What's been fascinating is to have been able to hear the changes in orchestration over the past days," Rattle says. "Marsalis's ears are open and he's playing like hell, and suddenly the next day there's another colour that he’s brought in."

Therein, he says, lies one of the main lures for the Berlin Philharmonic. "It's very, very exciting for the orchestra when the piece is still being created, because they say, 'Ah, now we can see what it is inside a composer's head and what they might be thinking.”

Wynton Marsalis and the JLCO perform in Stuttgart

Photo credit: Clay Patrick McBride

‘For years he has provoked equal doses of love and loathing. Those who disapprove say he’s an enemy of innovation as he attempts to put jazz in a box’

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters