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Review: Marsalis captures the jazzy swing of 'Life'

book cover

"Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life"
By Wynton Marsalis and Carl Vigland
Da Capo Press
249 pages

By Larry Meagher
Special to CNN

(CNN) -- There is a moment, in that dark room where people rustle in their seats as they look eagerly toward an empty stage, when anything is possible. What comes next, they know, can be good or bad, brilliant or uninspired, uplifting or depressing.

Out of this moment pregnant with anticipation and anxiety, an unbreakable bond can be forged between the people waiting in the seats and the people waiting in the wings. It is a moment ripe with creative and spiritual opportunity. It draws musician and audience alike toward the lights of the stage. In the next moment, something will happen. Either the opportunity will be seized and everyone in the room will be transformed, or the opportunity will be squandered.

But in this moment, this fleeting interval between heartbeats, everything is possible.

Welcome to jazz.

Wynton Marsalis has experienced of lifetime of moments waiting to step before a crowd of strangers. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if he has spent his life living from one such moment to the next. Those who know him only from his recordings and performances and reputation as a musician could easily believe that between those moments, Wynton Marsalis doesn't really exist at all. He is such a master of the trumpet, it's hard to imagine that he could have the energy do to anything but play it the way he does.

But Marsalis has such a full life away from the concert halls and the jazz clubs and the recording studios, the true wonder is that he has the energy left to play the trumpet as well as he does. Which is better than virtually everyone else on the planet.

Passing choruses back and forth

Marsalis opens the door on his other self with "Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life." It's the story of Marsalis on the road, traveling with his jazz group all over the world. Magazine writer Carl Vigland was on the bus, behind the stage, on the basketball court, in the diners and hotels with Marsalis and his cohorts during a five-year span that saw them solidify their reputation as the best, truest jazz band around. It was during this time that Marsalis came into his own as a composer and staked his place in contemporary culture as a teacher and historian of jazz music.

Marsalis and Vigland take turns writing the book, like soloists passing choruses back and forth on the bandstand. The result is refreshingly honest and insightful. They poke fun at each other, using the nicknames, "Skain" and "Swig," that they earned during their travels. (On the road, everyone has a nickname.)

Vigland knows music and can hold his own in arguments about form and style and phrasing and the emotion that flows from sound. More important to Marsalis, though, is that he can shoot some hoop.

Exploring creativity

"Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life" is a chronicle of life on the road. It is not a chronology. It's not a scrapbook of gigs played and sessions recorded, of what happened when and who was there. It's an attempt to put the reader inside the creative union that develops among men who spend all day together on a bus and all night together on a stage.

The writing is beautiful. Vigland's narrative, offered in standard print, is an artful counterpoint to the subjective account Marsalis gives of the same events, printed in italics.

"By now," Vigland writes of his friend's trumpet, "I have heard that horn all across the United States, watched its finger buttons pushed down, felt the release of air in its valves as if they were the pumping chambers of a human heart and the sound emanating from the trumpet's bell, the breeze blown to every corner of the country."

"To put on your suit and play jazz music," Marsalis responds, "knowing that many people in your audience have never experienced any jazz whatsoever, you have to believe beyond the fear of rejection. But that fear is part of creating."

There are wonderful stories in the book, about men and women, boys and girls, and the richness they give Marsalis' life away from the stage. There are explorations of themes -- race and religion, male and female, truth and falsehood -- played against a background of movement that is both invigorating and mind numbing. Cities become interchangeable. Only the people leave lasting impressions.

"Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life" may be a slender book, but it's a towering monument to the music and the people who make it. Marsalis and Vigland have captured the spirit of the musicians and their music and translated it to the written word. Those words echo the cadence of the life musicians live on the road. If you listen, you can hear them swing.

• Da Capo Press

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