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jazz music musicians movement

Throughout jazz history, each new generation comes up with a new way of playing, expanding upon jazz’s legacy with new approaches and ideas. After the free jazz movement of the 1960s and the prominence of fusion in the 1970s, a conservative new movement was born, the Young Lions. Led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and fueled by pianist Ellis Marsalis, his father who taught many promising young musicians in New Orleans, the movement looked back to 1960s hard bop, Blue Note recordings, and the post-bop music of the Miles Davis Quintet from the mid-1960s. Rather than utilize electronics, the musicians were purely acoustic and even favored older clothing styles: young men wearing suits. In many ways it was a welcome change, an admission that jazz’s past styles were not exhausted of possibilities and that bands should not look scruffy in public.

On the plus side, the movement focused a lot of attention on acoustic jazz, inspiring younger musicians to explore jazz rather than focus on more commercial music. On the minus side, however, after a short time the major labels jumped on the bandwagon, signing up every attractive, young acoustic jazz musician they could find, many of whom were not ready to be leaders. It also inspired a backlash from overlooked and more mature musicians in their forties and fifties who were playing at a higher level than many of the Young Lions, and by avant-gardists who were stung by some of Wynton Marsalis’ more outlandish statements about their chosen style.

Although much of the music took place in New York, the concept was largely born in New Orleans, where many of the top Young Lions were originally based. Since twenty-first-century youngsters in New Orleans, just as in the old days, still hear brass bands at parades on a regular basis, the musicians have often found ways to incorporate parade rhythms in their originals, even when harmonically the style is light years away from the traditional New Orleans music. This feature often made their music sound different than that of the original hard boppers.


In the early 1980s Wynton Marsalis became the symbol for the revival of acoustic jazz, and to a certain extent he still is. A New Orleans native, he grew up surrounded by the sounds of traditional jazz, Dixieland, the small local modern jazz scene that his father was a part of, New Orleans r&b, and the funk/pop music of the 1970s. Marsalis began playing when he was six, studied classical music and jazz, and as a teenager played in both funk groups and classical orchestras. A brilliant trumpeter from a young age, in time he gravitated towards straight-ahead jazz. He already had phenomenal technique when he was eighteen, before attending Julliard and joining Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

Marsalis was on his way to becoming a household name. In addition to starring with Blakey from 1980 to 1982, he toured with Herbie Hancock and started leading albums of his own for Columbia. Not only was he recording jazz, but Marsalis also worked on classical projects, winning awards in both areas. He was also generating a great deal of publicity. During a period when most young black musicians were drawn toward r&b, rock, pop, funk, or fusion, Marsalis championed acoustic jazz and helped to revive hard bop. He was unquestionably a remarkable technician, as well as attractive, articulate, and outspoken. He was frequently quoted criticizing avant-garde jazz and fusion, even making unfavorable comments about Miles Davis’ later musical directions, despite Davis being a primary influence. Marsalis made headlines, and many younger musicians noticed.

In 1982 Wynton Marsalis formed a quintet that featured his older brother Branford Marsalis on tenor and soprano. Branford stayed with the group until 1985 when he departed to tour with rock bassist Sting, leading to a temporary rift with his brother. The siblings soon made up, and there remains a magical chemistry between them during their rare performances together. Over the past twenty years Marsalis’ sidemen have included such major talents as the late pianist Kenny Kirkland, bassists Charnett Moffett and Robert Hurst, drummers Jeff “Tain” Watts and Herlin Riley, and pianists Marcus Roberts and Eric Reed. His strongest band was a septet that included trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, altoist Wes Anderson, and Todd Williams on tenor. Marsalis’ own playing has gradually become more individual, moving away from the Miles Davis model by 1990, while his music has grown from its hard bop foundation toward more adventurous improvising, yet retaining a reverence for the music of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, whose music he often plays. He recorded frequently during the 1980s and 1990s and won a Pulitzer Prize, the first for a jazz musician, with his marathon work Blood on the Fields .

Having gained early recognition as one of jazz’s most important spokesmen, Marsalis has had a very strong impact on younger generations as artistic director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and as an important force in the jazz education movement. His statements tend to be conservative and have been controversial, but they have always been sincere and fueled by his experiences.


New Orleans has had three major musical movements. The first was early jazz, followed by a lively r&b scene that was at its prime in the 1950s and 1960s. The most recent movement, the Young Lions, has spawned not only Wynton Marsalis and his brothers, Branford on tenor and soprano, trombonist Delfeayo, and drummer Jason, but also many other talents.

Ellis Marsalis deserves a large part of the credit. A modern jazz pianist starting in the 1950s, Ellis Marsalis played hard bop and post-bop in New Orleans when it was underground music. To earn a living and raise his family, he also played regularly with Dixieland trumpeter Al Hirt’s band and was an important teacher. Among his students were pianist-singer Harry Connick Jr., flutist Kent Jordan, altoist Donald Harrison, and trumpeters Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, and Marlon Jordan. All have had significant careers.

The musical role models for most of these players and the Young Lions who came from other cities included trumpeters Miles Davis and Lee Morgan, altoist Jackie McLean, tenors Hank Mobley and Wayne Shorter, and pianists McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, and Bill Evans, not to mention Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Some of the Young Lions, particularly Connick, Payton, Harrison, and Wynton Marsalis, occasionally play traditional New Orleans jazz or incorporate aspects of that idiom into their new music, while others barely hint at New Orleans.

Among the other members of the Young Lions movement were trumpeters Roy Hargrove from Texas and Wallace Roney from Philadelphia, tenor-saxophonist Joshua Redman from Berkeley, pianists Benny Green from New York, and Marcus Roberts from Jacksonville, Florida. They share with the New Orleans-born musicians the desire to learn from the past, basing their early styles players from twenty or thirty years earlier, before in time finding their voice.

The best Young Lions survived both the initial acclaim and the backlash. They have since developed more original styles, sounding much more individual in their thirties than they had a decade earlier. Although they appreciate the accomplishments of their predecessors, they ultimately realized that to add to the legacy of jazz, they have to play themselves and develop fresh new ideas. They found ways of dealing with the jazz tradition rather than merely recreating the past, and now the Young Lions of the 1980s and 1990s are some of the main musical giants of today.


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