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Jazz messenger <br> Throughout his esteemed career, Wynton Marsalis has never compromised

It wouldn't work quite as well these days. But not too long ago, here is a game that could be played at any jazz event -- nightclub appearance, concert, you name it.

Find a group of serious jazz types during intermission. As you walk past, say at the top of your lungs (to no one in particular): "WYNTON MARSALIS?" Stop when you're 20 feet away and see how long it takes for a serious argument to start. Time it. Place wagers on the result.

With the right group, it would have taken less than a minute. Among the more civil (or less informed), it might have taken as long as three minutes.

Jazz itself is no longer as controversial. Nor has Marsalis, as he approaches his 50s (he's 48), hardened his once-dogmatic almost belligerent positions. Maturity and responsibility seem to have loosened him up, if not exactly softened him. And thank heaven for that.

He remains, even in the different and chillier jazz climate of the 21st century, unique -- not just in jazz but in every other art form, too.

Neither Spielberg in Hollywood nor even Wagner in Bayreuth were completely comparable. As head of the jazz program of Lincoln Center -- the central jazz presentation body in America's cultural capital -- Marsalis he has presided over what is, without question, the country's most important single jazz repertory program.

And though we are far from alone, Buffalo has been able to check in on Wynton Marsalis at every stage of his astonishing career.

We were there, for instance, at an early version of the now-vanished Artpark Jazz Festival when Marsalis and his saxophonist brother Branford were the young monster frontline horn soloists in a wildly memorable early-1980s version of the Art Blakey Jazz Messenger.

We were there when Marsalis brought one of the more magnificent editions of his own working quintet -- with pianist Marcus Roberts and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts -- to the Tralfamadore.

And we've had repeated visitations by Marsalis in what is, arguably, his finest role, as soloist, jazz patron and leader of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. He'll return with the orchestra for a Saturday concert in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts to play, among other things, a seven-movement suite by Ted Nash inspired by modern artists called "Portrait in Seven Shades." It's important to note that Nash was one of the more popular jazz musicians to perform in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's Art of Jazz series.

Who is this once-embattled cultural touchstone?

Marsalis was born in New Orleans in 1961 to one of the most astonishing of American families, that of pianist, musical patriarch and educator Ellis Marsalis.

Marsalis' family isn't quite as full of musicians as the Bachs, but it's not far from it. His brother Branford is a renowned jazz saxophonist and leader; his brother Delfeayo is a trombonist/leader and important record producer; and his young brother Jason has become one of his family's go-to drummers (as well as a drummer for others).

What no one in his right mind would dispute is that Wynton Marsalis is among the greatest living trumpet players in jazz -- and one of the greatest in its history. Nor could anyone dispute that he is a jazz explicator of singular eloquence and profundity. (In Ken Burns' massive documentary, "Jazz," no one was better than Marsalis at drawing poetic and philosophic parallels between jazz and America itself.)

After that, stand back. It's an argument. Still. Here are some of the positions taken by some musicians and the best living jazz critics:

Singer Betty Carter (quoted by Stanley Crouch): "I believe he arrived here to bring the music back."

Stanley Crouch (often considered Marsalis' closest musician adviser, even mentor): "What Marsalis became went far beyond what anyone thought was in the offing, even those impressed by his enfant terrible stage. . . He went on to become both the Dizzy Gillespie and the Duke Ellington of his generation."

Gary Giddins (with Scott DeVeaux in the masterly overview "Jazz"): "An audacious trumpet virtuoso who loudly denied that avant-garde music and fusion had anything to do with jazz. Marsalis also sought to alter the personal styles of musicians. Ridiculing the dashikis, occasional face paint and general informality in the way musicians appeared onstage, he insisted on a suit and tie dress code that reinstated the elegance of Swing-Era bands. Marsalis was the ultimate Reagan-era jazz musician . . . Highly intelligent, impeccably groomed and fiercely outspoken, he changed the discussion in jazz from world, popular and classical music to the strict interpretation of jazz parameters, insisting that jazz had to swing with particular regularity."

Francis Davis: "When Marsalis exploded on the jazz scene . . . the proof of his commitment to jazz was supposed to be that, although he played classical music, he clearly regarded jazz as a higher calling. Marsalis improbably combined his youthful arrogance with an obeisance to tradition that bordered on ancestor worship; Columbia's success in marketing him convinced the other major (labels) that the trick to selling jazz was to play up its genealogy and long history of esoteric appeal even while attempting to demystify by means of trim young figures in designer suits."

Down the road, as Lincoln Center administrator, writes Davis, he would be accused of "cronyism, ageism, reverse racism and narrow-mindedness in closing the doors of that establishment to respected avant-gardists."

Marsalis wrote in his 2008 book "Moving to Higher Ground" (co-written with Geoffrey C. Ward, who co-wrote the Marsalis idolatry of Burns' "Jazz" on PBS): "The notion that you must obliterate the fundamentals of an art to have an important and powerful contemporary identity is almost impossible to fight. There are generations of academics dedicated to this misconception, and they're not just going to go away. There are too many students left to ruin . . . The stuff that people still call avant-garde was worked out in Germany in the early part of the twentieth century. It came to jazz fifty years later and now -- more than fifty years after that -- it's still less modern than the music King Oliver's band was playing in the 1920s."

A good argument could be made, then, that the Nash suite inspired by 20th century art that Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Orchestra are going to play in Buffalo represents both a major advance in Marsalis' own ideas and, at the very least, a major loosening of the post-New Orleans dogmatism he's been clubbing everyone over the head with for decades now.

Is it possible that Wynton Marsalis, one of the all-time greatest jazz educators, has also been learning a thing or two through the years?



WHAT: Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: University at Buffalo Center for the Arts Mainstage, North Campus,Amherst

TICKETS: $39.50-$49.50 (box office, Ticketmaster)