Wynton Marsalis has made a significant contribution to jazz literature with Moving to a Higher Ground. That this contribution arrives in the form of a self-help book presents some challenges to readers and critics accustomed to dismissing such material as uncomplicated fluff. Marsalis’s formidable skills as a teacher, honed in symposia around the world and especially at Jazz at Lincoln Center, are very much [End Page 512] on display here. Technical discussions of jazz music theory, jazz terminology, and jazz biography mix with “bandstand etiquette,” as he calls it, in a series of contrapuntal lessons on everyday life (30). Marsalis confronts diverse challenges, like getting a job, keeping a relationship together, or staying healthy, with principles and anecdotes learned from a lifetime in jazz. He extrapolates a way of life from the music’s formal qualities, focusing on “the creative tension between self-expression and self-sacrifice . . . a tension that is at the heart of swinging, in music and in life” (xvi). Choreographer Twyla Tharp, in The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, and visual artist Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, have found sizable audiences by writing self-help books based around their aesthetic practices. Marsalis shares with these writers a willingness to repackage the techniques and symbolic range of his art in portable platitudes.
The notion of a jazz self-help book would have been laughable in the first half of the twentieth century. Many people then associated jazz with psychological turbulence, substance abuse, rootlessness, and social disease: hence Ishmael Reed’s humorous re-telling, Mumbo Jumbo, of the Jazz Age as though the music were an epidemic. Kathy Ogren’s study The Jazz Revolution recounts the early debates that framed the music as barbaric, primitive, and deranging. However, other sources within the early twentieth-century jazz tradition are more ambivalent. Critics customarily read Louis Armstrong’s biography Satchmo as an ethnographic document of New Orleans lowlife history, but it is also a bootstrapping narrative in the tradition of Horatio Alger. Jazz has a significant history as a physical and cultural palliative, whether providing respite from the alienations of urbanization and industrialization, or imagining new forms of multicultural American nationalism. Marsalis syncopates these effects in his self-help philosophy. Turning the association between jazz and schizophrenic modernity on its head, he argues that jazz musicians have “a natural ease with those teetering on the edge of sanity,” and “a way of admonishing but not alienating those who might have drug problems” (5). He uses the formal beauty of jazz to theorize a mode of socialization and a tool of social critique.
The most significant lesson of “bandstand etiquette” has to do with human interaction: “Jazz musicians have to listen and communicate” (22). A huge number of self-help books, assuming the basically anomic character of modern life, focus on problems in conversation, especially between genders. Marsalis claims that the non-verbal balance of musicians working together offers a good model for other kinds of human communication. He works this idea into his definition of “swing”:
Swing tests your inner resources; it can make you question who you are, make you reach deeper, make you respond more freely. When musicians swing, they are doing in music what we would like to do when we speak: say exactly what we feel so that our fellow conversationalists understand and accept it and are moved to reveal in response what they know and feel.(41; original emphasis)
Jazz presents this example to the world because, unlike other forms of musical performance, it requires improvisation as a structural element. Marsalis’s emphasis on the communicative dynamic of improvising musicians—and its potential political and social implications—runs against romantic-racialist notions of inborn musical genius. Instead, he offers a vision of jazz as a refining expression of American individualism...