In Moving To Higher Ground, Wynton Marsalis gives a concise, broad survey of jazz music and it history. The subtitle of the book is How Jazz Can Change Your Life, because he writes about his struggles to mature as an American through his experiences as a musician. It’s an interesting combination. Everything you need to know about jazz, plus one musician’s take on why jazz music matters.
On the jazz instruction side, Marsalis cuts through a lot of vague slippery stuff to explain the building blocks. Jazz is about freedom, and its musicians must explore and present their individual uniqueness to make the music come alive. Jazz is about swing, which means that the music thrives when performers and audience all feel a common pulse of rhythm. Swing is about community, and the musician who can’t or won’t play in time sticks out like a child having a tantrum. Marsalis also writes about blues as the emotional content and story of jazz. Anyone who takes a sober look at American history understands why blues is the central melody running through all American music.
The personal stuff in this book is just as precious as the conceptual material. Marsalis has so many great stories about how older musicians taught and humbled him. Dizzy asked him to play something for him when they first met, and the teen Marsalis gave it a try. Dizzy leaned close and whispered, “Practice, motherf’er!” Great stories like that all over the place.
Here’s the deal: If you’re a musician or jazz fan, you’ll get something out of this book. It’s instructive, entertaining, and it’s also a great reminder that you better stop trying to be the next Charlie Parker or whoever. Grow, be humble, play your music, play good music. That’s a pretty good approach to things, don’t you think?