My good friend I met in 1974, Leonard Belota, taught me a lot about jazz playing. He was a jazz historian, trumpet player, private teacher, music store expert, and a good salesman when needed, as when he sold suits at J.C. Penney. Our minds thought as one, although on opposite ends of the spectrum. He was always making me appreciate things I needed to appreciate as a jazz musician. He and I almost agreed on one thing, however, and that was that Wynton Marsalis was the best trumpet player in the history of music. To him, Miles Davis was THE ONLY genius to achieve that rank on trumpet, and I thought Wynton filled that role. We may both be right. Miles was the genius innovator, and Wynton is the best mind to ever play the instrument. Leonard died last year, and his widow (Betsy) gave me these tapes for the museum a few weeks ago. I have been transferring them to cd from cassette tapes as I get time. The swimming pool has been calling my name lately!
Leonard met Wynton when he moved to New York in the early 80s, and began working at Giardinelli’s, the top brass store in town. Leonard would go hear Wynton play at night every chance he got, and Wynton would come in the store and visit. Wynton saw in Leonard what most of us saw–a highly evolved soul who you could trust as a true friend. A really good guy. Leonard always had Wynton’s phone number if he needed it, and Wynton loved to see Leonard when he was in town. The guys from New York always called him Lenny, for some reason.
Leonard knew early on that Wynton would go on to be one of the greatest musicians of all time, genius always shows up early in life. That’s why Leonard thought it was important to record a young Wynton whenever possible, at the same time I was recording Doc Severinsen. The great ones need to have a microphone in front of them every time they play a note. That was our philosophy.
This tape is Wynton playing at the Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth in August of 1988. Wynton was 26 years old, playing “Cherokee”, the Ray Nobel jazz standard from 1938, only you won’t recognize it because Wynton had a pattern of never actually playing the melody on this piece. For jazz fans, he doesn’t need to–they listen to the chord changes in music mostly. For the mainstream public, the chord changes are never heard, so they would not recognize the tune.
Wynton plays a pretty fast tempo, and keeps going for a bit. There are two problems with that, if it’s me playing, not to mention endurance. One, is that you have to improvise really fast and create lines that I have trouble listening to that speed, much less improvising. Second, is that you always have to know where you are in the structure of the piece, which is 64 bars long and AABA. The three A sections in a row can get you lost real fast while you are improvising. It can turn you around very easily. One more thing, the B section is in an ungodly key that will stop you in your tracks. It throws most amateur jazz players like me under the bus. I was simply a lead and section player, not a great jazz player. See if you can hear the bridge when it rolls around. That’s the only guidepost I found.
Finally, I believe the great Marcus Roberts is on piano. He was with Wynton during those years, and although blind, plays like one of the best. When listening to his solo, I have no idea, at times, where he is in the piece of music. He even plays with the time. These guys make me feel really dumb when I hear them play such intricate passages. It’s nice to know they are some of the best ever.
If you ever hear anyone say jazz is a simple music, have them play this piece at this tempo and see how they sound. Jazz is a very intellectual art form that has been misunderstood for years, mainly by people thinking you need a college degree to play difficult music. Just because Wynton only had one year of college at Julliard means nothing. He is one of the greatest musicians ever and it’s great that Leonard knew this and thought to record him at an early age. Thank you Leonard! You continue to teach us all, even though you aren’t here anymore. These tapes have been in a box for 27 years, and Wynton is now 53. Enjoy this rare tape from my friend.