The Listening Room: Neo-Bop

Wynton Marsalis.

Based on the positive reaction to last week’s Brief Introduction to Jazz post, I decided to create a new weeklyish column called “The Listening Room,” where I introduce you to new artists/styles of music, and you tell me if you think they’re any good. Deal? Deal.

Today’s post features the musical style known as “Neo-Bop,” a style of jazz that was a reaction to the Fusion of the Seventies. The face of this movement was none other than Wynton Marsalis, a young trumpeter who was an alumnus of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messenger group.

Blakey was an extremely well-known drummer from the original bebop era who maintained a sort of hard knocks school for aspiring jazz musicians throughout the Fusion period, preferring to keep a link to the bop tradition of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk et al. He hired the best young musicians working in jazz and used his name to give them the opportunity to be seen and heard in the shrinking number of jazz clubs by leveraging his name.

Here you can see Wynton and older brother, Branford performing live with Blakey’s band in 1981, when Wynton was 19 years of age and Branford was 20.

Rumor has it that Blakey was asked if he would be hiring Wynton Marsalis to be full-time member of his group after this gig, at which point Blakey replied that Marsalis was still only a freshman at Juilliard, and that he wouldn’t be able to take him out of glass. Of course, Marsalis never had any intention of completing his undergraduate degree, and left school soon thereafter to become the darling of the New York uptown press.

However, it wasn’t Marsalis’ ability as a trumpeter (overrated technician, little addition to the jazz vocabulary) that compelled the Neo-Bop era into existence.

His first role was one of jazz historian, publicist, and fundraiser. He was instrumental in the creation of Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1987, helped it become a fully-funded musical group (much like the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera Company) and ultimately opened an entirely separate hall for JALC at Columbus Circle in 2004, the world’s first jazz recital hall. He established the Jazz Education program at Lincoln Center (Ohio native Todd Stoll, under whom I played Lead Alto in the Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra, became the leader of the education division) which helped legitimize jazz as a music that should be taught in public schools.

So, yes, all that was good. But it was his second role, as jazz inspiration and talent evaluator, that really helped Neo-Bop become a thing. With his relentless, 120+ night per year touring schedule, Marsalis inspired a renaissance in young musicians up and down both coasts and everywhere in between. These musicians became known as the “Young Lions.”

One of the most important musicians who was inspired by Marsalis and ultimately semi-discovered by him was Christian McBride. McBride was a young bassist, attending the performing arts high school in Philadelphia, when Marsalis’ touring group came to town. He called McBride up to perform a song from his record, Black Codes from the Underground, and legend has it that McBride already had the songs memorized and played them flawlessly. From there, McBride would go on to perform on over 70 recordings as a sideman before he could legally drink, and ultimately became that rarest of musicians—a bass-playing bandleader.

Here we hear McBride on his first recording as a leader, Gettin’ To It, performing one of his own compositions, “The Shade of the Cedar Tree.” He’s accompanied by many of the fine young players of that era, including Joshua Redman on tenor saxophone, Roy Hargrove on trumpet, and Cyrus Chestnut on piano, all of whom make beautiful musical statements here—and none of whom whom were over 30 years old at the time of this recording in 1994.

More often than not nowadays, McBride can be heard leading his own trio, featuring the wunderkind pianist Christian Sands. Enjoy this incredibly satisfying live performance of “I Guess I’ll Have to Forget.”


Another of Marsalis’ great finds was the Detroit saxophonist, James Carter. At the age of 16, Carter had already become famous in the jazz world through his attendance at the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp and Interlochen Music Academy in Michigan, where he had a habit of humiliating the faculty members with his play. Carter was considered a bit too raucous and flamboyant in his younger days—he had such a technical mastery and facility with his instrument that no pattern was too challenging, no tempo was too fast to master, no pitch was too high to reach. Although he was primarily a tenor saxophonist, Carter broke with tradition by playing soprano, alto, and baritone, as well. Even though everybody in the jazz world was intimately familiar with his play, no label would touch him. When he was 23, Carter ultimately decided to work with a Japanese label, DIW, to release his debut, J.C. on the Set. 

It was an instant hit, garnering 4 and 5 star reviews from every publication, and Columbia bought the rights to distribute it in the United States a year later. Carter won DownBeat’s prestigious Tenor Saxophonist of the year award—as well as Soprano Saxophonist and Baritone Saxophonist of the year, too.

Take a moment to embrace the pure bravado exhibited by Mr. Carter here on his debut. The rest of the band isn’t up to par with James’ playing, and the recording quality is marginal at best, but the playing was equal parts revolutionary and traditional—check out the “Rhapsody in Blue” quote, and the respect the traditional forms with the “I Got Rhythm” song structure “Eternal Triangle” bridge.

I would be remiss to not include any examples of Carter’s baritone saxophone work. Marsalis selected him to perform the baritone chair on his Pulitzer Prize winning recording, Blood on the Fields, and Carter is widely considered the world’s finest on the big horn.

Here he is with Detroit trumpeter, Dwight Adams, and the avant-garde pianist, D.D. Jackson on the extended blues-form tune, “Rapid Shave.” Listen for the idiomatic characteristics of Carter’s playing—extended range, rhythmically-oriented figures, and slap-tonguing.

That’s all for today. Enjoy the listening!


12 Replies to “The Listening Room: Neo-Bop”

  1. Chris Tonn

    Loving this series, Bark. I’ve been trying to “get” jazz, but I don’t have the background – you have been to quite literally every musical performance I’ve been involved with, if that tells you anything.

    That last track you shared from James Carter – damn. Though I will not be Googling “slap-tonguing.”

  2. Albert Ayler

    Ah yes, the exact type of jazz a republican would enjoy. you sound like patrick bateman talking about huey lewis and the news

    • Bark M Post author

      I was going to take this comment seriously, but then I realize that nobody actually likes Albert Ayler.

  3. ComfortablyNumb

    Disclaimer: I never made it past 2nd chair trumpet in high school, so I’m far from a trained musician.

    I think Wynton Marsalis’ reputation as a technical trumpeter comes from his classical work (check out his Hummel concerto), and I think it’s well earned. Why do you say he’s an overrated technician? I never really associated “technician” with jazz trumpet, so I’m struggling to think of a comparison.

    But yeah, his forte was leading and teaching. He was at Symphony Hall in Detroit sometime in the late 90’s, but he played maybe two songs and led his ensemble for the rest. I was disappointed at first, but by the end I was taking notes on everything he talked about between songs. He could inspire you without playing a note.

    Glad you’re sticking with this series. The artists in this edition are right in my wheelhouse. If you had put a Horace Silver track in here, I’d ask you how you got into my iTunes account.

    • Bark M Post author

      Wynton strikes a lot of musicians as being profoundly inauthentic. I think a lot of that has to do with the classical recordings and the Juilliard training, to be sure, but his playing always sounds affected. Unlike James Carter, for example, who seems to really mean his squawking and growling, Wynton comes across as somebody who’s trying a little too hard.

      All the love and respect for Branford, though.

  4. bjarnetv

    Looking forward to reading more of this series!
    Being the owner of two rather huge LAB12 based tapped horn subs, i always blast Night Train from “gettin’ to it” when i know the neighbours not at home.

  5. David Florida

    I stopped buying Wynton’s albums shortly after I stopped buying vinyl – and soon after buying Branford’s Romances for Saxophone on CD, which will eventually be used to educate my children. While my opinion is uninformed by any work following junior high concert band, I will always remember the first time I heard Wynton play Flight of the Bumblebee… technical, yes, but he earned it the old fashioned way!

      • Bark M Post author

        Your kids have good taste!

        My musical mentor, Victor Goines, used to tell me that Jazz was dancing music, and that anything that didn’t make you want to dance wasn’t Jazz. I dig that.

  6. David Florida

    The kids have danced to jazz before this. There’s this long story about an enhanced book in their Skybrary app, which is an adaptation of the old Reading Rainbow shows. In short, they know who Duke Ellington was, thanks to the inclusion of a snippet from Jubilee Stomp in an electronic book narrated by Levar Burton, and also the Shazam app. What a wonderful world!

  7. Jonathan Edwards

    Hadn’t seen this earlier, but I really enjoyed it. I am far from a Jazz aficionado, but it has been more than a passing interest of mine for quite a while.

    That Christian McBride trio number was pretty great. As someone who enjoys Jazz Piano more than trumpet or saxophone, who else do you recommend? I have been a Beegie Adair fan for years, but most of her stuff is less original. Her technical skill is profound, and I really enjoy her arrangements.


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