I always remember that Christmas meal: gumbo, some type of barbecue, and stuff that was not made for Thanksgiving.
I remember the day after Christmas when everybody was out with their new toys that would be broken in a week or two. You had to enjoy those fleeting moments of initial possession. Our family had enough brothers for opposing teams in all sorts of games. It was always Branford and Ellis vs me and Delfeayo in Monopoly, Scrabble, Operation….. everything in that era before electronic games.
After eating, we would have our holiday football game and then argue into evening about who really won. In high school Branford and I always played some type of dance at night. It was funky and soulful. We would also visit friends and talk about whose momma made the best pot of gumbo. We loved Charlie Brown because the music was good.
There was always a lot of music around Christmas.
A lot. There still is.
Our momma and daddy scuffled to get funds together to buy things for all of us. They did a great job making it good for us. Not till I became an adult did i understand what it was for them and that the difficulty also made it more special and intense. Every passing Christmas makes me even more grateful for their efforts in difficult times. Yeah!
I love all the pagentry around Christmas- the spiritual and commercial implications of it all and there is a lot of music. There still is.
December 2nd 2010
New York City
My great uncle was born in 1890. He was an artisan who cut the names and last statements of the deceased into their resting stones. I lived with him for the entirety of my 6th year and visited on many weekends. He taught me so many valuable lessons passed down from 'old folks sometime long ago' in stories, songs and folkways. My experiences with him saved me from falling into the generation gap. I return in my mind always to his shotgun house on Gov. Nicholls St. in New Orleans with its lack of hot water, 1930's appliances, and big super-cooling house fan.
I can still hear the morning news radio with his personalized and pungent commentary on every story; can still smell his morning coffee, feel the hand mower he made me use to cut his lawn. 'The War' for him meant WW1, and all of the great technological achievements of the 20th century were 'miracles.' His fascination with these new things was tempered by a sense that there was still a lot to develop in the human condition. He loved to say things like, "We can put a man on the moon but can't fix one block of asphalt." He was not in any accepted sense of the word 'cultured'. But my great uncle had a general sense of Americana that included everything from the Gettysburg Address to the Ballad of John Henry to stories of Marie Laveau the voodoo queen to countless Creole songs. Yes, he knew many things, but he never so much as mentioned Buddy Bolden and Jazz. You see, he was Creole and Creoles didn't put too much stock in Buddy Bolden's kind. And through that inbred underestimation, he missed or misunderstood the most significant thing to happen in New Orleans (besides the Robert Charles riots and the closing of Storyville) in his time. In a way, when I first realized this, I felt like the English bluesmen who came to America in the 1960's and saw that many of us were completely ignorant of the blues, in large part due to a traditional undervaluing of our darker brothers and sisters. But my great uncle was an everyday working class man, and though he had a keen sense of what was going on in the world (at least it seemed from what he told the radio), he was not looking to be a crusader for peace or education, or looking to save the soul of the American people. He was living and being himself. And some kind of way, he clearly understood and could articulate that 'who he was' was in the stories he told and the songs he sung and in his humor. He would say," that's just the way I do it." Well he died in 1982 and I wish he was alive today so I could tell him about Buddy Bolden and Jazz and what he missed… And he would've loved it, if the story was well told. He used to say, "I'm gon tell you this one with my own tongue" which meant absolutely no reading.
My uncle Alphonse, lived art with no pretensions to being any more sophisticated than the next stonecutter. He knew that art goes hand in hand with survival because 'what people do' becomes art. And the ceremonial practice of 'what people do' becomes essential to maintaining and enriching a way of life. We are always in a crisis and its always time for a renaissance.
When grown men and women debate and fail to find common ground on anything except the necessity for graft; when laws replace ethics and every law is for sale; when the educated abuse the uneducated at every turn; when the old no longer know their own young and all that is and was seems to have never been; when the volume becomes unbearable and we are detached from all rituals from birth to death to rituals of courtship to rituals of worship; when we lift our voices to sing after profound national tragedy and no collective song emerges; no hint of the fiddler's reel of Davy Crockett or of the plaintive wail of a western ballad, or the deep moan of the Negro spiritual or the joyous jump of a swinging band; no tinge of Whitmanesque breadth, Faulknerian irony, Ellingtonian largeness of spirit. We are lost and have no idea how to be found. Like Europeans of the 14th century searching in vain for causes of the Black Death when it was crawling all around them, we look to everything but the source. It's time to return to the center, to home. Home is about stripping down, being naked. For a people, that home is the collective memory, the stories and ways that make us who we are; the symbols that speak to our soul. When these stories and myths are no longer a part of the national consciousness, the national discussion—-people are in trouble. It's time for Buddy Bolden. He taught us how to speak our mother tongue. He showed us it was alright to be yourself. His music was designed to respect and inspire other folks' individuality and creativity even as it highlighted his own. And Buddy always told the truth when he opened up his horn:
"I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say, pick it up slow and take it away. I thought I heard him say. If Buddy tells you then you been told. Cause what he says don't ever get old. His horn stays hot its never cold. Please Mr. Bolden play."
They say that before Buddy Bolden played his famous cornet call. He would say, "It's time to call my children home."
And let us reflect on Concord, New Hampshire and the 15th anniversary of the Capitol Center for the Arts.
I love towns of the North East, especially in the fall. Colonial style houses, red, burnt umber (frank stewart's word), and gold leaves speckle the grass and are strewn about clean-cut streets. This cacophony of terra-cotta and yellow, frames the solitary majesty of trees in various states of undress starkly against the clear baby blue sky.
Its 6am. Frank and I are going to meet a friend for breakfast in Fairhaven. The morning air slaps you into the freshness of a day. Just a few hours ago we were on the stage swinging and working things out for patrons of the Capitol Center. The feeling was one of deep, small-city soul. We love playing community theatres because a tight-knit group of die-hards is always at the center of activities. They make great sacrifices for the arts knowing that concerts, plays, museums, shows, ballets, etc. bring people together for something meaningful. Now, everyone may not understand or may not even like everything that's on the stage, but they love the fact of it being there. People here know each other and each other's kids and grandkids.
The Capitol Center raised over $2million from 1990 to 1995 to renovate their historic theatre. The 2mil was still not enough to paint the ceiling, so more than 3000 volunteer hours were expended to make thing stylish and right. The Center brings all kinds of people I love from BB King to Alvin Ailey American Dance to Metropolitan Opera House broadcasts. The gig was relaxed. It was uncommonly happy for a black tie gala. People in Concord make this house part of their lives. It's evident in the natural way they inhabit the space. We are joined by Bobby Allende and Christian Rivera on timbales and congas for several red hot songs and the band is glad to be on the road playing for folks. After the gig we go to the reception and meet people and enjoy them enjoying themselves and the success of the Center.
Here's some of what I hear. "Mr. Marsalis this was my first jazz concert and it wasn't bad. Wasn't bad at all." Now that's not, "I just loved it," but it's an honest 'that was ok and I might check it out again'. You don't have to give me no more than that, if you don't feel it. One gentleman told me I played with his high school band some years ago and it impacted his life in a very meaningful way. I thanked him and explained that you never know if all those many years of encouraging young people to play has any effect. He spoke with such sincerity that his wife began to get full and she brought me to the edge of getting full too.
The band at the reception started playing 'Brick House'. I must have played that song 10,000 times in high school. It took me right back to so many wedding receptions, and proms, and dances. Damn! (Time is no enemy but a friend) I reminded myself. Flo Woods said, "Mr. Marsalis, working in this theatre is my golden retirement plan….and I LOVE IT." Evie showed me her name tag and said, "…..Well, I had y'all on my bucket list. I'm almost ready to go now." Young Chris Burbank who was at Juilliard (playing all kinds of trumpet just a few years ago) came with David, a high school student he is mentoring.
I always love to see musicians in their twenties leading teenagers into the music and into an understanding of what it means to be a young adult. David was excited to meet me. I said,"Stop bullshitting son" (my standard line to kids who think I'm a big deal). We both laughed and talked about the importance of reading and developing your intellect. Yeah, it was a special night. I was telling Ryan at sound check that I played these types of community theatre's all over America throughout the 80's and 90's. He just looked slightly over to me and nodded.
Executive Director Nicki Clarke summarised it all in her beautiful opening remarks when she further rallied the troops in saying,"…. as we embark on the Capitol Center’s journey through the next fifteen years and beyond, what continues to remain at the center of our work is the transformative power of that moment of live performance when the audience becomes one with an artist. That is the core of who we are. A couple of weeks ago a young women who had not spoken for many months finally did so with the words ‘thank you’ after attending a performance….." That's what we say to everyone in attendance in Concord on thursday. Yeah.
It's 7:30am. I'm ironing a suit and going out to vote-looking at a worn stone my great uncle who was born in 1883 and died in 1982 carved, 'Don't be Discourage'. He was a stone worker for the cemeteries in New Orleans. I look at that when facing a seemingly futile proposition or a corruption so great, you feel paralyzed. Alphonse was his name. We called him Pomp.
He was known for not taking shit in the days when that WAS your identity if you were black and out of your lane. He believed in voting and following the news on the radio.
Hmmm…news? It's all entertainment now, but he was never cynical. Pomp said 'make 'em cheat you to your face. Never stay home'.
We need a revolution.
I became serious about playing the trumpet at age 12. My teacher was John Longo. At our first lesson he played two albums: the Chicago Symphony's performance of Ravel-Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition' (Adolph Herseth principal trumpet) and Clifford Brown with Strings. "Lil brother, that's what a trumpet should sound like." I listened to that Clifford w Strings everyday and learned every note on it. Basin Street and Brown and Roach Inc. and anything with Clifford is inspirational. His sound has such warmth, clarity, and pure intelligence—humanity. You have to love him. We have a picture of Branford at about 2yrs old in diapers holding a copy of Clifford and Max on Basin Street. In high school Book and I loved to play Powell's Prances and I loved Time and Sweet Clifford and Joy Spring and everything. Damn! Clifford can play. Those recordings were rare in the early 70's. I remember my high school band director, George Marks (he was a trumpet player), borrowed my fathers Clifford and Max records. He didn't want to give them back! He said, "listening to these are like finding treasure." Yeah. Even though the music is available everywhere now, it is still treasure. Clifford's son Clifford Jr. is a pure credit to his memory and one of the greatest friends jazz has ever had. He brings a feeling and a soul to every occasion. His way of being extends his father's lyrical legacy of kindness (the most eloquent of all human actions). Every note from Clifford's horn is a gem. I love him and everyone who loves music loves him. Happy Birthday Clifford. Yeah. Keep playing. Wynton
I want to thank everyone for the beautiful birthday wishes. It was and is uplifting and each one was greatly appreciated and felt. Today is Dizzy Gillespie's birthday.
He was one of our very greatest, valuable and unique jazz people. From his embouchure to his way of speaking to his way of weaving a story, Diz was an original. Not only an unsurpassed trumpeter and innovator, Dizzy was a great dancer, teacher, wit, and spiritual presence. He believed in consolidating musicians and the music, in celebrating and extending its traditions and in bringing its enlightening impact to as many people as possible as often as possible.
We talked many times about small band vs big band.
He would say, "the big band has a small band inside of it…….losing your orchestral music should not be considered an achievement." Dizzy told me Louis Armstrong GAVE gifts on his birthday and that Pops once gave him a shoe box of excellent weed on that occasion. Dizzy was for real on his horn and in life.
In that birthday tradition of Armstrong, let's receive all the love, insight and excellence Dizzy put out here for us for so long and listen to some Diz today or read come of his 'To Be or Not to Bop'.
Happy birthday Diz.
Listening to the 9 CD's of Mexican traditional music given to me by a hermano in Mexico City.
Victor Alejandro Brian Avendano Ramos, who is driving, is telling me what region the music is from and what its function is. We joke about his 5 names. but that levity does not obscure the message. There are many styles and much depth in this music and in the art of Mexico. Now we are hearing a groove that sounds like New Orleans Indians with ritual flute playing. Before that was a most abstract-scratchy-violin-slightly out of tune-incantation about death (I think).
We speak in extremely limited Spanish and English about how people are stereotyped and you have to know people to understand what they are about. Zora Neale Hurston said, "You have to go there to know there." I have always found Mexico to be a place rich in culture, hospitality and diversity.
I told him the Afro-American stereotypes are taken to represent us also.
He said, "I know, I see the videos." We laugh but don't.
If whoever gave me these cd's reads this, can you give me your contact info please?
Down on the Bayou where the mighty Mississippi kisses Lake Pontchartrain and spills into the Gulf of Mexico. There sits that jewel of the Southland. What the French lost to the British who gave it to the Spanish who lost it back to the French who sold it to America for….. Well, some folks say Jefferson conned Napoleon in a card game and won it for some jambalaya and a chicory coffee.
New Orleans, N’Awlins, the Crescent City, the Big Easy, the northern capitol of the Caribbean, Groove City. Man, they have things down there you wouldn’t believe. A mythic place of Mardi-Gras and mumbo, Voodoo and the moss-covered, alligator-spiked pathways of back-country swamp drained and sprinkled with gris-gris dust to house a wild, unruly population. A city with they own cuisine, they own architecture, they own music..streets with names like Dorgenois and Tchoupitoulas.
People in crazy costumes parading talkin ’bout “throw me somethin’ mistah,” dressed like Indians chanting ’bout “Madi,Madi-Cudifiyo,” sittin in the young twilight on the ‘poach’ of they camelback shotgun house eatin po’ boys bout to ‘make’ groceries for the crawfish ‘burl’ they gon’ have on ‘Sadday.’ They sing through horns down there you know. Yeah Padnah! Something called Jazz, started by a cornet man named Bolden. They say Bolden could play so loud the sun was scared to set. Some folks say the air is so thick down here you can eat it with a spoon.
Drummers drag rhythms in dirgey solemnity down neighborhood streets as horns moan, mock and moo. Man, hot notes echo against the sky with such weight as to be objects. Objects of sorrow so passionately played that the dead begin to cry. Then that trumpet calls and everyone falls in behind the band for a second line parade and those musicians get to hollerin and shoutin and folks get to struttin and steppin and the living let go of the dead and sorrow soon becomes laughter. In New Orleans we bury our dead above ground. They always walk amongst us…. but that music… It always ends happy. So when a strong rain brings angry winds howlin’ down the Mississippi or up from the Gulf, those misty winds carry the dreams of ghosts, yes, but not just the goblins of Marie Laveau the Voodoo queen, or the tortured spirits of the legendary, lascivious lovelies of Storyville sporting houses, or even the undead demons of corrupt politicians who have steeled our idealism over three colorful centuries. They also bring the spirits of Saints, of those who have lived here in quiet dignity and sanctified religiosity, of those who have raised kids in the shadow of the St. Louis Cathedral and Sundayed in Jackson Square or of the River Walk lovers holding hands… of many who have fallen in love here, proposed here, honeymooned here. Not just the howling ghouls of the frat-boy drunks on Bourbon Street, but they also bring the angels of all who have romanced in and with this beautiful land on the Delta.
Yes, the ‘haints become more famous but the Saints endure. Where were you when 85,000 people gathered in the last open seated stadium in professional football to witness John Gilliam run our very first kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown? When Tom Dempsey kicked that 63 yard field goal with half-a-right foot? When Tom Fears, Hank Stram, and Jim Mora prowled the sidelines? Were you there when Howard Stevens, Danny Abromowicz, Rickey Jackson, and Archie Manning donned the black and gold? Ahhh..those New Orleans Saints! Confined to a purgatory of their own making, looking for the fast track to hell. Maybe a brand new dome would appease the gods of football—a Superdome.
Fathers bounced kids on their knees while explaining how we would certainly blow our 30 point halftime lead by game’s end…..and the Saints did not disappoint. Were you there when the Dome Patrol brought us to the upper chambers of purgatory in search of playoffs, playoffs..playoffs? Yes, ‘haints become famous but Saints endure. Just ask Deuce. If 4 years is a long time: (your high school years, your college days, the length of the Civil War..WWII)…then 43 years is an eternity. You ever wait for something so long that waiting for it becomes the something? You ever see grown folks put bags over their heads in public, covering up to hide from themselves like an old alcoholic who won’t admit? We can’t help it. We’re with our Saints even when we ‘aint. New Orleans people are stubborn and hate to leave home. Down here, people like to brag about how they handle tragedy. Epochal hurricanes like Betsy and Camille are discussed as if they’re people. “Betsy was bad but Camille, ‘Lawd Have Mercy,’ the water was up here to my neck.” Nobody brags on Katrina. She swept through here like death on a high horse. Those flood waters seemed to run all the demons, goblins, AND saints away forever. There goes old Jean Lafitte, the pirate, relocated to Houston; there goes old Jelly Roll Morton off somewhere in Memphis with that diamond still sparklin in his front tooth.
But quick to return is the unbending will and irrepressible spirit, sin-dipped in Tabasco sauce and spiced with file’ in possession of an unshakable, unbreakable soul that Louis Armstrong first announced to the entire world through a red hot trumpet, that Danny Barker broadcasted on a burnished banjo, and Sidney Bechet shouted and screamed through a scorching horn said to be a soprano saxophone. And here comes that chastened Noah’s arc of a dome rising from ignominy to become again a beacon of community. And, oh yes, they are still down here marching in those funny-named streets blowing history AND the present moment through singing horns. And people still dance with abandon, exuberance, and unbridled human feeling because that music tells ‘em “what has been may be what is, but what will be cannot possibly be known.”
We live the moment. Laissez les bon temps rouler! — Let the Good Times Roll. I think I hear that trumpet calling the children of the Who Dat Nation home–not Gabriel’s or the horns that blew down the walls of Jericho–that jazz trumpet conjuring up the spirit world with a Congo Square drum cadence. Ghosts, goblins, and ‘haints aggravate. Saints congregate. I hear them now bringing that 43 year second line to a glorious crescendo. “Who Dat Say What Dat When Us Do Dat?” It’s like waiting 43 years to hear somebody say ‘I Love You’ back. And they do. Let the tale be told ’bout the black and gold won the Super Bowl.
And those jazzmen still play sad songs, but they always end happy…they always do.
After 43 years of pain, the New Orleans Saints have finally reached the promise land. For all of us who have grown up with the Saints, the impossible has become a reality. Lord have mercy!
The super bowl game poses an interesting conundrum for Peyton Manning, son of the most beloved Saint of all time Archie Manning. Peyton, a New Orleans boy who has to be infected with the same irrational love all New Orleanians have for the Saints, must now summon all of his skills and heart to defeat his hometown team. I feel for him.
I'm sure he will be a professional but he's in a bad spot. Love and respect to him and, of course, the New Orleans Saints and the Who Dat Nation.
In the past thirty years, I have had the good fortune to teach thousands of bands and an incalculable number of students in diverse settings. Though each situation is unique, students share many of the same concerns in pursuit of a more profound relationship with music and with life through music. Every style of music presents distinct challenges which demand the development of different skills. Jazz requires creativity, communication and community.
Through improvising we learn to value our own creativity; through swing we coordinate our communication with others; and through the blues we learn to find and celebrate 'meaning' in the tragic and absurd parts of life that afflict every community. Certainly three things worth learning. I believe jazz revolutionized the art of music by vesting the individual musician with the authority to 'tell their story' and by positing that an even larger 'story' could be told, by choice, by a group of equally empowered musicians. Our educational system has yet to be retooled to accommodate that revolution. Of course there are some educators pointing the way, but many still view this music as exotic, mysterious and unteachable. Some jazz lovers believe the music can't be taught in schools when, truth is, it can't be taught THE WAY we are teaching it.
How many decades must we watch these faulty methods fail? It's time to begin an earnest national effort to teach our kids the glories of jazz. Not a way to play scales on harmonies, or some jazzy misrepresentation of rock tunes, but an engagement with the stories, songs, rhythms, and the lives of those who made this music so vital— from the inspired dancers who blanketed this country in the 1930's to the many earnest and eager kids now in jazz programs all over the world, to the local musicians playing their hearts out in small clubs everywhere.
Jazz is life music and education is not anti-life.
To achieve greater success in producing students who play inside the reality of this music, the modern teacher should consider combining various methods of instruction:
1) The gradual, graded, literature-based method employed in most traditional music education. Students should perform music of the great composers and arrangers, from Bill Challis to Don Redman, Duke Ellington to Gil Evans and Charles Mingus and so on. A selected and graded canon makes the compositional victories of the music obvious while and provides a practical way to assess progress; performing the 'best of' of all eras creates a more informed, sophisticated, and technically proficient musician who is better equipped to influence the tastes of listeners as well as develop and defend a comprehensive art.
2) A method that focuses on the substance of all periods of jazz instead of segregating them by decade and arbitrarily assigning greater value to later styles. In this way, free expression (which encourages experimentation and the focusing of personal intentions) and early New Orleans music (which is rich in melody, danceable groove, and triadic harmonies) is taught concurrently to beginners. More structured and/or rigorous harmonic and thematic material is covered later. The initial instruction should be entirely aural in imitation of how we learn to speak our mother tongue. (By the time we study the mechanics of English we have employed them for years). Teaching jazz is sometimes confused with teaching theory. Instead of learning what scales to play on which chords, we should be thinking about HEARING ideas in the context of harmonic progressions and understanding what those ideas mean.
3) A method that teaches vernacular grooves and dance as integral to jazz. For example: a New Orleans two groove is different from a Texas two, or the Kansas City two or a Nashville two. The 12/8 blues-rock shuffle is different from the Afro- American church 12/8…. on and on. Each groove has its own characteristic, meaning, and dance. I call this 'root groove' teaching. Many of these grooves were achieved after years of distillation. It's a shame to discard cultural victories in lieu of grooves that machines can play, or old-timely, corny reductions of the actual groove, or no groove at all. A jazz musician should be able to convincingly play a wide cross section of American vernacular music. Let's teach our kids how to play the most essential part of our music—-the rhythm—-with authority and feeling and lets encourage all kids to improvise. Of course most are shy at first because it sounds so bad, but any activity (playing ball or singing or doing almost anything) takes time for little ones to develop. The seeds are always there. It's up to us to tend to them with love, concern and intelligence.
In all of my years of teaching, I have encountered all types of directors. Regardless of philosophical differences, I have found them to be principally concerned about the education of their students. They often ask me to comment on the most common problems confronting the modern jazz ensemble (after improvisation). These are a few suggested solutions to issues I have encountered with bands throughout the world:
1) Implement good listening habits. If students don't listen to the type of music they play in band, there is no way they will sound good playing it. You want your students to develop their musical taste as well as their playing. At the beginning of each rehearsal have the students listen to a great piece of music. Assign weekly listening and put aside time to discuss what was heard.
2) The band is just too loud! The median volume of a jazz band today is a soft f. It should be an intense mp, with a powerful and dramatic f. Rehearse the band at pp so they become accustom to hearing each other while playing. Also, the acoustic bass and rhythm guitar are a great check to balance the power of drums. Checks and balances in the rhythm section were developed over decades of playing. Why should they be discarded so easily for a less favorable result? Jazz is constant communication. Above a certain volume communication becomes very difficult.
3) TEACH a piece of music when rehearsing. Students should know how we get from one theme to the other and what musical devices are used for what effect. Knowledge of form and function lead to a much more listenable performance. Furthermore, improvised solos require detailed listening because you are required to respond with some degree of appropriateness to music as it's being invented. After playing a piece, ask members of the band to recall what the soloists played, then have the soloists explain what they were doing.
4) Embrace the dance beat orientation of jazz. There is such a proliferation of non-swinging styles bearing the name of jazz; it's hard to know what to teach. Samba has a principal rhythm, mambo has a rhythm, rock has a rhythm, Jazz has one too: Swing! It is such an elegant, supple, and dynamic rhythm constantly evolving; it must be tended to with care in the same way the most serious Latin musicians tend to the clave.
5) How to make students want to learn…hmmm…. My father used to say, ʻYou can bring a horse to water but you can't make him thirsty.' The best way I've found to combat the haze of uninspired participation that engulfs some of our young is for the director to be aggressively Inspired. Yeah, that's what we need to do out here: stay inspired no matter what.
And encouraged that we are not alone.
DownBeat Magazine October 2009 Issue: Special Education Edition