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Native Son: Wynton Marsalis

Born in New Orleans in 1961, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is the most prominent member of one of the city’s esteemed jazz families. He has won nine jazz and classical Grammys since 1983, and he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his jazz opera Blood on the Fields. He is the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York.

Where in New Orleans were you born and raised?

I was born in Flint-Goodridge Hospital, right across from the Magnolia Projects. I grew up in different towns in Louisiana, like Beaux Bridge and Kenner. When I was twelve, we moved to New Orleans — uptown, in a place called Pigeon Town. I don’t know where the name came from. That’s just what we called it.

But my great-aunt and great-uncle lived right beside the Treme, on Governor Nicholls Street — I was always at their house. My grandmother on my mother’s side lived in the St. Bernard Projects. It wasn’t like you were isolated in your home. We would always be in each other’s houses. My funk band used to rehearse in the Ninth Ward, in our bass player’s house. And we played everywhere: dances downtown, gigs in Gentilly and the Ninth Ward, wedding receptions at the Autocrat Club. We did Bourbon Street, Magazine Street.

Are there particular songs that you associate with your childhood — Mardi Gras Indian chants or Meters numbers that take you back?

There are so many: “Meet the Boys on the Battle Front,” “Hey Pocky A-Way,” all the Mardi Gras songs like “I Went on Down to the Audubon Zoo,” the traditional songs for the second line. Even on our funk gigs, we’d always play the second line at the end of every night, Joe Avery’s “Second Line Blues.” It’s a part of our culture.

Music is everywhere there. And in the neighborhoods, the people respect the musicians. When I was growing up, even the guys who would be disposed to robbing people and jumping them — they would not mess with musicians. They would see your horn, and they were like, “It’s all right, you’re OK.”

Did you take it for granted that it would always be there — that the spirit and art of the city were immune to disaster?

When you grow up in a thing, you don’t assume that it’s not gonna be there. You know it will change. New Orleans changed a lot when I was there, growing up in the Sixties and into the Seventies.

You knew, through the generations of people you knew, that there was a lot of change. My father lived with segregation until he was twenty-six. Kenner, Louisiana, was a town where the black people lived behind the railroad tracks. And we lived behind the second set of railroad tracks, close to the river.

You couldn’t help but know that there was segregation and prejudice and ignorance. It was a hallmark. You also knew that it was changing, that it was much better for you than it was for your parents. They would let you know that.

Rivers, storms and flooding are constant themes in New Orleans songs. How do people live there, day by day, knowing potential destruction surrounds the city?

Hurricanes become legendary in New Orleans. Older people will talk about them: “I remember the storm in 1925. It was worse than all of these.” They talk about them with pride. “Half of the Treme was underwater.”

When you live down there, you know it’s a possibility. But it’s far back in your mind. Like we know there’s a possibility that New York will be the victim of a nuclear attack. People on the West Coast know that the San Andreas Fault could open under them. But do people walk around all day thinking that? No. They’re livin’, you know? In our city, we live. That’s how it is.

Do you remember your first funeral parade?

No. I was in parades since I was six or seven. But it’s not just the parades. In New Orleans, you can have a lot of experiences. I remember the first time I played with the New Orleans Philharmonic, or playing The Messiah at a church. It wasn’t one-sided.

But for a long time, New Orleanians never prized the music. I like to talk about the way the Greeks interpreted Homer to death. When they read Homer, they were like, “This is us.” But Jelly Roll Morton wasn’t treated that way. Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson weren’t treated that way. It’s hard for people of a certain artistic consciousness to endure the racism and ignorance that was down there. Some people think all that was over in 1963. I don’t know what gave them that impression. To be honest, I couldn’t wait to leave because of that. I couldn’t stand that whole condescending attitude — old antebellum and all that.

Your father, Ellis, supported the family as a pianist, teaching music and playing gigs. What was his life as a working musician like?

Gigs are hard to come by in New Orleans. Gigs that pay are harder. The city did not rise to the music. My father did a lot of hustling in the Sixties: working on Bourbon Street; working in clubs like Lou and Charlie’s, downtown in the Ninth Ward; trying to keep everything going and staying encouraged. There’s no other way for it to be told — it was a struggle. After me and my brother [Branford] started to get more publicity, it became easier. But all through his twenties, thirties and forties, he had a hard time.

In our funk band, sometimes we would make more money than he was. I’d be saying, “Damn, we just started playing. We can barely play.” But I respected my father and all of the older musicians I knew: James Black, Alvin Battiste, Danny Barker. To me, they could play.

One thing that has shocked much of America is the poverty that they saw in New Orleans, on TV. Were you surprised by the rest of the nation’s ignorance of the problem?

I’m surprised that they were surprised. A lot of people go to New Orleans — they stay in the French Quarter. They go on a tour of the Garden District. And that’s what they see. They don’t see the Desire and St. Bernard Projects.

And yet many of the city’s poorest people are the greatest contributors to the joys that we associate with, for example, the music and food.

Money does not create joy. Being poor doesn’t create joy, either — let me make that point also. But these are people who came out of slavery. And when you’re a slave, poverty is a step up. And the whole thing in New Orleans music is the optimism. American music itself is optimistic — marching bands, fiddlers’ reels. And when jazz came, it was uplifting music, despite all of the things that happened to try and slap the music down. The groove makes you happy. You’re not sad when you’re groovin’.

Are there things that have been lost — literally and figuratively drowned — that can never be regained or rebuilt?

It’s as if your parents have died. All your memories, your ancestors, are underwater. My great-uncle’s house is probably gone. I go back to that house in my mind all the time. It was a shotgun house. I think of the fan they had in the front room; the shed with all the newspapers he put up for wallpaper — old yellow paper from the 1920s; the little plot of land he used to cut with a hand mower. His front porch — we put that down ourselves. He was a stonecutter; I was five or six.

There are certain things, stuff you remember. And then there is a collective memory — of a group of people — and that’s even heavier than your personal memory. That’s why we’re going to resurrect our city. The collective memory is going to make all of us do that. We want our city. And we don’t want it to come back like no Disneyland for adults. It was getting like that anyway. We don’t want that. Just give us a chance to collect ourselves.

But will we correct the legacy of slavery? We’ve never been able to do that. What we’re seeing on television is like ghosts from the eighteenth century: “Have you seen my brother? Have you seen my mother? My sister?” That’s what you would see and hear in the slave market, when the people were being sold. It’s coming back to us.

There are a lot of poor people to be preyed on now. People will come and try to get their land from them, try to buy up their little piece of property for $10,000. That’s one of my main fears right now. I wish the state would freeze the sale of properties in the flood zone. Because that’s how a lot of poor people are going to get ripped off — again, in a profound way.

Can an evacuated New Orleans recover from such an extended period of silence, of no music at all?

That’s what the city needs. Silence is good. There’s a lot of noise right now, and noise kills thinking. When you whisper, you have someone’s attention.

You look at what was happening in the Superdome, at the Convention Center. There was no music. I was talking to a friend of mine: “Should we go down and play for the people?” He said, “No, man. People are not interested in music right now. They’re trying to survive.”

But the music ain’t gonna be silent. The musicians are gonna play wherever they are. New Orleans musicians play all over the world. That’s all we can do. They’re not going to stop because the city is flooded.

In New Orleans, the time for music will come later. In the healing time, the musicians will definitely come.

By David Fricke
Source: Rolling Stone

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  1. “Singer Stephanie Jordan, a standout here, was the real discovery of the evening. Her haunting rendition of (Here’s to Life) this bittersweet ode associated with Shirley Horn was delivered with uncanny poise and a depth of understated soul that mesmerized the crowd and registered to the back rows. Singing with a clarity of diction that recalled Nat “King” Cole, she offered an uplifting message of hope in her heartfelt reading.” – Bill Milkowski, JazzTimes Magazine

    Vince on Sep 23rd, 2005 at 4:04am