Academy of Achievement: Interview with Wynton Marsalis
COPYRIGHT 1991 BY AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ACHIEVEMENT
DATE OF INTERVIEW: JANUARY 8, 1991
LOCATION: WALDORF-ASTORIA HOTEL, NEW YORK, NEW YORK
INT: Do you usually have a melody in your head? Are you usually thinking about music?
WM: Sometimes I’m thinking about music but it’s not formulated like a tune. It will just be something general that goes on in my mind all the time. It’s not organized in the form of melodies, it’s just the whole type of poetic motion of music. Music has a certain type of ebb and flow, regardless of the tempo. Whenever I see myself in a situation where I meet a new person, I wonder what they would sound like in music. Or something that is ironic or funny. Or if you go to the zoo, you look at animals, they all have a musical type. Or colors, you know. So much stuff can be related to music.
INT: What kinds of things inspire music in you?
WM: Anything. For me, it can be the type of shoes somebody has on, or maybe it’s the way you do this with your mustache. You know, it’s like a question. Maybe it’s like a phrase that was doodoodoo diiiing. boomp boomp boomp. It can be anything. Type of clothing people wear, earrings, the way a woman will move, you know she might touch her lips a certain way, or move her eyes a certain way. Or look at you a certain way. Or paintings. Like sometimes I go to the Modern Museum of Art, or I get books of paintings from Picasso, Titan, Goya, it doesn’t make any difference what the period is. Or I am reading a book. Like one time I was reading The Iliad, and I thought boy you could make some great music out of this. Tunes for each character. it’s just anything.
INT: Let me take you back a little bit. What was your debut on the trumpet, and how did you get your first trumpet?
WM: Well, I got my first trumpet when I was six years old, from Al Hurt. My father was playing in Al Hurt’s band at that time, and he got me a trumpet because my older brother Brent [Branford] was playing the clarinet and the piano, so he didn’t want me to feel left out. But I wasn’t going to feel left out, because I didn’t feel like practicing. So when they got me a trumpet, I had to practice. Oh, man! I didn’t actually start practicing until I was twelve. But the first time I ever played the trumpet in public, I played a piece called the Marine Hymn. You know the Marine Hymn, everybody knows it. So I played that at this junior recital the kids went to. And I messed up terrible. But my mother, she thought I sounded good. She says oh, my baby sounds so good. My first serious debut was just playing like little pop gigs around New Orleans. Just playing horn parts.
INT: But you didn’t consider your debut with the Marine’s Hymn as an auspicious one. You wouldn’t have foreseen what was to follow?
WM: No, no. No I didn’t want to get that ring around my lips from practicing the trumpet, because I thought the girls wouldn’t like me. So I never practiced, and you would have just thought, well, here we go. As a matter of fact, when I was going into high school, when I was twelve, the band director… in this particular high school they had eighth grade classes attached to the high school… so the band director was all excited because my father was a well known musician in New Orleans. He says Ellis Marsalis’ sons are coming in! Except he heard me play, and he says, are you sure you are one of Ellis’ sons? [laughs] I was sad then. I really couldn’t play.
INT: You weren’t and you aren’t the only musician in your family. How did that influence you. How did that affect you?
WM: Well, it didn’t have that much effect on me because I became serious about music when I was twelve or thirteen, and then I decided that I would study and practice and try to get better. My older brother and myself, we always played together in bands. But we never knew that we would be professional musicians. Because we looked up to our father. He still is much greater than us. He knew all these songs, he could really improvise, he played jazz. And the generation we grew up in, nobody could improvise and play. We had stopped playing blues, and really there was no way for us to figure we could learn how to play. He knew all the songs by George Gershwin, and Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the whole tradition of American popular music—my father knew that. And we were growing up, we didn’t listen to any of that kinds of music. We had jazz recordings, but you listen to a recording of Miles Davis or Clifford Brown or Dizzy Gillespie, you are so far away from what that is, it just seems like another world. And we didn’t think we would be musicians. So we were actually living in our household, and we just really looked up to our father, and he wasn’t working that much. So we thought dad is not working, as much piano as he can play, then our chances of making it playing music must be zero, because we can’t play.
INT: What did you want to do? What were you like as a kid? What were you interested in?
WM: Well, you know. I was like a devious kind. I would do all kind of dumb stuff. Like one time me and a friend of mine set fire to a man’s house. But he wasn’t living in the house, we weren’t trying to kill anybody, we just did dumb stuff. We would throw rocks through windows of the train station and stuff. I would go around the corner and steal from the store. I liked to play ball. I was a mediocre ball player. Sometimes I could be good, not real good, I didn’t have a lot of athletic ability, but I worked at it. I liked to play basketball and baseball and football. We played football in the street. I grew up in Louisiana. And they still had the ditches on the side of the street. it’s country. A railroad track separated the black people from the white people. I had fun growing up. I just liked to play around. And I would do my homework and study, but I liked to just generally have a good time. We had a woods and stuff around our house, kind of country. So I liked to go to different people’s houses and eat whatever they were eating and just hang out. Go in the back with my friends and listen to Stevie Wonder records or whatever was popular at the time. But I liked to tease people too. That was my best hobby. We would call it “ribbin”. You could, that’s where you talk about somebody’s mama, or you talk about the kind of clothes they got on, or the way they look. You could talk about them so bad, we just would all have to start laughing. You know, somebody really talks about you real bad. I liked doing that and playing marbles. We played marbles. Playing all those little games like Monopoly and stuff like that, just a lot of games. We had a good time. All my brothers, I had five brothers, and we would do all kind of crazy things. We had rock fights, you know, you have to hide behind these little things and throw shells, and you’d be in pain if you got caught too! We’d go up on the levy in New Orleans. The river was there—we lived about a block from the Mississippi river. And we’d go what we call exploring. We’d just go around and see, ride our bikes. But you had to be careful. Because you go into some neighborhoods, they’d try to take your bike from you. I had a good time.
INT: What were you like in school?
WM: Well, I went to different schools. The first… from the kindergarten to third grade, I went to an all black school. So then I was like, everybody liked me. I was the funny guy, I cracked all the jokes. It was different because we were all the same. And then from the fourth grade to seventh grade, I went to an all white school, except there were two or three black kids, so that was totally different. So as in the black school, everybody liked you, if you made good grades they said you were smart, in the white school, you were like the enemy or something. But not all. Some of the kids were cool, but a lot of them, their parents didn’t have a lot of money, so they would be… it was just a very strange transition to me, in terms of school. Because at the one end, you go from doing good, being elevated, you are given credit. The other, you always had a battle on your hands.
It was always like a battle going on because I had a lot of pride when I was little, from my great uncle, and I wouldn’t let anybody call me a nigger or a name I didn’t like. I was just going to fight, that was just my way. Well, these white guys, they weren’t like what you see on T.V.—all scared of black people. If you wanted to fight, that was cool with them too.
I learned a lot in the schools that I went to. It was a Catholic school, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and I had really good teachers. But from a social standpoint, it was really strange. But then we’d play on the ball teams, they had three black teams in this city, so if you could play ball, you played on the black teams. They had like seven or eight white teams, but they had one or two black people on the white teams—every now and then, not that much. So I would play on the black teams, and we would always be teasing each other. I would know all the white guys, me and a friend of mine named Gregory Carroll, whereas the other guys on our team wouldn’t know them. They were just like some more white people. So we would go up and play them and most of the time they would beat us, like in football. Sometimes in baseball, but we win in basketball. But it was funny, we would go and play, and I would know guys who were on the opposite team, and so it was just interesting, it was cool.
INT: You were a good student.
INT: What kind of a student were you, tell me.
WM: I was good, man. I made A’s. Because I was studying. Because I always read all these books about the slaves, and people didn’t want the slaves to get education, and also my mother is very educated, she’s smart. And my father, he just, he would always talk to us like we were grown men. Just in the content of his conversations. So we never knew what he was talking about half the time. We’d just go yeah, yeah ok. Like you could ask daddy just something basic, “daddy can I have a dollar?”. And he would go into like a discussion!
So I believed in studying just because I knew that education was a privilege. And it wasn’t so much necessarily the information that you were studying, but just the discipline of study, to get into the habit of doing something that you don’t want to do, to receive the information, and then eventually you start to like it. I always liked to read, my mother would make sure that we read. So I would read a lot of books, and I would do good in school. Mainly because I hated to do bad.
INT: What books are special? Do you remember any books that motivated you, helped you?
WM: When I was really young, I would read mainly books about… junior books. I remember they would be books about the basketball players in Indiana, like little high school competition books. I didn’t read any classic books. Like I read only…. I read books on Indians too. I did a whole biography series on different Indians, and I would read about their life story. And about states. The state of New Mexico, the state of Alabama, the state of Louisiana. And then I would read all of the black books. Like the autobiography of Malcolm X, Soul on Ice. My father had those books. But I would read a wide range of things. Mainly I liked biography—to read about somebody’s life, or to read about the geographical locations. Like Australia was my favorite continent, I would read about koala bear, and the marsupials, and eucalyptus trees. This is like when I was seven and eight and nine. I’d say one day I’m going to go to Australia, I’m going to be able to hold a koala bear, and the kangaroos jumping up and down, and the Aborigines, and the dingoes. That kind of stuff.
But as I grew older, then I started reading more books, collections of people, like Edgar Allen Poe. Then I’d read Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, and then I’d read Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner. I’d just go from person to person to person. I think my favorite type of writer that I really like is I really like William Faulkner. He’s from the South, just the poetry of his language and the type of people he is describing, it’s like people that I knew. I like his writing and I like Hemingway too. For the short sentences. Just the style. it’s like the Young style in jazz, whereas William Faulkner, that style is more like Art Tatum, or Coltrane, like real virtuosic runs, or just long two hour sentences.
I will read really anything. But I don’t like science fiction too much. I never really got into that. My brother loved that. He would read all the “Star Trek”…
INT: To say you were smart is an understatement. You could have gone to Yale, you could have gone to any number. You had scholarship offers. You were a National Merit Scholarship guy. Why did you turn that down? Why did you do that?
WM: Well, to me, the highest endeavor was art. But I didn’t know that at that time. Because I didn’t think aesthetically. I just wanted to be a musician. And there were a lot of times too, I had like a certain type of bitterness. Not real bitterness. But a certain type. Because then it was like the whole minority scholarship thing, and to me that always was something to lessen your achievement. Like I would always… it’s just a certain thing about the whole scholarship. Now don’t get me wrong, I would take the money, I mean, I’d take the scholarship. Because I needed the scholarship. But for me the whole achievement, academically, was more just the joy of the intellectual pursuit. It wasn’t the chance to say I had made the A list, because that didn’t really mean anything. You know, even to go to an ivy league school, whether Yale or Harvard, I mean,…. That really was not important to me. The most important thing was, I was curious about it. I wanted to… when I could go to Juilliard and play, I really wanted to be a musician by the time I was a senior in high school. More than anything I wanted to play music.
INT: What was that like, coming from Louisiana, and you show up in New York City at Juilliard for an audition?
WM: Man you’re a good interviewer. I do thousands of interviews. [laughs] It was a trip. Because I was still country. Like in New Orleans everybody talks to each other, or you look at people on the street. You never walked past a person that you don’t say “good evening” or “how you doing?”. We called it the Big Easy, because it’s really laid back. And I used to go to my great aunt and my great uncle’s house, and we’d sit down and eat. Go to different friend’s house and it was just a communal atmosphere. And Manhattan is everything going on, all those big buildings. I remember look[ing] out West End Avenue when I first came, and just a big row of buildings straight down, and I said, man, what is this? And all these people! Like I would go to Park Avenue, Fifth Avenue during rush hour, and it would just be millions of people out in the street like ants.
At that time I was staying up town, in Harlem. That was kind of depressing to me in one way, because I had never seen the type of attitude that was up there. Because I had been around people without money, the black people generally didn’t have a lot of money. My grandmother lived in the same projects all the time we were growing up, our attitude would be different. In New York the attitude is colder and quicker. But New York also had a certain beauty to it. The pace of it. In fact, you could meet all types of different people. And there is a lot of warmth there too, but you have to find it. It’s more behind closed doors. But going to Juilliard, I didn’t have a lot of friends. People, it seemed to me, everybody was rich. And I spoke differently from everybody. I still had an afro. And I wasn’t clean. People would be coming to school, they’d have on all these killing clothes. And coming from New Orleans, I’d still be wearing green jeans and earth shoes and stuff. I was just looking funny. So I felt very unconfident [sic], I had lost some of my self-confidence.
I would be playing in the orchestra and stuff, but that’s not really what I wanted to do. I wanted to play jazz. So I would play, and I enjoyed playing, but I didn’t like the whole competitive aspect of it. People were always talking about each other, this one can’t play, and everybody, five hundred people auditioning for one job, and in the orchestra, most people you know are not going to get in. So for me it was a hell of a transition to make.
Then I didn’t know how to cook. I had never been on my own. I was used to dealing with my mama and daddy. So that was an interesting year for me, that first year that I left home when I was seventeen. I learned a lot during that time. And I grew to love New York City in a certain way. The feeling of it, the subway, Rockefeller Center and Lincoln Center. There was so much stuff. The Modern Museum. But I didn’t go to any of those, I would just look at them from the outside. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t involved in the cultural life of the city. I would just say, Yea, Lincoln Center.
INT: Can you remember back to the day that you had to play for the Juilliard committee.
WM: Oh, man, I’ll never forget that. I was a senior in high school, and I had flown up the New York to audition. First I sent a tape, and my teacher was a guy named George Jansen. And he had studied with a teacher at Juilliard whose name is William Vacchiano.
Vacchiano is still alive, but my teacher George Jansen is not, he’s dead. And he was telling me about Vacchiano. And coming to New York I had all my little stuff, “The Pines on the Rome”, “Pictures at an Exhibit”, the Brandenburg “Concerto No. 2”, and Hummel “Trumpet Concerto”, all the difficult trumpet repertoire. And I came in the room, and Vacchiano was there, and Trotto and Gerard Schwarz. And I had Gerard Schwarz’s albums because I really liked the way he played. And I walked in the room, and they were standing there, and I was nervous, up in New York. I was in New York, that alone had me just…. And I pulled my horn out and they had heard the tape of me playing, so they said, play whatever you are going to play. So I think I started off playing an excerpt of “Pictures at an Exhibition.” So they listened, and I thought I must not be sounding good! I started getting paranoid. They said play the Hummel “Trumpet Concerto”. I knew my music from memory. So they say, yeah, play some of the Second Brandenburg. So I played some of that. When I finished, they said, OK, bye. So before I left, Vacchiano said “Tell George Jansen that he was right.” So I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I just said ok. I was real nervous.
Then I left. I was staying with a guy named Charlie Lemon. He was a trumpet player who also studied with George Jansen. He was from New Orleans, and he was living on 51st Street and Eighth Avenue. So when I came into New York, I got a cab, and it left me off in the wrong place. So I had all my bags and stuff, and I was like, Oh, No! So I found his apartment and I went back and was talking with Charlie about it.
Every night he would leave and go to his gig, and I would be in his apartment by myself. And I was kind of scared because I was in New York. I thought everybody was just killing everybody! I didn’t know what was happening. But after a while I got used to it.
But after the Juilliard audition, I didn’t know whether I had made it or not, and when Vacchiano said to tell Jansen that what he said was true, then I went back and I asked Jansen “What did you tell Vacchiano?” And he wouldn’t tell. But I did get in.
INT: Well, from what I read, you knocked them dead with the Brandenburg. But anyway…
WM: But see, when I played I didn’t know what their response was.
INT: Were you nervous?
WM: Oh, yeah I was nervous. I really was nervous.
INT: What do you do when you are nervous? How do you overcome that?
WM: I can’t really, I just stand there a be nervous. I think I enjoy being nervous sometimes. It’s like whenever you are getting ready to get into a fight, you get nervous. And you have the feeling that you are going to get beat up, but it makes you just pull something out of yourself. I might get beat up, but that’s alright.
And I get nervous sometimes when I play. Students ask me that all the time. I get nervous, what should I do? I just tell them, just figure that the people that are there to hear you, they want to hear something sound good, and there is nothing you would rather be doing in front of all them people than playing. Because that’s what you spend most of your time doing.
Auditions are the worst. You get more nervous I think for that than playing for people. Because with people, you get a certain warmth. For an audition, everybody is doing a job. And you know the people who are listening to you are really on the highest level of hearing, and they can really discern every mistake.
So I think when I get nervous, my palms sweat, my mouth gets dry, but you know, Wynton, you gotta play! Hope it comes out, sometimes is does, sometimes it doesn’t.
INT: So you are just like the rest of us. Was there a moment, when did you know… you’re a kid being like every other kid, you want to play ball or other things, but when did you know you wanted to play the trumpet?
WM: I think when I was like thirteen or fourteen. After I had practiced for one or two years, I would practice every day for four or five hours a day, or three hours, just to continue. If you practice for four or five months, you reach the point where you don’t feel like practicing anymore. You might say, I practiced for four months, and I’m not really that much better. And you want to quit. But I would just keep practicing even on the days I didn’t want to play. I would listen to trumpet players all the time, and I just fell in love with playing. And I think from the time I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, then I figured that… I didn’t know whether I would be able make it professionally playing music. Because as I said I was checking my daddy out, and he wasn’t making really a good living playing, but there was a certain level of achievement I knew I would be on. Because just as a freshman I would make the All-State Orchestra, or play in the Civil Orchestra, the Youth Symphony. I really understood that I needed to practice. So at one point I just made up my mind that I really would practice and just develop.
Plus I love music. Mainly listening to it, even more than playing. Because when I play jazz, I never sounded good to myself, so that was real depressing. In classical music I would always sound better, because I always knew what I was trying to do. Whereas in jazz, I never really knew what I wanted to do. We couldn’t play blues, so I never sounded like the people who could play. But I didn’t know it was because I couldn’t play blues, we were playing funk. There was nobody to play with. We had to recruit people to play.
INT: Why jazz? Why not, as with most of your contemporaries, why not rock and roll? Why jazz?
WM: Well, I always equated rock with something social like meeting girls, and stuff. I never equated it with music. So, I would be on the bandstand, and the music itself was alright, but I had also heard my daddy and them play. So I knew what was going on our bandstand rock, wasn’t what was going on his bandstand. And also, I had played with orchestras, and I definitely knew that what an orchestra did was not rock.
So, there is a lot of debate about how it’s just music, and all this stuff that people talk now, if you stand on all those different bandstands on a certain level, you know that it’s not all just music. There is something very different that goes on in all of those instances. It’s like, if you go in a club to hear Coltrane played, or you go into one of these clubs down on 42nd Street and take in a burlesque show, well it’s a club and you are going out, but it’s very different.
But jazz, it’s just the soul of it, and also the intellect of it. Like to listen to John Coltrane, and he starts playing -dooodle dee doooo. Cousin Barry would be playing -doodle eeee woooow. Just the sound of that music. Dee do deee dodobee do. I’d be playing like I was a saxophone player. Just listening to that type of cry that he had in his sound. And I wanted to make somebody feel like that made me feel listening to it. And Clifford Brown, and Miles Davis, when he was playing jazz, you know, early Miles, I would listen to Clifford. Just the way he could play, the style, the feeling of it, and the whole lifestyle, the whole jazz. And even though my father was a musician, he was my father, and I didn’t look at him like anything but my father. But on these records, I could hear a pride, a something… a dignity. They had a nobility to it. A profundity. And I just wanted to be part of it. Even though it didn’t exist in my era. So we’d do our music [sings a funk rhythm] and it would be fun, we’d be singing and doing the little dance steps. Battle of the bands and everybody’s bands would be there, but it would be loud! We’d be playing so loud half the time, my ears would be ringing after the gigs.
it’s fun. People are hyped up and it’s fun. But you listen to Coltrane and them, and that’s like some real human. That’s something that’s about elevation. You know, it’s like making love to a woman. it’s about something of value, it’s not just like… loud… it doesn’t have that violent connotation to it. I wanted to be a jazz musician so bad. But I really couldn’t. There was no way I could figure out to learn how to play.
My daddy would teach us and let us come on his bandstand, but we were so sad. You know, you start out playing jazz, and you can’t play. You try to improvise [sings improv] and it’s so pitiful the way you sound, you can’t sway, you’re just technically playing, and then you listen to the records of people like Clifford Brown. And the greatest instrumentalist, Louis Armstrong. And we came up in a generation where rock and roll is popular, and nobody is even playing trumpet on a lot of that. Just the content of the music is different.
I mean, I like the music of Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gay. I love Marvin’s music. But it just was a different world from the jazz music.
INT: I went to Lindy’s, and the guy says you can’t come in here without a jacket, which is unheard of in California. And you had to put on a waiter’s coat to go in and sit down and have a piece of cheesecake!
WM: I always hate that kind of stuff.
INT: You and me both, but I was too intimated. Today I would not do that.
WM: Yeah, you’d come with a jacket. [everybody laughs!]
INT: Wynton, let me throw a quote back at you. You’ve been quoted as saying that jazz is the ultimate twentieth century music. What does jazz mean to you. What is the place of jazz in American life and culture?
WM: Well, the first thing about jazz is that it has so many functions. First is the communal function. Coming from New Orleans music, it was played to celebrate births, for funerals, the celebratory aspects of the music, the parade. Which around the turn of the century, was a real popular thing. They had bands like the John Philip Sousa band and it’s a heroic sound. And jazz music is the American version of that appropriation of something European. Then you have the whole dance connotation with jazz music. Which, I think it reached its most popular point in the country with the swing era. But still the elements of jazz are in all music. Then you have the element of refinement of folk themes, which you find in all classic music. And this is what the jazz musicians do with the songs of Cole Porter and George Gershwin. Like when you hear Ben Webster play a Cole Porter song. The art of jazz is what he performs on the theme. Hoagy Carmichael, when he first heard Louis Armstrong do “Stardust,” he said “Man, I wish I had written that.” Or “it can’t sound any better than that.”
Then you have the conception of New Orleans jazz—group improvisation, cooperative ensemble playing, which functions exactly like a democracy. Which means each person has the right to play what they want to play, but the responsibility to play something that makes everybody else sound good. So, it’s the way that these horns related to the rhythm section, it’s like a musical example of how a democracy works.
Then you have the higher levels of dealing with jazz. Like the experiential and the intellectual level. Which, it is not dealt with no that level. The combination of a lot of the African and European sensibilities. The type of attitude that respects a certain type of form and structure, but has the American conception of humor, which also pokes fun at. But you can’t really successfully poke fun at something unless you know what it is. So it is something that deals with knowledge, and in dealing with the knowledge and being serious about it, but also the American humor aspect, which is a kind of cocky type of—all right, here we go. it’s like the whole conception of somebody like Michael Jordan on a basketball court. All these people struggling just to get the ball in the hole, and then here is somebody with 360 degree turns on the jump shot, or floating from the half-pin like they do. That’s a humorous thing. Then you have the whole vocal music tradition that’s in jazz. The greatest singers, like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Mahalia Jackson—she’s not a jazz singer, but she’s an honorary because she was so great in gospel music that they consider her a jazz singer. And you have a tradition of instrumental virtuosity, which has produced the greatest innovators on each instrument. The trumpet will never be the same after Louis Armstrong. There were great trumpet players in the European tradition, and there were great trumpet players in the African tradition, playing the trumpets they played. But when Louis Armstrong played the trumpet, he simultaneously innovated in both of those idioms. And that is true on every instrument. Paul Chavus on base. Jimmy Blanton and Ray Brown. Art Tatum on the piano. Thelonious Monk on the piano. Duke Ellington in composition—his whole harmonic conception, his conception of form and motion, logic, structure. The conception of the Duke Ellington orchestra, which is a whole aggregation of individuals. And he had to conceive of music that would allow each of those individual personalities to speak and grow and develop. So that’s a different conception from say, a European composer who would sit down and say, ok, I’m writing for trumpet. Duke Ellington was writing for Cootie Williams’ trumpet, or the trumpet of Ray Lance. That’s not to say better or worse, because certainly no one can sneer at the master works of Bach or Beethoven. Only a fool would do that. But there is a lot of that going on these days, but that is very foolish. it’s just to say that this is an American conception. Democracy. Individual voices. But you have to fit it into the context of the ensemble. But it was still Cooties Williams’ voice.
Or let’s say in African music, you may have improvisation, but a lot of that music is purely functional. Ok, we are going to do this, and your part is based on this. You are not going to see the elevation of the individual like you see with Louis Armstrong, or with Duke Ellington. So it takes from different music around the world. It has a folk element like the functional elements of folk music. And then there are the elements of refinement, extension, and elaboration, as Al Murray would say, of fine art music. And it has an evolution, in which different aspects of the tradition have been taken out and developed. Like Charlie Parker developed one aspect of it. Thelonious Monk developed one aspect of if. Charles Coltrane developed the spiritual aspect and a calling response aspect of the group polyphony.
So there is so much in jazz music to be studied and to be learned, and so little education. I could go on and on and on, just about what Duke Ellington did. And also the romantic connotations of the music. The music had the effect of liberating a lot of the people from this victorian image of sexuality. But for some reason people still think they need to be liberated from that. This is something jazz music was doing around the turn of the century. And now it’s degenerated in the modern era to the type of vulgarity that is represented by rock and roll, which parades under the guise of giving you sexual freedom, which it is really truly sexual oppression. Sexual freedom is found in the sexuality and the romance and the lyricism of the great song writers like George Gershwin and Cole Porter and Duke Ellington. And of the great instrumentalists like Louis Armstrong. These people had a truly romantic conception that was based on elevation of the relationship between a man and a woman, rather than the denigration of it into just some adolescent, abusive adolescent sexual discoveries. So jazz music, it has a component for every aspect of American life. The great musicians come… Duke Ellington was from Washington, Monk from North Carolina, Louis Armstrong was from New Orleans, Elder Jones is from Detroit, Fletcher Henderson is from New York, the list goes on. Musicians come from everywhere. Charlie Parker was from Kansas City, they come from the Midwest, the North, the South, the East, the Atlantic coast, the [Sun] Belt. Musicians come from every direction, and they give us a portrait of the country. Of the feeling of our nation. You have a depiction of all types of people. This music can be for kids. Thelonious Monk, you can play his music for children, they love it. There is the really super adult music, like some of Duke Ellington’s, really mature music. And there is the music that sounds like the Spanish contingent. Then there is the versions of European music. Like Duke Ellington did the Nutcracker Suite, and a lot of musicians do versions of European music, but it sounds like jazz. Then there is the versions of gospel music. Like Horace Silver, a lot of jazz musicians in the fifties would do. And there is so much.
INT: It’s more than just a musical form. It is tradition, it’s part of American history and culture and life.
WM: Oh, yes. And that’s what we need right now. Because we have gotten so far away from our whole mythology. Because the American mythology is fueled so much against what the country actually represents. Like one prime example of that would be the cowboy and Indian movies. Like, those movies served a good purpose, because they identified heroes, they identified values. But the problem with the movie was that it was a denigration of a nobel people. So you need something that doesn’t denigrate other people. And that’s what jazz music is. It doesn’t denigrate anybody. It is designed to elevate everybody. It includes aspects of everybody’s music—African music, European music, Indian music, Chinese music, Japanese.. You could study any style of music, and you will hear something in it that sounds like jazz music.
I’m listening to Japanese music now, it’s called the Gi-Koo, the court music from 800 a.d. And the melody sounds like blues in this one piece. It goes [sings] I can’t remember it all, but it has that sound of blues in it. Jazz music just touches everybody, it elevates.
INT: For somebody who turned down all those scholarships, you sound like you have a Ph.D. in music. Where did you get your higher education?
WM: Well, I am always trying to study, and when I came to New York, I was fortunate enough to meet Stanley Crouch, who was a writer. He had tremendous influence on me intellectually. Because he had like a million books in his apartment, and a thousand records. So when I met him and saw all the records and books and stuff, and he didn’t graduate from college either, he just would voraciously read books. Every time I’d see him, he’d be talking about, hey, check this book out. And I didn’t know any of that stuff, and I was so stupid when I was around him. And he knew more about the music than I did. I was seventeen or eighteen, and he’d be saying well what about this record? Him and also Albert Murray who was like Stanley Crouch’s mentor. And Albert Murray has written the greatest books on jazz, Stomping the Blues, which is on blues, but it is one of the greatest books written on the poetics of jazz. What the musician should be trying to do.
And from having the opportunity to be around Stanley and Albert Murray, Stanley much more than Albert Murray, because I’m always too embarrassed to be around him, because he knows so much I always feel like I’m just in the way. But it really made me develop my intellectual curiosity, and Al Murray would give me books to read, and tell me where to go, and tell me about an important exhibit in town, go check this out. I talk to Stanley almost every day. We never talk about just anything — it’s always something definite. Did you check out this new book, he keeps me on a certain level of intellectual engagement. And always understand that you have to constantly work to develop your intellect, and just increase your curiosity.
Like I remember when I was twenty and twenty-one, I hated to travel. I’d be in Italy and I’d be having a terrible time. Man, I hate being here. I want to be back in New Orleans eating a po-boy sandwich. And he’d say, man you just country. You going to be sophisticated—get yourself some education, get some books on Italy, and learn what’s going on. Go see [Piero della] Francesco, don’t just sit in your hotel room talking about a po-boy sandwich or some gumbo. And I’m really indebted to Stan for a lot of things, in terms of really dealing with a level of intellectual engagement.
INT: How important is all that to your music?
WM: Oh, it’s very important. Because my whole conception of what music is has changed drastically over these ten years that I have been in New York, these eleven years. Because when you are not dealing with sophistication, or you are not dealing with real human interaction, or you are not dealing with history, if you are not dealing with what goes on in other parts of the world, different customs, different cultures, different ways of looking at things, if you are closed off to a certain level of interaction with people, then you are closing yourself off to a large percentage of music. And this is what I would do when I was younger.
You do that and you say people don’t understand the music I’m playing. Well, the challenge of being a heavyweight in any field is to come up with something that has all of that substantive, but that anybody can relate to in life. This ultimately is what the failure of serial music represents. If you can come up with all these formulas and scientific theories, and it can be well researched and worked out, and have a true theoretical basis that is valid and require hard work and diligence, but if it doesn’t deal with something human, something that either elevates the human spirit or deals with it, if it’s not something people can like, then ultimately it really has no value. All this—oh, people will understand it one day, everybody thinking they are going to be Beethoven, that’s just not going to happen. Because first in his early years, he wrote music that everybody could understand. And just to start off with the conception of a master, when you are a student, that’s a very serious, that’s a seriously tragic mistake that has been made. And it’s a mistake that I have made. Hey, man, nobody really knows what we are doing. Well, why not? Is it because we are thinking about something that nobody is thinking about? No, that’s not true, because we not thinking about nothing. So let’s start thinking about what’s happening, just to get focused, and then develop a foundation from which we can develop.
INT: When you were a kid growing up, what did you think about classical music?
WM: Mainly I thought it was something for some old white people to do, that you would cough through. So I equated some old white men with beards and stuff, some women too, they have their gowns on. And they would be playing and the people would be going [cough, cough, cough] you know, while they’d be playing. We used to have to go to these days at the symphony when I was in elementary school, which I always hated. Oh, man we gotta sit through this bull. So I would sit, and they’d talk about this is the bassoon—boomp boomp boomp. This is the flute—doodle doot pooop. This is the violin—la la la la la. This is the trumpet—baa da da da da. And I’d be saying oh, no. This is the snare drum—yukka tukka tukka. They made little jokes, this is the base—humm humm humm. This is the cello—hummm hummm hummm. I didn’t dig it. What is this?
INT: Well, something changed your mind.
WM: Well, it’s like any ignorance you have, whenever you have to be around something and you can get past what your cliche version of what it was or what it is…. Like I was in an orchestra, I remember we were playing Beethoven’s Fifth [Symphony], and I was in orchestra rehearsal. I had just gotten in and I still didn’t really love classical music that much, but I could play the trumpet enough to play. So we would be rehearsing every day, and I would check out the music. The base would come in [sings], now this [sings] now the strings come in [sings]. I’d just be checking in out, the different movements and the sounds of that music. And after the rehearsal would be over, I’d be humming the theme to myself. I’d say man, Beethoven, he… this is some great music. I couldn’t deal with all the prejudices I had, they were stripped away by the fact of the music. And the fact that I had to address it because I was in these rehearsals. Now if I didn’t have to be in the rehearsal, I could always escape that music, and just say that’s something for some white people, or some old European dead people.
Like I hear people now trying to dismiss these great masterpieces, oh, that’s just European music. They don’t know what they are talking about. Because if you had to sit in an orchestra and listen to Beethoven’s music, you come force to force with a great human achievement. That music was, especially Beethoven’s music. He was my favorite composer. That music was so powerful and great, I just had to deal with it. I like this music. I just had to confront it in myself. And now I would listen to all of Beethoven’s symphony, his Third Symphony. [sings] The Eighth Symphony. I get all of them, I just check them out.
I went to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and I had a teacher named Dr. Barry Broe, and he made us analyze all of the nine symphonies. So then I could see like how the music was put together, from an architectural standpoint. Then I really started to like it. Here is the theme, here is the secondary theme and this is the theme stated in the dominant key. This is allegro form. This is… you just learn the different forms. Then you [sings] because Beethoven music has a lot of life in it, just that feeling. And the slow movements can be real profound and slow and pretty. [sings] And the fast movements have a real up type of feeling.
I remember when I heard the Sixth Symphony, the beginning of that. The first time I checked it out, it sounded like some blues almost, just the poetry of the line [sings]. Just that [sings]. I couldn’t wait to hear it. It’s just the feeling of classical music. I would listen to Maurice Andre play. I read the liners of his records, and they said he worked in a coal mine, and I said this guy worked in a coal mine and now he’s playing classical trumpet. And I just liked his sounds, the vibrance of the sound, I always wanted to play like him in classical music. It gave me almost the same feeling I got when I would be listening to Coltrane and them. But it wasn’t the same, because Coltrane would be describing something that was going on, to me, at that moment in America. Whereas the music of Beethoven, it has the human connotation, you could get into the human aspect of it, and there is that overriding human thing. I’m sure Coltrane and the jazz greats will take on that connotation to people who are removed from this environment. Like the music of Beethoven takes on for us, who grew up not in the Germany of his time, or that environment.
INT: Jazz or classical would have been enough. But you had to play both. Why both?
WM: On the trumpet you don’t have that much to play. That’s the first thing. You have five or six concertos. it’s not like piano where you have a million things or violin. And then, I really, I went into classical music, and I loved it. But I didn’t think, I didn’t know, but I figured I had a better chance playing a job as a classical musician than I did playing jazz. Because nobody was playing jazz. The kind of jazz that I like, which is modern jazz. So it just kind of happened that I did a classical record, and even got known as playing classical, because at the time that I did my classical record, I had actually given up playing classical. Because once I had the chance to play with Abe Lincoln and the Jazz Messengers, then I tell you what, if I can make it playing jazz, I don’t really want to play classical music. I still love classical, but most of the music I like doesn’t really even have that much trumpet in it.
INT: Do you still practice both?
WM: No I never practice classical music. As a matter of fact, I haven’t practiced in like five or six years.
INT: There is that old joke about how do you get to Carnegie Hall. There are a lot of kids out there with trumpets. How did you do it? How did you get to where you are?
WM: I practiced everyday. I went about seven years without missing a day of practice. I had a very strict schedule that I would follow, and I would always, I would not go to sleep until I had practiced all the stuff I had to practice. If I had a job from like 10:00 to 1:00 or 2:00, I would still practice. Like, I made sure that I would get all my work done, and I wanted to play and be good. You have to really want to be good. More than anything I wanted to be able to play. And that’s what motivated me. I would listen to records, I would buy all these books. Any money I would make on little pop gigs I would buy trumpets or books with it. I would get books, I would go to different teachers, I would call people, and really seek the knowledge. I would go to music camp in the summer time. Practice, listen to the recordings of Adolph Hersep, or Clifford Brown, trying to learn the records.
But the hardest thing for me has been to play jazz. Because in jazz, I have had to put myself in my own context. Whereas, in classical music, everything is set up for you. You just have to learn how to play. In jazz, it’s been very difficult, because I have had to create a context to learn how to play in. From an intellectual standpoint, from a philosophical standpoint. And from an actual standpoint in terms of recruiting musicians. That’s been the most difficult thing.
INT: What has been difficult for you. What have been the hardships, the obstacles you’ve had to overcome? What’s been difficult or made difficult for you?
WM: Well, you know, everything is difficult, that’s worth achieving. So for me, when you are on a certain level of sensitivity, there are a lot of things that are difficult. Like growing up in the environment I grew up in was difficult. Dealing with the type of intellectual isolation that I had to deal with. Nobody much already was into that. So, thank God for Crouch. But he’s forty-five, you know. I love him, he’s my best friend in the world, I love him, but I’m not… He’s like a mentor to me, I’m not equipped to really discuss a lot of stuff with him on a level… he’s not twenty-nine. Like, I’ve never had a real true camaraderie with my peer group like I would want to have. And that’s been like a really a source of real true pain for me. Especially trying to recruit an audience, and have people really understand what you are doing, in your age group, and have a real meaningful dialogue with your audience. That’s something every musician wants.
And not just not to have had that, but not to have the possibility for that. See, it’s not like you don’t have it, it’s not like going on a court and playing basketball and you are Michael Jordan, where you guard and you play way better than everybody else, so you need to play against certain competition. This is where you go out to play and nobody wants to play basketball. So you have to go out every day and play yourself. Or just a few people.
And coming to New York and dealing with a lot of animosity. I’ve had to deal with.. to try to articulate, just some kind of philosophy that is relatively intelligent. Because the whole philosophy is put out here by jazz writers is so unintelligent, and it is so designed to be destructive. And I’ve had to go through nine or ten years of just constant insult. Constantly, constantly being insulted personally. That’s the kind of stuff that I don’t like. I don’t like to be personally insulted on a philosophical issue. A lot of stuff went down on me that I didn’t like. I lost my band, over some strange stuff. Everybody goes through stuff in their personal life—like women and stuff, that’s something that women go through it with the men, and men go through it with the women, and of course you have to deal with that. But professionally, just the whole struggle of maintaining integrity in an era that is not even remotely about having anything for musical integrity… There is integrity, but it’s just not in music. Because of the hierarchy, the upper end of the people who are recognized in music in the world, are the least competent musicians. So, it’s a thing where you don’t want to cut people down personally, like I don’t want to say well Mick Jagger can’t play, or this one can’t play. it’s not a personal put down, because they know they are not trying to play. They are dealing with a certain type of entertainment. Light entertainment. Which is fine. But just something strange is going on in our culture where we turn around the function of that and made it into something to nourish the society with.
So my job as a musician is to fight that battle. And that takes a tremendous toll, because everybody in convinced that the Beatles are the greatest band in the world. I mean, they know that that’s true. And the fact that that’s not what the truth is, that fact, the fact that you are a musician and you have to communicate these facts to people, that’s really a painful position to be in. Because you hate to see generations of people led down the wrong road. Because it helps to destroy our culture and break it down. Every little misconception helps. But on the same token, you don’t want to be arguing with people, because on an individual basis, you don’t really care if they like that or not. You want them to like whatever they want. So a lot of times you have to sit down with somebody and say I like whatever, I don’t mind you liking it. it’s like you telling me you want to go get a Big Mac. I don’t find that…. Or you want to smoke some weed or take crack, or shoot some heroin. If that’s what you really want to do, go ahead. But that’s what it is. Not that the Beatles are the equivalent to these destructive things, but in terms of our culture it is. It just erodes quality. it’s just an erosion of quality. it’s like going from George Gershwin level of composition to the John Lennon level of composition — that’s a very long drop. And history will bear that out. But if you have any doubt, just put Porgy and Bess on. And listen to those songs, and then listen to “Michelle My Girl”, or “Yesterday.” I mean, it’s no comparison. And that’s not even racial issue, that’s just two men dealing with music. So for me that’s been the greatest struggle, seeing a whole generation of kids, just go that way.
INT: What keeps you going. When you are out there alone. What about Wynton Marsalis the teacher. They guy who takes time to go to schools and talk to kids and give classes.
WM: I just like to do that. It’s a thing I enjoy talking to the students. They are funny too. They have their perspective, and that way it keeps me in touch with what is going on in different regions of the country. I like to pass the information on to those who want to absorb it. And my father was a teacher in New Orleans, lots of musicians are like that. Like we all are close, a musician sees you and a he says have you been practicing your horn? Like when you were growing up. That’s some of my fond memories of being in high school with the older musicians—go back home and practice, son. Just making you study, and work on your music. And I come from a tradition of people who do that. I like it.
I see the students grow up, even though I’m just twenty-nine, I’ve seen kids who were like twelve or thirteen, now they are twenty-two. Maybe not in music some of them, working in different capacities. But I see them and they call on me, it’s fun.
INT: There is something more going on. You read some of these stories—you are like the pied piper. They are talking about this renaissance of jazz in America and suddenly kids are…. I was in Washington, I went to the old post office there to get something cold to drink, and I sat down, and they started setting up a bandstand. I thought it was going to be a rock group, and these young kids come out and they start playing jazz. What’s happening?
WM: We have had some impact. Like, we have some students who are serious, like some of the kids, like Ron Hubble, who is a young trumpet player, and they have generated some publicity, which is good. But so far as a jazz renaissance, we do have more kids interested in playing it, but none of them really can play. See, so, for me, the thing I try to stress to them is that a contract doesn’t mean you have made it. For me, I will be content when we really produce people who really can play, like learn how to play blues, and get a concession of jazz. I think I’ve had some impact on it just by constantly talking about the music, constantly going around to the schools, sending tapes to the kids, and talking to them, and they come to my hotel room, and they play and I give them lessons, they come down to my gig and I make sure they get in and listen. But it’s just a matter of constantly talking about the music.
What we are going to try to do in this next decade is just really make the music more accessible to the public, as far as trying to get in some movies, or put videos out, have educational series. We are working on a series for NPR, National Public Radio series called “What Makes the Music.” Well we could do twenty-six hours on what makes jazz, and what are the different elements. Just stuff like that. Do some children’s shoes where everybody plays an instrument, or…
INT: We started to talk about some of the obstacles you’ve had to overcome. As a performer, you have critics and have to withstand criticism. How do you handle that?
WM: Well, I tell you, at first, I didn’t like it. Like, when you first read a newspaper article with your name on it, and they are saying you can’t play, then you don’t like it. Especially if everybody always has said you can play. Like somebody like me, from the time I was thirteen or gourteen, you know, all the time they’ve always said this is the greatest young trumpet player, you have to hear this kid. Everywhere I would go they would say this guy is good. And then the first time I would read like one or two reviews where they were saying I can’t play, or I didn’t play with any soul, or I wasn’t nothing, I was just imitating Miles Davis. I didn’t like that. But I was nineteen then. Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one. Like I say, those first three years, that was like a transition for me just to get used to getting that volume of stuff written about you. Then once they realized that I didn’t want to do rock and roll, see that was the death knoll for me. And also I was talking about the corruption in jazz. A lot of my bad publicity came from stuff I said, more than what I was saying. So that eased the pain of it a little bit. But then I also, a lot of stuff, in relation to the people who really could play, I knew I couldn’t play. Like there was never any doubt in my mind. So the criticism helped me keep my head level. Because I did know that I wasn’t playing that much, and that I had to really develop. But I also understood my error and my generation, which is something that they didn’t take into account. But they shouldn’t take it into account. And I also understood that in my generation, nobody was playing soul, you know, playing blues. You don’t compare my playing to Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong. They grew up playing in blues bands. I grew up playing Earth Wind & Fire songs. But it’s like a strange thing where somebody can play jazz fusion, which didn’t have any type of blues in it, but they could be great, where somebody who is trying to play jazz… But, like I told you, I used to like “ribbin” when I was growing up, so some of the cuts I thought were good, and it would be kind of funny. I remember one article, the guy says you could take one note that some trumpet player played, that Lee Morgan played, and it was more like jazz and more soulful than everything I’ve ever played. So you know, something like that is really kind of funny.
And as I’ve grown older, like I’d say after I was twenty-two, I don’t really care what is written. Unless it’s something that really is an insight into something that we are doing wrong. But the cut-downs are always the same. Like they, once they determine something they are going to say about what you are playing, then it stays. Oh, he can’t play the blues. Or he plays like Miles. You can’t take that kind of thing seriously, because they are just following. But to me, the same thing as a good review, I’ve had reviews where they say he’s greater than Louis Armstrong. You can’t take that seriously.
INT: Is it hard to learn not to take critics, good or bad, too seriously?
WM: Yes, it’s hard because it’s tied up with your ego. Like you always want to think that you are not going to be talked about negatively. Like everybody else is. But you have to accept that there is nothing wrong with somebody saying something bad about you. Now I really don’t mind somebody saying they don’t like what I’m playing, but the one thing I don’t like that the critics do, is that they talk about you personally, and they don’t know you. That’s something that I really still don’t like. Like a personal attack on you. Like he won’t sign autographs. Just something that’s not true. But in general, I think criticism is a good thing because it keeps people honest. it’s just that the critical community in jazz is corrupt, but I still wouldn’t abolish them, or I believe that they should have the right to write what they want. And it takes time to get used to being cut down, to where you really can accept it. I mean, it’s not a crime for somebody not to like what you are doing. it’s no reason for you to be not subject to not being liked. There is a lot of stuff I don’t like. it’s not personal, I just don’t like it.
+So at this point I really don’t mind. Actually some of it is kind of funny. A lot of times, in my mid-twenties, I would purposely incite them to be mad, like I would say extra something bad about Miles, because I knew that would make them write. I would really cut some rock music down, you know, rock music, they can’t play. Or really talk about something racial that they would really hate that. [laughs] I would say they are doing this, it’s just something white. Oh, then it was two years of bad reviews. He doesn’t like white people, it’s always something. But then I would get it from all the camps. The black ones and the white ones. So it’s really kind of funny.
INT: Who is your best critic? Who do you listen to?
WM: Well, I listen to myself, and the cats in the band. I listen to everybody. When somebody has a criticism for me, I listen to what they are saying, I never dismiss it. And I think about, I remember somebody told me once, I want to introduce the tunes. Like I was telling you, when I first came out, I had this feeling that what we were doing was above people listening to it. People would come in and say we don’t know what y’all are playing, we don’t know what the tunes are, every song sounds the same. So now I would be saying to myself, the reason every song sounds the same is because you all don’t know anything about form. But then I started listening to the music, myself, like if I wasn’t a musician. And I said, well all these songs do sound the same. We need to play at different tempos, play ballads, play in different keys, have modulations and stuff, play with breaks. The form of every song is the same. So, it was criticism not by critics, but just regular people in the audience who would say that’s what we don’t like about it. Or Wendell will come up and say the music doesn’t have enough romantic connotation to it. You are playing all fast and wild, that’s cool, but nobody wants to sit up and hear that all night.
So I listen to a lot of different people. Older people tell me something, I listen to it. They say, you need to play some of the older songs, rather than just saying oh, they old, they want something to remind them of when they first fell in love or something, I can say what if you could do one of the older songs, something they could like. Or the younger people say you need to do something with a little more funk. That don’t mean I’m going to do funk, or a pop beat, a back beat. What they are thinking is I need to find some grooves that are going to serve the same function. Every time you do that it takes you longer, because you have to learn how to deal with another aspect of the music. And that’s the struggle. Because it’s not something you just try. it’s not like in pop music, they listen to some Brazilian music and they put a back beat on it or some little Brazilian trappings, and they call it Brazilian music. If you really are going to be serious about something, you have to absorb it.
So I listen to any criticism and any compliment too. If people say we like the way you introduced this song, you have to check it all out and weigh it, to try to come up with a better presentation.
INT: You have been described in the past as an angry young man. Were you an angry young man?
WM: I was angry, but you can be happy too. Like, I’m angry right now.
INT: What makes you angry?
WM: Bull shit. [laughs] You know, injustice, man. Just the whole injustice of the way stuff will be set up. it’s unjust. So that will make me mad. But the incorrect thing is to think that because you are mad about some injustice, that you walk around all the time mad. Like I told you I like to have a good time. It was never,… when I was growing up there was injustice going on then, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying those baseball games we were playing, or eating them good pots of gumbo my mom was making, or having fun playing marbles with my partners. People have this impression that if you are mad over an injustice, your whole life is consumed with this anger. Like I never was consumed with being mad. It made me mad, it still makes me mad. People say he’s changed. I’m not any different. I’m still mad about it. If I have to talk about it, I will still be mad, and I will still break down exactly like before. What it is? Except now it is not shocking like it was then. Because in my generation, people figured that the whole injustice of the situation was forgotten. Just nobody could articulate a vision of the United States of America that dealt with what was going on that was incorrect. So they just figure that I should just come off and be grateful. Well you should just be grateful, because you could be out stealing or on crack or something. But that’s not what’s happening. So I guess it was the shock of it. In terms of the jazz critics. Because they weren’t prepared with that. They are used to just dealing with you being happy to have them write an article on you. And they just put the words they want in your mouth, and that’s it. So they said he’s angry. He’s always mad. But that’s just a lie, it was pushed out there constantly repeated. It was incorrect. But the people who knew me knew what the deal was. I’m still angry about that stuff. But now…
INT: What makes you angry?
WM: Well, lets say for example, somebody like Madonna. That makes me mad. Now it’s not her, the person Madonna. it’s the fact that somebody will stand in front of an audience of people, fifty thousand people, and say “everybody say fuck.” And people will say “fuck”. Like that will be an achievement. That makes me mad. I say, why is this an achievement?
Or let’s say the whole position of British musicians in American music. Imitating Afro-American musicians. That makes me mad. The way the education system has decayed and the inner cities have been left to rot by the business community, because it’s a black/white issue. We all know what the issues are. But every time you pick up a paper, you see an article about it. And everybody acts like this is the responsibility of so called black people. Or the responsibility of so called white people. The United States is a mulatto culture. it’s just a matter of time before everybody truly notices it. If we are going to deal with a cooperative.. I mean if the races in our country are so great that we will allow the inner cities to rot, the people in the business community will let the infrastructure of the city rot and decay before they will pump money into a people who have been traditionally just kicked in the behind. Then it becomes a racial issue, a black/white issue. That’s not what the issue is. it’s the issue of New York City, or New Orleans. So I will go to a school and teach white kids for no amount of money, not because they are white and I want somebody to see me teaching a white kid, but because here is somebody else who might learn something about music. I do it. But when they ran out, they say he goes the inner city schools. A lot of schools I go to are not in the inner city. it’s always like a white/black issue. And it makes me mad, because that’s not really what the issue is. it’s a human issue. But we are clinging onto a white/black issue and we make it a white/black issue. And the black community really truly suffers, and the white community truly suffers from inside. It doesn’t suffer economically, but it suffers culturally. And the proof of it is that you have people like Vanilla Ice running around out here. Because black people have traditionally have been the o____________ of the honor of the Constitution of the United States of America. And once all the integrity and humility leaves the black community, then the whole nation is in trouble. it’s like Frederick Douglas, he’s not a great black figure, he’s a great American. Because he was fighting against injustice, human injustice. And when he is reduced, the whole country is reduced. When Martin Luther King is reduced to a black leader, then the whole country is reduced. What is all the media focus on? it’s not going to be on what he had to say, or his books or his solutions to our countries problems, it will be on making him some strange black figure who slept with some women, and who cheated on his papers for his doctorate. That stuff is insignificant, whether he even wrote papers for a doctorate. There is stuff that he did write and there is a whole presence and body of intellectual activity that he is responsible for that is not even addressed seriously at all by our nation, because this is considered a black issue. And it’s not addressed by black people either. So the whole issue, the whole thing makes me mad. This whole fake black nationalism makes me mad. And there are no white people involved in that.
So there are a lot of things. Including the way that the whole male/female thing has been reduced. And women have been reduced to just… I don’t know what that is. And men have been reduced. And we are putting this on our teenagers, and people are making millions of dollars on it through music, and something else could be in that place that would be elevating. it’s not so much that the garbage should cease to exist, it’s cool, but why should it be everywhere and elevated. And these things make me mad. Whenever I see movies like Mississippi Burning, that makes me mad. Just a lot of stuff. “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” that makes me mad. But once again that’s not a personal thing against the people, but it’s just the elevation of a certain level of buffoonery to a level… a certain amount of lack of concern, a lack of concern for other people. Like the type of stupidity that is going on in the middle east. That’s something to be angry about.
But people say they don’t even want to talk about it. Let’s just go kill a certain amount of people, let’s go do that. And in the jazz world there is all kind of stuff that will make you mad. You go to hear all these high school big bands, and nobody is playing Duke Ellington’s music. They are playing all these third and fourth rate arrangements. And I’m like, why are you all playing these? Play some of Duke’s music. And it’s always a racial component. It makes you paranoid. Because a lot of stuff will go on, and it won’t be racially motivated, but you already are paranoid, because you’ve grown up in this system and you are so used to it being racially motivated, that your first thing is to say, man, that must be it.
And the first description of a person is always “black person” or “white person”. Well a lot of black people have more European blood in them than African, but they still are a black person. And a lot of people who are white, they have some something else in them. You know, a lot of this stuff goes on. The education system, all these quotas, just the whole thing, man. Even in high school I was thinking about that. I was telling you about all these scholarships and minority… I never liked any of that. Because I always had the feeling that was just something that denigrated achievement. And I think that if you are going to help a community, you have to put money, economic dollars in the community, not just give somebody a grant, or try five years of giving some black businesses something. You have to try to really get a group concession. And in our cities, we’ve let our cities just decay, rather than address the racial problem. That’s the ultimate statement to me, of what we are dealing with.
INT: The way you’re talking, we are never going to have enough. Let me ask you a few more questions. I don’t want to wear you out.
WM: That’s cool.
INT: When you are waiting to go on to perform, what are you thinking, what are you hoping to achieve when you go out there?
WM: First, I’m just grateful to be pulling another night. And then I’m trying to play something that will make people feel good and make them want to like jazz music. But really, I’m truly grateful. We used to say a prayer, we stopped doing it, in the band every night, before we’d go on. Just say help us to concentrate, and just something for us to get our minds together, and concentrate and go out and play, and not take it for granted. We just feel fortunate to have the opportunity to play for people who come out, they clean, with their wives or girlfriends, or girlfriends with their boyfriends, a few little kids are here. it’s a night out and they want to have a good time, and you want to play good. So that the power of the music, you don’t have to do too much other stuff, just play so it sounds good enough for people to say, hey, we enjoyed that, we had a good time. They will remember it, it will be a part of their life. Yes, we went and heard him play, and it was pretty good.
INT: What achievements are most satisfying for you? What are you proudest of?
WM: Just any, like I’m the most proud when I get something from cities, or people. At first I was against awards, you know. I would always say this is so fake. To have people vote on this stuff, they never listen to the music. But for me it’s when I received like awards or something from the city. Just to go to somebody’s house and eat. Or people come and say we spent our anniversary checking you out, or we were making love to one of your records, and we had a child. [laughs] See that kind of stuff makes me feel good. Like you get a key to the city and the people are really into it. Like it’s not just—oh, lets give him the key to the city because he got some publicity. Likes it will be some people you knew, and you were there at their school, and you worked in the community. That’s what makes me feel good. That kind of feeling.
INT: Did you ever think you’d have a day in New Orleans?
WM: No, you know… I never thought about that kind of stuff. But just New Orleans, the community, the people are real friendly.
INT: If you could meet somebody you’ve never met, in your field or out of your field, living or dead that you’d like to talk to, who would that be?
WM: There are so many people. I can’t really answer that, because there are so many people I would like to meet. it’s so many. I can’t even… anybody. There are so many great people who have been on earth. I think about that some times. If you could go back history, or forward, where would I go, there are great people everywhere.
INT: What names come to mind?
WM: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Hemingway, Faulkner. People I like. Picasso. Isaac Newton. You know, Isaac Newton was a trip! Michelangelo, Shakespeare. There are so many, thousands. In art there are so many people. Alexander, Caesar, people who really were a certain type of egotists. Or all kind of women whose names are not really known, but I’m sure there a lot of them I would have liked to have met.
INT: As a musician do you feel you have a responsibility to the music you are playing?
WM: Definitely. That’s part of being an adult at anything. You have responsibilities. That’s what adult behavior is in my mind—accepting some responsibility. Like if you don’t have that, you have a childlike relationship to something. Which is you only have a right.
INT: it’s ok for a jazz musician to have a social conscious?
INT: Responsibility to society.
WM: You have to do that if you are trying to deal with something beautiful. Because every creation of man makes of beauty is a declaration against ugliness. So just that in itself is a statement. Even if you don’t say anything. Somebody asks you what do you say, “I don’t know”. But if you create something beautiful, like Monk, he didn’t talk that much, but you knew what he was thinking about. It was very clear. As a matter of fact, Duke Ellington was very gracious. “oh yes, well, whatever” But his music, that let you know what he thought about.
INT: What about, is there room for family, for a personal life? How do you balance your personal life and your professional life? How does that fit together?
WM: To me, my personal life is always kind of chaotic. But it’s all part of what it is. Like, it’s not….. Like I believe, I have two children, I believe in that. I believe in families, but I’m always gone. But I’m the type of person who by nature is a traveling type of person. So, whereas I might always be gone…. I saw that with Art Blakey. He might not have children, but he was a paternalistic person. He was a father to me. I wasn’t his son, but there were a lot of other people who he was a father figure to. So different people have different jobs. Like my father, he didn’t leave home, he stayed home, he didn’t go on the road. So my brother and I, all my brothers, we got a certain thing from our father that other kids who didn’t have fathers didn’t get. But then he got things from people like Art Blakey. So my job is to go on the road and play all over the world for people. That’s what I was chosen to do. I was given the opportunity to do it. I didn’t have to be given that opportunity. Many people want that and work hard for it and deserve to have the chance to go out and play in front of people and talk about the music, and play it and present an elevated vision of what American life, what human life is about. And create beauty and work on compositions. But a lot of people can’t do it. So for me, I could stay home and raise my children, and be with my old lady like people have done, but that’s not what I’m here to do. So I don’t do it. Either way you have to make a decision.
INT: What do you say to a young man or woman who comes up to you and asks your advice, and asks your guidance of how to achieve something in life.
WM: It depends on what they ask about. It depends on their personality too, what I perceive them to be like as a person. Some people are too intense when they are young, too driven, too serious about what they are doing. They are totally absorbed in it. So I tell them, you are not going to get better that much faster a rate by being that absorbed in it. Because what you are going to do is give yourself a nervous breakdown and destroy your concentration because you are too eager. Just relax. Stuff comes in time. it’s the concentration that you have to exert. it’s horizontal, it’s not vertical. The key to practicing is to practice and concentrate over a course of years, not a bunch of times in one day. A week at a time. Then the reason you don’t get tired is because you will be relaxed and calm, and you are constantly working. And music and art is about something human, so you have to meet people, and know something about what is going on in the world. You can’t just come out and know about the practice room. You have to know about something. You know, go out with your girlfriend, go get something to eat, go to a movie. Listen to what somebody is telling you. You know, learn somebody else’s life story. Check them out. Don’t just think about yourself all the time. You have to deal with you.
But other people are real shy. They want to play but they are not aggressive. They think they don’t deserve the right to play or something. You have to tell them, when you playing you have to step out and make a statement, you can’t be scared to play.
Some people they just want to play music for the ego purposes. They don’t really want to play music, they want to be known. So to those people, I give like some impossible exercise to do and tell them to call me back after they’ve done that. I say, oh, you want to do that, ok. Well, learn all your major and minor scales, learn all your chord progressions, get these three books, and do this exercise for a year. And then when I come back, come for me and play. But that’s not what they are interested in. They want to know how to get a record contract. So I say learn these five records and come back. But you never see them again. Because they are not interested in music. So there is a lot of different people.
INT: OK? Do you think that we confuse fame with achievement, or achievement with fame?
WM: I think so. I think that fame is like a fake nobility. Like a royalty used to be, like you were just born, you didn’t have to achieve anything. You were just born into a position above other people. it’s like this one passage in the Bible where God is talking to the people, and he say what would you rather have. Would you rather deal directly with me, or would you rather deal with a king. Now if you get a king, he is going to tax you, he is going to want to take your women, he is going to want. And the people say give us the king. So it’s like that whole syndrome, somebody has got to be famous. It doesn’t have to be merited, and in a democracy actually it is better for those who are famous to not be famous for achievement because then if they are just famous for no reason, then it gives everybody like this illusion that they too can be touched by the hand of fate and they will become famous too.
And I don’t really have a problem with that. It’s like a little storybook type of thing. And people who are famous, they do whatever they do to become famous, and they stay famous for as long as they stay famous, and then they fade into obscurity. But, fame is like in that Thomas Mann book, Joseph and His Brothers. “The blessing is also a curse.” Like he’s somebody who is just working a job, making an average living, go home and fight with their wife, and deal with the children. But he thinks boy if I could just be famous, I’d be riding along in a limousine. And the people who are riding around in limousines, they are doing that and they have the money, but they are dealing with something too. So you know, in our society, people become famous not really for any reason. A lot of people. it’s not really based on merit.
INT: And that’s true in the music world as well.
WM: Mainly in the music, more than others. In athletics, you don’t, if you become famous, you deserve it. People like Mohammed Ali, Michael Jordan, Frank Shorter, Mark Spitz. I mean they did something to become renowned. They have remarkable achievements. And in the music business, if you come up with some ditty that is humm-able, or if you look a certain way, you can make it, become famous, popular. it’s just like a fairy tale. Only a few people can make it doing that, so it’s fake, but so. It doesn’t bother me so much. It is fake, but it’s ok. it’s like a fantasy world that a few people get to participate in. But everybody else participates in it too. it’s like a show like “Star Search.” Everybody comes on and they sing. Maybe they can get a contract. That’s just another thing.
INT: You talk about Madonna and some of these groups. They are up there on the chart. Is that fame, or is that achievement?
WM: Well, the chart is just a commercial… that charts how many records something has sold. it’s not a statement of quality at all. Like I was saying before, economic achievement really doesn’t mean anything in music. I could go out tomorrow and win the lottery, and win $20 million, but when I sit down at the piano to write a song, or try to get logic or coherence to some music, or to peep some beauty out, or to develop in my art form, all that money is not going to help me at all. And that is why art has been used as a barometer of history. Because it is incorruptible. You can’t corrupt it, because the only way to achieve a level of beauty and a sophistication is through doing the work. There is no other way. You can’t money your way into being Picasso. You just, there is no way. You have to have the talent, and then you have to forge that talent through years of dedication. Not a week or a month. Even with phenomenal talent, even the most talented musicians, they still have to work harder to hone their talent, to shape a sort of beauty.
So, the chart position, I think just goes with commercial corruption. Now a lot of those chart positions are bought anyway. How is that stuff tabulated? it’s always real strange. And really, so it was number one for fifteen weeks.. all that means is for fifteen weeks, more people went out and purchased that album. Probably it got more publicity, maybe it had a video out that was popular. And next year nobody is listening to it. And even if they are, they are listening to it trying to remember what they were doing in their lives when it was popular. it’s not providing them with ongoing nourishment. A lot of that emotion comes from the person who is listening to it. It doesn’t come from the music itself. You say, yeah, babe, you remember that song? We was dating and going out, yeah that was our song. it’s not that song, I’m sure a man of forty-five, he has children, he is going through something in his life, or a woman forty-five or fifty years old is going through changes trying to raise kids, deal with whatever. Something she listened to when she was nineteen? Maybe that will remind her of when she was nineteen. But like that type of real life music, it’s not designed to serve the function of real spiritual nourishment. it’s designed to be for a good time. And it’s good for that. And I don’t think there is nothing wrong with people even paying for that. Like I don’t mind Madonna being rich. Because she provides people with an escape from what they are doing. They have a good time, they go and see her and she puts on a show. Some stuff blows up. I used to go to shows like that in New Orleans. It goes up in a pyramid, it would blow up, and there they are on the stage—it was like a circus. it’s just when you start confusing that with pertinent mythic information about your society, then you have a problem.
INT: What are you looking forward to? What do you hope to achieve. You are only twenty-nine.
WM: I know. I want to really become a better composer. And just, I want to learn how to really write jazz music, and just capture a portion of what I really see wrong in it. Because now I function at like 20 percent of my capability, because I don’t have the technique to write down what I hear and see and feel. I don’t have the technical… I can’t do it. So I have to work on that. Because I can really conceive of writing songs about animals. A whole series of songs just on animals. A whole series of songs based on Japanese music. Really truly dealing with their music, not just ting tong tingting boooonnnng. You know something corny. I mean really from a conceptual standpoint. And also just dealing with jazz music. Some pretty music, something people will like but that will also be good. Trying to bring dance back into the music. Trying to deal with film, and music. Trying to write opera. Write ballets. There is a lot I want to do. I’m sure I won’t do it all. But if I could just get the technique to do it. Then I think I would be in a much better position.
INT: We’ve covered this. But I’m going to ask this question one more time in a different way. For all those kids who are going to be coming through this museum, a lot of them are going to feel some of the same injustices you have felt. Some are going to feel the same angers you have. How did you overcome it? How did you come from where you started to where you are?
WM: The first thing is, I tell the kids all the time who are angry, you should never loose your anger. You should stay mad. But you have to always realize that everything is a balance. And that your perspective is one perspective in the world. And it’s a needed perspective, but it’s one perspective. That’s all. There are other perspectives that are equally as valid, they exist, and they are fuelled d by something too. So what you do is, figure out what your role is, and fill that role as successfully as you can fulfill it. And leave room for somebody else to come after you to fulfill that role. That’s what a tradition does. That’s how tradition is established. But in terms of anger, you can’t let the anger burn. You can’t let the anger burn you up. Like you want to be mad, you don’t want to loose it. Because when you loose the anger, you loose your force. But you don’t want the anger to supplant the greatest force, which is love, and that’s a benevolent force. That’s the force where, instead of you concentrating on what somebody is not, you then are concentrating on what you can do to make the situation better. Because true anger, the type of anger that is constructive for artistic purposes is based on the perception of injustice. So, you are supposed to be angry because you feel that there is a wrong being perpetrated. So what that means that your identification with the community could be about is so strong that you feel a need to correct that. But you can’t get caught up in the anger against the people who are perpetrating, which you perceive to be wrong. You have to be more concerned with the constructive atmosphere that you create by constructing something to combat that which is wrong. And that thing always comes out of a feeling of love, a desire to elevate those that are wronged, and to make the world that you live in a better place to live in. According to you. See, you realize that it’s still just your perspective. When you start thinking that your way of thinking of stuff is the world thinking of it, then you fall into a type of narcissism that leads to real decline. Because then you shut off the possibility that you might be wrong. And you never really know if what you are thinking is not correct. But you have to go in the direction. Because if you are an artist, or anything you doing, you have to move in a direction. Don’t be anxious. You can’t let anger consume you. Because it can do that. Any emotion can do that. The only emotion you want to consume you is love. And I don’t mean that lost love, where you are going to be depending on someone, I’m talking about the constructive love, the love of action. That makes you want to assist other lives. Not assist them in the way you think they need to be assisted. Not that religious love where you want to recruit somebody to be in your religion. But the real love, where you try to recognize what somebody actually wants in their life, or what they need, and try to help them fulfill that. You know, that anger—I tell the kids don’t loose their anger. You gotta be mad. But don’t think you the only one that’s mad. Or because you mad, you done something. Achievement is the construction of something. Like with students sometimes, they get so caught up in philosophical discourse, that they don’t realize that in art the artifact is what’s important. Oh, really, you feel that way? OK, where is your film, are we going to see that now? Oh, where is your compositions? I’m all for talking, but that’s how I tell them.
INT: Wynton it has been a privilege.
WM: Thank you.