An OffBeat Interview With Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis is a very prolific writer, but most of compositions have been of the musical variety—notes on staffs rather than words on paper.
Until now. The New Orleans-born, multiple Grammy-winning trumpeter, widely considered the most influential jazz musician of his generation, has expanded his repertoire by authoring a 192-page hardback book, Sweet Swing Blues on the Road, in collaboration with photographer Frank Stewart. It is due in bookstores on Dec. 12.
Wynton employs a casual, rhythmic tone to weave a composite, impressionistic account of his experiences as a musician on tour. His prose is complemented and illustrated by Stewart’s 140 black-and-white images dating from 1991-92.
Calling from his home in New York City one Friday in October, Marsalis discussed the book and issues raised by it. As in jazz, the conversation sometimes moved away from the main theme and stretched out to touch on other related subjects. Throughout, he emphasized that the main motivation for writing Sweet Swing was his perception that he, and the experience of touring, have been greatly misrepresented by the media.
Wynton is often portrayed as a stern, controversial figure. Both in the book and speaking here, though, a softer and earthier side of the musician is in evidence. This interview took place just before the recent controversy over Gene Lees’ book Cats of Any Color, which accuses Marsalis of racism. Given these headline-grabbing accusations, Wynton’s comments on race and its relationship to jazz are of particular interest.
He also discusses his work ethic, his feelings about when a musician leaves his band, why he considers himself “country,” and how to go about building a broader audience for jazz music. Of particular interest to locals, though, is Marsalis’ revelation that he intends to set up a foundation in New Orleans next year for the “perpetuation and education” of New Orleans jazz.
What made you want to write this book?
One thing was all the years of doing interviews and just having the actual experience of being misrepresented to the public. Like whenever somebody would come on the road to do an interview with the band, they would say things like, “Man, I didn’t know this is how it is out here.” We’d be coming from clinics [Marsalis hosts workshops at schools] and somebody would have tears in their eyes and say, “Man, I didn’t know you all had this kinda thing.” But then when they did the article it wouldn’t have any of that type of feeling in it. It would always be something that had nothing to do with what they had experienced.
So I felt it was important to preserve the actual experience and present it to a larger public so the people could really see what it’s like for us being on the road. And then I thought it was also important to have pictures so they could really see it and know that it’s not just a story that I was making up.
How did you work? Did you take notes? Did you use a tape recorder?
I did it out of my head. I mean, I’ve been on the road for 14 years, I’ve done a thousand clinics. I can recall just the questions, and all the places I can remember. Most of the places I can remember almost exactly what I said and what the people said, questions I got asked. Goin’ to people’s houses to eat. We could have made four books ’cause these things take place everywhere you go. I wrote the book in about a month. It wasn’t that difficult to write after I got over procrastinating. I just told it straight how it is.
When I’ve told people that you have a book coming out, they immediately assume it’s going to be academic. That it is so personal is a surprise to them.
That’s because of how I’ve been portrayed for a lot of years. That’s why I really wanted to write the book, because the way I’ve been put out in the media doesn’t really have that much to do with how I am. It’s always some argument about “what is jazz,” or something that actually maybe occupies 15 minutes of my time each day, that will be the whole focus.
Or that I go to schools. I mean, I go to schools almost every day, but mainly I play. You know what I mean. For me it was just a clarification. I have some other books that I’m contracted to write, too, and I’m going to try to be doing a lot of the same things.
Have you ever written anything before, such as poetry? The book is very poetic.
I’ve written little articles and essays and things like that. I just wrote it how I think. I try to use the musical form. But you know, I like the sound of words. You know, you try to put the words together a certain way. I think it’s also because I’ve been around Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch so long, and they’re writers. I spend a lot of time listening to them read different things. And maybe I’ll be sitting around and they’ll be having a conversation about Yeats. Well, if I didn’t know them, I wouldn’t be around anybody talking about Yeats. [laughs] It’s made me be more aware of poetry. And Crouch [is influential], especially because he writes like that.
One thing that was interesting to me was the dichotomy between two statements you made. The first was how in an argument you say you stick to your point, especially when you’re wrong, and then “admit it much later, sometimes.” The second is at a music clinic where you answer the question, “What is the meaning of jazz?” by saying, “A swinging dialogue between concerned parties whose philosophy is ‘Let’s try to work it out.‘”
I was talking about an argument on the [tour] bus, and that was like a joke. Whenever we’re in a serious conversation, like at the end of this one conversation [quoted in the book] where [local attorney] Lolis [Elie] said, “I changed my mind, which is something you need to do from time to time.” That’s a joke between us, how you’ll stick to a point. But the person we’re arguing with will know that we’re wrong.
In music we don’t do that. In music you don’t really have a right and a wrong. The only thing that’s right is if it sounds good. Arguing on a bus isn’t that important. Swinging on the bandstand is.
It’s funny, because since reading that I’ve asked people if they ever do that—stick to a point when they know they’re wrong. And I’ve found many people who say, “Oh yeah, I do that all the time.”
It’s like that section [of the book called “Vamp”] when I was talking about doing clinics. Very seldom will anybody ever say that they agree with what you’re saying if it’s different from what their original premise was. Most of the time they just say, “That’s what I like” or they just say, “Oh.” [laughs]
Your comments on avant garde music and generally your tone throughout the book come off very soft.
That’s because I’m not being interpreted by people who don’t like me. It’s like I’m doing a radio series for NPR [a 26-hour radio series called “Making the Music”] and yesterday I interviewed David Murray and Cecil Taylor and a lot of the avant garde musicians. And I told them before the interview, I said, “Now this interview is for you to present your views on the music. And you’ll see through my questions that I want you to get to speak about what you’re doing. Now, I will assure you of one thing: because I’m writing the radio show, one thing I won’t do to you—I won’t take your quotes and then write what my opinion is around you and use your words to mess over you. Because people have done me that for years and I’ll never do that to you.”
And after they gave me the interview I could see how I could really just dog them. And it really made me feel sad for people. It’s such a lack of integrity to do that to somebody. So now I had their words about their music down on tape. And I can frame their words any way I want to frame them. So if I want to say, “Well, most people think that these guys are disorganized in their music and such and such and such and such, but this is what they have to say,” I can get a quote of them saying something over what I’m saying. And basically that’s what’s been done to me for years.
So, in the book, that’s the way I feel and it’s actually how I answer people in clinics. It’s not filtered through the eyes of somebody who doesn’t like what they see or who’s mad because what’s going on goes against their sense of what should be happening.
Having discussed how others interview and write about you, talk about the publishing and editing of your book.
I was lucky to have an editor like Hilary [Hinzman]. I wrote an article in the New York Times like five years ago. It was called “What Is Jazz and What Isn’t.” He wrote me a letter after that article, actually it was like seven years ago, and said, “Man if you ever want to write a book, call me.” But I never called him because I never really did feel comfortable writing.
And later, when we were trying to get these books published, one of the people we met with was Hilary. And when I met him I remembered the letter that he had written me. And he’s just extremely hip, like he really understands what’s goin’ on. I learned more sitting out watching him edit. He just went through it one time and it was like 30 percent better immediately.
Yes, editors can be heaven or hell.
Yeah, once I had a guy who came out on the road and he wrote an article on us for Esquire magazine like three or four years ago. When they read the article, they said, “We can’t print this article because it’s too friendly toward him. We need something negative.” The guy was like a rarity—it just so happens that he’d been on the road and he was like, “That’s what happened, I just can’t like invent something fucked up about them.” [And the editor said] “Well, we’re sorry, we can’t run the article.”
Why do you choose to use the term “Negro” in your book?
Well, I only used it twice, I think. Maybe three times.
Is there a reason you use that word at all?
Well, because, it’s like what I said, that’s what we love to say. But we don’t say it together, so we don’t know how much we’re sayin’ it. And also the whole fact of the lowest and the highest. Like the chapter when I’m talking about that, the whole irony of race. To me it ties in with everything. It’s like all of those stories you have in mythology where somebody comes up like Cinderella. That’s the example that I use, from the kitchen to the castle by way of soul. [Marsalis breaks into a high-pitched voice, a la one of Cinderella’s evil stepsisters] “Oh, Cinderella, no not her, she’s not, no, she’s just…”
[Note: The chapter Wynton is referring to is “Crescendos and Diminuendos,” in which he talks about “old oak tree of men” like Danny Barker and Doc Cheatham. To clarify the above statement, I quote Wynton’s book: “This is the majesty of the blues. The excluded include themselves through a skillful display of insight into the most fundamental of American realities, travelling like Cinderella from the kitchen to the castle by way of soul. Soul gestures.”]
One thing you wrote that I felt was very significant, particularly because it is something I’ve dealt with, was your answer to a question asked during a clinic. The question was, “Why are the best jazz musicians black?” And, in part, you said, “Swinging the blues is about culture, not race.” Do you think it takes an understanding of the culture to play the music of the culture?
At what point does somebody become black? I’m trying to point out to people the whole absurdity of the situation we are in. It’s an absurd situation. People have a lot more in common. I mean, the fact that you have two eyes, a nose, ears and a mouth and feet and toes and behind and the digestive track and a heart and lungs and all that makes you have a lot more in common than the fact that your pigmentation is different.
But I mean, in order to swing, you have to imitate the people who could swing the hardest. And if you want to play with some soul, you have to play like people who play with soul. Now, because you superficially might not look like them, if you allow that to scare you from trying to learn how to play then that’s cowardice on your part. So if you decide to say that that’s black or white, you can call it whatever you want.
It’s like an accent in a language. If you want to learn that language you have to try to learn to speak with that accent. Now if you don’t like the people whose accent you’re trying to learn, then you’re going to have a problem. But there’s nothing that can be done about that.
You rarely talk about enjoying other kinds of music besides jazz and classical. I mean, I see you dancing on the bandstand—in fact, everybody in your family, except maybe your father Ellis, moves when they’re playing. Do you go out and dance? Is there other music that you like? When you said avant garde music wasn’t jazz, do you like some of those players?
I like Latin music. But really I can like any kind of music. I don’t really care what it is. Once I recognize what somebody’s trying to do, that’s fine with me. I don’t like that fake kinda stuff that’s not really gospel music that sounds like 1970s pop music. Mainly stuff that’s purely commercial, where there’s no real artistic impulse at all, it’s just a desire to manipulate the emotions of the public for money—I don’t really like that.
But anything where people are trying to play or if it’s funny…like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, that’s like humor to me, it’s like going to a circus but they play music too. I don’t really look at it like I would listen to jazz or nothing but I think it’s enjoyable if you look at it for what It is. These cats with their horns, and you know, they just play. They paint their faces, it’s like a show. I think it’s interesting. It’s like a certain type of expression, just an open expression.
In the chapter about being on the bus, you say of driver Harold Russell, “Harold is country. I’m country, so is [bassist Reginald] Veal and Wycliffe [Gordon, trombonist]. Wes [Anderson, saxophonist] is country, too, even though he’s from Brooklyn.” Why do you think of yourself that way?
I’m from Kenner, Louisiana. There ain’t nobody who ever came from there that wasn’t country. And also we grew up in Breaux Bridge and Lafayette and all those places—we country, we’re country people, we like country things.
Well, what are those things that you would consider “country” in you? I mean, you’re thought of as so sophisticated.
I mean everything, like the way old people’s houses smell, the type of food you like to eat, playing street football. You know when we sit around talking that’s the kind of stuff we talk about. The way different people talk and use the language, you know the way people in your family talk. Just your gravitation. Country people have that kind of simplicity. Like Harold our bus driver, he’s country, like a cowboy.
You’re thought of as urban, with your stylish clothes.
But that’s not where I’m from though. That’s not how I grew up. I like the country.
Do you think some of that has been lost?
No, you can’t lose something you grew up with. If you grew up with something, that’s you. It’s a part of you that’s just been expanded upon. I mean, it’s in me, I don’t have to go anywhere to feel it. I can recall it at the drop of a hat.
But Wes didn’t grow up like that. Why do you think he’s country, too?
That’s what his gravitation is. With him it’s the other way around—he lives in Baton Rouge now, he left Brooklyn. That’s just how he is. He likes a certain type of food, he likes to be around a certain type of people—just real simple, soulful people. And he likes to swing.
Can you see yourself writing a more musically academic book?
I’m going to do that, too. Eventually. I just really need to accrue more knowledge before I can do that. I want to break down more about what jazz music is. And to be able to back it up technically. Just to participate in the dialogue on the music.
In Sweet Swing you reveal some rather intimate thoughts. How does that feel after you’re finished with it?
But I’ve been doin’ that all the time. I do that in interviews, but it never comes out. I’m trying to tell you, I don’t have to change the way I am. When you’re talking to somebody who doesn’t like you, it’s hard to get who you are across. The more honest you are with people the harder it is. I’ve been abused more in the press in terms of who I actually am and who I’ve been portrayed than anybody. Like fabricating a story about me firing my brother, when he actually left me to join another band [Marsalis is referring to when Branford left Wynton’s group to join pop star Sting’s band].
Do you think most interviewers are really against you?
Yeah, I don’t think they like the idea of what I’m trying to represent. I don’t think it’s personal. It’s just what I think about the country and about jazz music is different from what they think. So they don’t like that. It goes too much against their concept of how stuff is or should be.
Do you think it’s like the king of the mountain syndrome, that you’re on the top and they want to knock you down?
No, I don’t think that. I think it’s just a difference in opinion. It’s like David Murray and I have a difference in opinion. So if I have to present him to the public [in the aforementioned radio series], I have to have a certain level of integrity to present him fairly.
Is there anybody that isn’t on that opposite side when you’re talking to them?
I feel there are those people, but I just don’t feel like I’ve had an interview done with me when I said, “Yeah, that’s how it is.” It’s not something about positive or negative. I’ve had plenty of positive articles. I never felt like the people who interviewed came out and really captured the feeling of what it is. Now, a lot of it could be me. I could be not presenting the information right. This [book] is just to let people know what the experience is, and the experience is just so much broader and vaster.
Where did you find the time to do a book on top of everything else?
Well, normally I don’t go to sleep at night. I can write all kinds of stuff at night, you know. My normal time I go to bed is like 3:30 or 4 o’clock [in the morning], and I get up like at 8. Another thing is I’ll keep working on something. It took me a month to write the book. I just worked on it every day.
So do you work in the day and the night?
Well, I think about it in the day, put it down at night. Like I solve the problem in the daytime. With music too. But you know, with the book it wasn’t that hard—it’s not as hard as writing music. First, it’s not really a book—I don’t have to give it structure from the beginning to the end. So that makes it easier. And then also in the book, it’s stuff we’ve been doing for years in the band. So a book like that is something I’ve thought about for a long, long time, so a lot of the solutions were worked out already.
And with writing music, it’s like new every time?
With music I don’t really know what I’m going to do. It’s something like doing In This House, On This Morning—you have to create the form. It would be like if I was trying to write a novel.
Most people are aware of your heavy touring schedule, and then there’s writing music and all. Is there ever a day you just don’t do anything, just kick back?
I don’t have that many of those. But I’m restless. I don’t really like doing that. I have to do something. I guess sometimes I play some ball, but I know I always have to do something. Work on something. Normally I’m playing. I try to play every day.
How often do you practice?
If I’m not playing, then I’ll practice. But I try to play. You have to practice with Wes in the band. He’ll run you off the bandstand.
So if you don’t have a gig at night, or you’re not jamming anywhere, then you practice?
Well, that almost never happens. I make it a point to play as much as possible.
Did you play today?
Yes, of course, definitely. Well, first I had to do one photo shoot, and so I played through that whole thing. Another thing I had to do was talk about Thanksgiving for a television thing they’re going to show before a football game, so I played during that.
And I’m working on something when I’m playing—I just don’t play. I try to take advantage of that time even if I’m flirting with the people.
In the chapter “Response” you talk about your bandmembers and their comings and goings. It sounds like you really miss them, players like Todd Williams and Marcus Roberts, no matter who comes into the band.
Yes, lordy, yes. That’s part of having a band, but it’s hard when people leave. Especially when you feel like you haven’t really got to the thing y’all could have gotten too lyrically. You’re always going in a direction. So when you feel like there’s still a lot of music you could have played and documented—especially the documentation. I try to document everything. I’m very conscious of documenting, getting it on record. Like a lot of records are not out but I make sure it’s copied so that people later will know how we actually sounded.
How much does the band sound change when there is a personnel change?
A lot, it changes a lot. And for a lot of the musicians who came in the band I waited four or five years for them to learn how to play. It’s not like a small investment. Like with somebody like Todd Williams, he stood on my bandstand for a long time not really being able to play. So when somebody like him leaves, that’s not just like somebody leaving—that’s like six or seven years of investment gone.
How do those dynamics change then? Does it change the way you write or the way you play?
It changes the sound of the band. We have to try to do different things. A band will have strengths and weaknesses and so we have to do what we can to address the strengths and weaknesses of the band. I definitely write stuff for the people who are in the band. In a long piece of music I will determine who plays at a certain time based on what they do. Generally, it’s important to me not to write out drum parts. I just give [Herlin Riley] as much freedom as possible ’cause the drums and the bass are the center of the band.
In the book you say “a drummer’s style determines the band.” That’s a pretty strong position.
The drummer determines where you can go. Like when Herlin came into the band, he could play New Orleans music. Then we could play it. So when he leaves the band we’re not going to find anybody that can play that.
I know it was hard to lose Marcus and most recently Veal.
That was rough, too. But you have to manage change, you have to keep going. You know other people come in and they try to swing and play. That’s what Veal said when he left. He said, “I’m leaving but somebody else is gonna come in here trying to swing.”
The chapter called “Vamp” is about working with young people at school clinics. Are those participating usually musicians?
Oh, no, generally they have larger audiences. Like the one at the University of North Carolina where I was conducting the band [mentioned in book], sometimes they have two or three thousand kids, and then sometimes there’s only 10. Like in the [book’s] dialogue, the more general questions, that comes from people who are not musicians. But you know that whole dialogue [which included a lot of discussion about rap], no matter what you say it isn’t going to make a difference. That’s talking to a general audience.
Do you ever address the art of listening? We really need audiences. How do you think that an audience for jazz can be developed?
I think first it would come on to the musicians to extend to the people to increase the understanding. You can’t expect an audience to just come [to a show] and play two hours for every song. Just the way we’ve been doing it is not intelligent. You can’t expect the people to come out, then you stand up and don’t tell ‘em nothin,’ you play for a long time, it’s loud, the band is out of balance, it don’t be swingin’. I mean, we’ve done everything we could to destroy our audience. And we’ve succeeded by and large. We have to be more intelligent.
And then, you know, you’re not getting any real help from all the institutions that market music. They’re not helping jazz music, because they don’t want to celebrate the image of jazz. In order to sell something to the public you have to celebrate the image of that thing. And the image of jazz music is not something that has ever really been celebrated. Maybe there was a brief period in the 1950s that that took place.
What would you suggest?
Expose people to the music. Support the radio stations. Like the records that best exemplify what the music is. You can tell somebody “Go get some of John Coltrane’s music.” Well, you have to tell them exactly what to get. ‘Cause a person who doesn’t listen to jazz, if they go out and buy Ascension or Meditation, they’re not going to like that, where they would like Coltrane and John Hartman. It’s the whole question of directing people to those things in the art that is most appealing. You have to recruit an audience.
And you have to make the musicians understand that they are playing for an audience, too. They have to be gracious to people when they come out to hear you play. You’re not doing them a favor by coming—they feel like they’re doing the people a favor by showing up. The public is always willing to hear something that sounds good. It’s just a matter of exposing them to it.
Lately you’ve been incorporating a lot more New Orleans-style jazz. Do you have any intention of doing an album of the music?
I might, but not really. Once when Herlin and Veal was in the band we played more overt New Orleans music, a more overt reference to it. But even then, out of 15 songs only two of them would be New Orleans songs. It was just a big deal was made out of it, more than really what we played. A lot of the music I was influenced by was like the music that Alvin Batiste and my father and all of them made. That’s New Orleans music too. It’s not early New Orleans music. I just try to keep reassessing all of the influences.
Would you ever consider moving back here? That’s the question many people want to ask you.
Yeah, I wish I could move back. I mean, I like it in New Orleans. Of course, now my man Marc [Morial] is the mayor. You know, yeah, I like it, progressive. It’s soulful.
Well, there’s a lot of work here for you.
It would be hard to attract an audience, though.
Well, I don’t think so, but that wasn’t the work I was talking about. I was talking about stirring up that interest.
I would love to do that. I’m going to start a foundation next year for the perpetuation and education of New Orleans music. Just New Orleans music. New Orleans jazz.
Would that work to perpetuate and educate on all of New Orleans jazz?
Only the early jazz. Because the early jazz is the most fundamental form of jazz. It’s important for it to be retained, for its identity, because it’s like a ritual—it’s the ritual part of the music and it’s important for that not to be allowed to just pass in the history. Because the ritual is important for it to be maintained.
What would the money go towards?
Get instruments available to people. Try to work with the city to get kids playing band instruments all over the city, playing in the style of New Orleans music. Getting scores. Help with the instruction. Set out what the objectives of New Orleans music are. You know, you go to places and tell kids to play a blues and they don’t know what that is, kids that play in a brass band. I mean they’ll be playin’ a blues, they kind of hear it, but they don’t really know it’s a blues.
The real old musicians—I’m talking about the musicians in the 1800s—they could play scores and everything. I mean they could play, they could read music. We just have to rebuild our tradition.
And we have to celebrate it. I’m from New Orleans—it’s up to me to celebrate that tradition. And to do more than just talk about how great it is. That’s what my father and them, Alvin Batiste and everybody, have been trying to do all these years—all the band directors. Danny Barker, that’s what he would be doin’. That’s what [local musician/teacher] Jonathan Bloom is doing, now. He’s in New Orleans scuffling, trying to deal with all of the bureaucracy to get kids to learn how to play.
One last question. You did so many encores when I saw you in Italy at the Umbria Jazz Fest in June, like six. Do you do that often?
Whenever the people request it. I’ll stay as long as people want me to stay. I love to play.
by Geraldine Wyckoff
Source: OffBeat Magazine