Coolin’ in with Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis, a musician without whom it would have been hard to imagine last year or even the whole past decade, explains what jazz is – and isn’t, why under no circumstances you can call Sting a jazz musician, and why Miles Davis is the most tragic figure in Western music of the 20th century, why no one today wants to study the music of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and, last but not least, why Wynton himself is not planning to record another classical album in the near future.
JAZZ FORUM: There have been many different definitions of jazz in various books, none of them satisfying. How would yon define jazz from today’s perspective?
WYNTON MARSALIS: I think Jelly Roll Morton’s definition is the best. 0f course, things have been added to his definition, but his is the most comprehensive. The first point is that jazz must address the blues and must have a polyphonic conception of improvisation in group playing, which means that every voice can improvise inside of its system. Trumpet plays the melody. clarinet plays obbligato, trombone plays the slide part.
Then you have a conception of groove and swing, which is the problem of the rhythm section and all the members of the band. Then you have different interpretations of the Latin, Cuban, Japanese, Chinese, African – all the world beats. You have adaptations of European music, like for example, Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite. Then you have a reinterpretation of the American popular song, like I Got Rhythm. You have original compositions which are done in the style of the extensions of blues. You use all of the same thematic devices found in European music and in African music. There’s communal group improvisation, typical of African music, and1 the European conception of formal music organized in terms of melody, harmony, rhythm and counterpoint. The way that a European marching band is organized – is very much like a jazz band – trumpets play the fanfares, clarinets and the flutes play obbligato parts, the trombones and the saxophones play riffs, the tuba plays the bass part.
Of course, Duke Ellington added many things to this list, but basically jazz has to address those elements: blues, a polyphonic conception of improvisation, individual solos and group performance, soft dynamics – not too loud, so that you can develop modulations in the different keys, uses of grooves from all over the world – as grooves, not as beats, because a beat is not a groove.
JF: What is a groove?
WM: A groove is organic and it develops like in traditional African music. It’s a series of rhythms that can be danced to, that are indicative of the vitality of a group of people. That’s what a groove is. It develops as an improvised body of rhythm and sound. It is danceable. It can be improvised and it grows and develops. But the more sophisticated a groove is, the more changes it has in it. The less sophisticated it is, the more static it is.
In African music when one drum changes, or one instrument changes, all of the other instruments have to change; their parts are adjusted to that change. This is how the system of jazz group improvisation works. One person plays something, everybody else hears it in different way and responds with their reflexes. And also it’s a combination of that and the European conception of theme and development of theme. A beat is just the same thing. But it is indicative of the loss of vitality in people, because when you go from a groove to a beat there is a reduction. Beat is less sophisticated.
JF: If one of these elements is missing, would you say the music ceases to be jazz?
WM: It depends on what the elements are. It’s like a fine meal. You have a gumbo and if sausage is not in it, it still may be a gumbo. If the shrimp is not in it, it still may be a gumbo. But if there is no roux, then it is not a gumbo. So all of the elements are not equal.
One thing that you must have first is polyphonic group improvisation and you must be playing blues. If you’re not playing blues, it is not jazz. And it must also reflect or show a knowledge of the history of the music in the progression of each instrument. Like if you play trumpet, you must address something in the history of jazz trumpet because everyone has done this. And in no music has a whole world ever been created by one person. It is totally new because the music comes out of the experience of a group of people. There are just many different interpretations of the same thing. So if you don’t modulate into different keys, you can still play Jazz. If you don’t really deal with different grooves from other parts of the world, you can still be a jazz musician. But if you don’t deal with swing or any groove at all, if you have a beat and not a groove, if you don’t play blues, you cannot be playing jazz.
JF: Is Sting a jazz musician according to your definition?
WM: Under no circumstances. He’s never claimed to be a jazz musician.
JF: Gil Evans called him a jazz musician.
WM: So what? (laughs)
JF: He uses improvising jazz musicians, including your brother, in his band.
WM: Branford was in that band, but he was not playing jazz – he was playing rock music. Many people improvise in many cultures. They improvise in African music, they improvise in Chinese music, they improvise in Japanese music. They improvised in early European baroque music. But this is not jazz. The music must address blues, it must address a polyphonic system of improvisation, a polyphonic ordering of music, and it must reflect the ideas that were in the music when it first originated. And the greater and more powerful the music and the conception are, the richer the various elements of the music will be – like the music of John Coltrane.
Certainly what goes on on Sting’s bandstand cannot be associated with the music of Coltrane or Monk or any of the truly great jazz bands.
JF: What do you think of European jazz musicians who seek to emancipate themselves from the American influence, attempting to form their own styles, by fusing jazz with the indigenous folk music of their countries. Is that legitimate jazz music?
WM: All things that exist are legitimate as whatever they are. The question for any art form is, “What is its function in relation to the group of people that it comes out of?” Music ultimately is the creation of an artist, of an individual person, but this individual person must be uniquely qualified to express the dreams, aspirations, hopes, feelings of the group of people that they come out of. Jazz music is world music because in New Orleans at the times when it was born, many people of many different cultures lived together. So there is already European music in jazz. Jelly Roll Morton made this very clear. There’s no need for someone from Europe to emancipate themselves from jazz because jazz music has many European elements in it already. The question for them is, “Can they reconcile the African elements that perhaps they have to go search for?” Then they will be addressing jazz. It’s like, if I go to play a classical concerto, I don’t have to emancipate myself from anything above Beethoven’s music because I’ve grown up in this system where that type of music is heard all the time; So this experience is not foreign to me. It is part of the world experience. The question for the European musician or American musician or any musician is – “Can they reconcile the universality of jazz with their own conception?” or they with be defeated by their own lack of understanding and attempt to “emancipate” themselves. Then they really can find liberation inside of the art form that they should study.
JF: Individuality is an important part of jazz. Yet today thousands of young musicians who learn jazz at school tend to play in a way that can hardly be called individual.
WM: That is not because of the school. That is because of the people themselves. Individual creativity comes from God, from the Creator, it doesn’t come from the school. It’s like in any field. Let’s take science. People are now studying physics all over the world, but there are no Einsteins. Does that mean that the study of physics is not valid?
JF: Schools can kill individuality.
WM: Schools cannot kill individuality. Schools are merely institutions which provide information. Those who are individuals come to schools with an individual conception already. Schools can only help.
The belief that we are overeducated in jazz music is incorrect. In no other field has there ever been the feeling that knowledge is incorrect. But in our field for some reason the belief in knowledge is always attacked. These schools are not teaching the musicians properly. They should be teaching them to play blues and to swing. Instead they are learning funk drumming. The philosophy of jazz is not being articulated, and those who attempt to articulate it are attacked in the media and in the press. And when there is an articulation of this philosophy and a belief in study – which always helps individuality because thorough knowledge is freedom – these things are torn down.
How many schools are there in the United States teaching jazz? Three, four, maybe ten. Then they have systems of education which do not address jazz music because they refuse to reconcile the European with the African. They cannot make this reconciliation, so they teach one method, one way of thinking. This is what is wrong. They teach students scales. If you’re a musician and you get to college, you should already know all of your scales. If you’re a maths major, you do not go to college to learn addition, You should learn to use your own hearing, reflexes and the style of the music, the type of joy you feel in the swing.
The higher levels of thought which are manifested in the music of Coltrane, Monk, Ellington are not being studied at these schools. I know – I go there all the time and teach. Students don’t listen to these. They listen to whatever the most contemporary trend or fad is.
We must always differentiate between eccentricity and individuality. Individuality is something that’s earned and very few earn it because it is a long process. It means that if your personality is strong enough, then it will absorb all of these influences and still be itself. It does not mean that you have avoided everything and come up your way, No great artist has ever done that. Not Bach not Beethoven, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington. All of these musicians could play or understand every style of the music that came before them. All of them.
JF: I once had the pleasure of visiting the school which you used to attend – the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Did it just provide you with information or did it also help you develop your personality by giving you freedom to grow?
WM: When you go to school you do not need freedom. You go to school to learn specifics and techniques. School is only eight hours of the day. There are still many other hours remaining to deal with your own individuality. Schools encourage a certain type of individuality, but there’s a curriculum, there’s a course, there’re requirements to he met. The student who is an indilvidual will meet these requirements or will not meet these requirements. I’ve never gone to a school for the school to mould me as a person. I’ve always gone to school to get the information that was being presented, and that’s all. When I studied trumpet with trumpet teachers, it was purely to learn what they had to say, not for them to shape me as a man or a person. If you do not know who you are and you go to school to search for your personality then you are definitely in trouble.
JF: Would you say that it was merely a coincidence that these several great musicians, yourself included, happened to attend NOCCA at the same time or was it that the school was so good that it spawned so much talent?
WM: The first thing is, none of us are really great musicians – Charlie Parker is a great musician. And the second thing is, when we went to school there was only the seven of us in school. No one else wanted to be there. The only reason we learned anything about jazz music was because of my father. In our school out of all seven students only myself and Terence Blanchard really wanted to play jazz. When my father was teaching the class, when he would turn around to the blackboard to write something down, everybody would start playing pop music. (laughter) When I was in high school these students were not serious. They became serious after I moved to New York and then they could see that we can get over playing jazz. Art Blakey – when we were in high school this type of music didn’t exist. There was only pop music.
My father never had a job playing jazz, but we looked up to him because he was so great as a musician. Even in high school we could go to a job and make more money than he could. We would go out and play Earth, Wind and Fire, the Commodores, Funkadelic and make $100 a night. My father would go and play a gig and make $35, $40. In his jazz class at NOCCA, there were only five students: me, Branford, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Tony Dylan. When my father left the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, there were only three students. So there is no New Orleans jazz school. (laughs) It’s on’y a media creation. But perhaps there will be one because now my father is back teaching at the University of New Orleans and I will also move back home soon. A lot of the other musicians, like Donald Harrison, have moved back home too.
Perhaps we will work within the school system and have young musicians play the early New Orleans music. We must do all of this work ourselves ‘cause we don’t receive any help.
JF: When you were growing up, was Louis Armstrong an important influence on you?
WM: No. I never listened to Louis Armstrong until I left New Orleans. I didn’t like his music. I was very stupid. I didn’t listen to it and neither did any of my comrades. Many of them would listen to fusion and I would listen to Clifford Brown and Miles Davis and John Coltrane. But when I was at home I did not hear the historical perspective of jazz because in my generation I was the only one who wanted to play jazz. I had no musicians to play with.
JF: The music which you are playing today has a very strong New Orleans flavor. Is that part of your new mission?
WM: I’ve played many different styles of jazz since I started: standard songs, contemporary song, real avant-garde type of music, blueses, all types of music, none of which have ever been addressed by jazz writers. For example, Black Codes (From the Underground) is a New Orleans funk tune, but nobody ever noticed that. Then, all of a sudden, they say, “Oh, they’re playing New Orleans music!” But we’ve been doing various developments of that music ever since I started. I must also say this: we don’t play New Orleans music very well. We’re not trying to play new Orleans music, we’re merely trying to learn the essences of that sound. Of course, anyone who’s heard Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five or Hot Seven or Jelly Roll Morton, can see that we can’t really play that style of music. We’re just trying to learn the elements of that music so that we can incorporate it into our conception. And the reason that we have to do that now is because the jazz educational system is very poor.
JF: Some people insist that New Orleans music is a thing of the past.
WM: There’s no past in art. Do you think that people in their inner lives have different aspirations than people had 500 years ago? No. If you look at the Sistine Chapel, if you or I could go paint this tomorrow, we would be great painters. If you listen to the C sharp minor Quartet of Beethoven, if you or I could go in that room and write that out tonight we would be genius musicians. If you or I could write Diminuendo & Crescendo in Blue today, we would be great musicians. Any play by Shakespeare – if you could write this thing today, you would be a genius. There is no past in art. Art is the whole history of humanity together. The greatest art illuminates what it means to be human. The variables change, but the spiritual essence and the substance remain the same. This is why when you read the Bible or the Koran or teachings of Buddha you find the same things we think about now. This is the purpose of mythology, this is the purpose of art – to put the inner life into context. These things do not change. Old and new – these are commercial titles for sale. And what is ironic in this era is that those things which are considered most new are actually the oldest, and those things which are most new are the most disrespected.
JF: One of the most exciting aspect in jazz is innovation.
WM: It is only exciting for writers.
JF: Within less than 50 years jazz changed in a way that it took classical music 300 years to do.
WM: We have to understand several things. Number one is that innovation in jazz is exciting for writers not for people. People and artists don’t care about it. If you play a concert of Jelly Roll Morton for people tonight, they will love this music. They don’t care about innovation in music. This is something in the province of writers. The purpose of music is not to innovate, but to give a fundamental context in sound of the aspirations and hopes, and feelings of a group of people. The musicians made a big error when they allowed writers to convince them that their fundamental job was to find something new, as if they were in space exploration. There’re many new things that can be found. The question is, “Is it good?” and not, “Is it new?” Is it good, does it give you something to help you with your life?
The reason that jazz music developed much quicker than European music – is first the effect of television and radio. Time moves much quicker in our age than it moved in the age of Bach. Bach would have to walk 300 miles to hear Buxtehude play the organ. He would have to listen, remember, write it down. Louis Armstrong put out a record, everyone could have it in a week and learn. Naturally things will go much quicker because the information passes along faster.
The question for jazz music is – is it addressing all of the elements of jazz, not just extending one element. For example, they will say that bebop musicians play more sophisticated harmony. This is not true. There was no bebop musicians that played more sophisticated harmony in 1945 than Duke Ellington was dealing with in 1938. But that’s what will be said all the time. Why? We have on record Louis Armstrong on Potato Head Blues. He plays a major seventh on a dominant seventh chord. This is the furthest extension of a chord. But they will say the bebop musicians played on the 11th and 13th and the upper extensions of the chord. Yet we have a record with Louis Armstrong playing on the furthermost extension of a chord in 1927. What about this?
Whether you are the first one to make an extension of a chord is not important. The question is, “Can you change the emotion of the music?” not “Can you do one thing that nobody else has done?” And ultimately innovation is less sophisticated than things which are fundamental.
JF: So which was the last fundamental change in jazz? Bebop?
WM: Coltrane – because Coltrane’s music goes back to the beginning of the music, deals with spirituals, with blueses, with call-and-response improvisations, a system of group improvisation that is like King Oliver’s band. It’s very deeply intellectual music and it addresses the fundamentals of jazz music.
JF: Is there jazz beyond Coltrane?
WM: Yes, there are always many things beyond any one individual person, and it will always be this way. Because the purpose of jazz or any art form is not to be innovative. Bach’s music will be played all over the world tonight and it will be enjoyed because it is great music.
Immediacy is what is the downfall of modern man. This is why people don’t want to get married, this is why people don’t want to have children, this is why people want to get high and escape the world because they want everything immediately. This is why we don’t want to study, myself included. You don’t want to study. You want it now! That’s why young musicians want publicity. You don’t want to learn how to play. You have to sit down night after night, year after year, decade after decade learning songs, changes, analyzing and thinking.
And also it is amazing how those who always claim – that something is innovative know very little about the history of the music in specific terms. We would not find that in science. You can assume that if someone designs a plane, he knows what the Wright brothers did. And this is the position of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. I will tell you myself: I’ve done many new things that have not been done. But they’re not important ‘cause many of them do not address the fundamentals of jazz and also no one knows that. Who is qualified to say what is innovative and what is not?
JF: … Stanley Crouch. (laughter) He went on to prove in his linernotes that your use of meters is innovative.
WM: But it is not important. The only thing we have done that is different, is that we have created a new way to play call and response, which is a fundamental element of jazz music.
You just hear other styles and you say, “Yes, maybe I’ll do it this way.” All the time you have a dialogue with the history. You either state, re-state or counter state. This is what all the music, all art does. And the richness of the music is based on how much understanding the musician has of his/her culture, society and art form. This is what it’s based on. It’s not based on an eccentricity or a new type of trio or some new harmony, it’s based on how deeply you can go inside of your group of people. Not necessarily black people – jazz is world music. You must go deeply inside of the all of the people – black, white, green. It has all of this in it. This is why the least sophisticated version of American music has swept the entire world and is the most popular.
JF: How would you rate the fusion music of the ’70s within the context of jazz history?
WM: All of that music to me represents a decline. You’ll see that in 20 years. Fusion music has developed into pop music which is what it always wanted to be from the beginning.
I feel that in the beginning Weather Report’s first three or four albums were very, very good. They were looking for some things. But look what has happened with Miles Davis, who is the most tragic figure in all of Western art from the 20th century – not because of his art but because he has received so much publicity for doing so little at the end of his career.
This is in keeping with the state of affairs in the world today. I mean Duke Ellington’s music is not heard and Coltrane is not mentioned. But someone stands up and imitates Cyndi Lauper or Michael Jackson every night and is called a jazz musician and is said to be innovative. This is comical. Playing the style of music I played in high school, for a man in his 60’s is not innovative.
JF: But you can’t ignore the way Miles Davis plays these songs, his sound, his phrasing, his chord progressions, his inimitable chromaticism…
WM: This is not true. No one wants to imitate him. Do you believe that type of stuff? Have you ever heard Jo!1,i:i Coltrane’s music? Do you know the spirit and the sound of that music? Miles Davis’s own legacy indicts him. If you first listen to My Funny Valentine live in concert, and then you listen to Time after Time – are you prepared to set up technically and argue that this is an extension of that? It is now his decline. To anyone who knows what decline means, it is a decline. And I would say this to you or anyone else in the world. We’ll sit down with these recordings at any time at the piano and I’ll demonstrate for anyone who wants to know.
JF: What about Marcus Miller’s use of electronic instruments? It is supposed to be a completely new approach to studio music production.
WM: All of this stuff is like a joke to me. People run to find out if this is new. You could go in the studio and catch up with any two combinations that are new. The question is, “Does it address the fundamentals of the form?” and the answer to that is, “No!” It’s not more sophisticated, it is not deeper spiritually, it is not a deeper development of what was going on before. I don’t know about the electronic instruments, I’m not qualified to comment on this, but I can comment on the music: The forms are not more complex.
JF: There’s a widespread belief that jazz has used up all of its potential, and is now eating up its own tail.
WM: That is impossible. That would be like saying European music was over after Bach. The music of Duke Ellington is not being studied. The greatest artist whose music leaves the room for the most development is not being studied by anyone. So naturally it seems like it’s used up, but there are infinite possibilities for the creation or form and the development.
The thing is, there’s no one who wishes to study this. They want to be pop stars and make much money playing very little music. Since this is now pop world, those who stand against thig are attacked. But let it be this because music does not care. If you don’t show dedication to music, in seriousness and study, it will not reveal itself to you.
We live in an era when someone like Miles Davis is elevated over Duke Ellington. Do you realize the absurdity of this in musical terms? Do you realize how absurd this is?
JF: Do you think Miles is aware of this?
WM: He is. I know it. He’s been too great not to be aware of it. He proves it in his autobiography. At one point he says people should study classical music. Then at the next point he’s saying they shouldn’t study any music. I mean, man, the stuff is absurd! This is like a child in a game. But it is not about him. You understand it’s more about us than it is about him. He is an example of what we are ourselves, which is people who want money, notoriety, fame, no substance, to exploit other people. It is about us. It is not about him. Personality. The code of the personality. What do they wear? How many women do they have? Did they take dope? What did they do in their personal lives? I don’t care what people do in their personal lives.
JF: Why is there this conflict between you and him? Is it because you and Miles represent a totally different set of values as jazz musicians?
WM: He’s not a jazz musician. He has said many times, “I do not play jazz.” Have you read this? Why is he still called a jazz musician? When he was playing jazz he was great. He decided not to play jazz. He’s now a pop musician. The reason of the tension between him and me is not personal. He’s old enough to be my grandfather. I have no personal feelings about this. It is purely philosophical. And why do any two philosophies go against each other? I’m not an enemy of Miles Davis the man; I’m an enemy of Miles Davis the philosophy. Because I recognize that this is fake. I mean what compositions has Miles Davis created in relation to people like Monk or Duke Ellington or me? (laughs)
You even have to laugh at that. Once again, this is not to slight Miles Davis, this is just to put in context what it is that he’s doing. The question since the beginning of jazz is – is it art or is it just pop and frivolity? And since Duke Ellington proved without a doubt it is art, all of his late music is dismissed and not studied, and those who go into pop music are elevated, given credit, fêted all over the world and given awards. Miles Davis said, “I don’t play jazz,” but they keep saying “This is jazz.” Why? He plays jazz festivals, but he says, “I do not play jazz.” Why are we discussing Miles Davis in a JAZZ FORUM magazine when he’s said over and over again that he does not play jazz?
JF: Okay, let’s change the subject. In addition to playing jazz you have become a master of classical music. Did you have any problems switching from one type of music to the other?
WM: No. Jazz music is an extension and improvement of classical music. Because now you have not one tone on trumpet, you have ten tones. Now you have not one attack, you have, 12 attacks. Now you have not just a trumpet, you have Louis Armstrong, you have Ray Nance, Cootie Williams. In terms of form, now you don’t just sit down and play your part, you have to hear all the other parts and create your own part. So when you go to play music that is all written out, you don’t mind to have to listen to everybody. In jazz you have to know all that you play – the bass, the harmony and the rhythm. You can’t just play your part because in jazz you are used to hearing all parts. When you play trumpet, you are used to always playing melodies and listening for the harmony and listening for the background.
And you think of the music in terms of the structure or the form automatically because this is your job as a jazz musician. You hear all of these things and you hear the rhythm. You have a combination of the African rhythm and the European rhythm, a combination of the African sensibility, of timbre and sound, and the European, like cubist painting which gives you more perspectives. Cubist painting gives you many perspectives of one thing. This is what jazz does in terms of dealing with classical music. I think if you’d be getting an orchestra full of jazz musicians who are really trained to play classical music, it would be an unbelievable sound.
JF: What would happen if you took the best philharmonic musicians and asked them to improvise?
WM: They wouldn’t be able to do it because classical music is not an extension of jazz, but jazz is an extension of classical music.
JF: And what do you think of Third Stream efforts?
WM: You don’t have to do that – it’s already combined. The music was combined at its inception. And music comes out of a culture. There were people in New Orleans at the time that were a combination of the European and the African.
This is how our cusine came about, the gumbo, many things. These are combinations that come out of people.
JF: What is your next project in classical music?
WM: I don’t really have one. I’ve stoped playing classical music because I don’t have the time to really practice. I have too much respect for the music. Last time I played I did not sound good. So I won’t do that because the classical musicians are very, very serious and they practice very hard. You cannot just go up and play any kind of way. You have to practice and be very serious.
JF: What have been the reactions of classical musicians to your success in the bestselling charts for classical albums?
WM: The first thing is that they know that I practice many hours and I’m very serious. I’ve gone to classical music camps, schools, studied with classical music teachers for many years and they know that when I play with them I’m not disrespecting it or attempting to use classical music for publicity. And when I play the concertos I practice them for many, many hours and my knowledge of them is very thorough in terms of the form, the structure, the music. Maybe I like classical music because when I was 12 or 13, I would listen to Maurice Andre and I always wanted to play like him.
JF: It might be fitting to close this long interview with the presentation or your current band.
WM: Okay. Our pianist, Marcus Roberts, has been with us for four and half years. He’s very intelligent, very serious and very funny. He’s from Jacksonville, Florida. Todd Williams is on tenor and soprano saxophones and clarinet. He’s from St. Louis. He came to my concert once when he was 15. Branford was in the band and he played on Branford’s saxophone. My little brother Delfeayo sent him many tapes. We kept in touch over the years, he’d practice and now he’s in the band.
Wess Anderson plays alto saxophone. He’s from Brooklyn, New York, but he went down to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and studied with Alvin Batiste for six years. Reginald Veal plays bass. He’s from New Orleans and went to N.O.C.C.A. He played with my father in high school, and he and Wess, went to Baton Rouge together. Wycliffe Gordon, who plays trombone, is from Florida. He’s very country. (laughs) He also plays trumpet, bass and piano.
And then there’s Herlin Riley on drums. He is from New Orleans and he played with Ahmad Jamal for some time. We both played in Danny Barker’s band, the Fairview Baptist Church marching band. He knows many grooves and he’s got the real spirit of the music. He’s from a musical family in New Orleans, the Lasties.
I feel very fortunate to have the chance to work with these musicians. They are really serious. I’ve waited for them a very long time. 15 years.
by Pawel Brodowski
Source: Jazz Forum