Doing the work: A Q&A with Wynton Marsalis
I remember seeing Wynton Marsalis for the first time; who could forget? He was 17 years old, wearing a sharp suit, and playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1979. The audience had been waiting for Marsalis, who commanded his trumpet with a fluency and athleticism that recalled Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard. Who was this precocious kid, where had he come from, and what lay ahead for him?
You know the story: He had come from New Orleans, where his father, Ellis Marsalis, was a pianist and teacher. Wynton and his brothers — saxophonist Branford, trombonist Delfeayo, and drummer Jason — would all rise to prominence. But Wynton would leave the largest footprint: More than a leading instrumentalist, he’s become a brand name for jazz. He has won a slew of awards — e.g. many GRAMMYs — and is a co-founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, where he is managing and artistic director. Widely described as a spokesman (many would say self-appointed) for the music, he has been a lightning rod. His views on what jazz is are well known. Jazz, he says, must be infused with the form and feeling of the Blues. And it must swing. Miles Davis, one of his mentors and early champions, once called him “the police,” and many have accused him of constraining experimentation in the jazz world. Marsalis doesn’t seem to mind the criticism — in fact, he’s happy to explain and defend his views, as you will see in this interview.
The occasion was his winning a Lifetime Achievement Award from SFJAZZ, where he will be honored on June 3rd at the organization’s annual Gala concert. (He will also perform there Jan. 27-30 with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.) During our conversation, he covered a lot of ground: everything from his love of New Orleans cuisine to his symphonies and compositional process. Easy to talk to, he laughed often, telling stories about his mentors, including Elvin Jones and Ornette Coleman. He took time to discuss some of the friends he recently lost: Phil Schaap, the jazz radio deejay and curator at Jazz at Lincoln Center, who died in September; and Stanley Crouch, the writer whose views about jazz fundamentals helped shaped his own, who died in March 2020.
Over the course of an hour, I came away with this impression: Marsalis is inquisitive, a constant learner, very hard working. He sure as hell can deliver a lecture — at 60, he’s quietly fierce — but he also speaks humbly, crediting other musicians for much of what he’s accomplished. Mentioning a cycle of operas he’s thought of composing, he said he first wants to get some coaching from his lifelong friend Terence Blanchard, whose Fire Shut Up in My Bones premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in October. Marsalis attended a performance and felt “so good about it” — and so proud of his friend — that he now wonders if he should even bother writing his own operas. “I’m going to get with him and get some kind of a blueprint and see what he thinks I need to go down that road,” he said.
Q: How do you find the time to do the things you do? How do you carve out the time?
A: I don’t think about it like that. I’m just always doing stuff.
Q: Do you sleep?
A: I sleep, but I just keep doing stuff. Like my momma said, I always had a job. My great uncle, I lived with him when I was six for the whole year. And he was a stonecutter for the cemetery. He was born in 1883. Man, all he did was labor, so all we did was work: “Let’s put these stones in. Let’s plant this stuff. Let’s paint this house. Let’s fix this plumbing.” We put in a porch; it’s still there. Working class people have always worked. So I think from him — I just work. I don’t mind it. A lot of people work. I don’t look at it as being that different. Look at the people around the world who are working constantly.”
Q: Are you competitive?
A: Yes, I am. (He pauses.) When I was younger, I was. Now that I’m older, it’s less.
Q: Are there things that have eluded you? Things you think about, like, “Man, I haven’t done that. I still need to get that done.”
A: Yeah, of course.
Q: Like what?
A: It’s like you cook a meal and you think, “How could it be better? Could I do something different?” One time I was in Flint, Michigan, teaching a class, and a kid asked me, “What would you like to do? What would you like to be?”
I said, “Man, I would like to be an airplane pilot, because I’m afraid of flying. I would love to be an astronaut. I would love to be a photographer, a great chef. I would love to be a linguist; I wish I could speak languages. I would love to fix electric automobiles.”
Q: And what about music? What has eluded you there?
A: He asked me that, too: “Musically, is there something you can imagine you could do or be?”
(Marsalis laughs.) I said to him, “Yes, it’s the same. It’s endless. It’s the things you wish your playing could manifest.”
He said, “Like what?”
And I said, “Take your pick. Whatever your playing doesn’t manifest, you wish it could manifest.”
Q: That sounds like going down a rabbit hole.
A: Ultimately, it’s productive and it’s counter-productive. It’s productive in that you can then go in different directions, in the sense that there’s so many; there’s always something new to discover. It’s counter-productive in that the dissatisfaction with what you can’t do will keep you from minding the things that you already know how to do.
Q: You’re 60. You’re getting all these honors, which must be gratifying. But we’re still in the middle of this pandemic. What’s your mood? Are you feeling reflective? Thinking about your youth?
A: When I saw Terence Blanchard’s opera, I went back in my mind — he and I were together in seventh grade in an honors band. We were the two saddest trumpet players in the band. I remember we looked at each other and said, “We’ve got to do better than this.” And when I saw him come out on stage at the end of his opera, I felt full — the journey that everybody’s taken out here. Of course, some of the members of our generation have passed: Wallace Roney; that hit me. (Roney, the trumpeter, died of complications from COVID-19 in March 2020.) I stayed at his house in D.C. even before I moved to New York. We were 17, 18; we were young.
So it’s kind of wistful, but not really. We’re all still working in the music and we’re still serious about it. To receive any kind of honor — I feel gratitude, for me and for jazz institutions as we’re trying to get all this stuff off the ground and make sure the music has an institutional base. I’m just honored by it. But I don’t look at it in the context of “I was young and now I’m old.” I felt like I was old when I was young, and now I feel younger. I felt much older when I was younger than I feel now.
Q: Why did you feel old when you were young?
A: My thinking was unique. I didn’t know a lot of young people who thought what I thought. I thought about playing the music.
Q: Meaning, jazz.
A: We were all playing pop music, too. But I was trying to play the music and I stuck to the music. And this was always considered to be traditional and old-fashioned. I was a young man — 18, 19, 20 — defending the values of the music. So now I’m older and there are many more young people around who understand the value of values. So I feel younger.
Q: You were mentored by all these older people, and now you mentor so many young people. You’re an educator. You’ve become the mentor, the elder.
A: I don’t really look at it like that, because the generations function differently now than they functioned earlier. The technological revolution gave young people a base of knowledge that older people don’t have. But yes, I was always so much younger than anybody else. I used to crack a joke: “I was 19 for 15 years.” People were calling me `sonny’ when I was 40. I knew so many older people.
I was always teaching younger people, and I was being taught by older people.
Q: Name three teachers who shaped you in an essential way.
A: First, it would definitely be my father. Then my theory teacher when I was in high school: Dr. Bert Braud, a great, fantastic teacher — unbelievable. He taught me so much about theory and that kind of thing. And, let’s see, of the jazz musicians — man, I learned from so many of them. I would say John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan, together, both of them. And Art Blakey was a great teacher, too. Plus, from an intellectual standpoint: Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch, and Ralph Ellison. Those three. I was learning from all of them at the same time.
Q: Why John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan?
A: They were both very interested in my development and they taught me different sides of things. Of course, about music: counterpoint, arrangement, history. They also would speak to me very honestly about a range of subjects, including racism, America. I just had the benefit of their wisdom, and they would speak very frankly, listen to my pieces, tell me what they thought. It was an uncommon investment in a younger person.
Q: Were they very critical?
A: Of course they were. Because they were holding me to a standard. To be critical is a sign of respect. And, yes, they were very critical. But they also were very supportive.
I always tell my students about Gerry. One time (in 1993), we both played at the Ravinia jazz festival in Chicago, and he listened to a 45-minute movement of this piece I’d written called In This House, On This Morning. And about 17 minutes into it, I wrote a passage that had minor ninths at the top of a voicing. (Marsalis sings a bit of it.) Very dissonant! So Gerry stood and listened to the whole 45 minutes, and as I walked off, he looked at me and said, “Exposed minor ninths at the top of a voicing. Damn, you have balls.”
So yes, he would be critical, and he also would be supportive.
I was raised by jazz musicians. My father was critical. He was a teacher. Teachers can’t be shaking your hand and making you feel okay about who you are all the time. The love they have for you is underneath it. And if you don’t understand or feel that, then you’re not going to get the type of instruction that they can give you.
Q: Is there a single lesson you were taught that has shaped you, and that you pass on to your own students?
A: (He pauses.) Yeah, by my father. One lesson he always had about being a student was, “You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him thirsty.” That was always the thing: If you want to know about this, you’ll know about it. If you don’t, you won’t.
That’s the thing about being a student, is the freedom to learn: “If you don’t want to learn, I can’t make you.” That was the thing he would say all the time. And there’s a lot of those sayings that musicians have said to me. I could give you a hundred of them.
Q: What’s another one?
A: Tell me a musician you want me to quote.
Q: Elvin Jones
A: Oh, man. I would go to Elvin’s house all the time. I would go to Elvin’s house at like 1 in the morning and stay ‘til 5. Elvin was absolutely my man. The nights I hung with Elvin — there’s so much. I always called cats, but Elvin would call me. And he would always say the same thing: “Keiko (Jones’s wife) has two lobsters here that’s ready to be et.” It would be 1 o’clock, 1:30 in the morning. I would make sure I went up there to Central Park West; he lived in the same building with Max (Roach).
Elvin treated me like I was his son; I used to always hang with Elvin, talking with Elvin. The main thing I learned from Elvin is the respect he had for the music and for people. Because Elvin’s stories were always about people: Tyree Glenn, the trombone player, or (trumpeter) “Sweets” Edison, who was my man from when I was in high school. Elvin had millions of stories, man, deeply soulful stories about all the musicians: Trane, Miles, Monk.
One time we were playing a gig, and, man, it was loud. I was trying to play with Elvin — my chops started to bleed, right? Damn. And I told him, “Elvin, it’s kind of loud.” And he answered me (Marsalis imitates Jones’s squeaky, gravelly voice): “All you have to do is say something. Anybody can be told something, including me.” Direct communication, right? It didn’t mean he played softer, but that’s what he told me.
Q: What else?
A: Somebody in the group said they wanted to solo — a rhythm section member. They said, “I want to play” — meaning, “I want to solo.” And Elvin said, “You been playing all fucking night!”
Elvin said he was in the Village Vanguard, and somebody came to him when he was playing with Trane, and said, “You know, a lot of people don’t like what y’all are playing.” And he said, “Well, they better start liking it, cuz we’re gonna keep playing it.”
Q: What about Ornette Coleman?
A: That’s my man. Ornette lived with Herlin Riley’s uncle in New Orleans in the 1950s. (Drummer Herlin Riley was a member of Marsalis’s bands for many years.) Herlin’s uncle was a trumpet player named Melvin Lastie. And you know Ornette’s drummer was Ed Blackwell who played with my father all through the ‘50s. So they all knew each other. Ornette told me that one day, my father and Alvin Batiste drove from New Orleans to Los Angeles — in the ‘50s — to see him. And they showed up at his door and said, “Man, we just came to see what you was doing.” They played and then they drove back to New Orleans.
They all knew each other; it was a familiar thing.
They were close. In the South at that time, how many people were trying to play modern jazz? That just wasn’t a lot of people.
Q: What was it like for you to hang out with Ornette?
A: I’d go to his house, late. He had a book by Gilberto Freyre called The Masters and the Slaves, and we talked about that. I’d sit across the room and play. Ornette had this shamanistic understanding. He always likes to talk about the gestural aspects of music. He was always telling me this: “Don’t listen to somebody’s critique of your playing if they don’t understand how many gestures are in music and in your playing.” There was a lot about the symbolic meaning. He said, “Music is not a race, it’s an idea.” And by “race” he meant a battle — like a race, a contest — and he also meant a race of people. He would talk like that. He was circular in his speaking.
Q: When you were 18, 19, 20 years old, did you have a particular vision or set of ambitions?
A: Yeah, I wanted to learn how to play. Like I wanted to learn how to play for real. I really wanted to be able to play as good as the people who could play when they were really playing. Like I wanted to be in that line with Booker Little and Freddie (Hubbard) — the people who could play. Clark Terry, who I had heard. Miles and Fats Navarro. Dizzy. And when I talked to them, they would talk about all these people. Dizzy always talked about a lot of musicians: Go look up so and so. That’s before the internet. Do you know about this trumpet player, that trumpet player?
I wanted to be able to play good enough for them to respect my playing — to say, “Okay, this kid’s all right.”
Q: And as your ambitions and vision grew over the years, were you aware of the change? Or was it just sort of a natural evolution that you didn’t even think about?
A: I was aware of it. My world started to expand with more people. I always wanted to play with more people, be in a broader environment. And then when we started Jazz at Lincoln Center, then I was working with all kinds of people on our board who weren’t musicians, and I learned a lot from them. George Weissman was a submarine commander in World War II. Man, suddenly you realize you’re talking to a guy who commanded a submarine that came under fire. The list goes on and on: Hugh Fierce ran Chase Manhattan businesses in Asia and Africa, and he was an important person about divesting from South Africa in the fight against apartheid.
These are people I saw every day. And they’re older than me. I learned all kinds of things from them, from being around them.
So yeah, the growth was very organic. But we always planned and thought about what we want to do and how can we expand and how can we maintain the meaning of the music and our mission.
And that’s not even to mention the greatness of the musicians I’ve played with — man, I couldn’t even have hoped for it. I have to fall on my knees and thank the Lord when I think about all the great nights of music I have enjoyed, listening to the great musicians I was allowed to play with.
Q: Years ago, you took a very strong stance about what jazz is, and what jazz needs to be. You said it must have certain elements, like Blues form and feeling — and that it must swing.
A: I still have that.
Q: Your thoughts haven’t changed at all?
A: That will never change. It’s like what are the elements of water; this is what they are. Now does it mean you only have to drink water? You can drink what you want. It’s like what the U.S. Constitution has in it. There’s things that have to be in that Constitution for it to be for real. And if you change those things, it’s not the Constitution.
There are fundamentals to all things. That doesn’t mean it’s bad for it not to be that. But for it to be these things, it has to have these elements… Like we rely on the fact that when we walk on the floor, it’s not the ceiling. We rely on a bridge to be able to take us from one side of water over to the other…
Because of the tremendous racial pressure around jazz, there was always a desire to destabilize it. And I understood that. And many of these attempts have been successful — as there have always been attempts in our time to destabilize democracy. And many of those attempts have been successful. But we have to always try, saying, “Well, hold on a second. Voting is a fundamental right.” So all the things that come in — gerrymandering districts, making it so people can’t vote. There’s always going to be an assault on those fundamentals: “Well, why do you need to vote?” Well, wait a second, this is a fundamental.
Jazz is a part of all those discussions, and I was always interested in making sure that it stayed a part of that — even though it was overwhelmingly unpopular, that viewpoint that this music was based on something. It had a meaning, and the meaning was real — overwhelmingly unpopular viewpoint. To sell that one point out, to me would’ve been a cardinal sin, and it still is — regardless of the popularity or non-popularity of the viewpoint. Regardless of the willful desire to misread it as something very didactic and unyielding — it doesn’t matter.
And many times, that’s what integrity is. Integrity is not a thing that everybody agrees you have. (Marsalis chuckles.)
Q: How successful do you feel you’ve been with your mission to spread and promote jazz?
A: I’m encouraged by the quality of the best music. And I stay encouraged by it. I’m encouraged by the quality of the Constitution. But do people want to follow it?… We’re always on that ledge, and we’re always fighting over the identity of things, and we have to get out there. That’s what our way of life demands of us… The shiny idea always is the one that gets the most noise. The shiny suites. The electric suits. The quick fix. The low-hanging fruit. It’s always there.
Q: You’re saying you’re in it for the long haul.
A: You can’t have an ethical approach and be discouraged by a losing battle.
Q: I wanted to ask you about Phil Schaap (the jazz radio personality and historian who died in September). He was such a unique man. Phil and I met at WKCR (the New York radio station) in 1972 and were friends for 50 years. Can you talk about Phil for a minute? He worked closely with you for decades at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
A: Man, what can I say about Phil? We programmed Jazz at Lincoln Center — me, Phil, and Todd Barkan — during difficult years, when we were first entering the hall. We were friends. When he passed away, it killed me. We always talked, went out, listened to music, talked about music, talked about the Constitution, talked about American history. We spent so much time together. And I had such a love and respect for the man — with all his quirks. I learned a lot from him.
He loved the music with such an intensity. He was a man of deep integrity. I just loved him. And we had so many laughs. Once I was on his radio show. I was like, “Man, you talked for 40 damn minutes before you played a single track, man.” He said, “Man, when I work for you, I do what you tell me. When you work for me, you do what I tell you to do. And when I work for myself, I do what the fuck I want to do.”
Yeah, that hurts — Phil passing. And (Stanley) Crouch. Crouch was my man, too. The genius of Crouch — how he could just connect all the dots. That guy was so engaged with stuff, and with people: “Did you see this Goya exhibition?” Or, “Man, you need to read this book.” There was always a thing about being curious, investigating stuff, learning things, to be a part of this and that, to go and see somebody play.
When people were sick, he was, “Let’s go down and see George Shearing in the hospital.” Or, “Man, you know ‘Sweets’ is sick? Call him.” It was a human thing. “Go see people. Touch people. People want to hear from you. Make sure you get in their presence.”
Q: Whenever people write about you, New Orleans immediately comes up. But you’ve been living in New York since 1979. Do you consider yourself a New Yorker?
A: Yeah, I’ve been in New York for 40 years. But my soul is always with New Orleans, because that’s where I’m from. Like any of us. We come from a place; we’re from that place. Somebody’s from Tuscany. They might live in Japan; they’re still Tuscans. I still root for the New Orleans Saints. Why? I’m from New Orleans. I still eat red beans and rice, the gumbo. I still hear somebody from New Orleans; I hear that timbre — I’m there.
Q: In terms of your music, can you sort out which aspect of it is “influenced by New York” and what part of it is “purely New Orleans.”
A: No. I can’t really do that. A lot is New Orleans — melodies, tunes, and all the stuff I grew up with. New York — it’s all the great musicians I knew and played with. But I don’t know how all that gets integrated. I don’t know how much of my music doesn’t even come from New York or New Orleans. Stuff comes to you from who knows where? And then, because it’s jazz, I’m playing always with a bunch of other musicians, and they bring their experience to it. Our music comes from a lot of different places.
Q: When you take on a new project, what’s your compositional process? For instance, you composed All Rise for symphony orchestra, a 100-voice chorus, and big band — all together. (The piece was released on CD in 2011.) It’s massive. Can you give a sense of your process for making that happen?
A: It was a lot of work, man. Oooph!
That’s just a lot of notes. A lot of outlines, trying to deal with meaning — fulfill objectives that have meaning. Mostly I’m trying to deal with symbolic objectives: What is the meaning of things in our symbology? And how can I make the piece unified? And how can I get the ensemble diversity that people will be interested in playing — all the challenges of orchestrating and making sure that it’s competently done, so that people want to play their parts?
You just work on it, just like a painting, or a very intense novel or story. You try to unify everything. You have thematic cohesion. Development sections. You put different grooves together, find similarities between different grooves. You work on where you modulate and what are you going to do when you want soundscapes that don’t have keys in them — so many elements to those pieces. I write a lot of outlines, and I look at the outline for a long time and work on it.
Those kinds of pieces, I’ve only done four or five in my life. Like All Rise. Like The Jungle, which is the fourth symphony I wrote. Pieces with those kinds of diverse forces — they take a long time.
Q: When you take on such a major project, do you sometimes study composition with other people? Or does it all just kind of emerge from you and your skill sets?
A: I’m studying all the time with people. What they know, I’m trying to make that also be what I know. I’m asking them questions — friends of mine that are into composition. I’m always asking questions, even when I’m working on a piece. And of course, playing in an orchestra with so many arrangers and composers — we’re talking to each other all the time about music and grooves. Like I’ll talk to Carlos Henriquez.
Q: For people who don’t know, he’s the bassist for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
A: Yeah. He’ll tell me, “This groove needs to be like this. This needs to be there. The bass has to go in this direction. This is not right.”
I asked Romero Lubambo, the Brazilian guitarist, about the Brazilian part of my Blues Symphony. He came over. We talked for a long time, and he said, “No, no, all of this stuff is on the wrong part of the beat.”
So, yes, I’m always asking, and I’m lucky to know so many great musicians that are willing to teach. When you ask a question of somebody, they’re happy to help. I remember (trombonist) Papo Vazquez was showing me some rhythm. I said, “Well, I see what you call it.” He said, “It’s not what I call it, it’s what it is.” If I’m not calling it that, I’m wrong. That goes back to what we were saying about fundamentals: That’s what the rhythm is.
It is that. Because without that understanding, the next step is, “Well, I’ll call it this.” See what I’m saying?
Q: What’s your next project?
A: I’ve got a tuba concerto I just finished. (The Philadelphia Orchestra premiered it in December.) I’ve got a fanfare that I’m writing. Always working on something.
Q: You’ve spoken about composing an opera at some point.
A: I want to do it, but I’ve got to work on it. Terence’s opera was really inspiring. But it was so good, it made me feel like, “Well, okay, it’s not necessary for me to write the opera.” Because his opera had so much in it that I felt like he had so much of our sensibility, and it was so great that — I don’t know. I just felt so good about it. Sometimes when I’m working on a piece, I’m looking at spaces where I think, “We need a certain kind of voice here.” I’m sure he’s going to keep writing great things. It took pressure off of me to do it. But I still want to do it.
I’m going to get with him and get some kind of a blueprint and see what he thinks I need to go down that road.
Q: Have you thought about subject matter?
A: Yeah, I sketched out an opera already. Four operas.
Q: Four operas?
A: It’s on the Civil War. It’s called Battle on this Ground, yeah. It’s based on the early Civil War, but it’s also about the civil war today. Because we’ve been fighting the Civil War since the 1800s. It also deals with the fact that the Civil Rights Movement was roughly 100 years after the Civil War. It’s uncanny. You think about the signing of LBJ’s civil rights and voting rights legislation in ’64, ’65, when the Civil War was ending 100 years before that.
Q: So you want to get kind of a blueprint — a strategy — from Terence before getting further into it?
A: I would just like to study with him and learn different things. I don’t know if I’ll do it, the opera. I want to write a fifth symphony, too. There’s a lot of stuff. Like I told you, I want to be an astronaut, too.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis performs January 27–30, 2022. Tickets are almost sold out, but remaining seats are available here. SFJAZZ Gala 2022 honoring Wynton Marsalis is scheduled for June 3, 2022. Tickets are available here.
A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News’ classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.
by Richard Scheinin