Going a Round With Wynton Marsalis

Jazz: He’s down on critics, dismayed at the direction of pop music and disappointed in jazz audio, but the acclaimed trumpeter still loves his music.

How do you conduct an interview with Wynton Marsalis? Very carefully. The jazz trumpeter and artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center has had a long and sometimes contentious relationship with the press.

For starters, you don’t make too many queries about his brother, Branford, leader of “The Tonight Show” band.

“Oh, man” is the frustrated response you’ll get. “I must have answered questions about my brother playing with Sting or being on ‘The Tonight Show’ for the last 10 years. Then, when the so-called critics got tired of that, they started saying that I fired my brother. How could I fire my brother if he took another job?”

And reminding Marsalis about his onetime alleged disrespect for Miles Davis isn’t too hot a topic, either.

“How many times,” he says, carefully containing his frustration, “do you think I had to explain that I was just quoting Miles when I said that he wasn’t playing jazz? But as soon as I did, there would be another article saying I was insulting Miles Davis. But I wasn’t insulting Miles. I was just repeating what he himself had said about his music.”

Most media, clearly, are not at the top of Marsalis’ list of good guys, and he doesn’t hesitate to engage them directly.

“That’s all right,” he says, speaking from his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “You can’t expect to get into a fight and not get hit.”

In easy conversation, however, Marsalis—who appears with his septet Saturday at the South Bay Center for the Arts in Torrance—reveals few of the unappealing qualities attributed to him by his critics. Although he can be unnervingly direct and to the point with his responses, he is an articulate and thoughtful artist with a passionate belief in the vital role of jazz in American musical history. Described as “arrogant” by observers who have pressed him to deal with what he feels are superficial issues, he is deeply respected by others, who speak highly of his willingness to “say it like it is.”

“The problem with most critics,” says Marsalis, a Grammy winner in both jazz and classical categories, “is that they’d rather talk about gossip than about music. I mean, look at how they deal with rock. Some of them are actually glad when they can report that some jazz musician is playing rock music!

“How can that be? If you’re a jazz critic, why would you be glad to report that a jazz musician is playing rock? That’s a lack of integrity to me. What type of loyalty is that to the form of music that these people are supposedly writing about?”

But if the media are the most immediate target for Marsalis, he also has several other quarries in mind. Contemporary pop music is one of the most important. Several articles have noted his “anti-rap” views. Typically, says Marsalis, they have missed the point.

“My feelings are not just about rap, but about the whole direction of American popular music. Once it switched from an adult base to an adolescent base,” he explains, “that was a major step backwards. Pop music used to be adult music, with adult sensibilities.

“But since pop made that switch to an adolescent base, it has never been able to return, as music, to what it was. And I guess it’s understandable, because in terms of commerciality, it becomes more successful every year.”

Not that Marsalis, one of the most active players of his generation, sees anything specifically wrong with commercialism, or with financial achievement.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he says. “But the cynicism that’s involved with it is bad. How many times a year is the public duped, in one way or another, by what’s happening in pop? And that’s basically the attitude that bothers me—the attitude that you can just give people anything.”

Another important item on Marsalis’ list of important jazz issues to be dealt with is his continuing battle to establish a working definition for the music.

“I don’t know why people make it so complicated,” he grumbles. “Here it is: Jazz is music that is blues-based, in the broadest sense. And jazz is music that has to swing, that has to have a shuffle rhythm feeling in some form or another.”

Other items on his list: the undervaluation of education and the deterioration in jazz audio.

As the son of jazz musician/educator Ellis Marsalis, and at 32 the eldest of four talented musician brothers (saxophonist Branford, producer-trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason), the New Orleans-born Marsalis is deeply dedicated to the value of jazz education.

“It may not help you get a job,” he says with a sly laugh, “but it’ll make you a better musician if you learn how to improvise and to play some blues. Because I feel that if you play jazz music, it develops your total musicianship.”

The usually voluble Marsalis almost becomes speechless when asked about jazz audio.

“Man,” he finally says, “do you know that when you hear most jazz musicians play, whether it’s on record or in concert, it almost never sounds as good as when you hear them play (acoustically)? That’s because there’s no real feel for jazz in electronic technology.”

His list of targets aside, Marsalis has a generally optimistic prognosis for jazz. His work at Lincoln Center for the last three years has drawn sell-out crowds to his programs, and Center support for his creative innovations has been unwavering. This year’s program features a weeklong Louis Armstrong festival in mid-December, and Marsalis continues to tour—often as many as 300 days a year—around the world.

Marsalis’ prognosis for jazz critics and journalists—his favorite target—is far less promising, and he is happy for the opportunity to make one last dig at them.

“I hear some of these guys say the trouble with jazz is it’s too good for people,” says Marsalis with a little grunt of amazement. “They believe that it’ll never be popular because people want garbage.

“And I say, ‘What do you mean it’s too good for people?’ I don’t believe people want garbage. I’ve got more confidence in people than that.

“I believe,” concludes Marsalis, “that if you give people something good, they’ll accept it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”

By Don Heckman
Source: Los Angeles Times

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