Marsalis’ Sharp Social Critiques Come with Cool Riffs

Every decade or so, says jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, he likes to set his social views to music.
The last time around, it was Blood on the Fields, which won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in music, a first for a jazz composition.

Marsalis is playing the role of provocateur again with his latest CD, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary. The songs criticize hip-hop culture, what he sees as a lack of strong black leadership, and an abundance of “gimme-that” materialism.

In New York, Marsalis directs the Jazz at Lincoln Center program. From his apartment just up the street, he talks to Michele Norris about his newest release, why lyrics rather than the trumpet take center stage, and what his teenage son thinks about some of the songs.



This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I’m Robert Siegel.


And I’m Michele Norris. Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis says every decade or so he likes to set his social views to music. The last time around it was “Blood on the Fields,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in music, a first for a jazz composition.

Marsalis is playing the role of provocateur again with his latest CD, “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary.” The songs criticize hip-hop culture, what he sees as a lack of a strong black leadership and an abundance of gimme-that materialism.

(Soundbite of “Gimme That”)

Ms. JENIFFER SANON (Singer): (Singing) Give me that, give me this, give me that. Give me this, give me that. Give me this, give me that, give me that, that, that, that, that. Let me see this, I think there’s something there I see. Give it to me, I got to have it all for me. Let me see that, I think there’s something there I see. I got to have, I got to have now. A lot of stuff, expensive stuff. Wow. I’ve got to work, I’ve got to get now. I’m (unintelligible) I’m worshipping, wow. I got to make, I got to get bling. Give me my fee, I’ve got to be me.

NORRIS: Marsalis tapped a 21-year-old newcomer, Jennifer Sanon, to sing. The lyrics, he says, are based on observations from his many travels around the country.

Wynton Marsalis is accustomed to holding forth in public and on stage. We met him in a more personal space.

In New York, Marsalis directs the Jazz at Lincoln Center program. He lives just up the street in a sunny high-rise apartment with a stunning view of the Hudson River. It’s a bright space with vivid hues of blue, orange and green.

Mr. WYNTON MARSALIS (Jazz Artist, Composer): I like color, like Matisse. That’s why it’s real blue in here.

NORRIS: As we walk through his dining room into his library, the colors and the art call to mind his native New Orleans.

Mr. MARSALIS: What I’ve got over here is a picture – that’s the great Art Blakey, who I played with. That’s Louis Armstrong, Duke.

NORRIS: The whole apartment is like a gallery, the walls filled with photos and paintings, many of them originals from masters like Romare Bearden and works celebrating the music Marsalis loves. There’s a giant sketch of Duke Ellington, arms outstretched, over the sofa as if beckoning guests to take a load off.

Marsalis has three sons. They live elsewhere, but their influence is also seen throughout his home. He keeps a bedroom for them, a boys’ sanctuary with royal blue bedspreads and a large dinosaur by the window. Looking to the ceiling, Marsalis says he’s used this room to teach his boys life lessons, just like he does with his music. The ceiling is painted a celestial shade of blue and dotted all over with tiny stars – thousands of glow-in-the-dark stickers.

Mr. MARSALIS: All these stars, I put these on the wall.

NORRIS: Did you do this yourself?

Mr. MARSALIS: Yes, I did.

NORRIS: The constellation?

Mr. MARSALIS: I did do all that. Every one of them.

NORRIS: So if you turn off the light it must look beautiful as here.

Mr. MARSALIS: Well, yeah. When they were born (unintelligible). It started with me arguing with them when they were, like, 5 or 6, about how long did it take to do things? I said, well, you don’t do everything overnight, you know. You just do things one thing at a time.

I said we’ve got to fill this whole wall up with stars. They said, oh, you could never – we could never do that. I said we could do it. So it became a thing. Every time I would just come up here when I was see them, and we’d start putting these things on the wall.

NORRIS: What was the lesson there for them?

Mr. MARSALIS: The lesson was if you do something over and over again, you will complete it. It might seem that when you put that first two or three stars you would never finish, but how many stars are up there? Two thousand? Within a certain amount of time, it becomes 700 of them, then it’s 1,100 then it’s 2,000.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Wynton Marsalis is a star in his own right, America’s leading ambassador for jazz. He has lots of awards and also lots of critics. They say his music is too safe. But it’s hard to call this new album easy listening.

(Soundbite of music from album “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary”)

Ms. SANON: (Singing) From the field hand cry to the 10 and 25, from the (unintelligible) to the (unintelligible).

NORRIS: There are plenty of those moments of deliberate dissonance, when the vocals seem out of tune with the rest of the music.

In his living room, Marsalis sat down at a Steinway baby grand piano and explained how that idea began right here in the apartment.

Mr. MARSALIS: I’ll always walk around here singing and dancing, making up songs for people’s names like Ana Castillo. I’ll say, Ana Castillo, did you hear the one about (unintelligible).

So I’ll make up the songs for everybody. So one day I was in the shower, I was singing, (singing) from the plantation to the penitentiary. I’d just be pretending like I’m a little kid, you know, singing. And I was singing it really out of tune, so I was trying to think what is the most removed intervallic relationship I could find. Would it be the flat nine on a minor chord? So here’s the minor chord…

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. MARSALIS: And this…

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. MARSALIS: And the next is the major third on the minor.

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. MARSALIS: So this is the sound.

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. MARSALIS: So, you know, it was purposely trying to find these kind of blues sounds and these dissonances to convey with the melody the discordant nature of what I was dealing with.

Now in terms of the lower rhythm, it’s a six-eight rhythm which comes from African music: (singing) ding, ding, ta-king, ta-king. But I made it sound like the downbeat was actually a beat, too. (Singing) Dee dee dum, ba-tu-tu, do dee be dee be dum. One, two, three. Ba-tu-tu, do dee be dee be dum…

(Soundbite of song from album “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary”)

Ms. SANON: (Singing) From the plantation to the penitentiary, from the yes sir boss to the ghetto minstrelsy. In the heart of freedom in chains, in the heart of freedom, insane.

NORRIS: “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary.”

Mr. MARSALIS: That idea came out of conversations I would have with people down through the years, where they would always ask me why black people couldn’t get our stuff together. You’re always in jail, you’re always in trouble, you all make a fool out of yourselves in public all the time with your music. You degrade yourselves. Why is it like that?

So I started telling them, think if we were 400 years old and my first 250 years I was a slave and all my family systems was destroyed and everything, and everybody in the nation bet on me like a stock and they made money off of me. Then the next hundred years I couldn’t have education, so it took me 350 years to where I could even legally get to where I could compete.

Now when you go to a therapist or something, the first thing they do is talk about your childhood because they know in the beginning of the thing is always very important roots. With those kind of roots, what chance do you think you have? That seemed like the most effective explanation of why it’s the way it is right now.

NORRIS: This is music with a very strong message. When people think about political messages they usually attach that to soliloquy. They think about words. How is it that music can be political without words? Help me understand that.

Mr. MARSALIS: Well, I always tell people, you know, that you and I could read a Martin Luther King speech and it would be two people reading the speech of a man. The words will be the same, but it would not have the same meaning. The meaning of the speech is in the music. And you put the music of his voice with the words, because music is the art of the invisible. And what is in music is memory, intention, imagination, all the senses of things that go beyond the words that are very specific.

And the person who can marshal that musical part, hey, they communicate better with words.

NORRIS: On this album Wynton Marsalis’ word take center stage rather than his trumpet. In a song called “Where Y’All At,” Marsalis leaves out a rat-a-tat list of problems he sees with the United States: a 45-year-old man speaking in a style familiar to his teenage son.

(Soundbite of song “Where Y’All At”)

Mr. MARSALIS: (Singing) We’re supposed to symbolize freedom and pride. We got scared after King and the Kennedys died. Corruption and graft(ph), what we take in stride. Sitting around like owls, talking about oh, who lied? All you poor folks sick of rich folks’ games. Rich folks, y’all get ripped off in the same name. All you’ve got is tax and (unintelligible) dirty shame, whistleblower’s (unintelligible) who’s to blame?

CHORUS: (Singing) Where y’all at?

Mr. MARSALIS and CHORUS: (Singing) Oh. I said, where y’all at?

Mr. MARSALIS: Well, my 16-yeard-old son teases me about that.

NORRIS: What did he tease you about?

Mr. MARSALIS: You know, younger people have got to believe what they – they like rap music and all the things that they think is their youth culture, even though it’s 20 years old, they have to believe that there’s some special characteristic to it that makes it hip. So it comes along like a way of dressing and a way of talking and a way – so somebody that’s a certain age with a double chin or what it is, they’re not supposed to do that.

But since it’s my son, he knows I’m always clowning around and rapping and acting a fool. When he hears is rapping, he (unintelligible)

NORRIS: But you are rapping on the –

Mr. MARSALIS: I’m talking in time.

NORRIS: But you say it’s not rapping. You say – okay. It’s not rapping.

Mr. MARSALIS: It’s stuff we did in New Orleans years ago.

NORRIS: Uh-huh.

Mr. MARSALIS: They call it rap now. But I’m not trying to do what they do.

(Soundbite of clapping)

Mr. MARSALIS: All you patriots, compatriots and true-blue believers (unintelligible) Over-achievers.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: And what did they think about it in the end?

Mr. MARSALIS: Oh, I don’t –

NORRIS: Your boys?

Mr. MARSALIS: I don’t really know. I mean they love me. You know, they know I’m clowning around. So – my one son is 18. He’s always like – no matter what I do, he’s always going to cast aspersions. He has a way – he imitates me. Like I always say according to me. So – when he hears that, he’s going to say, well, according to me…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARSALIS: You know, things like that.

NORRIS: Do you feel that you have earned the right to say these things or you can say things now that you couldn’t say 10 years ago?

Mr. MARSALIS: No, I said it 10 years ago. Because that’s what appears to be true to me. And I don’t feel like because I say it, it’s a law. I’m a citizen. That’s what I think. And other people are entitled to what they think. I feel like when I listen to 14 and 15-year-old kids, they have the right to say what they – what their opinion is. If they have a work of art and they have ideas and they have things that they want to express, who am I to tell them you don’t feel like that? You know, so no, I don’t feel like I had to earn the right to say it. I just say it.

NORRIS: Wynton Marsalis, thank you for letting us spend an afternoon with you.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MARSALIS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Tickling the keys there in his apartment on the West Side of New York City. That was Wynton Marsalis. His new album is called “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary.” If you want to hear more music, go to our Web site,

You’re listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Source: NPR

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