PopMatters: An Interview with Jazz Master Wynton Marsalis
Jazz today reflects the culture, as it ever did. Just like television, radio, and music in general, jazz has a huge array of small, targeted ways of reaching an audience. It seems like none of them will ever reach a huge audience, though, much as a late night satire show on cable or Hulu will probably never become the next The Tonight Show.
However, just as pop music has just a select few giants who are household names, jazz has Wynton Marsalis. People who don’t know or don’t think they like jazz recognize his name. Inside the art, he and his organization, Jazz at Lincoln Center, are unavoidably central.
Here, PopMatters interviews Marsalis about his latest recording, a two-hour live documentation of his Absynnian Mass, written a few years ago and taken around the world courtesy of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the Chorale le Catheau, some 80 voices strong. At once a “full mass” in form, from “Devotional” through “Benediction” and “Amen”, it’s also an anthology of all the music that has ever mattered to Marsalis—and maybe to jazz as a whole, from Bach to gospel, from swing to Ornette Coleman.
Inevitably, the work is superficially vulnerable to the criticisms Marsalis has faced for the last 25 years, mainly a certain pretension and fetishizing of Ellingtonian grandeur. Like his Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio Blood on the Fields, The Absynnian Mass is expansive and ambitious without being ground-breaking in any obvious way. But even a basic listening reveals great joy and beauty, an unusually rich shuffling of influences that makes The Abyssinian Mass one of the composer’s greatest achievements.
It’s brilliant and stirring, utterly without irony or modern cheekiness. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a jazz recording from 2016 that I will want to revisit more often. A comprehensive summary or review would have to run a few thousand words in order to fully cover the breathtaking, genre-spanning vocal harmonies on “The Lord’s Prayer”, the hip blue-funky-strut that underpins the beautiful solo vocal interplay on “The Beatitudes”, the sumptuous romanticism of “Offertory: The Father”, and the gospel-soul groove of “Come Join the Army”, which puts you in a Sam Cooke-meets-Fats Domino mood.
In conversation, Marsalis is passionate and encyclopedic, a teacher, an admirer of others, scatting passages from his music, and leaping to the philosophical when it makes sense. He laughs and turns serious on a dime. He’s exuberant about music and about what it can do for our culture and people.
The Absynnian Mass is explicitly about bridging divisions. When the preacher asks us in “Sermon” what unites us all, the answer is “prayer” but I first thought he was going to say “music”. How are they the same?
They both require a certain type of mental isolation. A lot of music is party music. When you really listen to music, like a ballad or slow song that you like, there’s space for reflection. So the preacher was talking about the need to reflect and to express gratitude. And I think that music has a great deal of expression of gratitude, and of reflection and concentration—the things that are in the realm of the invisible. It allows us to achieve a type of emotional and mental comfort in the world. It gives us the chance to reflect on all sides of things and come to a harmonious or balanced understanding—or an understanding that we can live with, even if it’s not balanced.
This work feels emphatically participatory. The listener feels invited in to be a part of it: the choir claps along with the band, the preacher invites the congregation to sing and speak. Please tell us about that impulse in this work and in the jazz tradition.
Even in the early part of my career in the early- to mid-‘80s, audiences would get to hollering and screaming and participating. In DC we used to play at Blues Alley and we did an album there in 1986 [Live at Blues Alley on Columbia, a two-CD set recorded with Marcus Roberts on piano, Robert Hurst on bass, and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums] and even on that record you can hear the level of participation. I can’t tell you how many nights we played and had people hollering and screaming in clubs, even people dancing. And then with the big band, we’ve played a lot of dances. We have heard how music is very participatory. It’s something I really believe in and like.
I’m from New Orleans, and I like to write songs that have clapping and grooving. As early as Uptown Ruler [from 1988 with a quintet featuring his new rhythm section of Herlin Riley on drums and Reginald Veal on bass] there was always something with clapping. In This House, On This Morning (1993), an earlier piece I wrote in the form of a complete mass, had an “Invitation” with a clap and stomp that people just loved to join. In The Marcia Suite I wrote a piece called “Sunflowers”, and I still remember that when we would start that 5/4 clap how the people loved to start clapping and chanting, going crazy along with it.
It’s an integral part of how I experience jazz, even as I was growing up. Even the style of music my father used to play, though there wouldn’t be people dancing like that to the funk band I was playing in during high school, but there was often somebody verbally cosigning like they were in the church. When my dad and his friends, who were jazz musicians, would sit and listen to Bird or Frog [Ben Webster] or Lester Young, even on the radio, they would be cosigning, “Yeeeahh”, you know, making comments about what they heard.
The Absynnian Mass is drenched in different varieties of “call and response” devices. In the “Pastoral Prayer”, for example, there are call and response figures between solo singers and choir, between the choir and the band, between preacher and congregation, and so on. Can you talk about that as an organizing principle in your music generally?
Call and response is central to most ensemble music. Even in the Beethoven symphonies you have call and response. You have all those instruments, they have to do something, so they’re going to speak to each other. For me, I love that—people speaking to each other and speaking across different cultures. Bringing this together at the bottom where you can see a common root and allowing people the space to do their thing up above.
I always put a lot of information in my longer pieces. I do a lot of research on them, and I try to get a lot of vernacular things in there. It’s not only Afro-American music, there are a lot of Anglo-American sources, too. For example, I’ve listened often to the “Bristol Sessions” [a famous 1927 recording in Bristol, Tennessee, made by the Victor Recording Company that was the debut for country music stars such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family] and to Shostakovich symphonies to figure out how to put things together and how things are the same.
For “Pastoral Prayer” I went through a litany of gospel recordings, and I wrote down the different types of devices they use to develop material. So I had in a notebook maybe 100 things that could happen—someone talks and a band plays, a theme is played and it modulates up a half step—and on “Prayer” I connected three or four of those things. First was a recitative, someone saying the prayer, and then different people in the band speak as the band is responding to that, then there’s a solo for the alto and we are responding to her, and the choir is responding as well. The orchestra was like a Greek chorus, removed, responding to the action, but then we became more in the action like someone at a church service.
I studied different spirituals, different gospel pieces, different folk sources from a technical standpoint and considered which musical devices would work best for each part of the mass. I took what others did and then modified it using my musical language.
Among the devices you use frequently here are various Latin rhythms. People might not be expecting that if they see this as a gospel-inspired piece of music.
The music is all connected. Latin music is connected to American music through the African clave, and through harmony and through a shared experience—the experience in Cuba and in South America are the same as experiences in New Orleans. We have a commonality though the habanera rhythm, which is really a universal rhythm [sings the beat]. You hear that in music everywhere.
There is some writing here that very explicitly sounds like classical, western harmony, such as the writing for the choir in the “Glory to God” anthem. At the same time, that piece reminds me of the harmonies of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”.
Those kinds of harmonies are like Bach’s motion of ii-V-I just moving around. Bach is the father of a lot of things in Western music—the ten-finger way of playing the keyboard, the consolidation of all 12 keys. Having studied at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, I studied with a great theory professor. I love African music, I love Afro-American music, I love Anglo-American music—all of that is a part of our tradition, so I don’t separate anything from my education or my playing out of my tradition.
I love Bach’s music. Many of the European masters gave us a language and a way to develop material that was unprecedented and is still something to strive for. I come to that material with tremendous respect and try to incorporate it into an overall vision because it’s a part of our overall lives.
There’s an incredibly rich variation in the colors and timbres possible with a choir of 80 vocalists in this piece. It seems like relatively new territory in your writing, at least at this scale.
Damien Sneed was our conductor for this piece, and he picked all the singers and the voices for the particular parts. I’ve known him since he was in high school. I’ve been very fortunate to work with musicians whom I have known since they were kids. The type of feeling and love they bring to working on music and with me is familial. It’s not just a job.
Damien came into the project in 2013 and made a tape for every singer who couldn’t read music of him singing their part. He sang the entire mass, every part: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. The commitment he brought to this piece is not something you could pay somebody to do. I’m eternally grateful for that.
The same thing goes for the musicians, like Ali Jackson or Carlos Henriquez. I knew them when they were 13 and 14 and, at this point, they’ve taught me a lot. It’s a labor of love. They play my music, and I play their music. We’re very supportive of each other as we all try to get to a higher level of musicianship and make a deeper statement.
There’s some magical vocal work here. I love the sound of the male vocal in unison with tenor saxophone on “Invocation and Chant”. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before.
That is Vincent Gardner, our trombonist. He sings, too. He grew up in the church where his momma is a choir director and his daddy is a jazz trumpet player. He grew up with the music. He sings that line, which is a very abstract and difficult one [sings the exact melody]. It’s a way of approaching triads where you use the last note of a triad to construct the next triad, so all the notes are connected even though they’re not in the key of the root. So the chorus is singing open intervals like ancient, early church music, and Vincent and Walter [Blanding, JALC Orchestra tenor saxophonist] are playing this line through this open fourth sound.
That’s a hard line to sing, but what I love is what he plays on the trombone right after—so Vincent is calling and responding to himself. He plays some completely abstract stuff on the trombone. There’s no way I could have written anything like that. He just was hearing inside the orbit of those sounds. I’m sure that, truly, there hasn’t been any trombone playing like that in the history of jazz.
Talk about the versatility of the classic, 17-piece jazz orchestra as form within which to compose. There are moments here where it sounds like we’re hearing a guitar, an orchestral percussion section, or a cello.
Yeah, it’s a great instrument. You know, we have masters who show us different ways to work and, of course, Duke [Ellington] is supreme. But there are many other masters, too. We tend to talk about Duke because of his genius at combining colors.
For me, I have the luxury of this band. Bands generally don’t congratulate themselves—band culture tends to be cynical. I’ve been in bands my entire life and very seldom have I been in a band where it’s like, “We’re really playing.” But this band knows it’s special. It has been together for a long time and we have a roll call of musicians who were with us who were great before the musicians we have now.
I have to say, I don’t know that there’s ever been a band like this in terms of the capability, the range. They can play, and they can play many different styles. Like [bassist] Carlos Henriquez, he makes us play Latin music with a dedication to the truth of the music and not a cliché. Ali [Jackson, drummer] knows so many different grooves and plays with control.
We play all the stuff: New Orleans music, swing era music, modern music. We’re all writing music that expresses our conception of the music of the day. Ted Nash, Vincent Gardner, man, I just look across the band and I see heavy hitters that are dedicated to playing. Ryan Kisor, man, I’m sitting next to one of the greatest trumpet players ever. Marcus Printup and I have been in the section for 20 years together. It’s a way of life for us.
We just came off a six-week tour of Asia and Australia and the last gig was in New Zealand. It was one of our member’s birthdays and the band stood on the stage and started to hug each other. We didn’t have the type of dysfunction you almost always have. I’m not against dysfunction—that’s part of being a band—but this particular band is different from any other. Every cat in the band hugged each other. It’s so unusual for a band to have that type of feeling, and I think you hear that on the recording—the type of love they play with. They are for real, and I tell them that. It’s been a great opportunity to play with this band.
Let’s talk about “The Holy Ghost”, which feels to me like a circle, a strip of paper connected at both ends. You have some writing that evokes Jelly Roll Morton and early Duke, and then there’s also an element that seems like it’s out with Ornette, all in the same tune. This is an art where the old and new do swirl around together.
Ornette Coleman lived with Herlin Riley’s uncle in high school in New Orleans. My father [pianist Ellis Marsalis] and Ed Blackwell all played with Ornette in the ‘50s. The orbit of Ornette’s music was part of my family.
I played with Dewey Redman when I first came to New York—that Texas sound. Ornette told me that my father and [clarinetist] Alvin Batiste drove all the way to California to see him and they said, “Man we just drove out here to see what you were doing.’” and they were in their 20s. I grew up listening to Ornette Coleman’s music. I loved Don Cherry. That stuff would not be something that is foreign. I know I feel it.
I went to Ornette Coleman’s house once, and I got there at 11:30. He pulled out his horn and we played—just being in a room sitting across from each other—until 3:00. We didn’t say one word.
“The Holy Ghost” is three riffs and one written line for the baritone. The trumpet play [sings] “The Ho-ly Ghost” in half-steps, the saxophones play [scats a crazy, atonal figure], they’re the Holy Ghost, that’s something where you don’t know what it is, but it’s out there. And the trombones cosign the trumpets, “The Ho-ly Ghost!”, and they’re in triads in plunger mutes, while we’re in those half-steps creating dissonance, and the saxophones are up there in the nether-sphere, and the bass is playing a vamp that’s in three but it sounds like it’s in four [sings the bass line low and funky].
Then we sing “Gimme that old-time religion” because it’s really modern and futuristic because it’s all by cue—it’s not even on a form. I really believe that time is a cycle, so I don’t really believe in the division between the old and the new.
“The Glory Train” is in a grand tradition of tunes with a locomotive groove. It’s my favorite of your songs in this mood because I love the figure for flute that rises above the singing a few times. Tell us about your writing here for the non-saxophone winds.
I’ve written a lot of orchestral pieces like “All Rise”; I wrote a “Swing Symphony”; I wrote a “Blues Symphony”, a violin concerto, and all these pieces require flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. Dealing with the flutes and instruments that normally are not equated with jazz is something I started doing in the ‘90s. “All Rise” was from 1999, and over the years I’ve dealt with them more and more.
Ted Nash [who plays the flute on “The Glory Train”] is a virtuoso on every instrument he touches. To have a person with that level of virtuosity and skill and clarity is an advantage. His father was one of the greatest trombonists ever, playing that high, sweet trombone, and his uncle played in Les Brown’s band and was a great saxophonist, so he comes from that type of musical tradition.
I put the flute in there because that song is based on the Antonio Carlos Jobim song, “The Waters of March”, one of my favorite songs. If you listen to the recording Jobim did with Elis Regina, she sings this high part, which brings to mind the flute. That tune gave me the progression and the way “The Glory Train” is laid out. It’s a circular progression, and The Glory Train keeps the same route, it’s just always going up and down—it’s going up to heaven and then coming down to earth.
This also relates to the lyrics of “The Waters of March”—it’s a list of things, but it concludes with “It’s the love in your heart”. And that’s the deepest part of religion: Don’t judge people, just come with some love. When we get to the bridge, the singing is simple and almost childlike [and this is the part where the harmonies from Jobim are most obvious], and I felt that the flute and piano lend themselves to something that is light-hearted and sweet.
So, I didn’t use the bossa-nova rhythm here, but I used the chord progression and the psychological impact of that progression, which is unusual because it goes somewhere but it’s not really going anywhere.
I couldn’t help noticing a Maria Marsalis in the choir on this recording.
Yeah, that’s my niece.
I live in DC and we see jazz thriving and dying simultaneously. We have Jason Moran running the Kennedy Center jazz program, and it’s never been better, but at the same time the legendary Bohemian Caverns jazz club just closed (again), and Blues Alley, where you once regularly appeared, is mostly mostly home now to weak R&B. Give me hope!
You are the hope. We are the hope. My father used to say, man, we are living and dying at the same time. Which meant, what are you gonna do? Look at our democracy, it’s living and dying too. So get out here and participate in it.
There’s so much great music out there now. I know the business of music has not been great lately—the collapse of the record industry among many other things. But if you spend one week in New York, you hear that the variety in the music has never been more amazing. But I know that’s harder to make money dong it.
Yeah, it’s always been hard. It’s always been hard. It’s hard for the arts. It was hard for Bach to make money. I mean … it’s hard. If you’re a filmmaker and you come to New York, are you going to make films? Maybe, but … It’s uphill in this time, but it’s been uphill for a lot of things. It’s incumbent on us to create the world that we envision.
I assume that’s why you are so engaged with the education side of music.
Yeah, all sides : education, performance, the advocacy that we do at Jazz at Lincoln Center, working through an institution rather than just working on my own. Yes, to create interest around the music, using music for what it’s designed to do: to uplift our culture and who we are as people. Ultimately to uplift people’s spirits and consciousness.
by Will Layman