Wynton interviewed by

After his speech for the Ontario Hospital Association in Toronto, Wynton was interviewed by
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‘We was black in the ’60s, man. Now a [rap star] from Something Housing Project is going to tell me what it is to be black?’

KENNETH WHYTE | November 15, 2007 |

Wynton Marsalis was in Toronto to speak to the Ontario Hospital Association conference, “Inspiring Ideas and Innovation,” when he met with Kenneth Whyte.

Q: Do you ever get up in the morning and look at your trumpet and think, “Oh no, not you again”?

A: No, I never look at my trumpet in the morning, first of all, but it’s always an honour to play. I love playing. The guys I play with, I started off teaching them, so it’s like I get a chance to demonstrate to them every day what I talked about when they were growing up, about how to address your instrument seriously and how to, no matter where you are, be grateful for playing and play like you’re hungry to play.

Q: You’ve been doing a lot of other things besides playing. You’re an educator, you’re an activist, you run a program at the Lincoln Center in New York, you’re an ambassador for New Orleans.

A: But all of that comes from my horn. It starts with playing. I had an operation a year and a half ago, where something was wrong with my lips for two years, and it’s almost like I had to go back to scratch. It made me develop an even greater appreciation of playing.

Q: Sort of like Tiger Woods remaking his golf swing.

A: Kind of, but even worse because he chose to change the way he was. I didn’t know whether I would be able to play, physically.

Q: What happened?

A: I had an ingrown hair that became calcified, but I could never figure out what was wrong. Finally one doctor I went to, he said, “We’ll just do some laser surgery.”

Q: Was it on your lip?

A: Yeah, I had like eight, six stitches down the middle . . .

Q: What difference did it make?

A: The architecture of my lips changed. Man, if you even get something in your teeth it affects the way you play. That’s how sensitive your embouchure is. And you’re making so many little nuanced adjustments to bend notes and to change the character of notes and all the different things that we do, in jazz especially, that that type of major architectural change was like having another embouchure.

Q: But you feel you can get it completely back?

A: Maybe. I don’t think I’ll ever technically be back like how I was, but I think that I’ll play in a different way to compensate for it. It made me definitely be a better teacher. A lot of times I couldn’t understand the technical limitations of students. It’s not always a matter of practising.

Q: What are the physical gifts that you need, when you distinguish between a good trumpet player and a great trumpet player?

A: Just flexibility, the ability to go up and down easily, tone, the roundness of your sound, attacks, the ability to come in on notes, accuracy.

Q: Physically where’s that rooted?

A: It’s the ability to adjust the air and to adjust the aperture. It’s like jumping and keeping your balance. It’s like gymnastics.

Q: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.

A: Like to maintain control, with different levels of tension, double- and triple-tonguing, like things with “drrrh-drrrh-drrrh,” having tongue techniques, nuanced ways of playing, like certain types of vibratos, and playing softly and loudly, and breathing, the ability to play fast.

Q: When did you know you had all those things?

A: I practised a lot. I was systematic in my way of practising, so I worked on each thing specifically.

Q: Where’s the audience for jazz?

A: The audience is limited because we don’t have the proper education to sustain an audience. It’s very difficult to have a huge audience when the audience is mainly dedicated to people who are amateurs, or who can’t play at all.

Q: But in the beginning jazz didn’t have an educated audience.

A: Yes, it did. There was an intelligent listening audience. In the United States the intelligent audience started to decline in the ’60s. Up until that time there was a concentrated music education program. So a lot of early jazz musicians, even though their grandparents were slaves, their parents were not slaves, and the early . . . Don Redmond, all those early guys who formed the music, they were very educated, man. Don Redmond went to Oberlin.

Q: Yeah, but it was a popular form of music.

A: It was never a popular form of music. There was a version of it that became popular, like what dance bands played.

Q: What happened in the ’60s?

A: The ’60s was a social phenomenon in which a generation of kids had the moral high ground on their parents. That had never happened before. The youth were against the Vietnam War, they were for women’s rights. There was tremendous illusion that younger people know more than older people. That’s not true. So what happened to every generation since that generation? Do I have the moral high ground on my father? Do my kids have that over me? No possible way.

Q: So how did that kill jazz?

A: It didn’t, people are still playing jazz.

Q: No, but how did it hurt it?

A: Jazz is adult music, it’s not appealing to kids. I’m sure I’ve played in front of more kids — elementary school kids, high school kids — on my own volition than any performer, but I’m there to teach them. You don’t have a bunch of prodigies in jazz, 12- or 13-year-olds. So when you say, why do [young people] only want to sit in front of television and look at somebody naked shaking their ass? Well, the answer to that is obvious. Wouldn’t you want to do that when you were 12 or 13?

Q: So what do we do?

A: I think that there will be a generation that will reject [it]. If your introduction to sex is pornography and you’re 12 or 13, one or two generations of that — it’s going to come through girls more than boys — they’re going to get tired of [it].

Q: Self-correcting.

A: When you notice all the younger women who are suffering, like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan and all these people who are kind of victims of this system, and then people prey on them, 250 people taking photographs of them, since they were 12 or 13 years old, selling themselves in that way for the consumption of adults and for kids. It seems we have the inability to look at our system and say, “Man, how did we get to this point?”

Q: Why do you think it’ll be young girls?

A: I think because they’re the greatest victims of it, and a victim of something always is the one who wants it to be removed. Like, who wanted to be free more than a slave?

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Q: Some people have drawn parallels between rap and early jazz music in terms of the emphsis on sexuality, and both of them at the outset were seen as outside of the mainstream.

A: Early jazz is polyphonic music. Rap is not. The principal component of early jazz is the improvisation and interaction of drums and melody. Rap, the drum is a machine, it doesn’t interact with anything. The other thing about early jazz is Jelly Roll Morton. This one man sat down at the piano with Alan Lomax in the ’40s and he played John Philip Souza’s marches, ragtime pieces, arias from operas, songs in all kinds of keys. Who in rap can do that?

Q: I don’t know. Is there anyone?

A: No.

Q: Will there be someone?

A: No. That’s not possible.

Q: Why not?

A: Because there’s not enough of the form to create that. It is what it is, it has a lifespan.

Q: You’ve talked about the problems in rap and in popular culture. Do you see anything out there that encourages you?

A: I’m always encouraged. I see that for 350 years, people were enslaved in the United States, and then they weren’t slaves. So I believe in change, and I believe in ascendance. Of course, if you give younger people trash from the time they’re 11 or 12 you can exploit them.

Q: You’ve performed with popular musicians, rock musicians.

A: I’ll play with any kind of musician. I will not record certain types of material because I don’t want that on my legacy, okay? That’s my personal thing. But as a person I’m not sitting in judgment of them. If I’m talking to 50 Cent or any of these guys, they’re people, you know? “You’re getting famous being a minstrel and doing all this talking about how you shot black people, you can make some money off of that, that’s okay.” With my music I will play with anybody, but with all that “bitches” and “niggers” and all of that . . . Now, I know what it’s like to really be called a nigger for real, by black and white people. I’m not interested in presenting that to the world as my expression. And I have to make the point to the younger people in rap, we was black in the ’60s, man. We were black in 1974. We wasn’t waiting for y’all to tell us what it was to be black. You’re a guy from the Something Housing Project with limited education and now you’re going to tell me what it means to be a black person in America? Man, you must really think you’re in a video.

Q: Where did the idea that it’s more authentic come from?

A: You know, that’s an age-old thing in culture. In America it was Davy Crockett or the Wild West or the bad man who was a gunslinger — that’s always been a part of mythology. So this particular version of it is, I’mfrom the streets, I’m hard, I’m bad, I’m authentic, but the deep thing about it and the point I’m trying to make is that you messed over black people. Who are you calling a bitch? Who you been shooting at?

Q: There’s been some news lately about Isiah Thomas, the coach of the New York Knicks, on using the word “bitch,” and who can use it and who can’t, at home or in the workplace.

A: I work with 200 people, man, you know? I never called anybody a bitch. Where is this place where people just go in public, they call people bitches?

Q: So in terms of your own talent, what do you think was more valuable to you — was it the physical tools or was it that mindset that you had to get better?

A: I think my greatest attribute was the ability to understand what was going on. I don’t know why, I could deduce. Like, when I was 13, I could listen to a Beethoven symphony and I could understand, first theme, second, third theme, the development section, so it kind of made me advance, gave me more of an understanding than other kids.

Q: So that’s God-given.

A: Yeah, it’s an ability to understand and perceive form. And not just the form of music, but the form of large things. I could always kind of break the large thing down and say, I can see how states’ rights applies to King Oliver’s way of playing jazz. People want to do their own thing.

by Kenneth Whyte

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