Wynton Marsalis: Interview by Ted Panken
The Reigning Genius of Jazz to his admirers, the Emperor With No Clothes to his debunkers, Wynton Marsalis has attracted public attention and provoked ferociously divergent responses like few musicians in the music’s history. Since his emergence in the early 1980’s as a trumpet virtuoso and composer-bandleader, the result of Marsalis’ choice and treatment of material and his penchant for salty public statements is a public persona akin to a massive lightning rod or magnet that absorbs and repels the roiling opinions and attitudes informing the contemporary Jazz zeitgeist.
A visionary revisionist, Marsalis has worked tirelessly over the last decade to build a bully pulpit from which he speaks as advocate, spokesman, teacher and musical implementor of the aesthetic notions of continuity and inclusiveness intoned by Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. Committed to Jazz, perceiving it lacking a functional basis in contemporary Pop culture, he preaches the necessity of a fully idiomatic assimilation and refinement of the music’s lineage all the way back to its polyphonic roots in New Orleans as the road to a rooted personal voice. Perhaps his most important achievement has been to influence many of the most talented musicians of the generation after his (Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton are a few) to follow in his path.
What kept me from jumping on the Marsalis bandwagon during the 1980’s was that the volume of his bark was often disproportionate to the bite of the music that he was producing. Marsalis was forced to experience the growing pains of apprenticeship before an ever-expanding and largely uncritical audience for whom a Wynton Marsalis record was often more a status symbol than an object of serious reflection.
Marsalis’ strengths were substantial. He was capable of spinning out solos of a logic and lyrical force reminiscent of Fats Navarro’s greatest efforts. His compositions were based on the language of the 1960’s. He blended the scintillating turnarounds and swinging odd meters concocted by James Black in the isolation of New Orleans with the Ellis Marsalis Quartet, the harmonic and structural parameters of the Miles Davis Quintet, and the modal, almost Pentecostal feeling of John Coltrane’s Quartet. But as one might expect of a prodigiously gifted young musician in the process of feeling his oats, adding and discarding, his performances too often struck me as brilliant simulacra that did not comment on their sources. When I listened to Marsalis play his music, it was frustrating that he seemed to be almost willfully holding back, restraining the passion of his individual voice, a voice which burst out in full splendor on occasions when one heard him sit in with, say, Frank Morgan at the Village Vanguard, or at a memorable engagement at the Public Theatre with his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, and Edward Blackwell.
Since Marsalis became the focal point of Jazz programming at Lincoln Center in 1988, he has taken advantage of the opportunity to play the music of the keystone composer-improvisers of Jazz in variously idiomatic settings, from the inside-out so to speak, to develop a relationship to their vocabularies that is both functional and poetic. As his ideas have matured and consolidated, he has found a way to conjure his omnivorous musical interests into a highly personal, detailed compositional sensibility. Recent recordings such as the 1990 soundtrack for Tune In Tomorrow and the 1991 dance score City Griot revealed an ambitious composer who already had imprinted his cosignature to Ellington’s expansive timbral palette, Jelly Roll Morton’s organizational techniques, Monk’s percussive harmonic dissonance.
Furthermore, Marsalis has dramatically increased his range as a soloist. The sometimes mechanistic harmonically and rhythmically complex solo lines spun by the Freddie Hubbard admirer of earlier years have coalesced into clear, direct shapes. Marsalis is now capable of bringing to life a spectrum of stylistic approaches — the to-the-point heavyweight tales laid down by Louis Armstrong and Clifford Brown, the smooth modulations of Joe Smith and Joe Wilder, the sonic extremities of Ellington trumpets Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams, the allusive modernist progressions of Booker Little and Woody Shaw.
The two March 1994 performances at Alice Tully Hall of Marsalis’ lengthy commissioned composition for large jazz orchestra, Blood On The Fields [scheduled for an early 1996 release on Columbia-Sony] upped the ante. It is the first self-contained extended piece from Marsalis that I have heard in which form and function blend seamlessly. It tells a story whose internal dynamics are about dialoguing voices, stories and songs. It is also a conversation with the history of Jazz on its highest level. No imitation of its antecedents, Blood On The Fields demonstrates Marsalis’ sophisticated reading and revision of his sources, does justice to his oft-stated, oft-derided mission of reaffirming and reclaiming the optimistic narrative thrust of African-American culture.
What most impressed me about the performances of Blood On The Fields was the rich language of its complexly metered, starkly intervalled vernacular libretto, sung with elegant fluency and finesse by Cassandra Wilson, Miles Griffith and Jon Hendricks. Ellingtonally, Marsalis gave each musician in the orchestra a voice, and the orchestra itself a meta-voice. Call-and-response, New Orleans polyphony, shuffles, Ellingbop, dirges, parade march press-rolls, second-line struts, intricately detailed ensemble dialogues, impossible unison brass lines, idiomatic solos — even a Greek chorus! — signified and counterstated the songs. And they swung hard all night!
About a year ago I had the opportunity to meet with Marsalis twice for discussions about his music. During a week’s engagement of the Wynton Marsalis Septet at the Village Vanguard in December 1993 Marsalis visited my “Out To Lunch” program on WKCR-FM in New York and spoke on a variety of topics. The interview began with Marsalis’ brief description of each of his band members (Wessel Anderson and Victor Goines, reeds and woodwinds; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Eric Reed, piano; Reginald Veal, bass; Herlin Riley, drums), three of whom are from New Orleans (Veal has since left the band).
TP: Why is the New Orleans connection so important to you in terms of the musicians you perform with? It sounds like sort of a naive question, but I just would like to hear how you see it.
WM: Well, you know, it just has worked out that way. I didn’t plan it that way, really. It’s not like I went to New Orleans to find musicians, because I’ve been in New York for twelve years. But Herlin Riley and Reginald Veal with the drums and the bass, are from New Orleans, and they give us the ability to really play some New Orleans music. When you don’t have New Orleans musicians in those two positions, it’s difficult to get the authentic sound of the music. But you can always distill that sound, like the way that Duke played. He got that type of sound out of Jimmy Woode and Sam Woodyard. It’s just that it was transformed. It didn’t sound like the New Orleans beat.
TP: Of course Ellington got that sound out of Wellman Braud in the 1920’s.
WM: Well, he’s from New Orleans. As a matter of fact, Wellman Braud is in my family. You expect that New Orleans musicians will play like that. In Duke’s early bands, he had Sidney Bechet, he had Wellman Braud, he had Barney Bigard — he had access to New Orleans musicians. He had Bubber Miley, who even though he wasn’t from New Orleans, he was the closest thing you could find to King Oliver outside of Louis Armstrong.
TP: What type of repertoire does the band play in performance? You’ve accumulated such a diverse body of work in your recent recordings. Do you play the whole spectrum of material?
WM: We play all of it. Even the stuff we used to play, like “Black Codes From The Underground” or “Knozz-Mo-King.” We play Duke’s music, Monk, Wayne Shorter — anything really. We haven’t played that much of Wayne’s music recently, but we’ll really play pretty much anything… Some cats will play ballads. Or we try to play some of Trane’s music…
TP: Two of your band members, Wessel Anderson and Reginald Veal, studied with Alvin Batiste, who has been associated with your father for over forty years, playing contemporary and very strong music.
TP: And Edward Blackwell was part of their circle, too, over forty years ago.
WM: That’s right.
TP: Did your father’s work with [drummer] James Black in the early 1960’s have an impact on some of the early things that you were doing with your group?
WM: Definitely. You know, for me, it was more that I just absorbed the music, because I was always around it. I didn’t like it when I was growing up. We were really Country. We lived in Little Fork, Louisiana, in Breaux Bridge, in Kendall, Louisiana — and nobody I knew liked that kind of music. My Daddy and them always were kind of like outcasts. They were trying to play Modern Jazz in New Orleans at that time. But I always loved them because of their hipness. They had the combination of the intelligence and the soul. So as a kid, that manifested itself in things like, if we were in the barber shop, my Daddy would win the argument.
TP: With anybody, huh?
WM: Yeah. Well, he just knew a wider range of things. He was a Jazz musician. He had a more sophisticated understanding of American culture.
James Black was the same way, even though he had a volatile personality. But out of the cats in my father’s band (Nat Perillat, James Black, my father), I liked James the most. He wrote a lot of tunes, like “The Magnolia Triangle.” He had the talent. But he had a volatile personality. He was always getting into some kind of trouble, and he was always ready to fight at the drop of a hat. You never knew what he was going to do; he was unpredictable. But as a boy of like, seven, six, eight, there was always something about him I liked. He also was a trumpet player. I was influenced by his music. I liked his songs, like “A Love Song,” and things that the people wouldn’t know…
They played in a club called Lu and Charlie’s that was on Ramparts Street in New Orleans, and when I got to be, like, eleven, I would hang out in the club. I would go to the club just to see the men and the women and hear what they would be talking about, not to really check the music out so much — but the ambiance had a profound effect on my understanding of how the world works. Because you’re liable to see anything in that type of club. And also in New Orleans, down in the French Quarter there’s a wide range of things going on.
TP: Human activities.
WM: Yes, human…
TP: The full range…
TP: The depth…
WM: …and levels of human intercourse taking place. As men they had a profound effect on me more than as musicians.
TP: Had you picked up the trumpet by that time? Did you know music was going to be…
TP: …what you were going to do then?
WM: Well, I had a trumpet. I played in Danny Barker’s Fairview Baptist Church band when I was eight. Herlin Riley actually played trumpet in that same band, but before I was in it. I was only in the band for like six months or so, actually longer, maybe a year. We would play parades, things like “Over In The Glory Land,” “The Second Line,” “Little Liza Jane,” “Didn’t He Ramble.” Now, I had a trumpet, but I didn’t want to be a trumpet player. I wanted to be some type of athlete or in some type of scholarly activity, be a chemist or something — I had my little chemistry set, and I liked playing with it.
But the thing I always try to convey is just the feeling of that time. Because my father and them were all men struggling, they had their families, they weren’t making any money, they were trying to play Modern Jazz in New Orleans. An album like The Monkey Puzzle, I might have heard that a million times; it’s like a New Orleans underground classic. They had a belief and an optimism, a belief in the music, a feeling that they had as men, that’s the thing that I really could relate to. Because during that time, that music really wasn’t that important.
We had a little league football team, and we used to lose almost every game. This was during real segregation, so they had like three Black teams and seven or eight White teams. The Black teams always had like the saddest equipment from the city, and our fields didn’t have hashmarks or anything. We were glad just to be playing. Because before our age, they never had Black teams. But we would lose every game. Our coach was a cat named Gus, and he had a black-and-tan car we used to call the Judge, a GTO, and he used to sit on his GTO… We’d go to the games, and we’d always lose. One game Gus didn’t show up, and my father coached. He packed all of us into this little Buick Skylark; he had like eleven of us in a Buick Skylark, man…
TP: In uniform and pads?
WM: Oh yeah, in full dress. I don’t know how we got in there. We were laying all on top of each other! And we went to the game — and that’s the only game we almost won.
TP: Why did you decide to get serious about the trumpet? What was it that inspired you?
WM: Well, then I went through puberty, and I wanted to have something that would distinguish me so that I could be able to rap to the ladies and they would have some respect for what I was saying…
TP: A lot of musicians say that about it!
WM: Oh, man, that’s a motivating factor, now. And also just the competition of being in high school; a lot of people could play. And then I actually started listening to music. I started listening to Coltrane’s music first, and then later on Clifford Brown and Miles Davis…
TP: Who turned you on to that?
WM: Well, my father always had the records sitting around. I just had never taken the time to listen to any of them. Mainly before that I was just listening to like James Brown or the Isley Brothers, whatever was popular — Earth Wind and Fire then was becoming popular. We’d go to those little house parties that they have. Once again, it was still in the country. We weren’t living in New Orleans yet.
In the summer that I was twelve, I was working, cleaning up a school. That’s when I started listening to Trane. I would come home from doing that, and then I would listen to “Giant Steps”, and then I’d listen to Clifford Brown and Max Roach On Basin Street, and then Clifford Brown With Strings, and then a Miles Davis album entitled Someday My Prince Will Come, and then a Freddie Hubbard record entitled Red Clay. That got me into Jazz.
TP: How about Jazz education? Your father, Ellis, along with Alvin Batiste, was one of the major educators in Jazz really in the country in the 1970’s.
WM: [CHUCKLES] Well, I always hear that, and it makes me laugh. At most, my father never had more than five students in a class. We had the raggediest room in the school…
TP: Look who came out of it!
WM: Well, none of us knew we were going to make it playing Jazz. We really didn’t even want to play Jazz, with the exception of me and Donald Harrison; we were really the only two who wanted to play Jazz. When my father would try to explain something to us, by the time he would leave the blackboard to come back to the piano, we’d be playing a Funk tune. Alvin Batiste was the same way. He and my father, they’re like brothers almost. You know, I would always see them struggling, trying to have workshops in the community that no one would attend, always doing stuff — never for any payment, of course. Nobody was that interested in Art.
So now my father has this big reputation of being a teacher. And he is a great teacher. You have to be around him and really get the feeling of the music from him, because that’s what he carries with him, the seriousness and the joy and the love that’s in Jazz. He teaches his students through that method. But when we were growing up and in his classroom, it was only me, Donald Harrison, Branford, Terence Blanchard — we were the only five or six in the class. He would be just experimenting with us, walking the bass lines.
TP: You must have become extremely passionate about the trumpet to have worked that hard at it throughout your teenage years.
WM: Well, I always believed in working hard. You know, I used to cut lawns. And in New Orleans it’s hot. And in Kendall they have them big…them country lawns, so you have to really cut a lawn. And my attitude toward cutting a lawn was that my lawn was gonna be even. And this is when I was ten or eleven. So however long it would take to get the job done… That’s something that my father and my great-uncle would always tell me. My great-uncle was a stone-cutter for the cemetery, and he was in his nineties. He would always say, “Learn how to work a job. Your job is your identity. You don’t work a job for somebody else. You work your job for yourself.”
So when I got to be serious about music, I started practicing, and trying to look for teachers. I was very fortunate, of course, to have my father and Alvin Batiste, even Kidd Jordan. We would go over to SUNO, Southern University in New Orleans, and play what they call Avant-Garde music. We would all just get in a big room and just play as loud and as wild as we could. Even though after a while I got tired of doing it, in a way it was hip, because it allowed us to just express whatever we felt like expressing — which wasn’t that much. But we would all laugh about it. We would play some of Alvin’s tunes, one tune called “Naningwa.”
TP: He’s written some wild tunes.
WM: Yeah. So we grew up in that type of environment. My first teacher was a guy named John Longo. He also was at Southern University in New Orleans. He had grown up in New Orleans, and attended St. Augustine High School. John Longo studied with George Janson, who was my second teacher. George Jansen had studied with William Vacchiano, who became my teacher at Juilliard. George Janson was from New York, and he had moved to New Orleans, and he was one of the few teachers who would teach the Black musicians in the 1950’s.
But in New Orleans it’s not like Jazz is a form of scholarship. They were Jazz musicians, my father and them, they were struggling with the world and trying to raise their families and deal with the social situations and all of that. And we were growing up in that, and we were just a part of it. The relationships in the New Orleans musical community were a certain way. And of course, always hearing the tradition of music, even though I didn’t gravitate toward it at that time, because I always equated it with Uncle Tommin’… We were from like that other generation, with the Afros and Malcolm; all of that was popular in my age group. But still I was around the people like Teddy Riley and Ford, and earlier Danny Barker. It was a community, a very small community, and everybody knew each other. And if you were in that community, you participated in what was in it.
TP: The other aspect of music in New Orleans in the Sixties and Seventies was the vernacular music that was embedded in the cultural fabric of the city — the Neville Brothers, the Meters, all of these great bands. Was that something that you were aware of and involved with at that time as well?
WM: Well, we played Funk music at our gigs, and we knew about the Meters and the Neville Brothers, of course. Everybody in New Orleans knows about them; they have hits. But the type of music that most of the people in my age group listened to was Parliament or Earth, Wind and Fire, just like in New Orleans today most people listen to Rap music or whatever is on the radio. They don’t really listen… Most of the teenagers, the kids in our age group, they don’t really have a sense of the New Orleans tradition. At the end of every Funk gig we would play the Second Line. In New Orleans you can play a second-line any time. That’s the New Orleans classic from the traditional music. But in terms of the Meters’ songs and covering their hits or the songs they used to play, any type of historical perspective — we didn’t really possess any of that. Let alone to deal with Fats Domino or Dave Bartholomew or any of the 1950’s musicians. We were mainly just trying to be popular and current. So when a new record would come out, that’s what we would play.
[The conversation turned to clarinettist Dr. Michael White’s presentations of early jazz at Lincoln Center.]
WM: We don’t do Repertory Jazz. When you hear Sonny Rollins play “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise,” that’s not a piece of repertory music. If you had heard John Coltrane, when he was alive, play “I Want To Talk About You,” you wouldn’t say that was a piece of repertory music. There’s this belief that what we’re doing is transcribing things off of albums and playing them like the way that they were played a long time ago. We don’t do that, and we aren’t trying to do that. These styles are always alive, because Jazz has a ritualistic component. Its history won’t be just like Classical music. It’s just that those who write about the music don’t understand that yet, that part of the music is a continuum, and that the earliest New Orleans style is still the most Modern style of Jazz because it allows for the most freedom for more people participating. You have that polyphonic horn style, which is very difficult to play.
When Michael White comes to New York, when he comes to Lincoln Center and we present New Orleans nights, we do that because he is the foremost authority on that style of music. He breathes life into that music. A lot of times we don’t even have arrangements. I’ve played on a lot of those concerts, and all we have is like a sheet with written instructions — “One Chorus, Clarinet,” “Two Choruses, Head,” “Ensemble Improvisation.” What we are trying to do is play that style of music the way that we know how to play it. We aren’t really trying to necessarily recreate the sound of a given band, because you can’t do it.
All of the musicians, everybody who plays, learns from that type of music. If you’re a trumpet player, it teaches you how to play melodies and how to play quarter notes. If you play clarinet or if you play the trombone or the saxophone, it teaches you how to play with other musicians on horns, how to play longer-note values, when to play riffs, how to respond to something while still playing, how to address the dynamics of a group of horns playing at one time. If you play bass, it teaches you how to play that two-groove and how to stick to a basic beat feel, how to provide a good foundation. If you play piano, you learn different ways of comping, like the quarter-note comp, and it teaches you how to play with the left and the right hand, the stride style.
Now, after you learn that, you can do whatever you want with it. You can always do what Marcus Roberts does, which is something that you would never hear any of the older pianists do, play in two and three different times at once, all kind of real sophisticated syncopations and different harmonic conceptions. It’s just a matter of addressing the fundamentals so that you know the building blocks. Then you have the tools at your disposal to do whatever you wish to do with them. When we play the New Orleans music, that’s what we’re trying to do.
TP: When you came into the studio, before we went on the air, you were talking about how difficult it is to train people to play like that. Do you want to elaborate on that a little?
WM: Well, it’s just that there’s not much impetus in the culture for group improvisation. Everybody wants to solo all night. It destroys the architecture of the music. Also, we have gotten used to this form of just playing a head, and then soloing for two thousand choruses, and then playing the head out. Whereas in that New Orleans music, they played marches and waltzes. They actually played quadrilles. They played music with a wide range of forms. The forms are much more sophisticated. So you might only play eight bars, or you might only play a solo for eight bars, but you’re playing all the time. It’s very hard to get the younger musicians to understand the value of that type of expression. Also, they used Blues expression, whereas it’s very hard for today’s young musicians to learn that, not because they lack the talent or the ability or that they don’t have that aspect of their lives or that they don’t have the soul, but because the sound is not prevalent in the culture.
It’s very difficult to teach that. That’s the advantage, I think, of studying with someone like my father. He doesn’t teach you technically, but he teaches how to transmit that feeling. Now, I don’t really know what that feeling is. That’s how Art Blakey was also. There was something in his feeling that could teach you what the meaning of Jazz was. It’s that combination of intellect and soul, and a seriousness toward the music, and a desire to groove and to continue to groove, and to develop material. And to pass that on to younger musicians is really difficult.
TP: New Orleans, of course, is a port city on the Gulf of Mexico and deeply connected to the whole Caribbean region in complex ways. I’d like to ask you about the aspect of New Orleans music that Jelly Roll Morton called “the Spanish Tinge.” Have you been influenced in any way by the Cuban trumpet tradition, particularly in terms of the sonic aspects of it, the timbre and so forth?
WM: Well, not from that aspect. But I always liked Rafael Mendez, who was Mexican. It has always been my feeling that next to Louis Armstrong, he was the greatest trumpet player I have ever heard. Just the soul that comes through his sound. [SINGS A PHRASE] I like that kind of real bravura sound. And I think that the Cuban trumpet players I’ve heard have that. Sandoval has that, and musicians like Chocolate [Armenteros], they have that kind of thing, and even guys who are not well-known in that way, somebody like Victor Paz, who I had the opportunity to play with, he has that type of feeling in his sound. Of the younger generation of musicians, I think a guy like Charlie Sepulveda has that in his sound.
When they say the Spanish Tinge of New Orleans, it’s that BOOMP-BUM-BUM, BOOMP-BUM-BUM — the accent comes on four. And that’s how the New Orleans beat, BOOMP-BOOMP-DABOOMP-BOOM, BOOMP-BUM-BUM… So when they sing like the New Orleans music, [SINGS THAT BEAT AND CLAPS IT] — it’s that same rhythm. [SINGS THE RHYTHM] So in that way we have a lot in common with the South American and the Caribbean sounds. But of course, in the Caribbean they have a much more sophisticated version of it. In Cuban music, they have so many grooves and it’s very, very sophisticated. We don’t have that level of sophistication.
TP: I’d like to take up your previous comments on the misunderstanding about the ritualistic aspect of Jazz amongst many observers of the music. Do the words “classic” or “classicism” have a different meaning when applied to the Jazz aesthetic as opposed to, say, European Music?
WM: Well, you know, I never really know what they’re talking about. Some people say “Classic Jazz,” and they mean the 1930’s. Some say New Orleans music. Some call Coltrane’s group the classic quartet.
TP: What do you mean by it, though?
WM: Well, personally, a term like “Classic Jazz” really has never meant anything to me. You know, that’s the title that was used for the Lincoln Center series that we do in the summertime. Jazz in Lincoln Center is what I believe in.
My feeling is to call it “Real Jazz.” Because Real Jazz means that you are trying to swing. And when I say “swing,” that means that you are dealing with the rhythmic environment that allows for the thematic development, consistent thematic development, in the context of a Jazz groove. Which means that you don’t have to be going TING-TINKADING-TINKADING-TINKADING… A Jazz musician will take this same groove, DOOMP-DUM-DUM, DOOMP-DUM-DUM… That will be repeated, but all of the instruments will be improvising and the soloists will be constructing solos that develop thematically.
So it’s a matter of development, whenever you want to distinguish whether something is Jazz or not, and the range that is played on the groove. A Jazz drummer like Elvin Jones will take a groove like that, and he’ll play many different things on it. Whereas people who are not playing in the style of Jazz might take that same groove, and they will still be improvising, but what they will be playing will be more proscribed. They can improvise, too, but it will be off of the clav? or off of a certain thing that’s set, whereas a Jazz drummer also includes that into his vocabulary. Which is not to say that Jazz is more sophisticated. It’s just different. Because the other way is very, very sophisticated.
But when the horn players play and the soloists play, we deal with interaction. The key to Jazz music is the interaction of the voices. And the way you can tell whether a piece of Jazz is being played is if it’s being rendered with some Blues feeling, Blues melodies, rhythms and harmonies, in the context of some type of form. That means that you’re always addressing syncopation, some rhythms are being set up and they’re being resolved. If it has the Blues in it and also if it’s swinging, then it has that sound that we identify with Jazz.
It also becomes then a matter of percentage. For instance, if I would take a gallon of water and squeeze one lemon in it, technically you could say it’s lemonade. But it’s not. It would be like some water with some lemon in it. And we’re always concerned with the range and the precision and the degree of control of the idiomatic nuances. That really determines whether something is Jazz or not.
Jazz music has always been burdened with a tradition of writers who hang onto it, they’re paternalistic, and they always feel as though they know more than the musician knows. This is the thing that I’ve always been trying to say in public, and why a lot of times they’ve said I’m outspoken and all of this. I’m not outspoken. It’s just that these people who are supposed to be conduits between the musicians and the public don’t function in that fashion. They feel that they are above the musician or that they are above the music, and they aren’t.
These people like James Lincoln Collier, who writes these ignorant books. See, a lot of times all you can find in libraries of colleges will be James Lincoln Collier and one other book. James Lincoln Collier makes statements like, “The question is not whether Duke Ellington was a great composer, but was he a composer at all?” He’ll say Louis Armstrong, actually must have been born earlier to attempt to diminish the genius of Louis Armstrong — when in actuality Louis Armstrong was born later.
There’s always this confusion between sociology and music. When you try to teach students, you can’t teach them sociology. You have to teach them something about music. I can’t stand in front of a class and say, “Well, man, I want you to go home and stand on a corner with a chicken wing, and then come back and put some barbecue sauce on it, and come back next week, and then you will be able to play some Blues.” You have to come with something specific, which is not necessarily technical.
Like what I was saying about my father. He wouldn’t necessarily teach you technically, but he would transmit to you the feeling of Jazz, which is the combination of soul and intellect and the engagement with the consciousness, with American consciousness and with American culture. But we are burdened with a lot of the guys who write for our music because they lack the humility to really successfully communicate the feeling of the music to the public.
TP: Another aspect of learning to play the Blues or the idiomatic nuances of Jazz is just functional, practical experience. Where do young musicians get that these days?
WM: It’s very difficult. Young musicians from around the country call me all the time saying, “Man, there’s no place to play.” Nicholas Peyton is one of the finest young musicians in the country. He lives in New Orleans, and a lot of times he calls me and says, “You know, I’m not playing; I don’t have anywhere to play.” So we have a lot of problems in terms of training younger musicians to play. But it’s much better than it was when I was coming up.
TP: How so? Can you elaborate on that?
WM: When I was coming up, we didn’t even know what Jazz was. I could tell what it was from being around my father and them. But what we considered Jazz, like in my band and stuff, that was like some Funk tune with somebody putting a solo on top of it. The thought of trying to learn how to play Blues, the thought of interacting with each other… Now, we would play a Blues every night and we’d play the Second Line every night, but we’d play like kind of Funk licks on top of it. We weren’t trying to get to any real profound adult level of emotion on it, like what you have to try to do when you play the Blues. We were trying to do what we heard on the radio basically.
TP: But you got to play, let’s say, with Art Blakey for a year-and-a-half, Herbie Hancock for a while, different bands around New York. Before you started your career as a leader, you still had those two or three years of functional experience with other people’s bands.
WM: But you don’t have those kind of bands up here now. Who are you going to play with?
TP: Really I’m just trying to get your reflections on the state of things as they are now. Optimistic? Pessimistic?
WM: No, I’m very optimistic. Because there are more and more people who want to play. When I was, like 17, there was me and Wallace Roney, and then Terence Blanchard was kind of coming up. But before I met Wallace Roney, I had never met another trumpet player who really wanted to play real Jazz. Wallace really wanted to play. I would hear about him, “Yeah, there’s this kid in Washington named Wallace Roney, and he knows about the tradition and swinging.” But when I would meet Clark Terry or when I would meet Sweets Edison or the guys when I was 15 or 16, they would be telling me, “Man, there’s almost nobody who wants to play.” I sat in with Sonny Stitt once when I was 15, and he was telling me, “Man, you could be great in this music, but you have to practice and be serious. And I can see that you’re going to be serious. But you have to play this music. Because I’m traveling around the country, and I don’t see any youngsters who even want to play it.”
Whereas now, when I go around the country, I see hundreds of kids who want to play. Now we have to put the systems in place to enable them to learn and prosper and develop. The kids are ready. But the systems just are not in place to support them.
For example, there are people in the Jazz community who will complain because some twenty-year-old kids have a contract. Well, to me, this is a reflection of deep ignorance. The people who have their contracts are not the young Jazz musicians, it’s all the people in Rap music or in Pop music or in all these other forms of music where the contracts are awarded — 15 and 20 contracts a day are given out. Instead of complaining against the five or ten young Jazz musicians who are at least trying to play, complain against all these other people who aren’t even trying to play music, who just want to get a hairstyle and make some money.
But what is the response of the Jazz community? It’s to cut the younger musicians down, to hold them to a standard that’s far above what their upbringing would allow them to be on. Somebody like Roy Hargrove might have been the only person in Dallas who wanted to play and really seriously swing at his age. So he can’t be compared to Miles Davis when he was 15. I mean, Clark Terry, Hot Lips Page, Dizzy Gillespie, all these great people were practicing.
TP: Well, they had the music all around them. It was the culture.
WM: This is what I’m saying. A guy like Roy Hargrove has got to be celebrated by the Jazz community. Instead of saying, “Well, he sounds too much like Lee Morgan” or “he needs to do this and he needs to do that.” Maybe all of that is true, or maybe it’s not true. But the fact is, he is trying to play. I’m not saying you shouldn’t criticize a man’s style. But you have to be cognizant of… Are you the Jazz community or are you not the Jazz community? You don’t shoot the only warriors you have. You don’t say, “Well, you’all are not going to be able to fight like the people fought fifty years ago, so instead of us engaging in battle, let’s just kill all of them.”
What happens in the Jazz world defies logic. It’s absurd almost. I never can really figure out if the intellectual community and the writers who surround the Jazz community are interested in the music. Like, they will say something is a new version of Jazz if a musician says he’s not playing Jazz. The latest example would be this so-called Jazz-Rap trend, where it’s just somebody rapping and somebody plays solos like we used to play in the Seventies on top of it. Then all of the people who are supposed to be dealing with Jazz jump on the bandwagon, and they’re talking about, “This is the new form of Jazz, and finally people are overcoming the conservativeness of…” This is just crazy! It’s ludicrous.
TP: Well, a lot of it is also marketing, and a lot of marketing is inherently ludicrous anyway.
WM: Well, from the record companies’ standpoint. But I think in terms of the Jazz writers, it’s a lack of intellectual integrity, how they will attempt to apply political terminology… Like they will call one group “Neoconservative” (I guess that’s what they’ve tried to put on me), when, in actuality, the true conservative position is held by them. Because they are the Establishment. So they want to assign somebody else the term “conservative,” and I guess they are avant-garde or something, and that means they’re in the front of something. Well, that’s not true. Because they’re not in the forefront of thought on Jazz. Because no kids or people who want to learn how to play are learning practicing their philosophy. And they are so stubborn and they lack humility, that they end up being detrimental…
They are an albatross. They sit on top of our music and they push it down instead of raising it up. That’s why I’m always forced to come to the public and plead with the public, “Well, look, you can’t trust these people who are supposed to be a conduit.” You have to go to the schools and try to convince the kids of the value of learning how to play.
TP: On your last few recordings, some of the ensemble pieces have utilized Ellingtonian voicings and tactics in a very creative and I think personal way. I can really hear some things coming out that were touched on and echoed in past years.
WM: Well, just trying to be a part of the tradition. This is a steady growth process for me. I try to educate myself as I go along. And I’m coming from the 1970’s, where I would never listen to a Duke Ellington album.
TP: When did you first hear Duke Ellington?
WM: I was 18 or 19. Stanley Crouch played some Duke for me. He said, “Check this Duke out.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah, just some old ballroom music for people. I mean, I was so steeped in the philosophy of my generation that… Then gradually I would start to listen to it, and hear all kinds of different forms, and people playing in different times, and the harmonic sophistication coming out of the Blues. Then I got in touch with Jelly Roll Morton through the concert we did at Lincoln Center, the Jelly Roll Morton concert, and that gave me an understanding of how to construct these forms.
I mean, there’s nothing really you can say about Duke. His genius speaks for itself. I went to the Smithsonian to see his scores, and there’s walls full of large cabinets packed with Ellington’s music written in his own hand. Anybody who is ever in Washington, it’s really a great education to go in there and look at some of the volumes of music that this man wrote. The thing that’s most amazing about Ellington’s music is that when he wrote it down the first time, he really didn’t change it that much, apart from structural changes he would make. You will see pieces of music with people’s phone numbers on it, and it will be “The Harlem Suite,” and the whole suite will be written out. His conception is very, very clear, and his penmanship is very neat. He writes the notes very small. It doesn’t mean that much, but for someone who wrote that much music it’s very neat.
TP: A final question. When people write about you, one of the things that’s most often noted is your virtuosity as a trumpet player, both in the Jazz area and in European Classical music. Would you discuss the place of virtuosity in Jazz and in improvising?
WM: Well, I think that virtuosity is the first sign of morality in a musician. It means that you’re serious enough to practice. And there are many different aspects of virtuosity. Many times, when we think of virtuosity, we think only of velocity. But there is also tone, flexibility, and then the virtuosity of nuance or ability to project different types of feeling through a sound. Then there’s all the growls and smears and stuff that Sidney Bechet said that he practiced on, which is called effects.
But you find in the history of Jazz that the musicians have always been virtuosos. That’s what distinguished Louis Armstrong from other trumpeters; he could play higher, with a bigger sound, with more harmonic accuracy, would bend the notes better and with more… Art Tatum, of course. Thelonious Monk. Charlie Parker, Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins — the list is endless of people who were serious practicers. Coleman Hawkins. Paul Chambers. Mingus. All of these men were virtuosos, and all these men believed in technical competence.
That’s very, very important to being a musician in general. It’s like Paul Hindemith in the beginning of his book, The Craft Of Composition. He said he always hears about people talking about their feeling, “but must not this feeling or impulse be tiny if it can manifest itself in such little knowledge?” That’s just how I feel about technique.
After this interview aired, the editor of this magazine contacted me about printing the interview in conjunction with a brief review of Blood On The Fields. He suggested I speak again with Marsalis to flesh things out. In June 1994, three months after the concert, I visited Marsalis’ apartment for a more specific discussion of the development of his aesthetic and procedures, and of the genesis of Blood On The Fields. I began with a question about his relationship with Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray, Marsalis’ intellectual mentors.
WM: I met Stanley Crouch at Mikell’s when I was 18 —I had just turned 18. He came down to the club. My father had told me earlier in the summer about having read an interview with Stanley and Imiri Baraka, where he had said that he thought that Stanley was making much more cogent points. This is when I didn’t know really who Stanley Crouch was, or even Imiri Baraka, for that matter. I had just come from New Orleans. And Crouch invited me to his house. Then I would be having to cook for myself and stuff, and I didn’t know how to cook, so I was glad to be invited to anybody’s house to eat, because that ensured that I would get a good meal.
So I went down to Stanley’s house. Stanley was living in this small apartment, but he had thousands of books and records. He reminded me of a history professor that I had in high school. His name was Diego Gonzalez, and he lived three blocks from my house on Hickory Street in New Orleans, so I would stop by his apartment sometimes on my way back home. He was a Classical Music fanatic, so he had thousands of Classical albums, and he also was the coach of the chess team.
So when I went to Crouch’s house, first just looking at the albums and the books kind of blew my mind. Because I mean, my father is a musician; he’s not a scholar. I hadn’t been in that many people’s homes which were like libraries. And Crouch, he was a writer, so it wasn’t organized; it was all over the place. So I immediately liked him because he was soulful, and he was extremely, extremely intelligent, but he also wasn’t above putting his foot in somebody’s booty if he had to do that. So I really could relate to that.
He started playing all of these albums for me, and asking me what I thought about it. Well, I had never heard any of that. He asked me what I thought about Ornette Coleman, and I said, “Well, Ornette Coleman, yeah, that’s out.” I just would say whatever I had read. I had never really listened to it. Then he put on a record and said, “What do you think about this?” And I would be saying stuff like, “Man, I didn’t know Charlie Parker played like that.” And he said, “No, man, that’s Ornette Coleman.” The first time I really listened to Duke Ellington, Crouch brought this big Duke Ellington collection over to me. He says, “Man, check this out. This is Duke Ellington.”
So just in general, he imparted a knowledge and a history of the music — and I didn’t have any of that. I mean, I had been around the music my whole life, but I had never looked at it artistically in that way. I had never studied it. I didn’t feel that it was something you had to study that way. I felt like you could play it or you couldn’t. That’s what we all thought, basically. I was so used to being the only person I knew that really was into Jazz, that to meet somebody like Crouch blew my mind really! And he had all of these books… Most of the stuff he would be talking about wouldn’t even be music! It would be stuff that I had never heard of before. It was just fascinating to me.
Then we started talking. I would call Crouch, and he would just tell me about all of these books and things to read… Still. Still today it’s that same way. I still learn a lot from him. He and I talked last night. We haven’t been talking as much recently, in the last month or two. But there was a time when me and Crouch would talk almost every day. And we never have, like, lightweight conversations. It’s always something… I’ve learned so much from him, not just about music.
TP: What were some of the books he turned you on to that were important to you?
WM: Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers. Well, actually, that came from Al Murray. Al Murray told Crouch to read it, and Crouch had read it. He was telling me about the whole big lesson of a blessing being a curse, how you might get all this publicity and all this, but you also have to deal with the weight of this other thing. That goes all through Thomas Mann.
Proust. William Faulkner. I would read something, and then I could discuss it with Crouch. I would say, “What do you think about this?” He would say, well, he thought this. Then sometimes when we were talking, he would say, “Well, let’s go see Al and rap with him about this,” and then we would talk about it. Something like The Invisible Man, Crouch knows that inside and out, or Herman Melville, Moby Dick… But a lot of the homework and stuff he was giving me, I still haven’t done. The real, true level of discussion we could have about a lot of literature, we haven’t had that, because I haven’t really read all of the material like I should… I just need more time.
But there’s even more stuff. I’m leaving out a lot. All kinds of stuff on music, man. Books on music like Early Jazz by Gunther Schuller. Of course, Al’s book, Stompin’ The Blues really helped to uncover a lot. That was the first book I had ever read that addressed the expression of Jazz the way I knew it to be. It’s like I had known it to be that, but I had never really been educated in it, so I didn’t really know it. Because there was such a big breakdown… My generation was really only into Pop expression, and Pop music, and Pop thought. So even though I didn’t really want to be associated with that, you can only rise so far above everybody else that you’re around. Most of the seriousness I experienced when I was growing up really only came from me. It wasn’t like I had a group of friends who were all so serious. I was always trying to make them become more serious! And things about Afro-American culture that I maybe knew intuitively, like New Orleans music — I liked it, but I didn’t really like it. I associated it too much with Tomming, which didn’t have anything to do with the music. That was like a social thing. And I would always be confusing social science with music.
Stompin’ The Blues really helped to clarify the whole question of playing with Blues expression. We grew up playing Funk music, which has very little Blues in it. Our generation of musicians, the Funk musicians, so little of the Blues was left in that, that it’s very hard to produce a Jazz musician out of that style. When you’re playing on Funk, most of the time you’re playing with a lot of accents, and you’re only playing pentatonic scales. I mean, that’s the kind of stuff we grew up playing. Our style of music wasn’t really based on creating the melody in the context of an improvising rhythm section. Because we were playing Funk [SINGS FUNK LINE A LA KOOL AND THE GANG], so the rhythm section was going to be playing that the whole time you played, [SINGS LINE], whatever the vamp was, or whatever they were playing.
The Blues music is more continuous. You have to come up with ideas, and you develop them through the form. Whereas on Funk music, you mainly are playing on a vamp, and you’re just trying to excite the audience. You don’t really have aesthetic objectives. If you can trill a note up high and circular-breathe on it, you do that, you know…
TP: Albert Murray writes about Blues as a cultural style. How does that translate into this period?
WM: Well, what Albert Murray is writing about mainly only existed in the Church tradition. Now, in New Orleans, we had the Jazz parade and all that, but the parades we played in…well, first, everybody would be playing loud, and we wouldn’t really be playing with that type of expression he’s talking about. He’s talking about the real adult expression and also the optimism. Most of that wasn’t in the music that we played. Our music was mainly party music. The music was a background, really. It wasn’t the center or the focus of anything. Like, most of the shouts and the call-and-response that’s essential to the Blues between the musician and the audience, even in Funk gigs, you never really experience that. People would shout for you if you played something that was flashy. But you never really got that type of cosignature that goes on in a church when the preacher is… First the music would be so loud that if you said “Okay” or something, nobody in the audience would hear you. The whole dialogue in the society was different.
So when I read Stompin’ The Blues, I noticed first how Albert Murray differentiates between the Blues as such and the Blues as music. In our generation, we would say, “That’s only a Blues,” like, the Blues wasn’t really nothin’… We felt, man, “Giant Steps, that’s what’s hard to play; the Blues, anybody can play that — that’s just three chords.” We didn’t really think of the Blues as nothin’ important to learn. We would play a Blues every night on our Funk gig, because we would play the New Orleans Second Line. But we didn’t really see the Blues as being central to Afro-American expression. To us, the Funk was what was central. BOOM-BAP-DE-BOM-BAP, the backbeat, that’s what we really…
Now, when I was in high school, I kind of knew that it wasn’t the backbeat, but I didn’t know what it was. You know what I’m saying? It’s like when something is wrong with you and you know something is wrong but you really don’t know what it is. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was.
TP: Another essential aspect of Albert Murray’s conception of the Blues is that the Blues is a narrative tradition, and a tradition that connects generations and spans place and time as well. That seems to be something you’ve tried to elaborate with the Lincoln Center hookup and a lot of your activity in the last decade.
WM: There are certain things that Albert Murray strongly believes are at the root of the real Afro-American and also the American experience. He doesn’t believe in the generation gap. Now, I always felt this, but I didn’t know that I felt it. Like, I never looked at the people my age as being that different from my father. Of course, my father was a Jazz musician. So I didn’t know anybody as hip as him. I never was a part of any movement when I was 15 or 16 that I felt was hipper than what my father was doing. We had our Afros and our dashikis and platform shoes, and whatever the trend of the day was, and we played Funk music. But I never had the feeling that what we were doing was as hip as what my father could do, or that we knew anything more than what he knew — or my grandfather, or my great-uncle.
Albert Murray believes in that, in the continuum. The whole question of affirming something, having a dialogue with something; counterstating it or else affirming aspects of it.
The true central proposition that I really learned from Al is optimism. Because in that way, the Afro-American expression is fundamentally different from European Art expression. A lot of European Art, especially in the Twentieth Century, is pessimistic, is tragic, has a tragic vision of what stuff is, whereas the Blues expression recognizes the tragedy but is optimistic.
When I wrote Blood on The Fields, I wanted to make it tragic the whole way through, with no redemption, just go “Okay, this is just a messed-up situation, and it’s still messed-up.” I talked with Al extensively about that, and he told me if I wanted to do it, fine. He sat down with me, and we went through all the different forms of tragedy, going all the way back to Greek tragedies, to Oedipus, The Libation Bearers and Agamemnon, how you set the tragedy up, the modes of tragedy, the complaint and plaint — we analyzed all of these things. But he said, “The thing you’ve got to understand is that if you’re going to make it all tragic, the expression that you will be coming from will not really be Afro-American, because that’s not in our expression.” It’s only in the last twenty or thirty years that that way of looking at the world has taken over our culture, and it is not our real attitude.
I started to really contemplate what he was saying, and I came to an agreement with what he was saying. At first I was against it, but then I had to say, yeah, that is the transcendent value of the Blues and of swinging, and that is what makes Duke Ellington’s music so great in relation to something like Bartok or Stravinsky. You listen to Stravinsky’s music, and you will like it, and it will be some great music. But Duke Ellington was swinging. So you have the complexity, and you still have that optimism, where it’s saying, “Man, this is a tragic situation, but it’s gonna be cool.” And that’s a very important part of that expression, of the Jazz expression.
TP: It seems to me that you’ve effectively used the opportunities of the different presentations of Jazz at Lincoln Center to engage in a dialogue with the different genres of music in performance situations, and that you’ve assimilated the vocabularies in a very personal way.
WM: Well, that was always what I wanted to do. But that was my intention from the beginning of playing music, from my first album. Even though I didn’t know a range of music, I still would try to use Charleston rhythms, I would try to change times, use stuff with modes on it, play standards. Whatever information I knew about, I was always trying to include it. Play stuff that had, like, a New Orleans call-and-response, play standard forms like “Rhythm” changes, and try to transform them.
My thing is to not cut myself off from my own tradition. That tradition can be anything from John Philip Sousa marches to Beethoven’s symphonies, to the Blues, to whatever. Because I grew up playing all of that different type of music. I didn’t understand it, but that is what I grew up doing. I played in a waltz orchestra. I played in the marching band. I played in a Funk band. I played in a Jazz band. I played in a circus band. Played on a Broadway show. Played Salsa music. All of these musics are part of my experience as a musician. So I don’t feel that I should cut myself off from the traditions I come out of to create a narrow style that’s easily identifiable.
TP: To the contrary, I think it’s very expansive. But I think the point I was making is that it seems to me that you have assimilated everything you’ve been working on from the inside-out more or less, and that it’s coming out in your writing in a very natural way.
WM: Well, it is very natural to me. First, I only went to school for a year — to Juilliard. I went for one year. And there really was no Jazz class. I remember the first band we had, my brother had gone to Berklee, so he knew more about Jazz music, because they have all these exercises and stuff that they had done. So I would always be saying, “Man, what is this and what is that?”
A lot of what I have learned about Jazz music, I have learned from the musicians. I learned stuff from Art Blakey. I had the opportunity to play and talk with Elvin Jones, and I learned a lot from him. Sweets Edison. Clark Terry. Whenever I’m around the musicians, I’m always really checking out what they’re playing, and listening very carefully to what they are saying. Roy Eldridge taught me how to growl on the trumpet, then I started trying to learn how to do that. How to use the plunger. Joe Wilder gave me lessons on how to play with the hat. I mean, these things I just learned. To me they are all techniques that are important to know, because the expression of Jazz music is something that you have to just be familiar with.
I’m from New Orleans. My Daddy’s a Jazz musician. So even though I didn’t really necessarily understand the music, my whole life has been nothing but being around musicians and around Jazz music. I remember being around Blue Mitchell or Sonny Stitt. When they’d come to New Orleans, my father would say, “Man, go check out Blue”… Even more than being around them, I know the life of the musician from birth. Something like a New Orleans parade; I played in parades when I was eight years old. It’s just what it is. My real true feeling and affinity is for Jazz music and for swinging, and it’s always been that. Now, because the environment that I grew up in was so poor in terms of what my generation was playing, my playing suffered. But in terms of my understanding of the Jazz lifestyle and of Jazz music and the musicians, that’s never really been anything I had to study.
TP: In Blood On The Fields there are some impossible-sounding ensemble passages for horns that were executed flawlessy and totally flowed. It’s surprising that you only had one year of formal schooling to develop the technique to express the sounds you seem to be hearing in your head.
WM: Well, I just learn slowly. I get these scores of Duke Ellington, and I study them. I talk with Dave Berger. He helped me, just some basic things about the voices and about the instruments. Even in my year in school I was studying Classical trumpet; we sure didn’t study Jazz music. And even that year that I was in school, after a half-a-year I started playing with Art Blakey, so I didn’t really take that year that seriously. I really wanted to play with Art Blakey, or to play Jazz music.
It’s just a matter of slow study. Like, when Crouch brought me those Duke Ellington albums, it was twelve years ago. I remember listening to it, I said, “Man, this music is so complex; it’s impossible to even figure this out.” And I remember Crouch telling me, “Man, look. You never know what you’ll be doing in ten years.” And that was like twelve years ago.
So it’s just a matter of consistently studying and working and trying to think, to figure out how to make these colors work… As far as the ensemble passages go, or the different rhythms, mainly what I do is, I write out what I would play on the trumpet. I play a style that has a lot of multiple rhythms in it and a strange kind of chromatic way of playing through the harmony. So when I write it out for the ensemble, it sounds very strange. I turn the beat around. But I have been playing that way for ten years.
TP: The lyrics to Blood On The FIelds are extremely expressive and were sung with great elegance and interpretative nuance by Cassandra Wilson. Considering the sonic extremities and metrical complexity of the music, it was some of the most formidable singing I’ve heard.
WM: Well, Cassandra did a great job. She wanted to sing it. That’s the basic thing. She worked real, real hard on it, and it was very, very difficult to get it together. Really, she just worked on it and hooked it up. Miles Griffith also worked very hard on his parts.
Part of the story comes from a Stephen Vincent Benet story called Freedom Is A Hard-Bought Thing, which deals with the knowledge it takes to get free. There are a lot of little side stories, too, in Blood On The Fields, about a woman losing her mind, and she’s on this ship. There were a lot of different things I was trying to investigate.
Most of the words are generated from today. I used the situation of the people today, but I made them speak like they were slaves. But it’s not really about them being slaves; it’s about how people are today.
TP: So the language illustrates a broader time continuum.
WM: Yeah. The crux of it is the point where Miles sings, “Oh! Anybody, hear this plaintive song.” He’s speaking to the whole world. That’s like the position of the people, especially the position of the Afro-American people. Anybody in the world, hear this plaintive song. When you see the kind of stuff that’s going on out here today, this is the cry for help. Like the whole Rap expression and the violence and the ignorance that’s just taken to be a part of the Afro-American culture, and it’s not. It’s like a cry… When somebody does something that’s absurd, you say, “Man, they must need some assistance.” It’s anybody, hear this plaintive song.
Then it gets specific. “Who wants to help their brother dance this dance?” We need help. Who wants to help their brother? And then it’s not even so much about Afro-American people; it’s just about life in general. First you address the whole world: Anybody hear me, I’m trying to exist out here. Who out of all these people will help me dance this dance? That’s life. Just to hold the dance… You dance your way through the world, through life. Dance is the first art. So it gets more specific, like a community of people. Who wants to help me dance this dance?
And then this is what I’m doing for my part. “Oh, I sing with soul to heal this wounded land.” That’s about the United States of America. That’s what the whole question of soul is in America. It’s a healing agent. That’s what soulfulness is about. A great tragedy has occurred, but that’s all right. It has forgiveness in it. It’s beautiful. It has a beauty to it. This is the thing that has been devalued. And this is why we have such a tremendous tragedy on our hands today dealing with our society, and with our culture, because we’ve lost the real meaning of soul, which is that whole redemptive thing that it has in it. It’s been confused with, like, some fried chicken or some hipness or something that has…I don’t know, with some slang or something, man. I don’t know. But the whole lyric comes down to that one thing. Who wants to help their brother dance this dance? “I sing with soul to heal this wounded land.”
TP: How did the song forms start to come out?
WM: Well, each one comes out of the experience. The first one [“Move Over”] is supposed to be on the ship, so it’s like a wave. It just goes up and down, up and down…
TP: And you had the different sections going against each other on that one.
WM: Had the sections going against each other. Like, a minor section, I’ll go into a groove. [SINGS] And the harmony goes that way. I have a whole dialogue where she’s losing her mind. She plays, and the band is like the waves pounding against the ship; it just keeps coming in. Then the harmony goes inside. She goes, “My head is spinning round and round,” [SINGS MELODY] I’m trying to use things out of the experience she’s singing about to give it that feeling.
And Cassandra heard it. She adapted to the form so quickly. Because I felt that the form would be difficult for her to grasp, but she understood it immediately. She just gravitated toward it and sang it. And when the man comes in and sings [“You Don’t Hear No Drums”], he’s singing the Blues, with the same refrain. Because he’s on the ship, but he’s not really rocking up and down too much. He’s so mad, he’s not really cognizant of any of that. He’s addressing her, saying his rage is something that he’s… So it’s like real harsh, at the top of his range; he’s screaming it out.
When they do the coffle march, she sings like a dirge. [DOM-DOM, DOM-DOM] Then he sings a march, “I’ll never be a slave.” [“I’ll never slave for any man.”] So when he comes in, the snare drum comes in. It’s like some Country people. Every song, like that chant he sings, “I sing with soul to heal,” this three-part chant; it’s a Blues, but the changes are all switched around. It’s done like in the style of the Spiritual.
So I used forms that came out of the experience of whatever that thing is.
TP: Are all the lines initiated in songs, or songs that you’re hearing? How are they generated in your mind?
WM: Well, it depends on where they are. I try to have the whole piece be integrated. I’ll just keep bringing themes back, harmonies back, progressions, lines. Something that was the harmony will become the melody of another thing, or some theme will be turned around. I have big central progressions going through the thing. The form is very difficult for me to explain, because it’s very complex. I’m trying to just connect things.
TP: You seem to have assimilated several decades of Ellington’s development in terms of the tonal palette of the ensemble, but the harmonic language sounds like very much your own.
WM: Yeah, some of it. Sometimes I use verbatim stuff I heard Duke do, or Jelly Roll — whoever I know of. I don’t really suffer from an identity crisis. so anybody’s music I’ll use. I’ll steal from anybody.
TP: Well, they say the mediocre person borrows and the top cats will steal.
WM: Yeah, I’ll steal, and I’ll admit it freely.
TP: Is this part of a connected series on African-American life or some other connected theme? That’s how I’ve heard it described.
WM: Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it yet. First I’m going to finish this one. It’s still not finished. I didn’t really initially plan it to have a plot that was that literal, but since it ended up being like that, the end of it is kind of messed up. It doesn’t follow clearly all the way through. So I’m going to rework that and record it in September.
I really want to do something on the Civil War. I’m thinking I’m going to wait and learn how to write for strings, and then just write one big integrated piece, like an opera or something, on the Civil War, make it long, like 20 hours or something. [Marsalis’ commisssioned composition for the March Jazz at Lincoln Center will be performed with the Center Chamber Orchestra.]
TP: The piece also used the Chorus of Greek Tragedy as a connective device.
WM: Well, I got the idea for that from Al. Well, not to use it for Blood On The Fields, but just the whole concept. As I said, we were talking about tragedy, reading Oedipus, and I got Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, and Agamemnon — I was reading that. And the whole thing of the chorus coming in, singing, and setting the stage helps you go from thing to thing, too. But I liked that, the fellows in the band sitting up there, commenting on the stuff and then playing it! It was sort of cantorial, like a call-and-response.
TP: It was very funny.
WM: It had to be funny. But I conceived of it as being funny — ironic. Like, these guys are sitting up there saying something like that, and then they play some music.
TP: In Blood On The Fields and in recent recordings, the sounds that have been coming out of your trumpet have been really extreme, evoking the “Avant-Garde” of Jazz. What is your sense of the Avant-Garde in Jazz, however you would define it?
WM: Well, I believe that the challenge of Jazz is to create coherent solos through a harmonic form, to swing at different tempos, to play with some Blues authority, and to deal with contrast. Now, there’s many different styles that they call the Avant Garde. Like, Ornette Coleman is totally different from Cecil Taylor, but they will both be lumped into the same thing.
My feeling, since I played a lot of Classical music, is that the styles are not addressing swinging, most of them, that just deal with like sounds… Like, you hear somebody playing something like… [HE PICKS UP THE TRUMPET AND PLAYS A PHRASE THAT SOUNDS LIKE A PARODY OF BILL DIXON]. I mean, that’s not Jazz to me. Rhythmically, it sounds like Classical music. People say, “Man, this is real modern.” It’s not even Modern. There are people who have been doing that for forty or fifty years.
Because you have a certain hairstyle or you talk about being from the community or whatever, all that social jargon, that doesn’t mean anything to me. Because I’m from the South, man. Railroad track South. So there’s a lot of social commentary that’s passing itself off as a badge of authenticity and all this, man…
The thing I like about some Avant-garde music is that they deal with a wide range of styles. But the thing about what they’re doing is that a lot of times the level of musicianship just is not that high, in terms of their actual ability to address harmony, really truly swinging, and playing in the time at different tempos consistently… The hard thing about swinging is not to do it for twenty measures; it’s to do it all night. Swing is a certain thing. It’s continuous. Now, when I say “swing,” I don’t mean that same groove, TING-TING-TA-TING-TA-TING-TING, but I mean a sensibility that does come out of the shuffle rhythm, and something that requires that you are continuously coordinating your ideas with the rhythm section and with other people that are playing — at different tempos. That means you’re trying to swing fast, slow, medium-tempo.
And what’s being called Avant-Garde… I think that they play in an expressive fashion, now. I will say that, in terms of the best of the Avant-Garde, like David Murray, Olu Dara. I feel that when you hear them play, they play very expressively. Archie Shepp. They play the melodies, they have the vibrato and the thing that they play with. But for me, what a lot of times was lacking was the real true degree of sophistication that’s necessary to play Jazz, just to play Jazz music, let alone to be on the forefront of Jazz.
TP: Is Jazz avant-garde in its essence?
WM: The whole of Jazz is avant-garde. Like, the conception of a group playing with no music and improvising on a form, playing all these different rhythms, playing polyphonically, and it sounding good — that’s an avant-garde conception. It’s never existed. That’s the conception we should be trying to develop. I think one of the problems in Jazz education has been too much focusing on harmony, in terms of harmony being the only way of recognizing innovation, like, “Well, they played this on this chord or that…” Most of the analyzation is harmonic analyzation. Rhythm is very important and also the dialogue is very important.
I feel that the New Orleans Jazz is still avant-garde, because you have three horn players who stand up and play and make up their own parts, and it’s coherent. Almost nobody in the world can really play that style. Maybe there are three or four people. But you will never hear three horns playing together and they sound good. This is a part of the concept of Jazz that’s very important, that we have just let go. The whole conception of arrangements, ensemble parts, key changes — all of these things are an important part of our music. And it’s all in the context of a dialogue and a desire to converse musically with other people, while still swinging. Very seldom do you hear people who want to really, truly swing hard all night.
We’re in a position now where we have to reassert what our values are going to be. Jazz musicians make a big mistake when they use the same philosophies and conceptions that helped to destroy the audience for Classical music. This whole self-absorbed concept of innovation. What if that concept is impoverished? There are certain things that are just taken to be true that have to be questioned. The whole Oedipal strain in Western thought, where everybody thinks the next person has got to devour what came before it. You don’t have to do that. I was reading a book on Picasso where the guy keeps saying that Picasso emasculated his father, because he was such a great painter. His father gave him the paint brush and said, “Well, you paint now; I’m never going to paint again.” This whole thing that runs through so much of criticism.
The continuous thing of ritual is actually important in Jazz, which is what Albert Murray always says. And that means that whole Oedipal strain of, well, you have to destroy your father and you have to create a new thing, that might just be one part of what the greatest people do. There might be another whole branch of people who play the same thing and sound great. I always think of a musician like Sonny Stitt. He represented the highest level of musicianship. Now, he wasn’t Charlie Parker in terms of that type of innovative genius and brilliance. But he represents something that is not to be disrespected on any level. And Charlie Parker respected him. We need more musicians like that.
by Ted Panken