Wynton Marsalis is the Musical Director for Harper’s Bazaar December/January Issue
“Tradition means that you’re able to be innovative and come up with new things, but at the same time you can speak to the things that existed before,” says the legendary jazz musician and composer Wynton Marsalis.
“You don’t have to overthrow them to be an innovator. You can just sweep them right up along with you.” For his playlist, the longtime artistic director of New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center selected a wide range of tracks that reflect his interest in an array of musical traditions: from Marvin Gaye’s Motown touchstone “Inner City Blues”; to the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Linus and Lucy,” from nostalgic holiday favorite A Charlie Brown Christmas; to Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time,” which Marsalis describes as having “an earthiness and down-home quality.”
Listen to Wynton’s playlist below exclusively on Apple Music.
Below, Marsalis breaks down some of his song picks with Harper’s BAZAAR’s entertainment director, Andrea Cuttler.
“Now’s the Time” by Charlie Parker
“Now’s the Time” is a song that harkens back to another era of the music. It was song that they called “Do The Hucklebuck. Do do do dee do di, do the hucklebuck.” You have a guy like Charlie Parker, who’s like a genius of unbelievable sophistication and playing a style that’s so complicated. And he plays that style with such perfection that when musicians hear him, they lose their mind. He plays on such a high level that even the average person, who’s not into that style of music, stops and listens to him.
So John Lewis, the great piano player that played with Dizzy Gillespie and was the music director of the Modern Jazz Quartet, told me the thing he remembered from listening to Bird, Charlie Parker, was that whenever he went to a gig of Charlie Parker, he saw people who were sophisticates of the music. And he said he also saw regular people like doormen and firemen and police. Regular people would go out, and even though Bird’s style was very dense and extremely quick-minded and sophisticated, even to today nobody can play like him. He was just so ahead of this time, but he still had an earthiness and a down-home and a basic quality that is the essence of what tradition is about. Tradition means that you’re able to be innovative and come up with new things, but at the same time, you can speak to the things that existed before. You don’t have to overthrow them to be an innovator. You can just sweep them right up along with you. A lot of times when you have to overthrow things, then either something is wrong with that tradition or you are part of a movement that’s closer with, like, a fascist. Fascists come into things, and they immediately get rid of books and … they have a new order.
My father also played saxophone, and I remember once—I was maybe 12 or 13—I heard somebody playing that song in my house and I was in another room and I thought, “Damn. My brother got a lot better than me overnight.” He could play like Bird, but it was my father playing it. And because of the title, “Now’s the Time,” it was connected to civil rights. [It’s] a great title, because it’s always the time. You know? So that’s why I picked that song. It’s simple and it’s very complex at the same time.
“Inner City Blues” by Marvin Gaye
Well, you know, it’s almost 50 years ago. You could not go anywhere in the community and not hear that tune. Man, you can hear that coming out of people’s houses. … But I was a kid and it was just that “What’s Going On” was the one that was popular. But the “Inner City Blues” was the one that had, like, a different sound to it.
Once again, it fits into that thing that I say of tradition. … If you take the song, I’m going first off of the feeling of the song, if you were there in that time, and everybody was listening to it. People who were from an earlier era—because at that time, the older people didn’t necessarily like the younger music—they liked Marvin’s music. And they like Marvin’s record. Because of Marvin’s phrasing and because he loved Billie Holiday, so he was connected to an earlier time, but he had a different message. And I think just the whole indictment of the widening of the inequality and the racial instability and the social hardship in the urban spaces—this stuff he says. If you look at the lyrics of that, it could be written yesterday. So I tend to look at tradition like that. We tend to think of a tradition as it is as a yoke or something that prevents creativity. I tend to look at tradition as something that informs creativity. So therefore, I don’t feel I have to kill my great-grandfather, because we had a baby. I can let great-grandma live and I can have a baby and they can be in the same room and it’s symbiotic.
“Linus and Lucy” by Vince Guaraldi Trio
You remember the Christmas show? Charlie Brown was the only time you ever heard jazz on television in the ’60s and ’70s. My father actually knew Vince Guaraldi when he was stationed. My father was stationed in the military in the 1950s in Los Angeles. He was … in the Marine Corps [and] he became friends with Vince Guaraldi. He was always saying, “Yeah, man, Vince …,” because they’re both piano players. And so, I grew up always checking the music out, and it had a tremendous impact. I actually ended up meeting Charles Schulz, and he signed stuff for me and he talked about the characters and how he established them. So I have a personal relationship to it and to that series.
But for those who don’t have a personal relationship to it, it’s a sophisticated song to be a kid’s song, and it’s an instrumental song and it featured them dancing in that kind of way that they danced. What I loved about the dance is everybody had their own style and their own thing, and I feel like that’s a part of family life, is that you got to get to a “live and let live” type of understanding to be successful with your family life. … Of course, [Schultz has] written about it a lot of times, but he actually told me [his characters were] just based on people he knew, and it was based on, how can everybody just get along and understand how different people are different?
“Amazing Grace” by Judy Collins
Judy Collins, as a young woman, suffered from polio. She has struggled in her life, and her grandmother used to sing this song to her. And here she is in Mississippi with Fannie Lou Hamer, damn, in 1964, young white lady down in Mississippi, which is not a place to be playing around in 1964. They’re going to different towns. And, you know, Fannie Lou is getting shot at and put in jail and beat. That’s not a joke. It’s not like, even like protests today. Here’s Judy Collins and she said she heard Fannie Lou sing it.
And Fannie Lou to me is the greatest of all civil rights figures, including Martin Luther King. She’s not known today, but she is the greatest of all the figures, because she actually grew up the [youngest] of 20 kids, picking cotton. She was actually the thing you were talking about. And she founded a party. She tried to get seated at the Democratic Convention. She ran for Congress. She started Freedom Forum in the 1970s. She was teaching poor people how to take care of their kids. I mean, she did so much you can’t even list it.
Of course, today she’s forgotten. Judy Collins did not forget her. And she heard Fannie Lou sing “Amazing Grace,” and then she … I know the story, but it’s a twisted end and somebody heard her singing the song and said, “Man, let’s record that.” So she recorded it. I don’t know the exact year of her “Amazing Grace,” but I’m pretty sure it’s in the ’60s. Because it was a hit.
Now, if you take John Newton’s [version of the] song [in 1772], he was a slave-trading captain and he was in a storm that was like what’s going to kill him, and he said, “If I can get out of this storm, I promise God, I’m going to change my ways.” And he wrote that song. He eventually became the inspiration for [William] Wilberforce, who got the bill passed in England to end slavery. Now, all this stuff is true.
Now, we go to that song from John Newton to Wilberforce, and the song represents forgiveness and redemption. Then, it was handed out to soldiers as a hymn going into battle during the Civil War. Okay Let’s just talk about how serious the song is. Here’s Judy Collins, a hundred years later, with Fannie Lou Hamer, who’s the greatest of all civil rights figures and she hears Fannie Lou sing a song that Judy Collins’s grandmother sang to her, and she revived that song and makes it a hit.
Now let’s go further. Judy, herself, believes this song has an incredible healing power. This is what she said about it. Her son committed suicide when he was 33. Now remember Judy had polio, so she has struggled in her life as a kid. But she would sing that song every night to keep from drinking, because she had been an alcoholic. Now to me, that is what family is about. Not about the picket fence. Family is rough.
I always tell people about my own family. I wish I could tell y’all that it was a bunch of people playing piano and bullshitting at night. It was not like that. It was hard. My mom and daddy had a hard time. My mother had a hard time, and they stayed married. It was a miracle. They hung in there. They had all their kids. We had a lot of dysfunction. It wasn’t Leave It to Beaver, but, shit, even Leave It to Beaver wasn’t Leave It to Beaver. Now we’re finding out all these things. You know what I mean?
So Judy Collins, I think this is unbelievable, because it stretches across time, across periods. It’s about tradition. It’s about race relations. It’s about a mother and a son. It’s about death. It’s about life. It’s about the death of slavery. It’s about a continuation, and it’s a very powerful song. And it occupies a unique place in the national mythology. Everybody sings this song of all denominations, races, styles.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
By Andrea Cuttler
Source: Harper’s Bazaar