Wynton Marsalis: music can speak

Cover: Jazz Forum (April 1987)

LEONARD FEATHER: Would you classify yourself as conservative, the way Francis Davis said in his book (In the Moment)?
WYNTON MARSALIS: Oh no, I’m not conservative. The reason he said that is because I wear suits. He’s thinking more in terms of image than substance.
The first point I’d like to make is about the so-called avant-garde jazz styles. We know Ornette Coleman recorded “The Shape of Jazz to Come” in 1959. Albert Ayler died in 1970. Sun Ra’s been doing what he’s been doing since the ’50s. John Coltrane died in ’67. Do you see what I’m saying? Who’s developed their music, and what direction have they developed it in?
It seems more conservative to play that style than the style we’re playing. The word “conservative” indicates a mainstream. What Francis Davis has to understand is that when I was growing up, the decision to play jazz music couldn’t be a conservative decision because nobody was really interested in playing it. Nobody my age was.

LF: What kind of music were you listening to?
WM: What everybody else was listening to – Earth, Wind and Fire; Parliament Funkadelic.
When you come to New York, there’s a whole school of musicians who are called the avant-garde, and you don’t really have any craft requirements to join their ranks. All you have to do is be black and have an African name or something! You don’t even have to have knowledge of the style that they are playing.

LF: Do you think that style is a dead end?
WM: No, it’s just that nobody has developed it. I use certain components of that style, but writers like Davis don’t hear that, I guess. It takes a lot to develop what Trane was doing, or Ornette Coleman; it’s very difficult. But when you hear Ornette play, his music doesn’t sound unrelated to the history of the music. He sounds like Charlie Parker. He’s playing the blues.
So as far as Davis’ comment that I’m scornful of pop and rock… I’m not scornful of those styles. I’m scornful of the reduction of jazz. I’m all in favor of the string arrangements on “Hot House Flowers,” but I’m not going to compare that to Beethoven or Bartok. I’d have to be a fool to do that. I did nice arrangements but I’m sorry, that’s another thing.

LF: In the book, he says, “It would do (Marsalis) no harm to collaborate with composers whose definitions of jazz and classical music are less schematic than his own, and who do not regard the two disciplines as yin and yang – Anthony Davis, for example.” That’s an interesting point.
WM: Not to me. That philosophy hasn’t produced any great music. Classical music has great composers: Bartok, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. Stravinsky was the first one to use the backbeat in his music, and he said on many occasions, “My music is highly influenced by jazz.” Schoenberg used a lot of African rhythms.
You can’t combine jazz and classical music like that, like two forms. They’re combined already. You can take elements from one and from the other if you have the ability. What has the third stream produced? What Davis says works in theory, like something you write down and it looks good, but not in practical application. He has to understand that these things have been thought about, since the inception of jazz music – by people like Stravinsky and by jazz musicians. It’s obvious that if Duke Ellington had wanted to do that kind of stuff, he certainly had the ability, but he made the decision not to do it. The first thing is that music is an expression of an environment.
When I first came to New York in ’79, everybody said, “Nobody is playing jazz.” Then we’d come out and try to play and they’d say, “Wynton is not Bird.” No, I’m not Bird. I’d be the first to admit that. I couldn’t carry Bird’s horn. But I’m glad to be playing in the same form that could produce somebody like Bird. The fact that I’m not Miles either has been dealt with in a lot of strange ways. We’re just trying to swing. I get a lot from Miles, a lot from Clifford Brown, a lot from Trane’s band, Ornette’s band, Mingus’ band, too. The music is all interrelated.

I could have been a lot more humble when I came out, but so much stuff was so strange. I’d read interviews with people and I couldn’t believe what they were saying; it was like they didn’t care about the music.
The thing I understand now is that everything has always existed and always will; I’m not going to keep it from existing. I just have to develop as much as I can in the form – get musicians around me who are interested in playing for the duration of time and document some stuff. It’s a cliché to say it,” but music is the only thing that can really speak. If I think of something on my own and can articulate it through the music, then I’ll be able to answer some stuff like this, because I can’t answer it in words.
Davis thinks that your social conclusions can lead you into an understanding of music, and that because I wear suits, I’m conservative. He doesn’t know what I’m like. I could go onstage with my drawers on if that’s what I was inclined to do.

Another thing is, a lot of people are mad because I’m not recording for a label like Island Records. They want to be liberal – and liberalism requires noble savages, someone to be paternalistic to. The comments John Hammond made about Duke Ellington in his book struck me as odd. He said he didn’t like Ellington because he didn’t want [John’s] help. “And anyway, Count Basie was playing the real jazz music.” What Davis says seems to be an extension of that. The type of nonconformity he embraces has to conform to his conception of it. He’s the type of person who would get a beret and horn-rimmed glasses, or in the ’70s, a dashiki. Liberals, want to be associated with depravity and poverty because that gives them a sense of earthiness.

LF: What things have you said that you regret over the past five years?
WM: See, this is an important point I want you to capture. My philosophy was to come out and combat what I saw as attempts to disrespect AfroAmerican culture, be it by black people or white people. I felt it was my responsibility to come out and make certain statements – try to give them a certain shock value. So I would be cursing and stuff in interviews, and now when I read them I don’t really like it. I needed to come on strong, but with more content and less shock value. I mean I’m still mad, but you have to figure out how to put it in the right context, something that will stimulate intelligent action. Also I’m understanding more and more that the form is what speaks. The old conception of being a musician had a certain type of fraudulence to it: if people say that you can play, then you must be good.
I don’t regret what I said, but I wish I wouldn’t have been cursing; that’s not cool. I don’t even mind that I was hostile, but cursing is a waste of a word, like when I said, “I wasn’t playing shit that no one has ever heard before, but at least I was playing some … “ you know. It’s just dumb. Instead of tearing down, I should have been thinking more of constructing.

People were saying Duke Ellington and his band didn’t look like jazz musicians because they wore suits in 1933. Misconceptions have always surrounded our music because of the inconsistencies in our society. I’ve wanted music to make a political statement since I was a little boy. I have always been really disturbed [by] this country, because it seems [as if] the truth of what democracy sets up is so great, but it’s been corn, promised, – especially as it regards Afro-Americans. It affects different people different ways, and when I was young, it had a profound effect on me that caused me to have, a real hostile attitude toward this country in general. Then I realized, it’s cool to have a hostile attitude but you have to be thinking in terms of constructing. You have to wage a war in a different way. All you can do is make the statement and hope that some younger people, and musicians, dig it.
I haven’t lost any fire; I just have to deal with music. You get tired of talking, too, man.

LF: Do you intend to keep the group the way it is now?
WM: Definitely. I heard Don Braden in New York playing with Betty Carter. It’s going to take us a while to develop something. He’s 22. He’s intelligent, too; that’s always a good sign. I’m so happy with the way Marcus and Bob sound.
It really makes you feel good to hear musicians working on their thing and just constantly getting better; I’m so proud of them. And once again, when you have cats with the kind of intelligence that they have… and they have a feeling for the music.

LF: Have you heard Branford’s group?
WM: Yeah, they sounded good. I checked the album out. We talk once in a while. His son is a year old this Thursday. They’re in Brooklyn, and I’m living in Manhattan.

LF: How’s your dad?
WM: He’s teaching at Virginia Commonwealth College. They moved from New Orleans. He’s doing good, he’s happy. He only had two students in New Orleans. It’s too bad; I loved the center. This school is in Richmond, Virginia.
I’m going to be doing another jazz record. I finished one already with all standard tunes, and a live record at Blues Alley, just with a quartet. I have a classical tour planned, a solo cornet record, then another classical record, with piccolo trumpet. I have another jazz record that we’re doing, blues tunes. I’m trying to do a lot of blues and standards. The sound of the blues, the form of the blues… that’s the type of statement I was tryIng to make with my last record, dealing with the blues in this generation.
When the blues was the popular form, you didn’t have to learn it; you would know it. If you said, “I’m a musician,” that would mean you played the blues.

LF: There aren’t many young musicians, black or white, who have a feeling for the blues.
WM: It’s got nothing to do with color. And you know, racial problems in our country never change. The only way they can change is if people really try to deal with the truth. Like that philosophy that you should teach black history to black kids. We should teach history to everybody and have it be right. You can’t separate black from white and white from black. It’s like what Ralph Ellison is saying in that great book: go into the territory. The whole issue of white and black musicians is not as big as it used to be because the music industry is not based on any kind of American experience. There’s as much English influence, and what they consider music, as American. And now there’s the advent of crossover, which is one of the worst terms ever. There used to be a time when you’d do sessions, and you’d have to have black people in the rhythm section. Now they have drum machines. That’s what is being considered music now; we can’t avoid that.
When you talk about that real Jimmy Garrison, Paul Chambers sound on the instrument, that’s the biggest thing I’ve been learning. When you grow up in a generation that doesn’t really hear good sounds live all the time, it’s hard to get a good sound on your horn, and after that to get it documented on record.

The technology has benefited every music form except jazz. Classical records sound better; popular music sounds better, the sound is cleaner. But the older jazz records sound the best, like the ones Rudy Van Gelder did. Everybody was used to playing more acoustically, and everything was geared toward getting the instrumental sounds in the technicians’ ears. Now you have jazz records with rock-oriented production. The trumpet sounds bright and tinny, the bass is a real bright cello-bass type of sound, the drums have that thin, non-tone thud, no cymbal sound. The piano has that real bright sound you get on records. We could sit in front of a console with thousands of knobs, but it’s harder than you think to get an accurate representation on tape. But first you have to develop your sound, which is based on touch or approach.

I stopped playing the fluegelhorn because I wanted to develop my sound on trumpet. I’m still trying to open it up, make it warmer. When I first came out, my sound was so small; I really didn’t Like it. I used to leave the gigs depressed every night thinking about it. “Damn, if I could just get my sound together.” Didn’t know what to do for it. That’s why I’d be playing so close to the microphone, to cover my sound. The hardest thing is not moving when you play; if you move, it throws your rhythm off.
I never listen to my records unless I’m trying to critique them, and I hate listening to them. If somebody wants to tease me, all they have to do is put some of that on! That’s what my little brother Delfeayo does. I’ll be talking to him, and he’ll just say the name of some of those records. I’m embarrassed that I was even on the stage with someone as great as Art Blakey, the way I sounded. What was in my mind? I wasn’t playing the right music; I wasn’t thinking the right stuff.

LP: Why did everybody relate to it the way they did?
WM: I don’t know. Maybe it was sincerity. But it wasn’t the shit he played with Clifford Brown. He knows what a trumpet’s supposed to sound like.

LF: What do you think of Valery Ponomarev?
WM: He’s a good trumpet player. I mean, I don’t dislike him. He loved Clifford. You can’t forget Clifford, Fats, Louis Armstrong. He played so much horn! I was about ten when Louis died, so I wouldn’t have known if I’d heard him in person. I just know he had the sound of life. I get a feeling from his records of how big his sound was, and how personal, too.

LF: How did you feel about the TV show you did, “Giants of the Trumpet”?
WM: I should have prepared more for that. I was in the middle of a bunch of stuff. A lot of the script was written for me, but I changed some of it. I want to do another one of those to make up for that.
Anyway, the points I wanted to make are – first of all, it’s a misconception that we’re conservative, and that we scorn other types of music. That’s not what’s happening. Also, this philosophy that’s become prevalent now, this world-music philosophy… do you know how much you have to know about music to make a significant statement in world music? Just to think of the arrogance behind a statement like, “I play world music … “ You’re admitting that you’re giving nonspecific, second-hand treatment to different types of music; and it’s tough enough to come up with music that works philosophically and sounds good. The third thing is, we realize that everything will always go on, that nothing is invalid. People say, “You don’t think this music is valid?” The fact that it exists is proof of its validity. It’s not for me to determine.

LF: Well, I don’t know. Evil exists; does that mean that it’s valid?
WM: Evil is meaningful. The thing is, you have to educate – to inform what the meaning of each thing is. That’s where the Bible was coming from. Everything in that book relates to something. There are people who are good and people who are not good. But if you took all the not-good people out, it would change the nature of the book. If anyone wants to crawl around, roll around, and stick his tongue out, let him do it. People who want to get on records and curse, say “fuck” and “shit,” let them do that – but let people know what that is a representation of. Let the ones who do it identify themselves.
Another thing I’m thinking about right now is action. A lot of times we get hung up [on] ‘strategy; strategy is not action. Action is the only thing; that’s really where I’m coming from. I just want to document more music, to play.

LF: What do you think about what Miles has done recently?
WM: I think there’s value in it because there’s precedence for what he did in life. He’s not the first person to have made that decision. I can’t talk about him anymore; you know what I mean. I only wish that people knew his early recordings.

LF: Do you think classical music is more difficult?
WM: On the higher levels of music, there’s the spiritual and thought implication. That’s why composers are venerated. My performing Haydn’s trumpet concerto is not equal to the task of his composing it. And to stand up and play that concerto conservatively cannot be equal to Louis Armstrong standing up and, first of all, thinking of what he’s going to play.
When you go to school to study music, they don’t teach you the works of the lesser composers. You study Bach. So there’s no way you could equate the greatest of classical musicians with somebody like Duke Ellington or Monk. They created an entire world of music. The criteria are totally different, believe me.
Classical music imposes a limitation on you from the technical standpoint. Charlie Parker has imposed a limitation on people who improvise from a mental standpoint. When you go to pick up your horn, you are having a dialogue with what. Charlie Parker did. Just like European composers did with Bach, Beethoven, and Haydn.
You know, when my band broke up … none of the reviewers mention that it’s a new band, and they don’t deal with how difficult the vocabulary of this music is. I’d like to see Jeff and the other cats get more recognition for what they’re doing because they’re playing a large percentage of the music that’s going on. It’s not a backup band for a singer like Luther Vandross.
I appreciate, though, that I have the chance to come out in front of people and make a statement. A lot of musicians with ability practice and never get that chance. I just ‘hope I can live up to the responsibility.

by Leonard Feather
Source: Jazz Forum

« Previous Entry

Next Entry »