Wynton Marsalis On The Future Of New York City
Trumpeter, composer, and educator Wynton Marsalis is arguably the most famous jazz musician of our time – though few would actually argue the point. He’s won multiple Grammys and in 1997 became the first jazz composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for his piece Blood On The Fields, a work about two slaves and their difficult journey to freedom. Born into one of the great families of New Orleans jazz, Marsalis has been closely tied to New York, and particularly to Lincoln Center, since the late 80s. He is the longtime visionary force behind Jazz At Lincoln Center; and his work has included both diverse live performance projects and a deep, ongoing concern with education, especially with bringing jazz and classical music to children.
Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) is hosting its first virtual free Summer Jazz Academy now through August 1st — students of any level (ages 12 and up) can go to jazz.org for more information. (Wynton and many others will be providing free classes throughout.)
John Schaefer: New York has shut down, all the things that make New York, New York; music, arts museums, they’re all down, and we don’t know when they’re coming back. The question is, when they come back, do we just go back to New York as it was, or is there something better that we could be doing?
Wynton Marsalis: Well, there’s definitely many things we could do better. And in any way we look along the system, we can find a way to reform it and make it better. I find a lot of times when we use a word like better, the question is always what are the proportions of things? What do we really want to see?
So let’s say if we laid out an idea of what do we want to see, I would think the number one thing that we would like to see is the entire populace engaged with the arts on a level of increasing sophistication. Now, increasing sophistication doesn’t mean that you have to read Ulysses when you’re in third grade. It just means, if you take the sports world… You take a complicated game like football, a fourth grader does not understand that game, but there are people on television explaining a game to you. That game is much more trivial than any major play, opera… But you’re going to have that game explained to you from the time you’re [a child] until you’re an adult, and you still might not know the terms they use, but they’re accepting that it is sophisticated. So I would think that the first thing has to be an agreed upon desire, not lip service. No. We want people to participate in this.
John: Well, that sounds like education is a first step.
Wynton: Yes, it’s actually a second step, because if you think about it, you use wanting to play sports… And I picked sports, because they’re so pervasive and over-important.
John: Sports is a great metaphor for this. I use it all the time.
Wynton: I played all the sports when I was growing up, and I loved all of them, baseball, basketball, football, the Southern kind of sports. If you take the significance and the importance of it, it always starts with the performance of it. You went into basketball, not because it was great basketball training. It’s because you saw people play basketball.
You went into baseball. Somebody started a baseball team. Nobody ever looked at baseball on television, but you knew that there was a professional league. New Orleans, we didn’t even have a professional ball team. We had the New Orleans Pelicans, which was like a team. But… I knew who everybody on the Baltimore Orioles team was. I knew about Brooks Robinson, I knew about Frank Robinson, I knew about Jackie Robinson. There’s a lot of people named Robinson in this game.
I think that it came from your identification. You knew that they were professional athletes. It’s the most boring thing in the world to watch on television, but you understood something in the culture. Then, the education came in. Someone taught you the game. I remember, because I’m from kind of a segregated Southern town, Kenner. Our best coach was the baseball coach. And we used to always say, “Man”… His name was Skip. And we would all say, “Man, Skip went to college.” So that was like a big thing. “Skip went to college, man, Skip went to college,” and Skip wrote diagrams of plays for us. Oh man, baseball. We were like, “Damn Skip got plays.”
So I think that first, most people don’t encounter art… Their parents don’t take them to stuff, it’s not a part of their lives necessarily, the art they’re encountering are only commercial products that are actively engaged with dumbing them down, explaining to them who they are in the mythology. It’s really artist propaganda.
If we could agree on the fact that we want everybody engaged in this, and we’re going to be much more diverse in our programming without sacrificing quality. So, a point I always try to make about, you’re not going to have 24 masterpieces you can program. You’re going to have three or four. Now what happens with all those other mediocre pieces… We don’t deserve to be heard because we’re not Duke Ellington? Put us, put some diversity in those slots. Instead they say, “Oh, well, we’ve got a program a female composer, we have to program a Black composer. Oh, well there goes to quality.” No. You’re programming all kinds of music. No, let’s have integrity about what we’re doing and cull through the best, most informative pieces, things that bring the community together that are substantive… from all over the world, and let’s program in a much more inclusive, intelligent, and qualitative way. All these things are achievable, it’s not complicated.
John: Yeah. Well it seems like the hip hop community does that sort of organically already. Kids grow up and they’re hearing their peers, and seeing their peers on SoundCloud or whatever. So, it sounds like what you are talking about is that kind of an organic communal approach in forms of music that right now we’re kind of institutionalized.
Wynton: Not really, because even though they’re hearing their peers, what they’re doing is institutionalized, too, a lot of it. I have to always distinguish, not all. Okay, because that’s like their big thing. A lot of the decadence in trash is in a lot of what that is, that is an institution. So the use of the N-word… they can get by with all kinds of stuff for years, because it ties into an imagery that those who actually are in charge of actual large institutions are okay with. “Well, that’s what these people want to do.” There’s a lack of engagement with all elements of our culture. It’s kind of like you have a house and a 14 year old comes into your home that happens to be your son or daughter, and now their music is louder than anything in your house, and now they’re telling you what you’re going to do. That’s absurd. So now once you enter the world of the absurd, anything is possible.
So what is possible? Some people from a neighborhood determining the use of the N-word, all kinds of misogyny… which is a lot of material, not all of it. All of a sudden, this is in the center of your culture, and you’re being told, “Hey, this is you.” Now, a generation or two later, that is you, even though it’s only you in your mind, that’s you. Now we’re talking more about an institutional curated approach, and that implies something different for me and my friends hanging out in my boy’s house when we’re 13. We put on what was popular and we liked it. Man, we lived in Kenner, Louisiana. We’d be listening to Marvin Gaye, Stevie. That was that time when they had consciousness music.
Man, I remember once when I was 12 or 13, I brought in some Coltrane. Man I put that ‘trane on them, they were like, “Man, this one song lasts for like 17 minutes. Turn that off.” Okay.
I told somebody that and they started from the position of saying, “Well, that’s because you were trying to impose an elitist thing on …” Man, we didn’t even want to think about that kind of stuff. I was just saying, let’s check this ‘trane out. It was just because my daddy played jazz, and we had never heard of that. Even me, even though I grew up with him, I didn’t really listen to that kind of music, but the experience of them saying, “Man, turn that stuff off. We just want to listen to what we know,” didn’t turn me off of the subject of saying, “Let’s check this out,” because I was just beginning to like the music, but it made me understand how we need to broaden our understanding of what is… We didn’t have understanding of art, or fine art, or any of that. We didn’t have any philosophical arguments against it. Nobody was against John Coltrane. We just didn’t want to listen to 17 minutes of music.
So many times, we start to have all these philosophical arguments about something that is not really philosophical. So if you begin people listening to different types of music, getting them involved in things that have development sections, don’t teach a bias, go all over the world and find different styles of music and things that are interesting of which there are many things. Have people go see a flamenco group, have them see the Raw Shakespearean Company, have them see… The most transformative experience we ever had was a group of a guy… from Africa… I don’t remember where they came from. I was in the ninth grade, and we had a class called Integrated Arts at our school, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where you had to learn all of the different arts disciplines at the school
And this guy came, and man, his presentation was unbelievable. We sat and we talked, and that was that brief period of integration in the South between like 1972 and ’77 while the South was trying to figure out how to re-segregate itself. So when I was a freshman at school was almost all Black, but at the time I was a senior, it was half and half, and two or three years after I was gone to four years after I left, it was all white with maybe a 10% black student population. But when we heard this man speak, and talk about traditions, and talk about how dance is connected to music, and explain the rhythm and how they play, we had never heard anything like that.
We asked so many questions. Even by the time I was a senior. If you asked any of the students there, regardless of race, what was the most impactful class you had? They say when he came with his dancers, because we hadn’t thought of art as community, even though we’re from New Orleans and we have parades and all of that.
So kids need to have an involvement with people, with quality things, not things that are designed to be products that you’re selling something to them. That transformed our concept, and I think also for me, I had the chance to see a masterclass for Yo-Yo Ma when I was 15. I went to a camp in North Carolina. I’d never been out of New Orleans, took a train, had my bucket of fried chicken, all the kind of cliches of a Black person coming out of the South. That’s what I was dealing with.
I got there, and we went on Guilford College campus at the same time the Eastern Music Festival was with the basketball camp. So I had actually played more basketball. I mean, I was getting up on my music. We would always take bets and beat the basketball players… It was Bob Mcadoo’s basketball camp. In one week, they said some dude named Yo-Yo Ma is coming, and we were saying Yo Mama, because we said it was a guy named Yo Mama is coming to give a class. And I’ll never forget that, because I’m a trumpet player. We don’t really want to hear people who play cello, talk about string instruments and all that, especially when you’re in high school.
Man, this guy’s masterclass was so great. And we were saying, he’s almost our age, and he’s playing, and just how eloquent he was. His belief in the music, his passion. That was another experience for me that was transformative, because I’m looking, thinking, “Man, he is like a Chinese guy playing …” Because, you got to remember, I’m coming from the South. A lot of racism, race consciousness, everything is a color and a person. Seeing some Chinese dude, and he’s playing the hell out of this music, and the engagement, kids asking him questions, and him playing stuff. Everybody who left that class was like, “Man, we need to practice.”
John: So having access to this music, this art, that expanded your horizons as a kid?
Wynton: Yeah, it’s important for us to raise the aspiration of all of our citizens. It’s important, also, for us to conceive of something that is symbiotic rather than predatory. It’s hard for a predator to be symbiotic with us. If you’re a predator, and you’re winning that predatory battle, why should you help anybody?
John: So I know I started by saying, this is totally idealistic, but let me ask you a practical question, because this seems like a practical thing that you’re saying, how would …
Wynton: It’s very practical.
John: It is practical. How would we do this?
Wynton: The first thing we have to start with the desire to do it, that’s the impractical part. I’ve been all over our country… play concerts, raise money for concerts, talk with donors, talk with kids, teach in schools, public schools, the ghetto or the suburbs… I’ve had the greatest time just having the opportunity to develop an understanding and love for the arts. There has to be a will for other people, whoever others defined is, to participate, and where that will is not there, all this talking is a waste of time. So what makes it impractical is you basically talking about something somebody is not going to do. It’s like kind of like a quarter of a black dude in the South, the Scottsboro boys or something. You got to elaborate defense, but the jury is actually sitting up there smiling.
I love that film, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Roy Bean there listening to him, he’s going to hang you anyway. One guy comes up to him and tells him all of what he did, and he’s listening to it very intently. He says, “Wow, that’s fantastic son. Hang him.” I love that one moment, because when he’s listening to the guy, actually in that monologue, the guy was talking to the judge uses the N-word. So he’s going in this thing and the judge is intently listening. You think, “Wow, he might let him go.” And at the end he goes, “wow, that’s well-spoken, son. Hang him.”
So, I feel that all the ideas I could throw out, which I could throw out hundreds, man. We could do intelligent things that I think that are practical, starting with lowering the general ticket price, not a lot. Just so the age of the patrons will go from 65 to 90 to 45 to 90. Raise money in different ways, make it be more communal. Have one week of programming nine works in schools with all the institutions providing. I call it complete institutional absorption. That’s how Mr. Abreu worked with El Sistema in Venezuela. He understood that older, younger, younger, younger, like how the older brothers or sisters take care of younger brothers and sisters. So if you think of all of the colleges that we have in New York, if you have a listening audience development program around arts, that includes everybody, colleges. All the colleges we have in New York, they need it. They need an audience development. They need to understand about the arts. They have some liberal arts programs, not just liberal arts students.
They can then deal with high schools. High school can then be with middle schools. Middle schools can deal with elementary schools. It’s only a listening, or a going to a museum program. It’s a program that has some education attached to it, but the key component is you have to sit through 45 minutes of music, an hour and a half concert. You could go to sleep if you want, but you have nine weeks of programming of all the different arts. So you fell asleep on the Beethoven symphonies, you fell asleep on the Shakespearian play, but you know what, stayed up when I took you to see the Afro Latin ensemble, play, whatever, the pieces of Chico O’Farrill.
John: So the idea is a miniature El Sistema, it seems, where each level of school helps the younger level…
Wynton: And you could do that in New York with just New York arts. We’ve had so many great artists here of all kinds and everything, theater, drama, dance. Maybe you like the New York City ballet maybe you love Alvin Ailey. And we’d be integrated, and intelligent in the programming. Just that alone would transform the school in 10 years. It would take 10 years. Won’t happen in a year. So the coalition of schools and institutions is very important, and a simple organic relationship between individuals, companies, locations, and institutions. Like me and you could start a little league baseball team, and we may be two janitors. This is a true story where I’m from. The guy who made it possible for all of us in the segregated part of Kenner to play baseball and basketball was a janitor. He went around the local institutions, white, mainly the ones with more space would be white… We practiced football outside of a chemical plant. But we did, we played in there a lot. He went to them, he said, “Hey, I got some kids. I’m trying to play some ball.” We got jerseys and equipment from another place. It was like an organic relationship to the community. He put things together. Now, his name is on the gymnasium. It’s called Buddy Lawson Gym.
I was talking to Jonathan Batiste, fantastic piano player, and he’s from Lincoln Manor, like a little from there, but he’s the age of my oldest son. So I was telling him about when we started playing ball. I said, “Man, Mr. Buddy started that thing.” He said, “Buddy?” I said, “Yeah, Buddy Lawson.” He said, “Buddy Lawson was a real person?” Because, Buddy’s name is on the gym, and he only knew that. I said, “Yeah, man.” I didn’t know Buddy’s name is name is on the gym. I said, “Well, they put Buddy’s name on the gym?” He said, “Yeah.”
So, I always think about Mr. Buddy, because Buddy was just a local guy with not a lot of educated technology from the standpoint of schools and degrees, but profound education in terms of understanding of community. And he made stuff happen with organic relationships. So I think that would be important for us, and I think we should have an arts component to sciences. Sciences are artistic. You can’t learn science without art.
John: Well, there’s a movement to make that STEM thing. The science, technology [engineering, and mathematics]…
Wynton: I’m in favor of or any kind of stuff that will raise your consciousness through example, which is what the arts are. It’s like, you give me an analogy and you say, ‘it’s like’… I mean, that’s the arts. The arts started as an example. I killed fifty Buffalo. You might only killed two, but let’s draw this on the wall. Creative lying. That’s the first story. It’s all very basic and fundamental … And I have a lot of ideas, all about integration and things that we don’t really want.
John: But, of all the people I’ve spoken to for this project, your ideas … It seems crazy to me that we haven’t done them. They seem so doable. As you say, it comes down to the will.
Wynton: Yeah. My ideas come from actual experience. I mean, I’ve been out here… I was blessed to have this opportunity to be in arts class, my daddy was a teacher, to teach a lot of classes, to be in communities, of all kinds from the poorest to the wealthiest, to deal with all kinds of people all along the spectrum, and to love and respect people all along the spectrum and work with great people all along the spectrum. To be mentored by great people, intellectuals who were writers artists.
Just to know Alvin Ailey and to talk with him about what he … Because I was young at the time that they had reached a certain age, and all of the people that I knew… Gunther Schuller, John Lewis, Jerry Mulligan, Dizzy Gillespie. I understood kind of what their ambitious were, what their hopes and dreams were. And I mean they were heavyweights, and the tragedy of that for me is I got to play in a lot of people’s funerals. Like I played in Ralph’s funeral. I played in August Wilson’s funeral. I played a lot of funerals and it’s always kind of… Dizzy’s funeral. That memory is sobering, but a lot of what I feel is very practical from just things I’ve seen.
John: So the great Dizzy Gillespie was a mentor and you know you’ve been talking about mentors and access and education, and these are really important points going forward. And I’ve taken a lot of your time here….
Wynton: My time is your time, man, this is important. Audience development, but there has to be a will. There’s no will for that. My daddy used to always say something … Sorry, I don’t want to cut you off. I want to say one thing my father would always tell me. He said, “Man, you can bring, you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him thirsty.” People don’t really want that, man. We don’t have a vision of America with everybody participating, and that’s too bad…
John: Yeah, but New Yorkers are so invested in New York as being different… You would think there might be a way to get that will.
Wynton: Man, I’ve been in more segregated rooms in New York than I was in Kenner, Louisiana. Let me tell you, trust me. This city is more segregated, man, and it’s gotten worse in my 40 years here.
by John Schafer