Wynton vs Herbie. The Purist and Crossbreader Duke It Out
You can see how it was supposed to work. Take The Brilliant Young Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who has taken some time out from his precocious and dramatic ascent to denounce the commercial moves of certain of his elders, and sit him down with The Great And Distinguished Pianist Herbie Hancock, who among Marsalis’ significant elders has made the most undilutedly commercial moves, ask them a handful of questions and wait for either an interesting discussion or sparks. The two musicians have played together – in fact Hancock gave Marsalis a portentous boost early in his development – respect each other’s abilities even if they disagree mightily about matters of aesthetic choice, and both record for Columbia the gem of the ocean. So pass me a Thracian sword and a Scythian axe, honey, and meet me at the Black Rock.
We met twelve stories up a black obelisk in a republic that was about to re-elect Ronald Reagan as its president. Despite these omens, we began by assuring each other of our degree of mutual culture: the critics told the musicians that the last thing they wanted to provoke was an argument, and the musicians told the critics that an argument between them could not possibly be provoked. Then we all proceeded to behave unpredictably.
Herbie Hancock laid out, much as he had during the horn solos in his middle years with the Miles Davis quintet, and Wynton Marsalis, whose early phrasing suggested an altogether charming if equally deceptive shyness, was off on a long and continuously impressive solo.
His fulmination against the concept of “soul” stands most in need of introduction. A couple of days after the interview, however, Marsalis filled in some of the blanks at the “Bottom Line” after his band’s last set.
What bothered him about the notion of soul as conventionally applied is the racist subtext: black musicians are expected to be “soulful” and inarticulate, to perpetuate the myth of the gifted primitive whose sources of inspiration are racial and mysterious and therefore not his own, which is to say he is not a conscious artist in the deific Western sense of the term, and even if a genius one of automatically the second-rank.
What’s worse, he went on, is that some black people, writers among them, internalize the discrimination and identify rootsiness with lack of knowledge. Young musicians tell him they want to learn their music from the street, which of course is to stay precisely where the wheel of history has put you and say that you’ve begun to like it. Marsalis’ personal reversal of the stereotype is deliberate and organic and, if you consider his conquest of the classical music world, quite graphic. Likewise the way he deals with, ahem, critics. Not content to issue contemptuous one-liners in the Davis tradition, Marsalis actually remembers what his critics write about him – probably the first time anyone anywhere has actually bothered to do this – and is willing to confront them, in person or in print, with the concrete evidence of their musical illiteracy. Since (as is widely known), critics know even less about music than they do about writing and since Marsalis’ conceptual and verbal apparatuses are in excellent trim, the job is easily done. On the other hand, his habitual distaste for the press can lead to aggressive and unintentionally provocative interviews, as occasionally here.
A backstage visit to the Bottom Line illustrated another side of the media coin. As I came in, Marsalis was handing round t~e last of many glasses of champagne to a large group of friends, when someone called him a star. Wynton ducked and said, “Don’t call me that. Call me that and I’ll never get a good review again.” Which brings us to the subject of Marsalis-mania and its attendant backlash.
I remember walking up and down a ticket line for an Art Ensemble concert a couple of months back and, honest, it seemed that Wynton Marsalis was the only topic of conversation. “Cold.” “No feeling.” “A technician.” “A light-skinned Negro who plays classical music.” “Wears suits.” “Behaves.” Other voices, probably a musician’s: “I hope he’s puttin’ some money away while this is happening because, man, this can’t last.” Of course some of the hostility he’s picking up is actually directed at Columbia Records, whose faithless and hubristic way of proclaiming and then discarding jazz stars is widely disliked.
For Wynton Marsalis is not only the finest straight-ahead trumpeter to turn up in the last couple of decades, he is, in a culture that usually doesn’t care whether its jazz musicians live or die, a genuine phee-nomenon. Maybe it’s the classical connection, or maybe it’s the suits, but Think Of One reportedly sold 200,000 copies, the string album has a chance of selling half a million and going gold, and cousins of mine who never bought a jazz record in their lives have begun to ask me if he’s the real thing. And this drives the hipsters mad, insofar as that jazz audience defines itself by listening to music that no one else wants to hear.
Pop music is geared to a whole base type of sexual thing. I listen to the radio, I’ve seen the videos, women playing with themselves. It’s a low-level realization of sex.”
I like Marsalis’ two new albums better than most of my friends and neighbors. I’m not wild about the string charts on “Hot House Flowers”, although they are more imaginative than they have to be to satisfy the demands of genre – and I appreciate Wynton’s tact in not taking all the solos for himself. But what thrills me on the record are three or four of the trumpet solos. Those old fashioned chord changes _take off some of the chill that the recording process seems to impart to Marsalis’ work. One thing I’ve always admired in his work is the instinctive flex of note against note in is phrasing, the uncoiling of his solos in compelling patterns of tension and release that get your attention and hold it for the distance even if the solo is short on organization after its first couple of choruses.
But on the new album, most spectacularly on “When You Wish Upon A Star” but even more convincingly on “I’m Confessin’,” there is something more, the kind of form that can only evolve organically, and at a significant spiritual depth. It’s true that his work on this album still leans on late-50s Miles Davis – but no more, say, than Clifford Brown does on Fats Navarro. So there. As for the classical album, I know that people have expressed their disappointment at the too-miscellaneous nature of the repertoire, but why has no one pointed out how incredibly Marsalis plays on the date? It’s way beyond his work on the, yes, more substantial album with the Haydn concerto.
“Music is manifest in many forms. As long as they all have purpose, they shouldn’t be pitted against each other. That’s stupid. It’s like apples and oranges.”
At the Village Vanguard I overheard him telling Terence Blanchard about an orchestral player in London who gave him a lesson that cleaned up his attack, and maybe the record was cut after the lesson. In any event, Wynton Marsalis has managed to transform himself from a precociously gifted interpreter into what sounds to me suspiciously like a great one.
Live, at the Bottom Line and two nights later at the Vanguard, he was thrilling but inconsistent. The most impressive statement, really, was his band. With Branford Marsalis, who occasionally plays better than his brother, and Kenny Kirkland, who occasionally plays better than either of them, it has three superlative soloists; while the seventeen-year-old bassist Charnett Moffett tends to overplay he is growing into the part, and Jeff Watts is an inspiring drummer. Together they are damn near impeccable, and although it’s not hard for an experienced listener to play a game of trace-the-influence, their idiom seems freshly reinvented.
Conservatism is a dead duck but neoclassicism is a genuine and powerful redeployment of the resources of a tradition, at times as necessary to that tradition’s life as any other of its possible gestures, as bracing and central to its organic life as the boldest experimentation. There are riper bands in the music, but the Marsalis quintet might turn out to be an enormous inspiration to young musicians corning up who might want to play jazz but are puzzled and finally put off by both the commercializers and an only semi-comprehensible avant-garde. If so, it could be one of the best things to have happened to the music in years.
I met with Marsalis again after the Vanguard date, to touch base and chat off the record. I found him working through some new tunes for the band, teaching himself drums, eating stew for breakfast and studying the score of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.
We discussed a wide range of music – somewhere in the course of which Bartok was referred to as “a long skinny cat with a big head on top and enough dick on him for ten miles of Johnson,” probably the first time the composer has been called this outside of his native Hungary – and one of the things I discovered was the range and retentiveness of his memory.
I mentioned Shostakovich and he began singing the trumpet part of the piano and trumpet concerto; I recalled a favorite Ornette Coleman solo (on “Peace”) and he proceeded to sing that, with all its asymmetrical phrasing and bent pitches intact.
Maybe this facility provides a clue to his intolerance of the deficiencies of his neighbor musicians – he sees so little reason to have any. Mozart had a similar incomprehension, and cruelty, possibly for the same reason.
Marsalis relented somewhat from his position in the interview on technique, conceding that concept was more important, though of course it was best to have both. In everything he said about music, however, there was the overwhelming urge to quantify, to substantiate every statement technically, and I saw in this the action of a powerful young mind extending its range and confirming its grasp of its subject. Brilliant young men often build their model of the universe by absolutizing their opinions and excluding everything that might contradict them.
Its a way of constructing a necessary basis for creative work, and it works, but it tends to exclude the inconvenient and unquantifiable, at least until later, which is to say that the edifice, however impressive, is seldom itself absolute. Marsalis, as Dostoevsky remarked of someone who played another ax, is young, abstract, and therefore cruel. But when not talking about musicians whose work he dislikes, he’s a different guy – funny, modest, sensitive, perceptive. I mentioned in passing that he was playing less and less like other people. “Yeah, I’m just beginning to pick the stuff out, you know?” he answered, in the mode that’s natural to him when he’s not defending himself from aliens. His gift is so-large there’s no telling what it’ll look like when he finishes unwrapping it.
Because of a consuming lack of interest in his funk records, I went to sleep on Herbie Hancock for a number of years, but then in 1981 I caught him live with V.S.O.P. II – and was suddenly reminded what an incredibly brilliant pianist he was. Y’see, in my part of the forest the local mythology runs that when you make compromises the size of Hancock’s, your music goes all to hell, and this guy onstage was a damn genius.
With McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock dominated mainstream jazz piano in the 60s, and if you think his influence has abated in the interim, go listen to Kenny Kirkland. Hancock’s fleetness of touch and harmonic imagination are still unsurpassed in the idiom, and his accompaniments – sudden, two handed commentaries that frame a horn soloist’s statements like an instantaneous orchestration – are so unusual no one has picked up on them. And unlike most of the others who were brushed by Miles’ dark wing Hancock did not, after Bitches Brew, go on to some sort of hyphenated amalgam along the lines of jazz-rock, but, after the break-up of an intriguing sextet, to a personal version of straight funk. Shocking, non?
Once Hancock got out of straight jazz rhythms, he evinced an at least partly unexpected rhythmic genius. The asymmetrical riffs for Rhodes that turn up on Freddie Hubbard’s Straight Life and in the even more unusual “Ostinato” on the Mwandishi album – Hancock’s sextet seemed on the verge of conflating Jazz-rock and the avant-garde in a way that even Miles never managed – fell by the wayside when the funk was engaged.
But the density of interlocking rhythmic patterns that showed up on Headhunter‘s “Sly” and even more definitively on Thrust‘s “Actual Proof” and “Spank-a-Lee,” on which the interaction between Hancock, bassist Paul Jackson and drummer Mike Clark seems almost unplayably complex, certainly defused the charge that Hancock had sold out to a technically undemanding medium. Yet Hancock has been least inconvenienced by the backbeats and brick-wall bar-lines of funk and rock rhythms: his two-handed riffing could hardly be more poly-rhythmic, and as a soloist he seems able to phrase as freely and imaginatively as he chooses, his rhythmic imagination liberating him from the two and four bar cliches into long and unpredictable paragraphs of improvisation, and his harmonic invention likewise unimpaired by the relentless insistence of basic blues.
The black tie crowd at the Grammies leapt to their feet and cheered, so did the mob I joined at the Ritz, everybody on the street digs it, it’s both hi-tech and low-Bronx and even my Jazz-snob friends allow that when they first heard it on the radio, “Rockit” was an obviously great novelty hit, but I dunno dehumanization just doesn’t make me wanna dance. Maybe if I were limber enough to break I’d worry less, since break dancing seems to me an invention of wit and genius, and a demonstration, in the time-honored tradition of black music (cf. Stompin’ The Blues), that a world that flips you upside down, hits you upside the head, throws you to the ground and spins you, and does its damnedest to drain every atom of life and feeling out of you and turn you into pure machine, a robot, so constricted and compressed by everything the city represents that you can only move in severely circumscribed and inhumanly straight lines, that a world like this can be dealt with by artmagic, can be laughed at and dominated by the superior powers of grace and invention inside you, that you can deal its poison back to it as joy-juice. But the machine beat to which it is most often danced seems to me to represent pure Enemy, and the virtuoso mixes that D. St. and others come up with at the boards sound like a portrait of a shoddily mechanized hell.
I didn’t know what I expected from Herbie Hancock at the interview, perhaps an obligatory, pro forma defense of music he didn’t really believe in, but that’s not what the man is about. His disagreement with Marsalis is the one about the water in the bottle: Marsalis keeps maintaining that the water in the bottle is conditioned by the bottle, that it is tall or squat, green or blue, and Hancock keeps on saying that water is always water, music always music, essence always essence. It can be a facile point of view or a profound one. My first positive !ake on recent Herbie Hancock, after listening to him talk, seeing what he’s like, was that for some reason – his inextricable musicianship, or Piscean flexibility, or maybe all that nam yoho renge kyo – he’s artistically immune to the potentially negative aspects of his choices.
Marsalis couldn’t function that way, ninety-nine out of a hundred musicians couldn’t function that way (though hundreds have tried), but Herbie Hancock can and does. When I saw the band live I left with my head full of unwanted chugachugachugachug, the memory of an imaginative solo on “Karabali” and of Hancock playing to the audience, shadowboxing in the spotlight; stage-grinning and indulging in other antics that can get you excommunicated from the sacred body of jazz, yet he hasn’t been and won’t be.
The new album, Sound System, extends the language of Future Shock, and probably its success, and draws some obviously fascinating parallels between boombox hiphop and its African ancestors, and most of it’s still not for me. Meeting up with Herbie Hancock has been a privilege that has not altered my tastes – but it has changed my mind.
“When I was at Juilliard and saw a cat who could play, I’d say, ‘Yeah, they have technique, but no soul.’ But I came to understand that soul and emotion are part of technique.”
MUSICIAN: We don’t want to get you guys into an argument.
HERBIE: Oh we won’t, we never argue.
WYNTON: I would never argue with Herbie.
MUSICIAN: I’ll tell what we want to start with. Is there a necessity for any young player, no matter how brilliant he is, to work his way through a tradition?
WYNTON: That’s a hard question to answer. When we deal with anything that’s European, the definitions are clear cut. But with our stuff it all comes from blues so “it’s all the same.” So that’ll imply that if I write an arrangement then my arrangement is on the same level as Duke Ellington. But to me it’s not the same. So what I’m trying to determine is this terminology. What is rock ‘n’ roll? What does jazz mean, or R&B? Used to be R&B was just somebody who was black, in pop music they were white. Now we know the whole development of American music is so steeped in racist tradition that it defines what we’re talking about.
MUSICIAN: Well, there’s the Berklee School of Music approach, where you learn technique. And some people would say well, as long as it’s coming from the heart, it doesn’t matter about technique.
WYNTON: That is the biggest crock of bullshit in the history of music, that stuff about coming from the heart. If you are trying to create art the first thing is to look around and find out what’s meaningful to you. Art tries to make life meaningful, so automatically that implies a certain amount of emotion. Anybody can say “I have emotion.” I mean, a thousand trumpet players had soul and emotion when they picked up trumpets. But they weren’t all Louis Armstrong. Why?
HERBIE: He was a better human being
WYNTON: Because Louis Armstrong’s technique was better.
MUSICIAN: Is that the only thing though?
WYNTON: Who’s to say that his soul way greater than anybody else’s? How can you measure soul? Hava any women left him, did he eat some chicken on saturday night? That’s a whole social viewpoint of what payin’ dues is. So Duke Ellington shouldn’t have been great because by definition of dues he didn’t really go through as much as Louis Armstrong, so naturally his piano playing didn’t have the same level of soul or Herbie wasn’t soulful either. Because when he was coming up, black people didn’t have to eat out of frying pans on Friday nights.
MUSICIAN: Well, one of the ways of judging soulfulness, as you say, is suffering. But it’s not the only way.
WYNTON: I read a book where a cat [James Lincoln Collier] said that “In 1920-something we notice that Louis Armstrong’s playing took on a deeper depth of emotion. Maybe that’s because his mother died.” What brings about soulfulness is realization. That’s all. You can realize it and be the richest man in the world. You can be someone living in the heart of Harlem in the most deprived situation with no soul at all. But the social scientists … oh, soul. That’s all they can hear, you know. Soul is part of technique. Emotion is part of technique. Music is a craft, man.
HERBIE: External environment brings fortune or misfortune. Both of them are means to grow. And that’s what soul is about; the growth or, as Wynton said, realization. To realize how to take that experience and to find the depth of that experience in your life. If you’re able to do that then everything becomes fortune.
WYNTON: The thing that makes me most disgusted is that a lot of guys who write about the music don’t understand the musicians. People have the feeling that jazz is an expression of depression. What about Louis Armstrong? To me, his thing 1s an expression of joy. A celebration of the human condition.
HERBIE: Or the other concept is somebody who, out of his ignorance and stupidity, dances and slaps his sides. No concept of intelligence, focus, concentration…and the study, the concern. Even the self doubt and conflict that goes into the art of playing jazz.
Look. I didn’t start off playing jazz. I hated jazz when I first heard it. It sounded like noise to me. I was studying classical music, and at the same time, going to an all-black grammar school. I heard groups like the Ravens. But I really didn’t have many R&B records. I was like a little nerd in school.
WYNTON: Well, I don’t know about that.
HERBIE: Jazz finally made an impression on me when I saw a guy who was my age improvising. I thought that would be impossible for somebody my age, thirteen or fourteen, to_ be able to create some music out of his head. I was a classical player, so I had to learn jazz the way any classical player would. When it came to learning what one feels and hears as soulful nuances in the music I actually had to learn that technically.
WYNTON: That’s interesting, because I did it the opposite way. When you put out Headhunters and Thrust, Branford and I listened to those albums, but we didn’t think it was jazz. My daddy would play jazz, but I was like, hey man, I don’t want to hear this shit. I grew up in New Orleans, Kenner, Louisiana, actually a country town. All I ever did was play “When The Saints” and stuff. I couldn’t really play. I had no technique. So when I came to high school everybody else could play the trumpet and I was the saddest one. The first record I heard was Giant Steps. My daddy had all those records, but I never would listen to them. Why listen to jazz, man?
HERBIE: None of your friends were playing it?
WYNTON: None of the people I knew. You couldn’t get no women playing jazz! Nobody had a philosophy about what life was supposed to be about. We didn’t have a continuum. I never listened to Miles or Herbie. I didn’t even know you played with Miles, until I was sixteen. Then when I started listening to jazz, I would only listen to a certain type. Only bebop. So I can relate to starting from a fan type approach. But when you play music, you’re going to play the way you are.
MUSICIAN: What about your statement at the Grammies?
WYNTON: It was very obvious what I was saying.
HERBIE: I have to congratulate you on that. You implied that there was good music and music that was in bad taste. Everybody wondered, “What music is he referring to?”
WYNTON: Listen, the only statement I made was that we’re trying to elevate pop music to the level of art. Not just in music. Pop culture. Pop anything. I have nothing against pop music. I listen to the radio. I’m not saying people should listen to Jazz or buy jazz records, or even know the music. Just understand What the music was about because the purpose and the function of pop music is totally different from jazz.
HERBIE: A few people that have interviewed me have asked me if the statement that he made was directed against what I Was doing. That never dawned on me.
WYNTON: I wasn’t even thinking about that.
MUSICIAN: A lot of people do think that.
WYNTON: People think I’m trying to say jazz is greater than pop music. I don’t have to say that, that’s obvious. But I don’t even think about it that way. The two musics say totally different things. Jazz is not pop music, that’s all. Not that it’s greater …. I didn’t mean it was obvious.
HERBIE: That’s your opinion, which is fine. Now you’re making a statement of fact.
MUSICIAN: So is classical music “greater” than jazz?
WYNTON: Hell no, classical music is a European idiom. America has a new cultural identity. And the ultimate achievement for any culture is the creation of an art form. Now the basic element of our art form is the blues, because an art form makes life meaningful. Incidentally, I would like to say – and I hope you will print this – classical music is not white music. When Beethoven was writing music he wasn’t thinking white or black. Those terms became necessary in America when they had to take white artists and make them number one because they couldn’t accept black artists. We constantly have historical re-definitions to take the artistic contributions out of the hands of people who were designated black. The root of the colloquial stuff throughout the whole world now comes out of the U.S. Negro’s lifestyle.
MUSICIAN: Is there something in some of the root forms of this music which has a certain inner strength?
WYNTON: People don’t know what I’m doing basically, because tbey don’t understand music. All they’re doing is reacting to what they think it remotely sounds like. We don’t have to go back to the 60s. Beethoven didn’t have to go back to Haydn. We never hear that. What they say is well, Beethoven is an extension of Haydn. Everybody has to do that – Stravinsky, Bartok. But in European music people have a cultural continuum. And our music is just, “Well, what is the next new Negro gonna think up out of the blue sky that’s gonna be innovative.” Ornette Coleman sounds like Bird, he was playing rhythm changes on “The Shape Of Jaz; To Come.” Have I ever read that by anybody reviewing those albums? No. Why? Because they don’t know what rhythm changes sound like. So they’re gonna write a review on what I’m doing and I’m supposed to say “that’s cool.”
HERBIE: When you first asked the question I heard it as sensitively as he heard it. ‘Cause I said to myself, he’s saying Wynton is going back to play the 60s-style of music in 1984.
MUSICIAN: We all agreed apparently at one point that jazz was more meaningful, in some sense, than pop music. Since you work in the two idioms, what do you feel is different?
HERBIE: Wait a minute. I don’t agree. Let me address myself to that. When we have life, we have music. Music can be manifest in many different forms, and as long as they all have purpose they shouldn’t be pitted against each other as one being more important than the other. That’s stupid. That’s like apples and oranges.
MUSICIAN: All right, you’re doing both. What’s the difference in the quality of the experience with each kind of music?
HERBIE: Let me tell you how I started getting my feet wet with pop music. When I got into high school and started getting into jazz, I didn’t want to hear anything else but classical music and jazz. No R&B, nothing, until I heard James Brown’s “Poppa’s Got A Brand New Bag.” Later on, I heard “Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin,” it just went to my core. I didn’t know what he was doing, I mean, I heard the chorus but, how could he think of that. I was afraid that that was something I couldn’t do. And here I am, I call myself a musician. It bothered me. Then at a certain point I decided to try my hand at funk, when I did Headhunters. I was not trying to make a jazz record. And it came out sounding different from anything I could think of at the time. But I still wasn’t satisfied because in the back of my head I wanted to make a funk record.
I had gotten to the point where I was so directed toward always playing something different that I was ignoring the validity of playing something that was familiar. Visually I symbolize it as: There’s the space from the earth up to somewhere in the sky, then I was going from the sky up to somewhere further up in the sky. And this other thing from the earth up to the sky I was kind of ignoring. And so one thing about pop music that I’ve discovered is that playing something that’s familiar or playing the same solo you played before has no negative connotations whatsoever. What’s negative is if it doesn’t sound, each time, like it’s the first time you played it. Now that’s really difficult for me to do. Take Wah Wah Watson, for example. He’s not a solo player, he’s a rhythm player. But he used to play a little solo on one tune and it would be the same solo every night. And every night he would get a bigger hand than I would. And every night it was the same notes but it sounded fresh. So my lesson was to try to learn to play something without change, and have it sound fresh and meaningful.
WYNTON: I look at music different from Herbie. I played in a funk band. I played the same horn parts every night all through high school. We played real funk tunes like “Parliament Funkadelic,” authentic funk. It wasn’t this junk they’re trying to do now to get their music played on white radio stations. Now, to play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto is a lot different from playing “Give Up The Funk,” or “Mothership Connection.” I dig “Mothership Connection,” but to me what pop music is trying to do is totally different. It’s really geared to a whole base type of sexual thing. I listen to the radio. I know tunes that they have out now: here’s people squirming on the ground, fingering themselves. Its low-level realizations of sex. Now to me, music to stimulate you is the music that has all the root in the world in it, but is trying to elevate that, to elevate the people to a certain level rather than go down.
HERBIE: It’s not like that Wynton. If it were, it would just stay the same. Why would the music change?
WYNTON: Because they get new computer;. You tell me, what’s the newest thing out that you ve heard?
HERBIE: Okay Prince, let’s take that.
WYNTON: What is the tune “Purple Rain”? Part of it is like a little blues. I’ve got the record, I listen to it all the time. The guitar solo is a rehash of some white rock.
MUSICIAN: It’s a rehash of Hendrix too.
WYNTON: Well, I’m not gonna put that on his head because he can do stuff Hendrix never thought of doing which a lot of people want to overlook just to cut him down and say he sounds like Hendrix. You can print that if you talk about him. But there’s no way you can get new in that type of music because the message will always be the same.
HERBIE: There are songs that have a lot of musical episodes. I saw Rick Springfield’s video. I don’t care if he’s got a bad reputation. I heard some harmonic things that were really nice.
WYNTON: You can get the newest synthesizers, but that music’ll only go to a certain level. I’m not saying that’s negative.
MUSICIAN: In a sense you’re describing what Herbie’s doing.
WYNTON: He knows what he’s doing, right? (laughs)
HERBIE: It’s not true because I know. You mention drum machines. There are examples of pop music today using drum machines specifically in a very automated way. Automation doesn’t imply sex to me at all. It’s the opposite of sex.
WYNTON: But that’s not what we’re talking about.
HERBIE: You said the music is about one thing, and it’s about sex. And I’m saying it’s not just about that.
WYNTON: We don’t even want to waste our time discussing that because we know that that’s what it’s about.
HERBIE: If you name specific things I would certainly agree with you. If you say dancing is about sex I would agree with you too. But I think you’re using some false ammunition.
MUSICIAN: In most of the world’s traditions sex is both connected with the highest creative aspects and then can be taken to the lowest basic…
WYNTON: That’s what I’m saying. What direction you want to go with it and which level it’s marketed on. When I see stuff like videos with women looking like tigers roaming through the jungle, you know, women playing with themselves, which is cool man, but to me that’s the high school point of view. The problem I have is when people look at that and start using terms like “new video art with such daring concepts.”
A lot of stuff in our society is racially oriented, too. I read a quote from Herbie. He said, “I heard that people from MTV were racist oriented and I didn’t want to take any chances, so when I did my video I made sure they didn’t focus on me and that some of the robots’ faces were white.” That somebody like him would have to make a statement like that…
MUISICIAN: That is a heavy statement.
WYNTON: … But what he’s saying is true. Maybe they wouldn’t have played his video. And what pisses me off is the arrogance of people whose whole thing is just a blatant imitation of the negroidal tradition. Blatant. And even the major exponents of this type of music have said that themselves. And they’ll have the arrogance and the audacity to say well, we just gonna play white people’s videos. How am I supposed to relate to that?
MUSICIAN: On the other hand, “Rockit” won five video awards. It partly broke open MTV; there are now more black acts on. And now, kids in the heartland who have never heard black music are beginning to hear it. It’s probably because of what you did.
WYNTON: They’re still not hearing it. Black music is being broken down. It’s no longer black music. This is not a discussion or argument. You get the Parliament records and the EW&F and the James Brown, the Marvin Gaye, and you listen. What I hear now is just obvious rock ‘n’ roll elements like Led Zeppelin. If people want to do that, fine. If they want to sell more records, great. What I’m saying is, that’s reaffirmation of prejudice to me. If bending over is what’s happening I’m going to bend over.
MUSICIAN: Is there another side? What do you think, Herb?
HERBIE: Well, Wynton is not an exponent of the idea that blending of musical cultures is a good thing.
WYNTON: … Because It’s an imitation of the root. It loses roots because It’s not a blending. It’s like having sex with your daughter.
HERBIE: Okay, let me say this because this is something that I know. Up until recently a black artist, even if he felt rock ‘n’ roll like Mick Jagger, couldn’t make a rock ‘n’ roll record. Because the media actually has set up these compartments that the racists fit things into. You can hear elements of rock from black artists…
WYNTON: You don’t just hear elements. What I hear in them is blatant, to the point of cynicism…
“The only thing that disgusts me is that I’ve seen Herbie’s thing called ‘new electronic jazz.’ I mean, it’s a pop tune. Our music is going to continue to be misunderstood.”
HERBIE: Okay, okay. I’m not disagreeing. I know that there have been black artists that have wanted to do different kinds of music than what the R&B stations would play. That to me Is more important, the fact that we can’t do what we want to.
WYNTON: I’m agreeing with you, everybody should do what they want to do. But what’s happening is, our vibe is being lost. I see that in movies. I see it on television. What you have now is white guys standing up imitating black guys, and black guys sitting back and looking at an imitation of us saying, “Ohhh” … with awe in their faces. You have black children growing up now with jerry curls trying to wear dresses, thinking about playing music that doesn’t sound like our culture.
MUSICIAN: Does Herbie “hear” what he’s doing?
WYNTON: Herbie hears what Herbie plays. But a lot of that music Herbie is not writing. And when Herbie is playing he’s gonna make the stuff sound like Herbie playin’ it.
HERBIE: Let me explain something about “Rockit.” If you are a black artist doing some forms of pop music, which “Rockit” is, you have to get on black radio and become a hit. And if you get in the top twenty in black radio, or urban contemporary they call it now (laughter) anyway, if it’s considered crossover material then at that point the record company will try to get the rock stations to play it. And so I said to myself, “How can I get this record exposed as quickly to the white kids as to the black kids?” So the video was a means to an end.
MUSICIAN: Did it bother you, having to make that decision.
HERBIE: I didn’t care about being in the video. I don’t care about being on the album cover of my record. It’s not important to me. Why should I have to be in my own video? (Wynton winces)
MUSICIAN: But why shouldn’t you? I mean, it’s your video.
HERBIE: That was not an issue with me. I’m not on the cover of most of my records. What I care about, is whether the cover looks good or not. I wanted the video to be good. That’s the first thing. The second thing I said, now how am I gonna get on there, because I want to get my record heard by these kids.
MUSICIAN: Can’t you see this strategy is a way of breaking something in?
WYNTON: If you cheese enough they’ll make you president.
HERBIE: I wasn’t cheesing. I was trying to get heard.
MUSICIAN: He broke open the medium, partially. *WYNTON: Michael Jackson broke the medium open. Let’s get that straight. What’s amazing to me is that (Herbie’s) thing was used by all the cats that were doing break dancing.
HERBIE: There were three things against it. First of all, no vocals. Secondly, that kind of music wasn’t even getting any airplay at that time. Third thing is my name.
WYNTON: Right. But the only thing that I hate, the only thing that disgusts me about that is I’ve seen Herbie’s thing on Solid Gold as “New Electronic” type of jazz or something. I mean, it’s a pop tune, man. Our whole music is just going to continue to be misunderstood. You have to understand that people who hear about me, they don’t listen to the music I play. If I have girlfriends they don’t listen to what I’m playing. They don’t care. They only know Wynton as an image. Or Wynton, he’s on the Grammies, he has a suit on. So their whole thing is media oriented. I’m not around a lot of people who listen to jazz or classical music, forget that! I did a concert and people gave me a standing ovation before I walked onto the stage. But in the middle of the first piece they were like (nods off) … so that lets you know right there what’s happening.
MUSICIAN: Is this a black audience?
WYNTON: Black people. Yeah, this is a media thing, you understand. I’m talking to people who are in the street.
HERBIE: I understand what you’re talking about, about black artists with jerry curls and now with the long hair. And I don’t mean the Rastas, either …
WYNTON: Well, check it out. Even deeper than that. Herbie, is when I see brothers and sisters on the TV. I see black athletes, straining to conform to a type of personality that will allow them to get some more endorsements. What disturbs me is it’s the best people. When somebody is good, they don’t have to do that. I was so happy when Stevie’s album came out. I said damn, finally we got a groove and not somebody just trying to crossover into some rock ‘n’ roll.
HERBIE: I understand what you mean about a certain type of groove, like this is the real R&B, and so forth. But I can’t agree that there’s only one way we’re supposed to be playing. I have faith in the strength of the black contribution to music, and that strength is always going back to the groove anyway. After a while certain things get weeded out. And the music begins to evolve again.
WYNTON: Now check out what I’m saying … *HERBIE: No, cause you’ve talked a lot …
WYNTON: Okay, I’m sorry. I’m sorry man.
HERBIE: (laughter) Give me a break! I’ve never been on an interview with you, so I didn’t know how it was. Wowwww! I understand what you’re saying, but I have faith that whatever’s happening now is not a waste of time. It’s a part of growth. It may be a transition, but transition is part of growth too. And it doesn’t bother me one bit that you hear more rock ‘n’ roll in black players, unless it’s just not good. The idea of doing rock ‘n’ roll that comes out of Led Zeppelin doesn’t bother me. I understand it is third hand information that came from black people to begin with, but if a guy likes it, play it. When Tony Williams and I first left Miles we did two different things. My orientation, was from a funk thing. What Tony responded to was rock ‘n’ roll. That’s why his sound had more of a rock influence than Headhunters. I can’t say that’s negative.
WYNTON: I agree with what Herb has said. If somebody wants to go out with a dress on, a skirt, panties … that’s their business. But what happens is not that one or two people do that. Everybody has to do that. It doesn’t bother me that (black) comedians can be in film, I think that’s great. And the films are funny. What bothers me is that only comedians can be in films.
I think since the 60s with people on TV always cursing white people but not presenting any intellectual viewpoint, that any black person who tries to exhibit any kind of intellect is considered as trying not to be black. We have allowed social scientists to redefine what type of people we are. I play some European to pay respect to a great, great music which had nothing to do with racial situations. Beethoven wasn’t thinking about the social conditions in America when he wrote something, he was thinking about why did he have to get off the street for the princes. So his music has the same type of freedom and struggle for abolition of the class system, as Louis Armstrong’s music is a celebration of that abolition. See, Beethoven’s music has that struggle in it. Louis Armstrong is the resolution of that. This gigantic cultural achievement is just going to be redefined, unless I take an active part in saying what I think is correct.
HERBIE: Now that you’ve voiced all… not all, but many of your objections, what do you do about it? How do we make it better. If all we do is complain…
WYNTON: We’re not complaining. We’re providing people with information.
HERBIE: Well, there’s two ways to provide people with information. One way is to point your finger at them or intimidate them by pulling at their collars. But many times what that does is it makes the person feel uncomfortable, and then if he starts to get on the defensive you’ve lost more ground than you’ve gained. So I’ve found from my own life that I can get more accomplished by getting a person inspired to do something. Inspiration, not intimidation.
WYNTON: ‘Cept intimidation is good, too.
HERBIE: This is where you and I differ. I haven’t said much before because I’m not like that.
MUSICIAN: You’ve really defined your point of view in terms of this interview, and Herbie hasn’t yet.
WYNTON: I was talking too much. Sorry. I was being uncool.
HERBIE: No, no, no. It was cool. It’s all right. I’ll come back another day when you’re not here … (general laughter)
WYNTON: The problem is in the educational system. I’ve had conversations with people about you. Musicians have no idea who you are. They have no under-standing or respect for being able to play. It’s just like they think they’re you or something. The first question I go everywhere is, “How do you get over? How did you get your break with Herbie? I said, when I was with Herbie and them I was just fortunate to be on the bandstand. Just to be learning from Herbie … no seriously man, I’m not saying it to kiss your ass. You know it’s true.
“I was ignoring the validity of the familiar. I was going from the sky to somewhere further up in the sky. And this other thing, from the earth to the sky, I was ignoring.”
HERBIE: That’s what I feel about him. He came in with one trumpet, nineteen years old playing with me, Ron and Tony.
WYNTON: I was scared.
HERBIE: When I heard him play, then I had to call up Ron and Tony and say…
WYNTON: Hey, this mother is sad (laughter).
HERBIE: Look, it’s gonna work. What he did was so phenomenal. You remember that tour. That tour was bad.
WYNTON: I learned so much on that tour, man.
HERBIE: So did I man. You taught me a lot. You made me play. Plus you made me get some new clothes (laughter).
WYNTON: I can get publicity until I’m a hundred. That’s not gonna make me be on the level with cats like Miles or Clifford, or know the stuff that you know. Even “Rockit” has elements that I can relate to. But in general you made funk cats musicians. And that has been overlooked.
MUSICIAN: In the end, were the compromises involved in doing the video worth it?
HERBIE: I had a choice. And I’m proud of the choice_ that I made. But as a result what happened? Between Michael Jackson’s video and my video, the impact opened the thing up. Now I’m sure Michael can take more credit for that. Anyway if it was true that MTV was racist…
WYNTON: It was true. You don’t have to say “if.”
HERBIE: I have never claimed that to be true.
WYNTON: I’ll say it.
HERBIE: I’ve only claimed that this is what I observe. But now you see plenty of videos with black artists. It doesn’t even look like there’s any difference anymore. Even tough I wasn’t even looking for that as a solution, if this additional thing was accomplished, I feel really good about that. And I feel good about getting five awards on MTV … They were trying to copy something before. Now they realize they have something that’s more powerful than what they were trying to copy.
WYNTON: The sound of Michael Jackson’s music, the sound of Prince’s music, the sound of “Rockit” – that sound is not black. People are consciously trying to be crossovers. I’ve read interviews where people say, “We take this type of music and we try to get this type of sound to appeal to this type of market to sell these many records.”
MUSICIAN: Do you think Michael did that?
WYNTON: Of course he did. But the thing that separates Michael Jackson from all other pop artists is the level of sincerity in his music.
MUSICIAN: You’re saying he’s got sincerity, and yet at the same time he contoured his sound?
WYNTON: He’s a special person. He’s not contrived. What I don’t understand is why he did that cut with Mick Jagger.
HERBIE: I’ll tell ya, I just did a record with Mick Jagger and man, Mick Jagger’s bad.
WYNTON: Yeah, well …
HERBIE: I didn’t know that. And you don’t know that either.
WYNTON: I’m not doubting that he’s bad …
HERBIE: Wynton, you don’t know that.
WYNTON: I’m not doubting that he’s bad, Herbie. Check it out. But a lot of pop music is geared towards children. It’s not something that I can really have a serious discussion about.
HERBIE: You’re right. It’s geared toward teens and the pre-teens. So what it’s doing is stimulating my own youth and allowing me to express my own youth. Because it’s not like I’m doing my daughter’s music. This is my music. And we both happen to like it because we both feel that youthful element. People tell me I look younger now than I did five years ago. And I do … except in the morning (laughs). I would venture to say that a lot of it has to do with the music I’m playing now. Electric music, you know. I’m finding a door that hasn’t been opened. That’s exciting me, and I’m given the opportunity to use some elements from the “farthest out” jazz stuff in this music, and have it be unique.
MUSICIAN: How do you get human feeling in automated computerized music like that?
HERBIE: First we create the music. Afterwards I sit back and listen, and sometimes I discover things that I wasn’t really thinking about when I was doing them. I hear the elements that have warmth. Sometimes it’s a particular synthesizer sound. But it could be how it’s played.
WYNTON: I’m coming off negative and that’s not what I’m intending… The purpose of pop music is to sell records that appeal to people on a level that they want to accept it on. If you put out a record and it doesn’t sell, then your next response is why didn’t the record sell? let’s try to do this or that to make the record sell.
MUSICIAN: That’s terribly condescending towards pop…
HERBIE: Why are we asking him about pop music. What does he know about pop music?
WYNTON: I know a lot about pop music.
HERBIE: No, you don’t.
WYNTON: I played in pop…
HERBIE: Wynton, you don’t. You think you know.
WYNTON: I don’t want to mess with you.
HERBIE: The very statement that you just made makes it obvious that you don’t know.
WYNTON: That’s cool. I’m not going to get into it. I’ve had conversations with you, where you told me, man we’re trying to get this kind of market. It’s not like I don’t know pop musicians. It’s not like I don’t listen to music.
HERBIE: Then there’s some things you misunderstand about it. Because I never use the word sell.
WYNTON: I don’t know. Remember what you told me before? “Yeah man, my record just went gold man. I need to get me some more records like that. We had long conversations about that. We shouldn’t be arguing about this in the press, man. We have to be cool. We’ve talked about this already.
HERBIE: Do you think I’d object if my records sold millions?
WYNTON: Don’t say you don’t think about that.
HERBIE: Of course I would.
WYNTON: Because you do. You do think about that.
MUSICIAN: To think about it and have it as your aim are two different things.
HERBIE: Thank you.
WYNTON: I’m getting tired now. You said the opposite of what I wanted to hear.
HERBIE: Look, I’d like to have a Rolls Royce, too. But I’m not purposefully trying to set myself up to get a Rolls Royce.
WYNTON: Pop music is something that you don’t really have to know too much to know about.
HERBIE: (long silence) … Okay, next!
MUSICIAN: When you play pop music do you feel as musically fulfilled as when you’re playing Jazz.
WYNTON: Don’t lie, Herbie.
HERBIE: Okay. I only feel musically fulfilled when I can do both. If I don’t play any jazz this year or half of next year I’m gonna still be doing fine. But at a certain point I’m gonna want to play some. Now what I wanted to say was when I did “Rockit,” when I did Light Me Up. I’m not sitting down and saying, “What can I put in this music to make it sell?” That’s what I don’t do. When I’m sitting and actually making the music I know my frame of mind. And you can’t tell me…
WYNTON: I can’t tell you anything…
HERBIE: No, I’m being honest. Let’s say you want to do cartoons, or make a comic book, and you’re Gauguin. If Gauguin were to do a comic book I would respect him if he had the same kind of attitude of trying to make something happen with the cartoon, and learn from dealing with a medium that’s more popular than the one he’s accustomed to do.
MUSICIAN: What he’s also saying is there’s this evolutionary sweep that takes all these things in its stride…
HERBIE: I’m not looking at these things that you’re objecting to as the end. I look at them more as an interim.
WYNTON: It’s just ignorance being celebrated to the highest level. If somebody wants to say anything that has any kernel of intellect, immediately the word “elitist” is brought out and brandished across the page to whip them back down into ignorance. Especially black artists and athletes. We are constantly called upon to have nothing to say. I’m just trying to stimulate … some kind of intellectual realization. I’m just trying to raise questions about why we as musicians have to constantly take into account some bullshit to produce what we want to produce as music, what Herbie is saying about evolution. Frankly I never thought about it that way. But he brought out something interesting. All I can say is, I hope he’s right.
by Rafi Zabor & Vic Garbarini
Source: Musician Magazine