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Interviews

Wynton Marsalis Speaks Out

By Published: February 27, 2004

Once you...buy into this idea of a youth-driven culture, you've bought into one of the greatest fallacies ever perpetrated on a group of younger people: that you have to be removed from older people in order to express your youth.

Trumpeter, composer, educator—Wynton Marsalis requires no introduction. Since beginning his career, he has received an almost endless stream of accolades, his share of criticisms, and an ever-growing level of recognition from within and without the jazz community.

The first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, Mr. Marsalis has also garnered eight Grammy awards, France's Grand Prix du Disque, the Edison Award of the Netherlands, and he has been elected an honorary member of England's Royal Academy of Music. In March 2001, Marsalis was awarded the United Nations' designation of 'Messenger of Peace' by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In June 2002, he received the Congressional 'Horizon Award,' and in 2003, was selected as a U.S. Department of State Cultural Ambassador under the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs' new CultureConnect program.

None of this has diminished the amount of time Marsalis continues to dedicate to an almost continuous touring schedule and routine of educational activities. In fact, when I caught up with Wynton Marsalis last week, he was still on route to the next Jazz at the Lincoln Center performance. Speaking from the tour bus to the accompaniment of companionable laughter, instruments being tuned, and the ambient hum of traffic, Marsalis offered thoughts on education, jazz and the internet, the significance of art, and the identity of the jazz genre, as well as his upcoming CD release The Magic Hour.



All About Jazz: First of all, let me thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to speak with us here at All About Jazz.

Wynton Marsalis: My pleasure.

AAJ: If I understand, you're in the middle of the JLC National Bus Tour?

WM: Right.

AAJ: How long will you be on the road?

WM: We just stay on the road, really. I never know how long it is.

AAJ: I heard the next event you'll be hosting is an extended residency in Mexico.

WM: We're gonna do a tour of the West Coast first, and then end up in Mexico.

AAJ: This is the first time you've been to Mexico, correct?

WM: We've been there before...but we've never had the opportunity to do a residency. We're going to do a lot of education. We're gonna be doing three or four types of gigs. It'll give us a chance to really be a part of the culture. To meet with musicians and interface with them, to play with the symphony orchestra, do a dance, do an outdoor public event. There should be a young people's concert as well.

AAJ: How did this come about?

WM: A good friend of mine, Eugenio, a trumpet player'he hooked it up.

AAJ: You also have a new album coming out in March.

WM: That's right.

AAJ: This is the first time you've recorded with a small group in several years. What made you choose this format?

WM: Well, the recording I did before this one had like 200 people on it, so this was a chance to do something smaller and I thought it would be a good contrast. Also, I was playing with musicians that I had been playing with for a long time. Maybe since they were in high school. We would play benefits and stuff around New York and I just wanted the opportunity to document that'the way we played. I like the way that they play and I felt it would be exciting to get that on record, to expose people to some of the other talents we have out here so they understand the richness of the talent that's available.

AAJ: I'm very interested in jazz education so I want to focus on that a bit as well. You've already accomplished so much for jazz education over the years and in the fall you'll be opening a new facility with the JLC that promises to do even more. What do you see happening there?

WM: We're gonna put on shows. We have the Irene Diamond educational wing where we'll have distance learning classes. We have a studio so we'll have the opportunity to record things. We have a club where we'll book small groups, a medium size room for community events and a dance hall that's for more formal concerts and ballets, things like that. Our overall goal is to celebrate artist integration, bring different art forms together, bring different members of the community together and to be able to broadcast from our space, so that even though we don't have the largest space in the world we can expand the volume of people that can enjoy the music through the broadcast capabilities of the facility.

AAJ: How will the educational program function? Who will be instructing?

WM: We'll be giving masters classes with members of the band and we'll bring in visiting musicians. They'll give clinics on their areas of expertise, and we'll send musicians out to schools in New York City and different places. We have a high school jazz band competition'so we have a lot of educational initiatives. Classes for adults. So we have different educational events that fulfill our objectives of reaching different age groups and levels of interest.

AAJ: How much do you incorporate teaching about the history and culture of jazz as well as musical elements?

WM: I believe more in holistic education so I do some of all of that. Some music, some about what the musicians said, I try to give a general feeling for the music. The historical elements. When we make the curriculum we're always trying to tie it in with history and culture, not just of jazz, but of America.

AAJ: Over the years, what have you found to be the most difficult part of teaching jazz?

WM: I think the most difficult thing about teaching jazz is a lack of reinforcement. You might teach a really good class, but there's not a lot of reinforcement in the larger society. Many times the best environment to teach in is one where you say something and you teach a certain thing and then students can go out and see that in everyday life. But in the teaching of jazz, our sense of teaching is isolated. That's the most difficult thing to overcome.

AAJ: What are the best ways to overcome the problem?

WM: We need more people interested in it.

AAJ: There seems to be a lot of discussion about this in jazz circles. At IAJE there was a lot of talk about how to spread jazz appreciation among younger audience members. How can we accomplish this?

WM: The way you would do with your own kids. You have to expose them. We have to use whatever sphere of influence we have and take our own kids to concerts, buy the recordings, expose them to it. Through the educational system. Give kids arts education. It doesn't have to just be jazz. The arts are all related. When we give kids the message that the arts are not as important as football, well, naturally they are going to go towards playin' ball. Now I think it's good to play ball with your kid, but it's also good to hear them play an instrument, and indulge their artwork or their poetry. For some reason when we have really little kids we play music with them, we sing music with them, read stories to them, do all these things with them, but when they get older, in third, fourth grade, all of that stops. Arts becomes some isolated thing that is no longer a family thing. We're not interested in what they are doing and it's important for us to maintain our level of interest.

AAJ: Why do you think that happens?

WM: I really don't know why that happens.

AAJ: Do you think one of the problems is funding for the arts?

WM: Well, funding is a problem, but that's not what will keep a parent from encouraging their kid to play a clarinet or read poetry, or take them to the theater or the ballet. That has nothing to do with it.

AAJ: I was thinking of it as a larger cultural problem. If there isn't as much access to the arts, if the artists aren't receiving the support, it diminishes the importance in the community.

WM: I think we need more funding, but we need more interest too. The interest will lead to more funding.

AAJ: It's sort of a catch twenty-two.

WM: It's much easier to elevate interest than it is to get funding, you know what I mean?

(Laughter)

AAJ: I want to ask something else about your work in education. You've been so successful at raising interest, and accomplished so much teaching, what about for you? In teaching jazz, what have you learned?

WM: Oh, man, so much. About American history, the pulse of our country, about what it takes, the types of insights it takes to teach students, through teaching I've had the opportunity to focus my own thoughts and learn things, fill in gaps in my own education. So many things. How many different types of people there are, how many different ways a person can be talented.

AAJ: Do you find teaching to be particularly gratifying?

WM: Yeah, I love it.

AAJ: What about teaching makes it so special?

WM: It makes me feel complete, like you're part of a whole circle. You were taught, you teach.

AAJ: How has the jazz scene changed during your career?

WM:...there are more and more people playing now than in the earlier years.

AAJ: So there's been an increase in jazz interest and the number of young people playing?

WM: Definitely, from when I was younger'a lot more.

AAJ: What direction do you think the music is going? What elements do you see as having the most influence?

WM: I don't know...

AAJ: What I'm thinking of is a performance I saw at IAJE by Nicholas Payton. He seemed to be incorporating a lot of Hip-Hop elements, putting an emphasis on dance-ability.

WM: I don't see that as a development in jazz. When you change the rhythm of jazz it becomes another form of music. The heart of jazz is the swing rhythm. If you put a funk rhythm or hip-hop rhythm on something, it becomes hip-hop.

AAJ: So you think that players like Payton and Hargrove are moving outside the realm of jazz?

WM: Yeah, they're going into another form of music.

AAJ: Both of those players performed with you and studied with you in the past. How do you feel about that shift?

WM: I feel that it's important for each musician to make their own choice about what kind of music they feel like playing. Or to play different styles. They're capable of playing many different styles. If they choose to play hip-hop it's just another style they can play.

AAJ: The audience seems to really respond to that kind of material, especially the younger members of the audience.

WM: People respond to whatever you give them. The important thing though in jazz is how can you maintain the integrity of jazz and get younger people to a higher place without imitating popular trends. There's always the challenge to have to imitate a popular trend or become a part of a fad because it's popular but that's when your own sense of personal integrity comes into question.

AAJ: Hasn't jazz always incorporated outside elements?

WM: Jazz has always incorporated elements of other types of music, but the fundamental rhythm of jazz hasn't changed because once your rhythm changes you become another form of music. Like if you start playing Afro-Cuban music'Dizzy Gillespie might play a song or two, but if you go to a gig and every tune has an Afro-Cuban beat on it, a clave, he's playing another style of music. If someone's playing a funk beat on every tune, that's another style of music. You have to make sure you don't incorporate yourself out of being you.

(Laughter)

AAJ: So if people absorb aspects of music...

WM: It's up to every person. It's up to each individual artist to determine what their level of participation will be. Jazz music has an identity. As does hip-hop and Afro-Cuban music. As does tango. If you want to know what the identity of a music is, listen to what the bass and the drums play. What the bass and drums play most of the time is what type of music it is. You're not going to go to a hip-hop show and hear them swing sixty percent of the time. That's not gonna happen. No. They might have some elements of swing in their music, they might swing 10 percent of the time, 20 percent of the time, but their constituency wants to hear hip-hop. So they're gonna play those types of beats most of the evening. If you're playing jazz most of the evening you're gonna be swinging because that's the rhythm of jazz

AAJ: So you disagree that the main distinguishing factor of jazz is improvisation?

WM: Every form of music has improvisation. People improvise in Indian music, in all types of African music, they improvise in hip-hop. They improvise in Afro-Cuban music. So how do you know the difference between jazz improvisation and all those other forms of music?

AAJ: It always has to go back to the swing?

WM: It has to have some thing that identifies it or else it is nothing.

AAJ: I'd like to go back a bit to our discussion of expanding jazz interest. What function do you see the internet playing in jazz growth? I'm curious because there seems to be a lot of potential. Internet publications can reach people that are spread out all over the country, or the world. It can help build communities without people having to be in one specific location, or surrounded by other people that share that interest. I was wondering if you think that could be a benefit to jazz specifically.

WM: Yeah, I think so. The internet is a benefit to everything. It's more information available quicker, at your fingertips. So that's a great tool.

AAJ: Do you foresee that the internet can help draw in more listeners by increasing exposure?

WM: Sure.

AAJ: Would you consider making your music available on the internet, maybe in conjunction with the Lincoln Center?

WM: Sure, we'd love to do that.

AAJ: Do you ever come home, from of the road, and say, 'man, I need a break from music?'

WM: No.

AAJ: Do you ever need a break from jazz?

WM: Never. It's what I love.

AAJ: What would I be most likely to find on your stereo at home?

WM: I love all kinds of music. Jazz. Billie Holiday. Art Blakey. Sonny Stitt. Bird. Duke. Marcus Roberts, Ben Webster. Louis Armstrong.

AAJ: What about other genres?

WM: Tango music'I like Brazilian music too. I like any kind of traditional music. I like all kinds of classical music: Stravinsky, Bartok. The new composer Mark Anthony Turner, I like his music. I like John Adams. There's a lot of great music from around the world.

AAJ: You just mentioned a strong interest in traditional music. That reminds me of something you wrote previously describing jazz as the feeling of being in your grandmother's house. There seems to be in that description, and in some of your music, a sense of nostalgia. I'm wondering if your music is about capturing something you see as having been lost.

WM: I think that's an element of my music, and an element of life. But if I remember you were in your grandmother's house. So you bring something to her house too. It's not just all her. She's giving that down home feeling and that remembrance of who you are and you're bringing that energy and exuberance. When you cut the youth off from the older people and you sell them ideas like the generation gap, it's always been very curious to me how easy it is to exploit younger people and their sexuality. That's something that's happened in our country for the past forty years. That's why our musical arts, and our arts in general, are in such a decline. Once you believe in this kind of thing and buy into this idea of a youth-driven culture, you've bought into one of the greatest fallacies ever perpetrated on a group of younger people: that you have to be removed from older people in order to express your youth. They bring a wisdom and an understanding to you, and you bring an exuberance to them. When those groups have been separated'like the have been in our country for commercial reasons'you end up with what has happened in our country, which is a decline in the arts and a decline in consciousnesses of our younger people, and an exploitation of them and their sexuality.

AAJ: Is that why you emphasize traditional and connection to traditional elements?

WM: No, I talk about traditional things because that's the reality. All education talks about traditional things. It doesn't make a difference if you're talking about music, or medicine, or aeronautics. To really understand what you are studying you're gonna deal with the tradition of that thing. That's what knowing about it is.

AAJ: By separating that out, we've created a culture with a one quarter memory that only knows about the latest item to purchase.

WM: Right. That's why when the fascists come in and take over they burn books. They don't want you to remember. Never forget that the Third Reich was called The New Order.

AAJ: Do you think something similar is happening here based on commerciality?

WM: Well I'm not going to say it's the same as the Third Reich'

AAJ: No, I mean'

WM: But in terms of separating people from who they are so you can sell anything to them, I know that's what's going on.

AAJ: What can we do to mitigate against that trend?

WM: Bring the kids to the shows. Not just jazz, but the arts in general. I don't see younger people at anything of value. I don't see enough younger people with their parents at museums, at ballets, at all the arts. We need to invest our time and energy with our kids in things that are development-oriented.

AAJ: I think we should close right there so I can let you get back to your trip. I know you are very busy.

WM: All right, boss. You take care.

AAJ: Thank you and thanks again for your time.



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