You just said that part of the greatness of artists like Monk or Ellington lies in the fact that they never compromised. They had a way to express themselves, to tell a story, through their instruments and they did not change it. What do you try to tell people through what you play? RW:
I try to celebrate our ancestors. For many people ancestors are not important. They only think about the "now." Maybe they also think about their parents. I try to do just what Ellington was doing: telling stories about our people through music. In the '20s and the '30s all those musicians wrote music about their people: the African-American community, so I never stop to myself but I try to speak about the people before me and around me.
When you go to Africa you realize that there musicians are also historians: through the music they play they tell stories about the people. Similarly I do not try to be just a musician, I try to be a story-teller: when people hear me they will think about Duke Ellington, they will remember Monk, they will look for Dizzy, Gillespie
, Count Basie
... I feel this is my role because I was a big fan of music even before becoming a musician. I always fought for music; I always got upset because musicians did not have proper conditions to live... This has been my job and the Creator has given it to me. Maybe some people think this is old music, but we have a great respect for our elders and ancestors: they had the courage, the perseverance, the genius to create this incredible music. All the great masters have showed us how to make great music: Ellington told us to make music beautiful playing this way, Monk showed us to play that way, the same did Basie, Nat King Cole, Art Tatum and all the others. We write music because we want to continue this tradition and keep our music so special and different from any other. Whatever I write and I play I want Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington to be proud of it. AAJ:
European classical music has been transmitted in written form because Western European culture has always been transmitted this way. In the African societies, on the contrary, the traditions were passed to the younger generations orally. If this is the case, then, one can always find a little bit of the narrator's personality in the stories that are told. A similar phenomenon can be found in improvised music: you have the standard, the theme of which is always the same, and then the musician can add a little bit of his or her personality interpreting it in a personal way. RW:
That is true, but it is also deeper than that. Music is the voice of Mother Nature, and Mother Nature is always improvising. Today differs from yesterday; tomorrow will not be like today... AAJ:
Let's speak about your collaboration with Melba Liston
. The first time you met her was at Birdland when she was playing for Dizzy Gillespie's band. The band that night played a tune of yours as arranged by her. So, since the beginning, there has been a very intense musical tie between you two. RW:
She has been able to bring out the best of me. Between us there was magic. It is difficult to explain why and how, it is just like that. Maybe because she is a woman, and woman can be more sensitive, when she would prepare an arrangement of my music, it would sound as if I myself had arranged that tune. AAJ:
Melba Liston has been one among a few female jazz players of her generation. Today the situation is improving but there still is a great imbalance between the number of male and female musicians. RW:
The problem is that women had been excluded for too long from many things. However, if you look at pianists there were many female players. However they would be more likely to play in black churches where the community gathered. Maybe there were not many trombone players like Melba, but women were always there but you usually do not hear about them because they were more community players than stage players.
Photo credit: Roberto Cifarelli