by Tom Reney
When I asked Wynton Marsalis to define swing last week, he said, with characteristic wit, "It's a matter of extreme coordination." The same can be said for how this singular figure manages his remarkably demanding career. As a classical recitalist, trumpeter, composer, bandleader and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center -- which he co-founded in 1987 -- Marsalis runs a course that requires the utmost agility.
Nearly 20 years have passed since the 37-year-old New Orleanian emerged as a wunderkind of the jazz world. Marsalis generated his first local buzz in 1980 with a startling performance at the Pines Theater in Look Park with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Since then he has exerted a profound impact on the music's appreciation among listeners worldwide, and inspired the burgeoning numbers of young musicians who are dedicating themselves to the idiom's exacting and humbling standards.
All the while, he has generated plenty of controversy. Inspired by the essays of Ralph Ellison and by Albert Murray's book Stomping the Blues,which underscored, among other things, the African-American underpinnings of jazz, its communal function, and its speechlike communicative powers,Marsalis and his provocative Boswellian colleague Stanley Crouch knowingly articulated and asserted a return to the first principles of jazz -- the vitality of swing, of blues tonality and lyricism, of the 12- and 32-bar song forms, and of Afro-Hispanic rhythms -- all of which had been threatened by the free jazz and fusion movements of the 1960s and '70s.
Taking particular aim at Miles Davis' pioneering fusion of jazz, rock and funk, Marsalis declared "the emperor has no clothes," and while it cost him the favor of a few highly vocal New York-based jazz critics, it only added to his heroic status among those who are similarly dedicated to preserving and perpetuating the jazz tradition.
The Advocate spoke with Marsalis last week, on the eve of his five-day engagement at the Iron Horse.
ADVOCATE: I'd like to begin by having you reflect on the artistry of veteran Count Basie trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison, who died on July 27 at the age of 83.
MARSALIS: Man. He and I were very very close -- very close. He was just the essence of soul -- what jazz is, that was him. I always tell this story: Once we were in Los Angeles rehearsing, like six or seven years ago, our whole band. So I called Sweets -- it was Father's Day. I told him we were going to finish rehearsing and come out and see him and bring him something for Father's Day. So he said, how many of you are there? And I said there were eight of us including our road manager. Next thing, he came over to our hotel and brought us eight meals from this soul food restaurant called Maurice's Snack 'n' Chat. So we sat down to this meal -- I'm talkin' about all kinds of black-eyed peas and barbecued ribs and potato salad -- I mean, he just laid it out for us. Man, what can you say about Sweets Edison? A portion of the soul in the world is gone now.
ADVOCATE: You started on records with Art Blakey and the classic hard bop style. Over the years your playing has reflected an increasing grasp of earlier jazz idioms. What kind of personal odyssey has it meant for you to master the idiom of Cootie Williams as well as Clifford Brown?
MARSALIS: It's just mainly to rise above not knowing anything. That's what my personal odyssey has been. In my generation nobody really played jazz music. So my relationship to jazz was that my daddy played it, I was always around jazz musicians, and I liked them. When I played with Art Blakey I didn't know any of his music -- I had never really listened to any of his records. So to say I played the hard bop style, I really didn't. I was just doing whatever I knew how to do, which mainly came out of fusion, because that's all we played. So for me it was really just a matter of trying to educate myself.
ADVOCATE: What motivated you to get that education?
MARSALIS: Just realizing that I couldn't play. Because at a certain point you -- you think you can play. For me, all through high school, I was first chair and all-state every year. Any time I went to a jazz festival I always won the award; everybody always said I was great. So there's a certain level of arrogance and actual belief that comes from always receiving the top accolade. So then I was 18 playing with Art Blakey, but I heard a tape of myself and I could tell that I really couldn't play.
ADVOCATE: What did you feel was lacking in your playing?
MARSALIS: Just a knowledge of the music. Not playing on the chord changes, playing fast all the time, not constructing melodies. Because the feeling we had at that time was that if you were a jazz musician it meant you should play complicated songs like "Giant Steps" and "Moment's Notice." If somebody was playing the blues, we'd say, "Man, that's just the blues."
I used to go hear Sweets Edison play. I was 14 or 15. He'd play in New Orleans in a place called Le Club at the Hyatt Regency. My father always played behind him, he'd put the band together. And I remember thinking, man, I play better than him. Because I could play fast -- you know what I'm saying? . . . And it was an honest thought -- it wasn't just because I was arrogant. I honestly thought I was playing more trumpet than him.
ADVOCATE: I heard [trumpeter] Herb Pomeroy saying yesterday, in relation to Sweets, that a musician tends to lose his personality as the tempo gets faster.
MARSALIS: Yeah, definitely, but Sweets would play slow on a fast tempo. He'd do what Louis Armstrong used to do. You're going twice as fast, he's going twice as slow.
ADVOCATE: I've heard you say that when you hear Louis Armstrong it makes your lips hurt.
MARSALIS: Yes, sometimes. The things he did in the '30s -- unbelievable endurance. Playing that high, that long, with that kind of power and with that big sound. I don't equate that with nothing but pain. And believe me, his lips would be hurting too.
ADVOCATE: How about your own appreciation of Armstrong? When did that begin to develop?
MARSALIS: When I was about 19. Once you learn how to hear past your era, the whole world of music opens up to you. Unlike a lot of kids I grew up with, I had the benefit of my father and a lot of musicians always giving me good advice. None of which I'd take, because I thought I knew more than them. Also because I didn't understand what they were telling me because I couldn't hear past my time.
ADVOCATE: What was it that made you emerge from that cocoon of "your time"?
MARSALIS: The knowledge that I could not play. It's like that with any experience. If you walk past a mirror and you notice that you're fat, you might not've been thinking you were fat until you see yourself. You know, your concept of yourself is not who you truly are.
ADVOCATE: Was there a moment when that crystallized for you?
MARSALIS: Yeah, when I heard that tape of myself playing. That was that moment, like, "Oh damn, that's what I sound like? That sounds sad."
ADVOCATE: What do the blues mean to you today?
MARSALIS: The blues are the life of our music. It's a system of harmony, it's a form, it's a body of melodies, and it's also an attitude about life. That's something I never had a problem with, because I grew up with all of these musicians who were in that tradition, so it was as natural to me as drinking water.
ADVOCATE: What's that attitude?
MARSALIS: It's something that's very hard to describe. It's an acceptance of life on life's terms. It's like bamboo in Eastern thought. Bamboo is very, very tough, but it's very flexible. It gives us optimism that's not naive.
ADVOCATE: Now I still hear a lot of carping about your work as the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and in particular that you have a prejudice against the so-called avant-garde.
MARSALIS: It has nothing to do with a prejudice. I've been very clear for years on this. Do I gotta say it again?
ADVOCATE: Do you think that some of the charges are racially motivated, that it's another manifestation of attitudes people have about blacks holding positions of power?
MARSALIS: No, I don't think that. The question is who's the authority, whose knowledge is music, who knows more about the subject. And it's not so much a racial question. Very seldom does a musician have the backing of the public, and be vilified by the critical community. Most of the time you need to have good critical assessment of your work or you can't work. So that means a lot of musicians won't say anything.
Whereas in my case, even though the critics vilified me all through the 1980s, the public still came to the concerts, so it put me in a position where I never really had to cater to them. And I don't, and I never have. So naturally that builds up a certain kind of animosity that I don't really think is personal. It's just part of the battle that goes on, to define what something is. . . . And I try to be clear in what I think, and when I feel that I'm wrong I try to change. But so far as me being able to do what everybody wants to see done, that's impossible. You can't do that.
ADVOCATE: You have a very refreshing attitude on the bandstand, an apparent desire for people to enjoy themselves at your concerts.
MARSALIS: I want people to come and have a good time. They don't have to be checking this music out; there's a whole pile of other stuff they could be doing.
ADVOCATE: Your "Standard Time" series parallels a resurgence of interest in the American popular song. I'm curious to hear you describe your appreciation of this tradition.
MARSALIS: Well, I always loved those songs. My daddy loves playing them. Again, when I started it was a matter of education and all these great records lying around--Clifford Brown with Strings, Miles' great recordings, the ballads, 'Trane, Charlie Parker with strings. My involvement with that also comes from this experience I had when I was 23.
Some guys came to my house to play, we were having a jam session. Now, none of the guys in the jam were on the level I was as a musician, but they knew a lot of tunes, just playing tunes I didn't know. They're looking at me like everybody talks about how great you are and you don't know these tunes? It was very embarrassing, and when they left I said, "Man, I need to learn these tunes."
ADVOCATE: What do you appreciate as the essence of the romantic ballad?
MARSALIS: The essence of the ballad is the sensibility of adult romance, and all the ramifications of it. And of course the whole song tradition stretches back to Schubert. People like Kern and Gershwin -- they were trained in that school. The whole French troubadour tradition, it ties into so many traditions. It really reached a flowering in American popular song. Those songs, even though they were popular all over the world, they still have yet to be accorded their musical due. They're treated as this light, fluffy music.
ADVOCATE: When I began listening to jazz about 30 years ago, there was a myth that said these songs were worthless but for the interpretive powers jazz artists bring to them. I think there's a growing appreciation for the songs themselves.
MARSALIS: Yeah, the songs are good, but I do think that jazz musicians elevate them to another level. Just hearing them in their regular state, they can sound corny. But when you hear Ella Fitzgerald sing them or Billie Holiday or especially Louis Armstrong, which is something that Hoagy Carmichael observed, he said, "Man, when Louis Armstrong sings those songs, that's what we wish we had written." You know, when the blues is added to those songs, any sentimental quality is eliminated. The elements that are nostalgic, the light qualities, all of that goes away. The best example is Louis Armstrong's playing of a standard. He brings it right down home and makes it feel like it's happening to you and your old lady, not some idyllic world somewhere.
ADVOCATE: You've said you don't believe the rock and roll revolution should be celebrated. Why not?
MARSALIS: Because it's like the McDonald's revolution. One thing it did do, it relaxed a lot of the sexual repression, but who knows if that wouldn't have happened anyway. It also destroyed the adult culture of the world, because it became increasingly concerned with getting that exploitable income from teenagers and young adults, so then the aesthetic objectives of the American popular song didn't carry over into rock and roll. It became a cult of the personality instead. And now you also have to be beautiful. . . . Someone comes to a record company, the first thing they tell them is, "Baby, you have to lose weight. You sound OK, but you need to get aerobicized and airbrushed." Music is not on anybody's mind at this point.
ADVOCATE: How have you managed to carry your own vision forward?
MARSALIS: Well, when you start getting fired upon, that's when it takes strength. It don't take no strength when you get home or you're on the corner or at the barbershop arguing with somebody. But when that press starts to open up on you and all of these musicians start firing upon you and your girlfriend or your wife says, "I don't like that music you're playing, you need to play what everybody else is playing." I mean, that's when you'll be tested.
. . . I'm grateful for the opportunity to be out here, even now, today. I've been out here for 20 years, man, I'm grateful. Every night I sit on the bandstand and I thank the good Lord, 'cause for damn sure it didn't have to be that way. There are many other ways it could have gone.
ADVOCATE: You're famous for the dedication with which you practiced as a youth. How do you keep your chops up?
MARSALIS: I don't practice like I used to. It was very strenuous then. Every day, hours at a time. Now, a lot of times I ask kids to come over to my house and we just play. I'm still dealing with music all the time, but it's not the same kind of instrumental practice like it once was. Somebody was crackin' a joke, telling me, "Man, I've been around musicians my whole life and these damn saxophone players never take the horns out of their mouths. But these trumpet players never practice. Miles, we'd hang with him, never saw him practice. Clark Terry, Blue Mitchell. We'd never see none of these cats practice. But you be around 'Trane, Sonny Rollins; all they do is practice all day."
ADVOCATE: What do you make of that?
MARSALIS: It's a lot easier to play a saxophone than a trumpet! They don't get tired like we do.
ADVOCATE: Next week you'll be at the Iron Horse playing what I've heard described as a "millennial solo project."
MARSALIS: I don't know about no millennial solo project. We're just going to be playing different music, tunes, some of Monk's music, some of Jelly Roll's music, all different stuff.
ADVOCATE: Let me ask you finally about the difference between playing Bach and Ellington.
MARSALIS: That's really hard to answer. Bach's music is celestial. It's like something that exists outside of time. It's just perfect -- it's unbelievable the way it unfolds, like some type of matrix for the universe. And Bach is the only person whose music sounds the same no matter what instrument plays it, who plays it, how badly they play it, you can't mess his music up. It's gonna come through no matter what.
ADVOCATE: How about Ellington's?
MARSALIS: It's not like that. Duke's music is jazz, so you improvise. And the whole feeling is different. Ellington's music is about the 20th century, about the people getting the freedom to speak and to communicate with each other. And that's something that Bach's music doesn't have at all. Now one thing they do have in common was that they were both very prolific. As a matter of fact there was an essay done on Duke in the 1940s, and it was entitled "The Hot Bach."
ADVOCATE: Now this idea of communication in Ellington's music. Is this peculiar to the 20th century?
MARSALIS: It's peculiar to jazz. There's a lot of 20th century music that is not like that at all. As a matter of fact, a lot of 20th century music is ascetic.
ADVOCATE: Ellington's has much more down-home flavor to it.
MARSALIS: Oh yeah. Soul and swing. His music is fun, it's full of love and joy. It's very optimistic. There's a tremendous range. It's well-constructed technically, so it doesn't require you to over-personalize it for it to sound good. It's natural music, it's very organic. You don't have to go through nothing extra. You don't have to wear any special type of clothes -- all you have to do is play it.
ADVOCATE: Well, whether you're talking Bach or Ellington, there's this constant question of relevance.
MARSALIS: If you listen to it, it will be revealed to you. That's what I tell kids. If you don't listen to it, it really don't make a difference. It's like when I would first hear Sweets Edison, it wasn't relevant to me only because I wasn't actually listening. Because I'd be looking at him, and he was old and I was young. It had nothing to do with what he was playing.
ADVOCATE: It's really all in the art of listening, isn't it?
MARSALIS: Have mercy.
Tom Reney is the host of Jazz a la Mode on WFCR-FM, Amherst MA.