Then you have the higher levels of dealing with jazz, like the spiritual and the intellectual level. It is not dealt with on that level. The combination of a lot of the African and European sensibilities. The type of attitude that respects a certain type of form and structure, but has the American conception of humor, which also pokes fun at. But you can’t really successfully poke fun at something unless you know what it is. So it is something that deals with knowledge, and dealing with the knowledge and being serious about it, but also the American humor aspect. It’s like the whole conception of somebody like Michael Jordan on a basketball court. All these people are struggling just to get the ball in the hole, and then here is somebody with 360 degree turns on the jump shot, or floating from the half-pin like they do. That’s a humorous thing.
Then you have the whole vocal music tradition that’s in jazz. The greatest singers, like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Mahalia Jackson — who’s not a jazz singer, but she’s an honorary because she was so great in gospel music that they consider her a jazz singer. And you have a tradition of instrumental virtuosity, which has produced the greatest innovators on each instrument. The trumpet will never be the same after Louis Armstrong. There were great trumpet players in the European tradition, and there were great trumpet players in the African tradition, playing the trumpets they played. But when Louis Armstrong played the trumpet, he simultaneously innovated in both of those idioms. And that is true on every instrument.
Paul Chambers on bass, Jimmy Blanton and Ray Brown. Art Tatum on the piano. Thelonious Monk on the piano. Duke Ellington in composition — his whole harmonic conception, his conception of form and motion, logic, structure. The conception of the Duke Ellington orchestra, which is a whole aggregation of individuals. And he had to conceive of music that would allow each of those individual personalities to speak and grow and develop. So that’s a different conception from say, a European composer who would sit down and say okay, I’m writing for trumpet. Duke Ellington was writing for Cootie Williams’s trumpet, or for the trumpet of Ray Nance. That’s not to say better or worse, because certainly no one can sneer at the master works of Bach or Beethoven. Only a fool would do that. There is a lot of that going on these days, but that is very foolish. It’s just to say that this is an American conception. Democracy. Individual voices. You have to fit it into the context of the ensemble, but it was still Cootie Williams’s voice.
Or, let’s say, in African music, you might have improvisation, but a lot of that music is purely functional. You are not going to see the elevation of the individual like you see with Louis Armstrong, or with Duke Ellington. So it takes from different musics around the world. It has a folk element like the functional elements of folk music. And then there are the elements of refinement, extension, and elaboration, as Albert Murray would say, of fine art music. And it has an evolution, in which different aspects of the tradition have been taken out and developed. Charlie Parker developed one aspect of it. Thelonious Monk developed one aspect of if. John Coltrane developed the spiritual aspect and a call and response aspect of the group polyphony.
There is so much in jazz music to be studied and to be learned, and so little education. I could go on and on and on, just about what Duke Ellington did. And, also the romantic connotations of the music. The music had the effect of liberating a lot of the people from this Victorian image of sexuality. But, for some reason people still think they need to be liberated from that. This is something jazz music was doing around the turn of the century. And, now it’s degenerated in the modern era to the type of vulgarity that is represented by rock and roll, which parades under the guise of giving you sexual freedom, when it’s really, truly, sexual repression. Sexual freedom is found in the sensuality and the romance and the lyricism of the great songwriters like George Gershwin and Cole Porter and Duke Ellington, and of the great instrumentalists like Louis Armstrong and Lester Young. These people had a truly romantic conception that was based on elevation of the relationship between a man and a woman, rather than the denigration of it into just some abusive adolescent sexual discoveries.
Jazz music has a component for every aspect of American life. Duke Ellington was from Washington, Thelonious Monk from North Carolina, Louis Armstrong was from New Orleans, Elvin Jones is from Detroit, Fletcher Henderson was from New York, Dexter Gordon is from California, the list goes on. The great musicians come from everywhere. Charlie Parker was from Kansas City; they come from the Midwest, the North, the South, the East, the Atlantic coast, the belt. Musicians come from every direction, and they give us a portrait of the country, of just the feeling of our nation. Also, you have a depiction of all types of people. This music can be for kids. Thelonious Monk, you can play his music for children, they love it. There is the really super adult music, like some of Duke Ellington’s, really mature music. And, there is the music that sounds like the Spanish contingent in the country. Jelly Roll Morton always talked about “the Spanish tinge.” Then there are the versions of European music, like Duke Ellington did the Nutcracker Suite, and a lot of musicians do versions of European music, but it sounds like jazz. Then there’s the versions of gospel music, like Horace Silver and a lot of jazz musicians in the ’50s would do. There’s so much.
For you, it’s more than just a musical form. It is tradition, it’s part of American history and culture and life.
Wynton Marsalis: Oh, yes. And that’s what we need right now. Because we have gotten so far away from our whole mythology. Because the American mythology is skewed so much against what the country actually represents. One prime example of that would be the cowboy and Indian movies. Those movies served a good purpose, because they identified heroes, they identified values. But the problem with the movie was that it was a denigration of a noble people. So you need something that doesn’t denigrate other people. And that’s what jazz music is. It doesn’t denigrate anybody. It is designed to elevate everybody. It addresses aspects of everybody’s music: European music, African music, Indian music, Chinese music, Japanese. You could study any style of music, and you will hear something in it that sounds like jazz music. I’m listening to Japanese music now; it’s called the Gogaku, the court music from 800 AD. And the melody sounds like blues in this one piece. I can’t remember it all, but it has that sound of blues in it. Jazz music just touches everybody, it elevates.
What were you like as a kid? What were you interested in before music?
Wynton Marsalis: I was like a devious kind of kid. I would do all kinds of dumb stuff. Like one time me and a friend of mine set fire to a man’s house. But he wasn’t living in the house, we weren’t trying to kill anybody, we just did dumb stuff. We would throw rocks through windows of the train station and stuff. I would go around the corner and steal from the store. I liked to play ball. I was a mediocre ball player. Sometimes I could be good, not real good, I didn’t have a lot of athletic ability, but I worked at it. I liked to play basketball and baseball and football. We played football in the street. I grew up in Kenner, Louisiana. And they still had the ditches on the side of the street. It’s country. A railroad track separated the black people from the white people. I had fun growing up. I just liked to play around. And I would do my homework and study, but I liked to just generally have a good time. We had a woods and stuff around our house, kind of country. So I liked to go to different people’s houses and eat whatever they were eating and just hang out. Go in the back with my friends and listen to Stevie Wonder records or whatever was popular at the time.
But I liked to tease people too. That was my best hobby. We would call it ribbin’, or “playin’ the dozens.” That’s where you talk about somebody’s mama, or you talk about the kind of clothes they got on, or the way they look. You could talk about them so bad, we just would all have to start laughing. You know, somebody really talks about you real bad. I liked doing that and playing marbles. Playing all those little games like Monopoly and stuff like that. We had a good time.
I had five brothers, and we would do all kind of crazy things. We had rock fights, you know, you have to hide behind these little things and throw shells, and you’d be in pain if you got caught too! We’d go up on the levee in New Orleans. We lived about a block from the Mississippi river. And we’d go what we called “exploring.” We’d just go around and see, ride our bikes. But you had to be careful. Because you go into some neighborhoods, they’d try to take your bike from you. I had a good time.
What were you like in school?
Wynton Marsalis: Well, I went to different schools. From the kindergarten to the third grade, I went to an all black school. So then, everybody liked me. I was the funny (guy); I would crack all the jokes. It was different, like we were all the same. And, then from the fourth grade to seventh grade, I went to an all white school, except there were two or three black kids, so then that was totally different. So, whereas in the black school, everybody would like you. If you made good grades they said you were smart. In the white school, you were like the enemy or something, but not all. Some of the kids were cool, but a lot of them, their parents didn’t have a lot of money, so it just was a very strange transition to make, in terms of school. Because at one end, you go from, when you do good, you were elevated, you were given credit. At the other, you always had a battle on your hands. It was always like a battle going on because I had a lot of pride when I was little, from my great uncle, and if somebody called me a ‘nigger’ or a name I didn’t like, I was just going to fight, that just was my way. Well, these white guys, they weren’t like what you see on TV — all scared of black people. If you wanted to fight, that was cool with them, too.
I learned a lot in the schools that I went to. It was a Catholic school, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and I had really good teachers. But from a social standpoint, it was really strange. But then we’d play on the ball teams. They had three black teams in this city, so if you could play ball, you played on the black teams. They had like seven or eight white teams, but they had one or two black people on the white teams — every now and then, not that much. So I would play on the black teams, and we would always be teasing each other. I would know all the white guys, me and a friend of mine named Gregory Carroll, whereas the other guys on our team wouldn’t know them. They were just like some more white people. So we would go up and play them and most of the time they would beat us, like in football. Sometimes in baseball, but we win in basketball. But it was funny, we would go and play, and I would know guys who were on the opposite team, and so it was just interesting, it was cool.
What kind of a student were you?
Wynton Marsalis: I was good, man. I made A’s because I was studying because I always read all these books about the slaves, and people didn’t want the slaves to get education. Also, my mother is very educated, she’s smart. And my father, he would always talk to us like we were grown men, just in the content of his conversations. We never knew what he was talking about half the time. We’d just go, “Yeah, yeah, okay.” Like you could ask daddy just something basic, “Daddy can I have a dollar?” And he would go into like a discussion! I believed in studying just because I knew that education was a privilege. And, it wasn’t so much necessarily the information that you were studying, but just the discipline of study, to get into the habit of doing something that you don’t want to do, to receive the information, and then eventually you start to like it. I always liked to read. My mother would make sure that we read. So, I would read a lot of books, and I would do good in school mainly because I hated to do bad.
What books are special? Do you remember any books that motivated you, helped you?
Wynton Marsalis: When I was really young, I would read mainly junior books. I remember they would be books about basketball players in Indiana, like little high school competition books. I didn’t read any classic books. I read books on Indians too. I did a whole biography series on different Indians, and I would read about their life story. And about states. The State of New Mexico, the State of Alabama, the State of Louisiana. And then I would read all of the black books. Like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Soul on Ice. My father had those books. But I would read a wide range of things. Mainly I liked biography — to read about somebody’s life, or to read about geographical locations. Australia was my favorite continent. I would read about the koala bear, and the marsupials, and eucalyptus trees. This is when I was seven and eight and nine. I’d say, “One day I’m going to go to Australia, I’m going to be able to hold a koala bear,” and the kangaroos jumping up and down, and the Aborigines, and the didgeridoo. That kind of stuff.
As I grew older, then I started reading more books, collections of people, like Edgar Allen Poe. Then I’d read Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, and then I’d read Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. I’d just go from person to person to person. I really like William Faulkner. He’s from the South. Just the poetry of his language and the type of people he is describing, it’s like people that I knew. I like his writing, and I like Hemingway too, for the short sentences, just the style. It’s like Lester Young’s style in jazz. Whereas, William Faulkner, that style is more like Art Tatum, or Coltrane, like real virtuosic runs, or just long two-hour sentences. I will read really anything. But I don’t like science fiction too much. I never really got into that. My brother loved that. He would read all the Star Trek books.
When you were a kid growing up, what did you think about classical music?
Wynton Marsalis: Mainly, I thought it was something for some old white people to do, that you would cough through. So I equated it with some old white men with beards and stuff, some women too, they have their gowns on, and they would be playing and the people would be coughing, while they’d be playing. We used to have to go to these days at the symphony when I was in elementary school, which I always hated. “Oh man, we gotta sit through this bull?” So I would sit, and they’d talk about “This is the bassoon: boomp boomp boomp. This is the flute: doodle doot pooop. This is the violin: la la la la la. This is the trumpet: baa da da da da.” And I’d be saying “Oh, no!” “This is the snare drum: yukka tukka tukka.” They made little jokes, “This is the bass: humm humm humm. This is the cello: hummm hummm hummm.” I didn’t dig it. “What is this?”
Well, something changed your mind.
Wynton Marsalis: Well, it’s like any ignorance you have, whenever you have to be around something and you can get past what your cliché version of what it was or what it is. I was in an orchestra, I remember we were playing Beethoven’s Fifth. I was in an orchestra rehearsal. New Orleans Youth Orchestra, which I had just gotten in just to be in orchestra. I still didn’t really love classical music that much, but I could play the trumpet enough to play… So, we would be rehearsing every day, and I would be just checking the music out. The bass would come in… now this… now the strings come in… I’d just be checking in out, the different movements and the sounds of that music. After the rehearsal would be over, I’d be humming the theme to myself. I’d say, “Man, Beethoven, this is some great music!” I couldn’t deal with all the prejudices I had against the music, they were stripped away by the fact of the music. And, the fact that I had to address it because I was in these rehearsals. Now, if I didn’t have to be in the rehearsal, I could always escape that music, and just say that’s something for some white people, or some old European dead people. Like I hear people now trying to dismiss these great masterpieces, “Oh, that’s just European music.” They don’t know what they are talking about. Because if you had to sit in an orchestra and listen to Beethoven’s music, you come force to force with a great human achievement, especially Beethoven’s music. He was my favorite composer. That music was just so powerful and great; I just had to deal with it.
I like this music. I just had to confront it in myself. And now I would listen to all of Beethoven’s symphonies: his Third Symphony, the Eighth Symphony. I get all of them, I just check them out. I went to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and I had a teacher named Dr. Bert Breaux, and he made us analyze all of the nine symphonies. So then I could see how the music was put together, from an architectural standpoint. Then I really started to like it. Here is the theme, here is the secondary theme and this is the theme stated in the dominant key. This is sonata allegro form. This is the scherzo. You just learn the different forms. Beethoven music’s has a lot of life in it, just that feeling. And the slow movements can be real profound and slow and pretty. And the fast movements have a real up, lively type of feeling. I remember when I heard the Sixth Symphony, the beginning of that. The first time I checked it out, it sounded like some blues almost, just the poetry of the line… Just that… I couldn’t wait to hear it. It’s just the feeling of classical music.
I would listen to Maurice Andre play. I read the liner notes of his records, and they said he worked in a coal mine, and I said, “This guy worked in a coal mine and now he’s playing classical trumpet!” And I just liked his sound, the vibrance of the sound. I always wanted to play like him in classical music. It gave me almost the same feeling I got when I would be listening to Coltrane and them. But it wasn’t the same, because Coltrane would be describing something that was going on, to me, at that moment in America. Whereas the music of Beethoven, it has the human connotation, you could get into the human aspect of it, and there is that overriding human thing. I’m sure Coltrane and the jazz greats will take on that connotation to people who are removed from this environment. Like the music of Beethoven takes on for us, who grew up not in the Germany of his time, or that environment.
To say you were smart is an understatement. You could have gone to Yale, you could have gone to any number of schools. You had scholarship offers. You were a National Merit Scholar. Why did you turn that down?
Wynton Marsalis: To me, the highest endeavor was art. But I didn’t know that at that time, because I didn’t think aesthetically. I just wanted to be a musician. And there were a lot of times too, I had a certain type of bitterness. Not real bitterness, but a certain type. It was like the whole minority scholarship thing. To me that always was something to lessen your achievement. Now don’t get me wrong, I would take the scholarship, because I needed the scholarship. But for me, the whole achievement, academically, was more just the joy of the intellectual pursuit. It wasn’t the chance to say I had made the A list, because that didn’t really mean anything. Even to go to an Ivy League school, Yale or Harvard, that really was not important to me, when I could go to Juilliard and play music. I really wanted to be a musician by the time I was a senior in high school. More than anything I wanted to play music.
What was it like to go to New York the first time for your Juilliard audition?
I was staying with a guy named Charlie Miller. He was a trumpet player who also studied with George Jansen. He was from New Orleans, and he was living on 51st Street and Eighth Avenue. So when I came into New York, I got a cab, and it left me off in the wrong place. So I had all my bags and stuff, and I was like, “Oh no!” But I found his apartment and I went back and was talking with Charlie about it. Every night he would leave and go to his gig, and I would be in his apartment by myself. And I was kind of scared because I was in New York. I thought everybody was just killing everybody! I didn’t know what was happening. But after a while I got used to it.
Was it a big change, living there?
Wynton Marsalis: It was a trip, because I was still country. Like in New Orleans, everybody talks to each other, or you look at people on the street. You never walk past a person that you don’t say “Good evening” or “How you doing?” We called it “the Big Easy,” because it’s really laid back. And I used to go to my great aunt and my great uncle’s house, and we’d sit down and eat, go to different friends’ houses and it was just a communal atmosphere. And Manhattan is everything going on, all those big buildings. I remember looking out West End Avenue, when I first came, at just a big row of buildings straight down, and I said, “Man, what is this?” And all these people! I would go to Park Avenue or Fifth Avenue during rush hour, and it would just be millions of people out in the street like ants.
At that time I was staying uptown, in Harlem. That was kind of depressing to me in one way, because I had never seen the type of attitude that was up there. I had been around people without money; the black people generally didn’t have a lot of money. My grandmother lived in the same projects all the time we were growing up, but our attitude would be different. In New York the attitude is colder and quicker. But New York also had a certain beauty to it. The pace of it. In fact, you could meet all types of different people. And there is a lot of warmth there too, but you have to find it. It’s more behind closed doors.
Going to Juilliard, I didn’t have a lot of friends. It seemed to me, everybody was rich. And, I spoke differently from everybody. I still had an Afro. And I wasn’t clean. People would be coming to school; they’d have on all these killing clothes. And coming from New Orleans, I’d still be wearing green jeans and earth shoes and stuff. I was just looking funny. So I would feel kind of un-confident. I had lost some of my self-confidence.
I would be playing in the orchestra and stuff, but that’s not really what I wanted to do. I wanted to play jazz. So I would play, and I enjoyed playing, but I didn’t like the whole competitive aspect of it. People were always talking about each other, “This one can’t play,” and everybody, 500 people auditioning for one job, and in the orchestra, most people you know are not going to get in. So for me it was a hell of a transition to make.
Then, I didn’t know how to cook. I had never been on my own. I was used to dealing with my mama and daddy. So that was an interesting year for me, that first year that I left home when I was 17. I learned a lot during that time. And I grew to love New York City in a certain way. The feeling of it, the subway, Rockefeller Center and Lincoln Center. There was so much stuff. The Museum of Modern Art. But I didn’t go to any of those; I would just look at them from the outside. Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t involved in the cultural life of the city. I would just say, “Yeah, Lincoln Center.”
Jazz or classical would have been enough. But you had to play both. Why both?
Wynton Marsalis: On the trumpet you don’t have that much to play. That’s the first thing. You have five or six concertos. It’s not like piano where you have a million things, or violin. And then, I really, I went into classical music, and I loved it. But I didn’t think, I didn’t know, but I figured I had a better chance playing a job as a classical musician than I did playing jazz. Because nobody was playing jazz—the kind of jazz that I like, which is modern jazz. So it just kind of happened that I did a classical record, and even got known as playing classical, because at the time that I did my classical record, I had actually given up playing classical music. Because once I had the chance to play with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, then I figured, if I can make it playing jazz, I don’t really want to play classical music. I still love classical, but most of the music I like doesn’t really even have that much trumpet in it.
Do you still practice both?
Wynton Marsalis: No, I never practice classical music. As a matter of fact, I haven’t practiced in like five or six years.
For somebody who turned down all those scholarships, you sound like you have a Ph.D. in music. Where did you get your higher education?
Wynton Marsalis: Well, I am always trying to study, and when I came to New York, I was fortunate enough to meet Stanley Crouch, who is a writer. He had tremendous influence on me intellectually, because he had like a million books in his apartment, and a thousand records. So when I met him and saw all the records and books and stuff, and he didn’t graduate from college either, he just would voraciously read books. Every time I’d see him, he’d be talking about, “Hey, check this book out.” And I didn’t know any of that stuff, and I felt stupid when I was around him. And he knew more about the music than I did. I was 17 or 18, and he’d be saying “Well what about this record?” Him and also Albert Murray, who was Stanley Crouch’s mentor. Albert Murray has written the greatest books on jazz, Stomping the Blues, which is on blues, but it is one of the greatest books written about the poetics of jazz music, what the musician should be trying to do.
And from having the opportunity to be around Stanley and Albert Murray, Stanley much more than Albert Murray, because I’m always too embarrassed to be around him, because he knows so much I always feel like I’m just in the way. But it really made me develop my intellectual curiosity, and Al Murray would give me books to read, and tell me where to go, and tell me about an important exhibit in town, “Go check this out.” I talk to Stanley almost every day. We never talk about just anything, it’s always something definite: “Did you check out this new Romare Bearden book that they put out?” He keeps me on a certain level of intellectual engagement. And always understand that you have to constantly work to develop your intellect, and just increase your curiosity. Like I remember…
When I was 20 and 21, I hated to travel. I’d be in Italy and I’d be having a terrible time. “Man, I hate being here. I want to be back in New Orleans eating a po-boy sandwich.” And he’d say, “Man, you just country and provincial! If you’re going to be sophisticated and be a man out in the world, you have to learn how to deal with what’s going on out here. You need to get some education, get some books on Italy, and learn what’s going on. Go see some frescoes, Piero della Francesca or something. Don’t just sit in your hotel room talking about a po-boy sandwich or some gumbo.” I’m really indebted to Stanly for a lot of things, in terms of really dealing with a level of intellectual engagement.
How important is all that to your music?
Wynton Marsalis: When you are not dealing with sophistication, or you’re not dealing with real human interaction, or you are not dealing with history, if you are not dealing with what goes on in other parts of the world, different customs, different cultures, different ways of looking at things. . . if you are closed off to a certain level of interaction with people, then you are closing yourself off to a large percentage of music. And, this is what I would do when I was younger.
Oh, it’s very important. Because my whole conception of what music is has changed drastically over these ten years that I have been in New York, these eleven years.
You do that and you say, “People don’t understand the music I’m playing.” Well, the challenge of being a heavyweight in any field is to come up with something that has all of that substance, but that anybody can relate to in life. This ultimately is what the failure of serial music represents. If you can come up with all these formulas and scientific theories, and it can be well researched and worked out, and have a true theoretical basis that is valid and require hard work and diligence, but if it doesn’t deal with something human, something that either elevates the human spirit or deals with it, if it’s not something people can like, then ultimately it really has no value. All this “Oh, people will understand it one day,” everybody thinking they are going to be Beethoven. That’s not going to happen. Because first, in his early years, he wrote music that everybody could understand. And just to start off with the conception of a master, when you are a student, that’s a seriously tragic mistake that has been made. And it’s a mistake that I have made. “Hey man, nobody really knows what we are doing.” Well, why not? Is it because we are thinking about something that nobody is thinking about? No, that’s not true, because we’re not thinking about nothing. So let’s start thinking about what’s happening, just to get focused, and then develop a foundation from which we can develop.
Were you nervous about that first audition at Juilliard?
Wynton Marsalis: Oh yeah, I was nervous. I really was nervous.
Do you still get nervous? How do you overcome that?
Wynton Marsalis: I can’t really; I just stand there and be nervous. I think I enjoy being nervous sometimes. It’s good. It’s like whenever you are getting ready to get into a fight, you get nervous. You say, “Oh, well, looks like we’re gonna have to fight.” You’ll be going up with somebody that’ll try or just take your money or just tell you something you didn’t want to hear. You really didn’t want to fight because deep down you have the feeling that you are going to get beat up, but it makes you just pull something out of yourself. I’m gonna get beat up, but that’s all right. I’m gonna put something out here. I get nervous sometimes when I play. Students ask me all the time, “I get nervous, what should I do?” I just tell them, just figure that the people that are there to hear you, they want to hear something sound good, and there is nothing you would rather be doing in front of all them people than playing because that’s what you spend most of your time doing. Auditions are the worst. You get more nervous I think for that than playing for people. Because with people, you get a certain warmth. For an audition, everybody is doing a job. “Oh, well, let’s see if he can play.” And you know the people who are listening to you are really on the highest level of hearing, and they can really discern every mistake. When I get nervous, my palms start to sweat, my mouth gets dry, but I think, you know, “Wynton, you gotta play!” Hope it comes out; sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.
When you are waiting to go on to perform, what are you thinking? What are you hoping to achieve when you go out there?
Wynton Marsalis: First, I’m just grateful to be playing another night. And, then I’m trying to play something that will make people feel good and make them want to like jazz music. But really, I’m truly grateful. We used to say a prayer; we stopped doing it, in the band every night, before we’d go on. Just say help us to concentrate, and just something for us to get our minds together, and concentrate and go out and play and not take it for granted. We just feel fortunate to have the opportunity to play for people who come out, they’re clean, with their wives or girlfriends, or girlfriends with their boyfriends, a few little kids are here. It’s a night out and they want to have a good time, and you want to play good. So, that the power of the music can be — you don’t have to do too much other stuff — just play so it sounds good enough for people to say, “Hey, we enjoyed that, we had a good time.” They will remember it. It will be a part of their life. “Yeah, we went and heard him play, and it was pretty good.”
As a musician, do you feel you have a responsibility to the music you are playing?
Wynton Marsalis: Definitely. That’s part of being an adult at anything. You have responsibilities. That’s what adult behavior is in my mind, accepting some responsibility. If you don’t have that, you have a childlike relationship to something, which is, you only have a right.
It’s okay for a jazz musician to have a social conscience? A responsibility to society?
Wynton Marsalis: You have to do that if you are trying to deal with something beautiful. Because every creation man makes of beauty is a declaration against ugliness. So just that in itself is a statement. Even if you don’t say anything. Somebody asks you, “What do you say?” I don’t know. But if you create something beautiful, like Monk, he didn’t talk that much, but you knew what he was thinking about. It was very clear. As a matter of fact, Duke Ellington was very gracious. “Oh yes, well, whatever.” But his music, that let you know what he thought about.
As a performer, you have critics and have to withstand criticism. How do you handle that?
Wynton Marsalis: I tell you, at first I didn’t like it. When you first read a newspaper article with your name on it, and they are saying you can’t play, you don’t like it; especially if everybody always has said you can play. Somebody like me, from the time I was 13 or 14, they’ve always said, “This is the greatest young trumpet player! You have to hear this kid!” Everywhere I would go they would say, “This guy is great!” And then, the first time I would read like one or two reviews where they were saying I can’t play, or I didn’t play with any soul, or I wasn’t nothing, I was just imitating Miles Davis, I didn’t like that. But, I was 19 then, 20, 21. Like, let’s say, those first three years, that was like a transition for me. First, just to get used to getting that volume of stuff written about you. Then, once they realized that I didn’t want to co-sign rock and roll, see, that was the death knoll for me. And, also I was talking about the corruption in jazz. A lot of my bad publicity came from stuff I said, more than what I was playing. So, that eased the pain of it a little bit. But also, in relation to the people who really could play, I knew I couldn’t play. There was never any doubt in my mind. So, the criticism helped me keep my head level because I did know that I wasn’t playing that much, and that I had to really develop.
But I also understood my era and my generation, which is something that they didn’t take into account, but they shouldn’t take it into account. I also understood that in my generation, nobody was playing soul, you know, playing blues. You don’t compare my playing to Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong. They grew up playing in blues bands. I grew up playing Earth Wind & Fire songs. But it’s like a strange thing where somebody can play jazz fusion, which didn’t have any type of blues in it, but they could be great, where somebody who is trying to play jazz… But, like I told you, I used to like ribbin’ when I was growing up, so some of the cuts I thought were good, and it would be kind of funny. I remember one article, the guy says you could take one note that Lee Morgan played, and it was more like jazz and more soulful than everything I’ve ever played. So you know, something like that is really kind of funny.
And as I’ve grown older, I’d say after I was 22, I don’t really care what is written. Unless it’s something that really is an insight into something that we are doing wrong. But the cut-downs are always the same. Once they determine something they are going to say about what you are playing, then it stays. “Oh, he can’t play the blues,” or “He plays like Miles.” You can’t take that kind of thing seriously, because they are just following. But to me, it’s the same thing as a good review. I’ve had reviews where they say, “He’s greater than Louis Armstrong.” You can’t take that seriously.
Is it hard to learn not to take critics, good or bad, too seriously?
Wynton Marsalis: Yes, it’s hard because it’s tied up with your ego. Like you always want to think that you are not going to be talked about negatively. Like everybody else is. But you have to accept that there is nothing wrong with somebody saying something bad about you. Now I really don’t mind somebody saying they don’t like what I’m playing, but the one thing I don’t like that the critics do, is that they talk about you personally, and they don’t know you. That’s something that I really still don’t like. Like a personal attack on you like, “He won’t sign autographs,” just something that’s not true. But in general, I think criticism is a good thing because it keeps people honest. It’s just that the critical community in jazz is corrupt, but I still wouldn’t abolish them. I believe that they should have the right to write what they want. It takes time to get used to being cut down, to where you really can accept it. I mean, it’s not a crime for somebody not to like what you are doing. It’s no reason for you to be not subject to not being liked. There is a lot of stuff I don’t like. It’s not personal, I just don’t like it. So at this point I really don’t mind. Actually some of it is kind of funny.
A lot of times, in my mid-20s, I would purposely incite them to be mad, like I would say extra something bad about Miles, because I knew that would make them write. I would really cut some rock music down. You know, “Rock music, they can’t play.” Or talk about something racial that they would really hate. I would say, “They are doing this, it’s just something white.” Then it was two years of bad reviews. “He doesn’t like white people.” It’s always something. But then I would get it from all the camps. The black ones and the white ones. So it’s really kind of funny.
Who is your best critic? Who do you listen to?
Well, I listen to myself, and the cats in the band. I listen to everybody. When somebody has a criticism for me, I listen to what they are saying. I never dismiss it. I remember somebody told me once, I ought to introduce the tunes. Like I was telling you, when I first came out, I had this feeling that what we were doing was above people listening to it. People would come in and say, “We don’t know what y’all are playing, we don’t know what the tunes are, every song sounds the same.” So now I would be saying to myself, “The reason every song sounds the same is because you all don’t know anything about form.” But then I started listening to the music myself, like if I wasn’t a musician. And I said, “Well all these songs do sound the same. We need to play at different tempos, play ballads, play in different keys, have modulations and stuff, play with breaks. The form of every song is the same.” So, it was criticism not by critics, but just regular people in the audience who would say that’s what we don’t like about it. Or one guy will come up and say the music doesn’t have enough romantic connotation to it. “You are playing all fast and wild. That’s cool, but nobody wants to sit up and hear that all night.”
So I listen to a lot of different people. Older people tell me something, I listen to it. They say, “You need to play some of the older songs.” Rather than just saying “Oh, they old. They want something to remind them of when they first fell in love or something,” I can say, “What if you could do one of the older songs, something they could like?” Or the younger people say, “You need to do something that’s a little more funky.” That don’t mean I’m going to do funk, or a pop beat, a back beat. What they are thinking is I need to find some grooves that are going to serve the same function. Every time you do that it takes you longer, because you have to learn how to deal with another aspect of the music. And that’s the struggle. Because it’s not something you just try. It’s not like in pop music, they listen to some Brazilian music and they put a backbeat on it or some little Brazilian trappings, and they call it Brazilian music. If you really are going to be serious about something, you have to absorb it.
So I listen to any criticism and any compliment too. If people say we like the way you introduced this song, you have to check it all out and weigh it, to try to come up with a better presentation.
What has been difficult for you? What have been the hardships, the obstacles you’ve had to overcome?
Wynton Marsalis: Well, you know, everything is difficult, that’s worth achieving. So for me, when you are on a certain level of sensitivity, there are a lot of things that are difficult. Like growing up in the environment I grew up in was difficult. Dealing with the type of intellectual isolation that I had to deal with. Nobody much already was into that.
So, thank God for Crouch. But he’s 45, you know. I love him; he’s my best friend in the world. He’s like a mentor to me; I’m not equipped to really discuss a lot of stuff with him on his level. He’s not 29.
I’ve never had a real true camaraderie with my peer group like I would want to have. And, that’s been a source of real, true pain for me. Especially trying to recruit an audience, and have people really understand what you are doing, in your age group, and have a real meaningful dialogue with your audience. That’s something every musician wants. And, not just not to have had that, to not to have the possibility for that. See, it’s not like you don’t have it, it’s not like going on a court and playing basketball and you’re Michael Jordan, where you go out and you play way better than everybody else, so you need to play against certain competition. It’s where you go out to play and nobody wants to play basketball. So, you have to go out every day and play yourself, or just a few people.
And coming to New York and dealing with a lot of animosity. I’ve had to deal with, to try to articulate some kind of philosophy that is relatively intelligent. The whole philosophy put out here by jazz writers is so unintelligent, and it is so destructive.
I’ve had to go through nine or ten years of just constant assault. Constantly, constantly being assaulted personally. That’s the kind of stuff that I don’t like. I don’t like to be personally assaulted on a philosophical issue. A lot of stuff went down on me that I didn’t like. I lost my band over some strange stuff. Everybody goes through stuff in their personal life. Like with women, that’s something that women go through with the men, and men go through it with the women, so of course you have to deal with that. But, professionally, just the whole struggle of maintaining a level of integrity in an era that is not even remotely about having any type of musical integrity. There is integrity, but it’s just not in music. Because the hierarchy, the upper end of the people who are recognized in music in the world, are the least competent musicians.
So, it’s a thing where you don’t want to cut people down personally, like I don’t want to say, well, Mick Jagger can’t play, or this one can’t play. It’s not a personal put-down, because they know they are not trying to play. They are dealing with a certain type of entertainment, light entertainment. Which is fine. But just something strange is going on in our culture where we turned around the function of that and made it into something to nourish the society with.
So my job as a musician is to fight that battle. And that takes a tremendous toll, because everybody is convinced that the Beatles are the greatest band in the world. I mean, they know that that’s true. And the fact that that’s not what the truth is, that fact, the fact that you are a musician and you have to communicate these facts to people, that’s really a painful position to be in. Because you hate to see generations of people led down the wrong road. Because it helps to destroy our culture and break it down. Every little misconception helps. But by the same token, you don’t want to be arguing with people, because on an individual basis, you don’t really care if they like that or not. You want them to like whatever they want. So a lot of times you have to sit down with somebody and say I like whatever, I don’t mind you liking it. It’s like you telling me you want to go get a Big Mac. Or you want to smoke some weed or take crack, or shoot some heroin. If that’s what you really want to do, go ahead. But that’s what it is. Not that the Beatles are the equivalent to these destructive things, but in terms of our culture it is. It’s just an erosion of quality. To go from the George Gershwin level of composition to the John Lennon level of composition — that’s a very long drop. And history will bear that out. But if you have any doubt, just put Porgy and Bess on. And listen to those songs, and then listen to “Michelle,” or “Yesterday.” I mean, it’s no comparison. And that’s not even a racial issue, that’s just two men dealing with music. So for me that’s been the greatest struggle, seeing whole generations of our kids just go that way.
You have been described in the past as an angry young man. Were you an angry young man?
Wynton Marsalis: I was angry, but you can be happy too. Like, I’m angry right now.
What makes you angry?
Wynton Marsalis: Bullshit. Just the whole injustice of the way stuff will be set up. That will make me mad. But the incorrect thing is to think that because you are mad about some injustice that you walk around all the time mad. Like I told you, I always had a good time. When I was growing up there was injustice going on then, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying those baseball games we were playing, or eating them good pots of gumbo my mom was making, or having fun playing marbles with my partners, or ribbin’. People have this impression that if you are mad over an injustice, your whole life is consumed with this anger. Like I never was consumed with being mad. It made me mad, it still makes me mad. People say, “He’s changed.”
I’m not any different. I’m still mad about it. If I have to talk about it, I will still be mad, and I will still break down exactly like before. Except now it is not shocking like it was then. Because in my generation, people figured that the whole injustice of the situation was forgotten, nobody could articulate a vision of the United States of America that dealt with what was going on that was incorrect. So they figure that I should just come off and be grateful. “You should just be grateful, because you could be out stealing or on crack or something.” But that’s not what’s happening. So I guess it was the shock of it.
Especially in terms of the jazz critics. Because they weren’t prepared to deal with that. They are used to you being happy to have them write an article on you, and they just put the words they want in your mouth, and that’s it. So they said “He’s angry. He’s always mad.” But that’s a lie; it was pushed out there and constantly repeated. It was incorrect. The people who knew me knew what the deal was. I’m still angry about that stuff.
Do things in the music world make you angry?
Wynton Marsalis: Well, let’s say for example, somebody like Madonna. That makes me mad. Now it’s not her, the person Madonna. It’s the fact that somebody will stand in front of an audience of people, 50,000 people, and say “Everybody say ‘fuck’.” And, people will say, “fuck.” Like that will be an achievement. That makes me mad. I say, why is this an achievement?
Or the whole position of British musicians in American music, imitating Afro-American musicians. That makes me mad. The way the education system has decayed and the inner cities have been left to rot by the business community, because it’s a black/white issue. We all know what the issues are. But every time you pick up a paper, you see an article about it. And everybody acts like this is the responsibility of so-called black people. Or the responsibility of so-called white people. The United States is a mulatto culture. It’s just a matter of time before everybody truly notices it.
If people in the business community will let the infrastructure of the city rot and decay before they will pump money into a people who have been traditionally just kicked in the behind, then it becomes a racial issue, a black/white issue. That’s not what the issue is. It’s the issue of New York City, or New Orleans. So I will go to a school and teach white kids for no amount of money, not because they are white and I want somebody to see me teaching a white kid, but because here is somebody else who might learn something about music. I do it. But they say, “He goes the inner city schools.” A lot of schools I go to are not in the inner city. It’s always like a white/black issue. And it makes me mad, because that’s not really what the issue is. It’s a human issue. But we are clinging onto a white/black issue and we make it a white/black issue. And the black community really truly suffers, and the white community truly suffers from inside. It doesn’t suffer economically, but it suffers culturally. And the proof of it is that you have people like Vanilla Ice running around nowadays.
Black people, traditionally, have been the arbiters of the honor of the Constitution of the United States of America. And, once all the integrity and humility leaves the black community, then the whole nation is in trouble. Figures like Frederick Douglass, he’s not “a great black figure,” he’s a great American figure. Because he was fighting against injustice, human injustice. And, when he’s reduced, the whole country is reduced. When Martin Luther King is reduced to “a black leader,” then the whole country is reduced. What is all the media focus on? It’s not going to be on what he actually said, or his books, or his solutions to our country’s problems, it’ll be on making him some strange black figure who slept with some women, and who cheated on his papers for his doctorate. That stuff is insignificant, whether he even wrote papers for a doctorate. There is stuff that he did write and there is a whole presence and body of intellectual activity that he is responsible for that is not even addressed seriously at all by our nation, because this is considered “a black issue.” And, it’s not addressed by black people either. So, the whole issue, the whole thing makes me mad. This whole fake black nationalism makes me mad, and there are no white people involved in that.
So there are a lot of things. Including the way that the whole male/female thing has been reduced. And women have been reduced to just…I don’t know what that is. And, men have been reduced. And, we are putting this on our teenagers, and people are making millions of dollars on it through music, and so nothing else could be in that place that would be elevatory. It’s not so much that the garbage should cease to exist, it’s cool, but why should it be everywhere and elevated. And, these things make me mad. Whenever I see movies like Mississippi Burning, that makes me mad. Just a lot of stuff. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, that makes me mad. But, once again that’s not a personal thing against the people, but it’s just the elevation of a certain level of buffoonery, a certain lack of concern for other people. Like the type of stupidity that is going on in the Middle East. That’s something to be angry about. But, people say they don’t even want to talk about it. Let’s just kill off a certain amount of people, let’s go do that.
And in the jazz world there is all kinds of stuff that will make you mad. You go to hear all these high school big bands, and nobody is playing Duke Ellington’s music. They are playing all these third and fourth rate arrangements. And I’m like, why are you all playing these? Play some of Duke’s music. And it’s always a racial component lurking. It makes you paranoid. Because a lot of stuff will go on, and it won’t be racially motivated, but you already are paranoid, because you’ve grown up in this system and you are so used to it being racially motivated, that your first thing is to say, “Man, that must be it.”
And the first description of a person is always “black person” or “white person.” Well a lot of black people have more European blood in them than African, but they still are a black person. And a lot of people who are white, they have some something else in them. You know, a lot of this stuff goes on. The education system, all these quotas, just the whole thing, man. Even in high school I was thinking about that. I was telling you about all these minority scholarships and I never liked any of that. Because I always had the feeling that was just something that denigrated achievement. And I think that if you are going to help a community, you have to put money, economic dollars in the community, not just give somebody a grant, or try five years of giving some black businesses something. You have to try to really get a group conception. And we’ve let our cities just decay, rather than address the racial problem. That’s the ultimate statement to me, of what we are dealing with.
A lot of the kids who see this interview are going to feel some of the same injustices you have felt. Some are going to feel the same angers you have. How did you overcome it? How did you come from where you started to where you are?
The first thing is, I tell the kids all the time who are angry, you should never lose your anger. You should stay mad. But you have to always realize that everything is a balance. And that your perspective is one perspective in the world. And it’s a needed perspective, but it’s one perspective. That’s all. There are other perspectives that are equally as valid, they exist, and they are fueled by something too. So what you do is, figure out what your role is, and fulfill that role as successfully as you can. And leave room for somebody else to come after you to fulfill that role. That’s what a tradition does. That’s how tradition is established.
But in terms of anger, you can’t let the anger burn you up. You want to be mad; you don’t want to lose it. Because when you lose the anger, you lose your force. But you don’t want the anger to supplant the greatest force, which is love, and that’s a benevolent force. That’s the force where, instead of you concentrating on what somebody is not doing, you then are concentrating on what you can do to make the situation better. The type of anger that is constructive for artistic purposes is based on the perception of injustice. So, you are supposed to be angry because you feel that there is a wrong being perpetrated. That means that your identification with what the community could be is so strong that you feel a need to correct that. But you can’t get caught up in the anger against the people who are perpetrating what you perceive to be wrong. You have to be more concerned with the constructive atmosphere that you create by constructing something to combat that which is wrong. And that thing always comes out of a feeling of love, a desire to elevate those that you’re around, and to make the world that you live in a better place to live in, according to you.
You realize that it’s still just your perspective. When you start thinking that your way of thinking of stuff is the world thinking of it, then you fall into a type of narcissism that leads to real decline. Because then you shut off the possibility that you might be wrong, and you never really know if what you are thinking is not correct. But you have to go in the direction. Because if you are an artist, or anything you’re doing, you have to move in a direction. Don’t be anxious. You can’t let anger consume you. Because it can do that. Any emotion can do that. The only emotion you want to consume you is love. And I don’t mean that lost love, where you are going to be depending on someone, I’m talking about the constructive love, the love of action — that makes you want to assist other lives. Not assist them in the way you think they need to be assisted. Not that religious love where you want to recruit somebody to be in your religion, but the real love, where you try to recognize what somebody actually wants in their life, or what they need, and try to help them fulfill that.
I tell the kids, don’t lose their anger. You gotta be mad. But don’t think you’re the only one that’s mad. Or because you’re mad, you’ve done something. Achievement is the construction of something. Like with students sometimes, they get so caught up in philosophical discourse, that they don’t realize that in art the artifact is what’s important. “Oh, really, you feel that way? Okay, where is your novel? Where is your film, are we going to see that now? Oh, where are your compositions?” I’m all for talking, but that’s what I tell them.
What keeps you going when you are out there alone? What about Wynton Marsalis the teacher? The guy who takes time to go to schools and talk to kids and give classes?
Wynton Marsalis: I just like to do that. It’s a thing I enjoy, talking to the students. They are funny too. They have their perspective, and that way it keeps me in touch with what is going on in different regions of the country. I like to pass the information on to those who want to absorb it. And my father was a teacher in New Orleans; lots of musicians are like that. We all are close. A musician sees you and he says, “Have you been practicing your horn?” like when you were growing up. That’s some of my fond memories of being in high school with the older musicians, “Go back home and practice, son.” Just making you study, and work on your music. I come from a tradition of people who do that. I like it. I see the students grow up, even though I’m just 29, I’ve seen kids who were 12 or 13, now they are 22. Maybe not in music some of them, working in different capacities. But I see them and they call on me, it’s fun.
There is something more going on. You read some of these stories. You are like the pied piper. They are talking about this renaissance of jazz in America. What’s happening?
Wynton Marsalis: We have had some impact. We have some students who are serious, like some of the kids, like Roy Hargrove, who is a young trumpet player, and they have generated some publicity, which is good. But so far as a jazz renaissance, we do have more kids interested in playing it, but none of them really can play. See, for me, the thing I try to stress to them is that a contract doesn’t mean you have made it.
For me, I will be content when we really produce people who really can play, like learn how to play blues, and get a conception of jazz. I think I’ve had some impact on it just by constantly talking about the music, constantly going around to the schools, sending tapes to the kids, and talking to them, and they come to my hotel room, and they play and I give them lessons, they come down to my gig and I make sure they get in and listen. But it’s just a matter of constantly talking about the music.
What we are going to try to do in this next decade is just really make the music more accessible to the public, as far as trying to get in some movies, or put videos out, have educational series. We are working on a series for National Public Radio called Making the Music. We go through 26 hours on what makes jazz, and what are the different elements. Just stuff like that. Do some children’s shows where everybody plays an instrument.
What achievements are most satisfying for you? What are you proudest of?
Wynton Marsalis: I’m the most proud when I get something from cities, or people. At first I was against awards, you know. I would always say, “This is so fake. The people who vote on this stuff, they never listen to the music.” But for me it’s when I received awards or something from the city. Just to go to somebody’s house and eat. Or people come and say, “We spent our anniversary checking you out,” or “We were making love to one of your records, and we had a child!” See that kind of stuff makes me feel good. Like you get a key to the city and the people are really into it. Not just, “Oh, let’s give him the key to the city because he got some publicity.” It will be some people you knew, and you were there at their school, and you worked in the community. That’s what makes me feel good. That kind of feeling.
Did you ever think you’d have a day in New Orleans?
Wynton Marsalis: No. You know, I never thought about that kind of stuff. Just New Orleans, the community, the people are real friendly.
If you could meet somebody you’ve never met, in your field or out of your field, living or dead, that you’d like to talk to, who would that be?
Wynton Marsalis: There are so many people. I can’t really answer that, because there are so many people I would like to meet. There are so many great people who have been on earth. I think about that some times. If you could go back in history, or forward, where would I go? There are great people everywhere.
What names come to mind?
Wynton Marsalis: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Hemingway, Faulkner. People I like. Picasso. Isaac Newton. You know, Isaac Newton was a trip! Michelangelo, Shakespeare. There are so many, thousands. In art there are so many people. Alexander, Caesar, people who really were a certain type of egotists. Or all kinds of women whose names are not really known, but I’m sure there a lot of them I would have liked to have met.
Is there room for family, for a personal life? How do you balance your personal life and your professional life? How does that fit together?
Wynton Marsalis: To me, my personal life is always kind of chaotic. I have two children. I believe in that. I believe in families, but I’m always gone. I’m the type of person who by nature is a paternalistic type of person. I saw that with Art Blakey. He might not have children, but he was a paternalistic person. He was a father to me. I wasn’t his son, but there were a lot of other people who he was a father figure to.
So different people have different jobs. Like my father, he stayed home, he didn’t go on the road. So my brother and I, all my brothers, we got a certain thing from our father that other kids who didn’t have fathers didn’t get. But then he got things from people like Art Blakey. So my job is to go on the road and play all over the world for people. That’s what I was chosen to do. I was given the opportunity to do it. I didn’t have to be given that opportunity. Many people want that and work hard for it and deserve to have the chance to go out and play in front of people and talk about the music, and play it and present an elevated vision of what American life — what human life — is about, and create beauty and work on compositions, but a lot of people can’t do it. So for me, I could stay home and raise my children, and be with my old lady like people have done, but that’s not what I’m here to do. So I don’t do it. Either way you have to make a decision.
What do you say to a young man or woman who comes up to you and asks your advice, and asks your guidance of how to achieve something in life?
Wynton Marsalis: It depends on what they ask about. It depends on their personality too, what I perceive them to be like as a person. Some people are too intense when they’re young. They’re too driven, too serious about what they are doing. They are totally absorbed in it. So I tell them, you are not going to get better at that much faster a rate by being that absorbed in it. Because what you are going to do is give yourself a nervous breakdown. You’ll destroy your concentration because you are too eager. Just relax. Stuff comes in time. It’s the concentration that you have to exert goes this way. It’s horizontal, it’s not vertical. The key to practicing is to practice and concentrate over a course of years, not a bunch of time in a day, a week at a time. Then the reason you don’t get tired is because you’ll be relaxed and calm, and you are constantly working. And, music and art is about something human, so you have to meet people, and know something about what is going on in the world. You can’t just come out and know about the practice room. You have to know about something. You know, go out with your girlfriend, go get something to eat, go to a movie, have a conversation. Listen to what somebody is telling you. You know, learn somebody else’s life story. Peep them out. Don’t just think about yourself all the time.
But other people are real shy. They want to play but they are not aggressive. They think they don’t deserve the right to play or something. You have to tell them, when you’re playing you have to step out and make a statement, you can’t be scared to play.
Some people, they just want to play music for the ego purposes. They don’t really want to play music, they want to be known. So to those people, I give like some impossible exercise to do and tell them to call me back after they’ve done that. I say, “Oh, you want to do that? Okay. Well, learn all your major and minor scales, learn all your chord progressions, get these three books, and do this exercise for a year. And, then when I come back, come for me and play.” But that’s not what they are interested in. They want to know how to get a record contract. So I say, “Learn these five records and come back.” But you never see them again because they’re not interested in music.
Do you think that we confuse fame with achievement, or achievement with fame?
Wynton Marsalis: I think so. I think that fame is like a fake nobility. Like royalty used to be, where you were just born, you didn’t have to achieve anything. You were just born into a position above other people. It’s like this one passage in the Bible where God is talking to the people, and he says, “What would you rather have? Would you rather deal directly with me, or would you rather deal with a king? Now if you get a king, he is going to tax you, he is going to want to take your women.” And the people say, “Give us the king.” So it’s like that whole syndrome. Somebody has got to be famous. It doesn’t have to be merited, and in a democracy actually it’s better for those who are famous to not be famous for achievement because then if they’re just famous for no reason it gives everybody this illusion that they too can be touched by the hand of fate, and they will become famous, too.
I don’t really have a problem with that. It’s like a little storybook type of thing. People who are famous, they do whatever they do to become famous, and they stay famous for as long as they stay famous, and then they fade into obscurity. But, fame is like in that Thomas Mann book, Joseph and His Brothers. “The blessing is also a curse.” He’s somebody who is just working a job, making an average living, go home and fight with his wife, and deal with the children. But he thinks, “Boy if I could just be famous, I’d be riding along in a limousine.” And the people who are riding around in limousines, they are doing that and they have the money, but they are dealing with something too. So you know, in our society, people become famous not really for any reason — a lot of people. It’s not really based on merit.
And that’s true in the music world as well.
Wynton Marsalis: Mainly in the music, more than others. In athletics, if you become famous, you deserve it. People like Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Frank Shorter, Mark Spitz. I mean, they did something to become renowned. They have remarkable achievements. But in the music business, if you come up with a ditty that is hummable, or if you look a certain way, you can make it, become famous, popular. It’s just like a fairy tale. Only a few people can make it doing that, so it’s fake, but so. It doesn’t bother me so much. It is fake, but it’s okay. It’s like a fantasy world that a few people get to participate in. But everybody else participates in it too. That’s why you have a show like Star Search. Everybody comes on and they sing. Maybe they can get a contract. That’s just another thing.
You talk about Madonna and some of these groups. They are up there on the charts. Is that fame, or is that achievement?
Wynton Marsalis: The chart is just how many records something has sold. It’s not a statement of quality at all. Like I was saying before, economic achievement really doesn’t mean anything in music. I could go out tomorrow and win the lottery, and win $20 million, but when I sit down to the piano to write a song, or try to give logic and coherence to some music, or to peep some beauty out, or to develop in my art form, all that money is not going to help me at all. And, that is why art has been used as a barometer of history because it is incorruptible. You can’t corrupt it. The only way to achieve a level of beauty and a sophistication is through doing the work. There’s no other way. You can’t money your way into being Picasso. There just is no way. You have to have the talent, and then you have to forge that talent through years of dedication. Not through a week or a month or even with phenomenal talent, even the most talented musicians, they still have to work harder to hone their talent, to shape a sort of beauty.
So the chart position, I think, just goes with commercial corruption. Now a lot of those chart positions are bought anyway. How is that stuff tabulated? It’s always real strange. And really, so it was number one for 15 weeks. All that means is for 15 weeks more people went out and purchased that album. Probably it got more publicity; maybe it had a video out that was popular. And next year nobody is listening to it. And even if they are, they are listening to it trying to remember what they were doing in their lives when it was popular. It’s not providing them with ongoing nourishment. A lot of that emotion comes from the person who is listening to it. It doesn’t come from the music itself. You say, “Yeah, babe, you remember that song? We was dating and going out, yeah that was our song.” It’s not that song. I’m sure a man of 45, he has children, he is going through something in his life, or a woman 45 or 50 years old is going through changes trying to raise kids, deal with whatever. Something she listened to when she was 19? Maybe that will remind her of when she was 19, but that type of music, it’s not designed to serve the function of real spiritual nourishment. It’s designed to be for a good time, and it’s good for that. There is nothing wrong with people even paying for that.
I don’t mind Madonna being rich, because she provides people with an escape from what they are doing. They have a good time, they go and see her and she puts on a show. Some stuff blows up. I used to go to shows like that in New Orleans. It goes up in a pyramid, it would blow up, and there they are on the stage — it was like a circus. It’s just when you start confusing that with pertinent mythic information about your society, then you have a problem.
Do you usually have a melody in your head? Are you usually thinking about music?
Wynton Marsalis: Sometimes I’m thinking about music but it’s not formulated like a tune. It will just be something general that goes on in my mind all the time. It’s not organized in the form of melodies, it’s just the whole type of poetic motion of music. Music has a certain type of ebb and flow, regardless of the tempo. Whenever I see myself in a situation where I meet a new person, I wonder what they would sound like in music. Or something that is ironic or funny. Or if you go to the zoo, you look at animals, they all have a musical type. Or colors, you know. So much stuff can be related to music.
What kinds of things inspire music in you?
Wynton Marsalis: Anything. For me, it can be the type of shoes somebody has on, or maybe it’s the way you do this with your mustache. You know, it’s like a question. Maybe it’s like a phrase that was doodoodoo diiiing. boomp boomp boomp. It can be anything. Type of clothing people wear, earrings, the way a woman will move, you know she might touch her lips a certain way, or move her eyes a certain way. Or look at you a certain way. Or paintings. Like sometimes I go to the Museum of Modern Art, or I get books of paintings from Picasso, Titian, Goya, it doesn’t make any difference what the period is. Or I am reading a book. Like one time I was reading the Iliad, and I thought boy you could make some great music out of this. Tunes for each character. It’s just anything.
What are you looking forward to? What do you hope to achieve? You are still very young.
Wynton Marsalis: I know. I want to really become a better composer. I want to learn how to really write jazz music, and just capture a portion of what I really see around me because now I function at like 20 percent of my capability, because I don’t have the technique to write down what I hear and see and feel. I don’t have the technical. I can’t do it. So, I have to work on that because I can really conceive of writing songs about animals, a whole series of songs just on animals. A whole series of songs based on Japanese music. Really, truly dealing with their music, not just ting-tong ting-ting bong. You know, something corny. I mean really, from a conceptual standpoint and, also just dealing with jazz music. Some pretty music, something people can like, but that will also be good. Try to bring dance back into the music. Try to deal with film and music. Try to write opera, write ballets. There’s a lot I want to do. I’m sure I won’t do it all. But, if I could just get the technique to do it, then I think I would be in a much better position.
Wynton, it has been a privilege.
Wynton Marsalis: Thank you. My pleasure.