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If you like Wynton Marsalis's story, you might also like:
Johnny Cash,
Vince Gill,
Lauryn Hill,
B.B. King,
Quincy Jones,
Johnny Mathis,
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recommended reading: The Sound and the Fury

Wynton Marsalis also appears in the video:
The Democratic Process

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Wynton Marsalis in the Achievement Curriculum section:
A Passion For Music
Pursuing a Career in Music

Related Links:
Wynton Marsalis Music On Jango
Wynton Marsalis

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Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
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Wynton Marsalis Interview (page: 3 / 8)

Pulitzer Prize for Music

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  Wynton Marsalis

Wynton, you've been quoted as saying that jazz is the ultimate 20th century music. What does jazz mean to you? What is the place of jazz in American life and culture?

Wynton Marsalis: The first thing about jazz is that it has so many functions. First, there's the communal function coming from New Orleans music. It was played to celebrate births, funerals, the celebratory aspects of the music, the parade, which -- around the turn of the century -- was a real popular thing. They had bands like the John Philip Sousa band and it's a heroic sound. And, jazz music is the American version of that appropriation of something European. Then you have the whole dance connotation with jazz music which I think, it reached it's most popular point in the country with the swing era. But still, the elements of jazz are in all of the music. Then you have the element of refinement of folk themes, which you find in all classic musics. And, this is what the jazz musicians do with the songs of Cole Porter and George Gershwin, like when you hear Ben Webster play a Cole Porter song. The art of jazz is what he performs on the theme. Hoagy Carmichael, when he first heard Louis Armstrong do Stardust he said, "Man, I wish I had written that," or, "It can't sound any better than that." Then you have the conception of New Orleans jazz: group improvisation, cooperative ensemble playing, which functions exactly like a democracy. Which is: each person has the right to play what they want to play, but the responsibility to play something that makes everybody else sound good. So, it's the way that these horns relate to the rhythm section, it's like a musical example of how a democracy should work.

Wynton Marsalis Interview Photo
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.

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 provencial! 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.

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