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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,
Jessye Norman,
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and Sonny Rollins

Wynton Marsalis's
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: 4 / 8)

Pulitzer Prize for Music

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  Wynton Marsalis

When you were a kid growing up, what did you think about classical music?

Wynton Marsalis Interview Photo
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 cliche 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 (sings). So, we would be rehearsing every day, and I would be just checking the music out. The bass would come in (sings), now this (sings) now the strings come in (sings). 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, (sings) 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 (sings). Just that (sings). 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.

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.

There is that old joke about how do you get to Carnegie Hall. There are a lot of kids out there with trumpets. How did you do it? How did you get to where you are?


Wynton Marsalis: I practiced everyday. I went about seven years without missing a day of practice. I had a very strict schedule that I would follow, and I would not go to sleep until I had practiced all the stuff I had to practice. If I had a job from like 10:00 to 1:00 or 2:00, I would still practice. I made sure that I would get all the work done, so I wanted to play and be good. You have to really want to be good. More than anything I wanted to be able to play and that's what motivated me. I would listen to records, I would buy all these etude books. Any money I would make on little pop gigs I would buy trumpets or books with it. I would get all the etude books, I would go to different teachers, I would call people, and really seek the knowledge out. I would go to music camp in the summer time. Practice, listen to the recordings of Adolph Herseth, or Clifford Brown, trying to learn the records. But, the hardest thing for me has been to play jazz. Because in jazz, I have had to put myself in my own context. Whereas, in classical music, everything is set up for you. You just have to learn how to play. In jazz, it's been very difficult, because I have had to create a context to learn how to play in, from an intellectual standpoint, from a philosophical standpoint, and from an actual standpoint in terms of recruiting musicians. That's been the most difficult thing.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance


What has been difficult for you? What have been the hardships, the obstacles you've had to overcome? What's been difficult for you?

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.

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This page last revised on Mar 12, 2008 12:38 EDT
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