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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: 5 / 8)

Pulitzer Prize for Music

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  Wynton Marsalis

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 Interview Photo
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.

We started to talk about some of the obstacles you've had to overcome. 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. (laughs) 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 back beat 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.

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