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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,
Lloyd Richards,
Sonny Rollins,
Esperanza Spalding
and Bernie Taupin

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: 6 / 8)

Pulitzer Prize for Music

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  Wynton Marsalis

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 Interview Photo
Wynton Marsalis: Bullshit. (laughs) 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.

What makes 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.

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."

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.

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.

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