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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
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
Profile of Wynton Marsalis Biography of Wynton Marsalis Interview with Wynton Marsalis Wynton Marsalis Photo Gallery

Wynton Marsalis Interview (page: 7 / 8)

Pulitzer Prize for Music

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  Wynton Marsalis

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 Interview Photo
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.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity


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.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream


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.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity


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.

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