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What Is Jazz?
Wynton Marsalis believes America is in danger of losing the truest mirror of our national identity. If that’s the case, we are at least fortunate that today jazz’s foremost performer is also its most eloquent advocate.
October 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 6
Well, you can have an intuitive understanding of something even when you lack any real awareness of it. Way back on my first album, my brother Branford and I played a song, “Hesitation,” where we were trying to deal with a New Orleans way of playing, with group polyphony. We didn’t look at it that way, but that’s what we were doing. We had another song, “Twilight,” in the form of a Charleston. It had call and response in it, it had a blues in the middle, and it was a shuffle. Stanley Crouch said to me, “You know, I can hear the conception behind all your music in that one song, ‘Twilight.’”
How about your recent pieces—in other words, since your goal of “playing all of jazz” became explicit?
Citi Movement has a simple structure, but there’s a lot of improvisation on top of that. It has a lot of call and response, it uses the different moods in jazz. It’s got a little Latin tinge, a little calypso groove; it has passages where the horns moan and cry, all those human sounds. The second movement ends with a ballad—I always try to end with a ballad, something sweet. There’s a section with an African cyclical rhythm, and there’s a modal effect, like Coltrane’s music. There’s a chant, like church music and spirituals. There’s the trumpet call with the drums, a whole military, marching-band concept. And I tried to make the whole thing swing with a certain elegance.
That trumpet solo—“The Legend of Buddy Bolden,” which looks all the way back to the first known jazz musician—seems to play a central role in Citi Movement .
Yes. They say, “In the end is the beginning.” Something is over, so something starts. Somebody dies, somebody’s born. Death and rebirth. That’s the whole New Orleans tradition. The solo starts the third movement. The second movement is over, and then everything is chaos. We just play wild, a lot of loud noise, but noise has its place, because that’s what you’ve come to organize. And that’s when Buddy Bolden cuts through: “All right, y’all are playing noise, but this is some music.” And he plays a shuffle and a triad in the key of B-flat. He starts on the fifth, F, and then reaches up for the root, B-flat.
I want him to be going up from the dominant to the tonic, because that is the basic interval in the most ancient trumpet calls. And I wanted him to be reaching for something, reaching for the start, trying to make a beginning. Cutting through that noise and saying, clarion-like: “We’re out here to swing.”
Citi Movement seems very playfully put together.
It has some little tricks. In the second movement I keep using a theme that has a half-step in it. A close interval may be close on the scale, but it’s far apart harmonically. The keys of C and C-sharp are right next to each other, but they have only two tones, C and F, in common. I did that to reflect how people in the city, and all the different things they do, might be worlds apart but they’re actually very close.
Which piece of yours is the strongest expression of the blues?
Blood on the Fields . That has the deepest blues feeling. I think that’s my strongest piece, period. Some of that, I actually had tears in my eyes when I wrote it. Usually I try to have distance from the music, so it won’t sound like it’s just about me. But I was involved in this. I even had to get away from it!
What part hit you the hardest?
The part where the character Jesse sings the chant, “Whoa, anybody , hear this plaintive song/ Who wants to help their brother dance this dance?” I wanted to put the whole piece into that little two-minute section. The philosophy it expresses is what I believe in, deeply. When Jesse sings, “Whoa, anybody, hear this plaintive song,” that’s one man, in anguish, addressing the whole world. Anybody, hear this song. Then he sings, “Who wants to help me dance this dance?” Who wants to participate in life with me?
Now, it sounds like he’s defeated when he sings, “Hear this plaintive song.” But then when he sings, “I sing with soul,” he’s saying that whatever tragedy is in the land, which in his case is slavery, “I’m singing with soul to heal it,” which means, I’m coming with an attitude of soul, of helpfulness. I’m not here for revenge, or to make you feel guilty for messing me over, or for you to take pity on me. I’m coming to you with something to help us. And that’s what jazz music is.
Soul. Healing. It’s a music of healing and love. It brings people together. That’s what I heard in John Coltrane’s music when I was twelve years old, that made me to want to play jazz music. You come to jazz with the attitude that you’re trying to work something out. Not just to complain. Complaining makes you accept a position of inferiority. Whenever you make someone else the central issue, make the fact that they did something to you the central issue, you’re making a big mistake.
But a lot of black people don’t complain. It’s not like there aren’t people out there with heroism, but when a black person has a vision that’s not whining, it won’t be endorsed by the media. The media in America pick certain things to celebrate, and with the Negro, if you aren’t complaining about something, or asking for something, it’s hard for you to get publicity—unless you commit a crime.
Was it a difficult leap for you to begin to write long pieces?