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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
No, because that’s my talent in music, to hear form. In high school we’d have ear-training tests where you had to identify the form of a piece of music, like a Beethoven symphony. I could always tell the main theme, the secondary theme, the development section, recapitulation. When I write, I’m confident in the form. I know I can make a piece unified thematically. All of my music is like that. Every solo I play is that way. I don’t even have to think about it. That’s the only way, really, I can conceive of music. That’s how I think.
How does your music take from the masters and yet do things they didn’t?
There’s never been a band in jazz like the septet we had. We played a range of expression no other group had played except Duke Ellington’s. Our song “The Majesty of the Blues” isn’t like any other song in jazz. “Uptown Ruler” doesn’t sound like anything else. We’re describing a different world. That’s the only way I can really express it. Our music has its own consciousness.
Do you mean you’ve advanced beyond Ellington?
You can’t do that in music. You can’t advance beyond anybody. You can do something different, you can change the form, you can add something new. But Beethoven didn’t go beyond Bach.
Sometimes it seems to me that in trying to capture some of these essential traits of jazz, your music sounds anachronistic. For instance, a lot of Citi Movement sounds like a sonic portrait of an early 1950s city, not a city of today.
When I walk around Manhattan, that’s the city I see. I’m not going to give you the city someone else would see. Someone might say, “He needs to have homeless people.” That’s not what I wanted to depict in that piece.
Why do you use only traditional acoustic instruments? Can’t jazz be played on electronic instruments?
Yes, it can. Electronic instruments give you a much wider palate of sound—but it’s pure sound, not expressive sound, and in jazz it’s a question of expressive sound. I’m not interested in sounds as sounds; I’m interested in how people sound.
Could you see yourself ever composing for electronic instruments?
Sure. But when I start really listening to the instruments, I don’t like them. Jazz music is soul music. It’s bound to the earth through the instrument. Electronic instruments are fine tools, but they aren’t bound to the earth the way acoustic instruments are. Jazz is earth music. It’s healing music. That’s its identity.
But man is no longer bound to the earth.
Man will probably always be bound to the earth in some way, even if just the memory. Just like we’re always bound to our most primitive urges.
How do you answer people who say that your music doesn’t reflect life in the nineties?
Well, that means to me that they don’t know what life in the nineties is. Because I’m in the nineties, and people from the nineties come to check it out and enjoy it and swing.
But listen to the sound of the bus we’re riding on. That’s the sound of high technology.
That sound is from the 1930s. And it’s not the job of music to imitate technology anyway. It can do that and be fine. But music deals with the human soul. And the human soul has not changed for a very long time.
When we play the Village Vanguard, a pile of people from the 1990s who live in New York will come and swing and have a good time. And we’ll be playing a style of jazz that has never been played before, never. Now, that happened in 1991 and 1992 and 1994. So critics can say what they want. They can say, “Well, you’re playing music from the fifties.” Yes, we play music that has its roots in the fifties. We play music that has its roots in Africa, in ancient times, music that has its roots in New Orleans, music that has its roots in the Haydn Trumpet Concerto. But it’s never been combined in this way. And the people who hear us play and swing, they go home and make love and do whatever they do in that moment and have a good time. Now, people are also in the Palladium dancing and listening to the music you can hear on the radio and on television, but that music doesn’t have as many roots as the music we play. It doesn’t touch as many different times. It’s not as modern.
“ Why does jazz have to go down the same road that killed European music? We’ve seen that that doesn’t work.”
What do you mean, it’s not as modern? It’s ultracontemporary. It’s bound to its time. It becomes dated very quickly. How does that make it less modern? Because being modern means that you’re addressing all of what is at your disposal. Somebody who’s on the space shuttle is using all kinds of technology. He doesn’t feel pressed to discard principles that have worked throughout the twentieth century in order to be up-to-the-minute. Being modern means addressing the entire history of what’s available to you, and using it. You don’t say, “Well, I’m modern, so I can’t do that.” That dates you.
What do you mean, it’s not as modern? It’s ultracontemporary.
It’s bound to its time. It becomes dated very quickly.
How does that make it less modern?
Because being modern means that you’re addressing all of what is at your disposal. Somebody who’s on the space shuttle is using all kinds of technology. He doesn’t feel pressed to discard principles that have worked throughout the twentieth century in order to be up-to-the-minute. Being modern means addressing the entire history of what’s available to you, and using it. You don’t say, “Well, I’m modern, so I can’t do that.” That dates you.