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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
If you incorporated electronic sounds, you’d be dealing with a fuller range of what’s available.
I don’t like those sounds. They’re not as expressive as the acoustic sounds. For me to incorporate those sounds would be to use less than what’s available, because a greater range of nuance, subtlety, and soul exists in acoustic sound.
I’m talking about creating music that’s the equivalent of that space module.
I don’t feel that the electronicness of electronic instruments gives you that. The soul of your music gives you that, the complexity of the form and the complexity of the interaction. What goes on between me and [drummer] Herlin [Riley] when we play, what we create—that’s the interesting thing about the music, not what instruments we’re playing.
So we have another case of mistaking the trappings for the essence—in this case, people thinking that mere electronics make music contemporary.
People don’t do that; people who write about music do. People know the difference. Some kids from the Arizona track team came to a concert of mine. One of them told me afterward, “Man, I had no idea that’s what jazz was.” It was amazing to him. He said, “You were playing, and I saw the other guy looking at you, and you changed. 8230; Man, the way you communicate with each other!” Which is what makes jazz modern. The modern world is about increased communication. Most of the twentieth century’s innovations are communications devices, but it’s not the fact of the telephone, it’s the fact that you can communicate. You have all these computers that are linked up. Now you can communicate.
In your recent book, Sweet Sitting Blues on the Road , you said, “Jazz is in a transitional stage.” What did you mean?
That was a safe statement, because jazz is always in a transitional stage. Right now, we’re trying to get back to people playing at a competent level of musicianship. Another battle is for musicians to be recognized as authorities on music. That’s never happened in jazz. And also we’re battling for the recognition of the ritual aspects of jazz, of the fact that jazz music is not like European classical music. Jazz music does not have to reinvent itself every five or ten years for it to be valid, or for it to be jazz music.
Because that’s not what jazz music is about. The essence of jazz is that you play it. If you have something that’s changing every five years, nobody can play it. We should have jazz bands all over the country. You need a form of music that’s easy enough for everybody to play. If you keep coming up with the new thing that nobody can play, or nobody wants to hear, it’s like so-called free jazz, nobody wants to hear it.
But I can imagine people playing parade music and sounding good. Playing little simple tunes, Walt Disney tunes, man—they’re simple, they’re songs anybody can improvise on. I can imagine an elementary-school band learning how to play that. Why does jazz have to go down the same road that killed European music? We’ve seen that that doesn’t work.
The immediate goal for jazz is to teach people what the music is and to get people to play it. And people would love to play it. You don’t have to be great to play jazz. You can play simple jazz and sound good, man. That’s the one tragedy that I can see now. When I was eight years old, I played in Danny Barker’s band. I was awful, but I played, and I still remember all those songs, like “Little Liza Jane.” We played jazz music, a band of eight- and nine-year-old kids, and people dug it. If it weren’t for Danny Barker, we wouldn’t have been playing jazz.
I wonder if there isn’t a contradiction in something your colleague Stanley Crouch said recently, that jazz should 85 be given the same respect we give Brahms or Wagner. Wouldn’t that mean elevating jazz in a way that would prevent it from achieving mass popularity?
No. Wagner wanted his music to be popular. That’s what he was striving for. He envisioned masses of regular German people sitting down, saying, “Yeah! Richard Wagner!”
Is jazz art music or popular music?
The two aren’t mutually exclusive?
No, they’re not. Jazz is a high art, but at the same time it’s popular. That’s what Dizzy was fighting for.
But he lost the battle.
He didn’t lose the battle.
At a certain point in American history, jazz was popular. Jazz was the popular music in the 1930s.
Right. That time will never return. But the real jazz was never really, really popular. When you look at the record sales, the real jazz bands were never really the ones that were popular. The sound of jazz was used in popular music.
Maybe what that means is that the best, most serious jazz is never going to be popular.
I don’t agree with that.