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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
Some of the essential traits of jazz are things that have nothing to do with music, and others are musical traits. Of the things that don’t just have to do with music, first comes the concept of playing. You take a theme, an idea, and you play with it. Just like you play with a ball. If you’re teasing somebody, or flirting with somebody, you’re playing with ideas. So you have the spirit of play.
Next is the desire to play with other people . That means learning to make room. Take the proverbial kid who wants to be the star, with his ball, by his rules. You have to teach him the rules of sportsmanship—because nobody likes to lose—so you tell him, “No, you have to let the other kids play too.” When I started playing, my concept of jazz was, “This means I can solo, and people will clap for me.” When I joined Art Blakey, he was always telling us, “Man, y’all got to play more like a group, man. Soloing all night. … When your solo is over, stop playing! I build up to a solo and y’all just keep playing.”
Third, playing jazz means learning to respect individuality. You don’t have to agree with me; you have your own way of thinking, and that’s good. You and I, we come together and have a conversation. I consider what you’re saying. And I come away thinking, “It could be true,” or, “It’s definitely not true.” Playing jazz means learning how to reconcile differences, even when they’re opposites. That’s why it’s such a great thing for kids to learn. Jazz teaches you how to have a dialogue, with integrity.
So jazz is by nature social.
Yes. Good manners are very important. And spirituality. Jazz musicians always get back to spirituality when they talk about the music. They say, “Man, you have to have that love in the music.” The soul of the music comes out of that. You have to want to make somebody feel good with what you play. Many so-called cutting-edge forms assault the listener. But that’s not the identity of jazz. The identity of jazz is to present itself with some soul to people.
So it’s social not merely for the people who are doing it but also in terms of the audience.
Yes, because the jazz musician comes out of the audience. The jazz musician is not the storied ordained-by-God artist. The geniuses of the music, yes, but the average jazz musician is just … a musician. The guy who works in the cigar shop, pulls his horn out on the weekend, and plays some jazz. And part of the real tragedy for jazz has been that adults have stopped playing instruments.
Families used to recite poetry.
They can do it again.
It would be tough.
I can’t agree. In communities where two or three people take an interest in something, the whole community will be uplifted. I travel around the country, man, and see it. Whenever there’s one person in a city that works hard, you see the results of their work. When I was growing up in Kenner, Louisiana, we played ball because of one guy, Mr. Buddy. He didn’t have to, but he hooked it up so we could play.
All right, how about musical characteristics?
Number one is playing blues.
What do you mean by “blues”? Do you mean a piece of music with twelve bars and three chords?
I mean the philosophy of it. Blues gives the jazz musician an unsentimental view of the world. Blues is adult secular music, the first adult secular music America produced. It has an optimism that’s not naive. You accept tragedy and move forward. It has an endless quality—“Yes, this is messed up, but we do have that.”
Blues is a down-home sound. You come into somebody’s house and she says, “Come here, baby. Sit down. What do you want to eat?” You come into her house and she gives you a blues intonation. Blues is down-home sophistication. It’s what Mark Twain has in his writing, or William Faulkner or Ralph Ellison. Mark Twain gets to something deeply down home, but there’s a little dagger in there too.
“You can’t put one over on this yokel”?
Yes. That’s a big strain in American life. The Yankee peddler, the hayseed. We all know about the fool in the king’s court …he’s the smartest guy. “Y’all might be laughing at me but don’t be fooled.” He has the ear of the king too.
Blues is such a fundamental form that it’s loaded with complex information. It has a sexual meaning, the ebb and the flow of sexual passion: disappointment, happiness, joy, and sorrow. It has a whole religious connotation too, that joy and lift. Blues comes from spirituals. The central chord progression of the blues, IVT, is the amen cadence in church music: “A-men.” Mahalia Jackson’s favorite singer was Bessie Smith. A lot of good young jazz musicians come out of the church, because the church still has that expression in it. Secular music no longer does.
A soulful way of expressing a song. An expression of joy, of praise. A lot of the joy has been taken out of popular music because of its emphasis purely on sex. But it’s still there in some of the church music.
And blues gives you a way to combine dissonance and consonance.
What do you mean?