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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
The big bands made call and response sequential—that’s the second type—and orchestrated it. In big-band music, the soloist played and then the ensemble responded with an arranged phrase. Then in bebop, call and response got faster and freer. The drums got involved in the conversation—that’s what they called “dropping bombs.” The instruments really started conversing back and forth. Often one person called and responded. The soloist played the solo line and what had once been the ensemble response. Lester Young had been the first person to answer himself. He was the one who really started bebop.
I’d say there are two more essential traits. First, there’s achieving vocal effects on instruments, vocal effects that come, for the most part, from the Negro tradition, the downhome tradition. Southern shouts and moans, those slides and growls and cries and screams. Finally, there’s a spirit of worldliness in jazz. You can hear how jazz is connected to other musics from around the world. Folk musics, specifically, but also the classical tradition, whether it’s Duke Ellington doing the Nutcracker Suite or Charlie Parker practicing classical etudes. Ellington is the prime example, with Far East Suite, Afro-Bossa, Liberian Suite, Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, Latin American Suite . He was trying to apply the sound of jazz not by imitating other people’s music but by understanding how its elements fit jazz. Jazz music is not provincial. A lot of times, jazz is portrayed as, “Eouis Armstrong grew up in a teeming ghetto and brought its sound to the world.” That was a part of Pops’s concept, but his concept was also, “I want to find out about, and live in, the world.”
To talk of “essential characteristics of jazz"—isn’t this to treat jazz as if it existed outside the flow of history? Doesn’t jazz’s nature change over time? Are you being ahistorical?
No, indeed, man. The fundamentals of jazz are broad enough to encompass all times. If you say, “H2O is water,” well, it was water when Julius Caesar drank it and it’s going to be water when anyone else drinks it.
But at one point in history, the elements for jazz were there. If you’re a musician, the question is, How can I be instrumental in making sure it continues to resonate? Why did democracy happen? We’re not going to invent democracy again. The Constitution has been written. The question for you and me is, What can we do to further develop it? If you read Martin Luther King, most of what he’s saying comes out of the Constitution. He didn’t say, “I have to reinvent the United States of America”; he just tried to make it more of itself, of its best self.
But doesn’t the blues express a state of African-American consciousness at a specific point in history?
No. That’s what sociologists want to believe.
How can you say that? The blues arose in a specific set of circumstances.
The black experience in America is the greatest story of heroism in the face of adversity in modern times. The creation of the blues is specific to its time. Everything is created in its time. But blues resonates across all times because the experience of it is a fundamental human experience. It’s another illumination of things that people will have to deal with forever. There are always going to be dragons to slay, and heroes. The Afro-American way to approach the dragon of slavery, of segregation, of deprivation, was through the joy of blues expression. Yes, the blues was a response, when it was created, to specific conditions. So was the light bulb. We still have light bulbs.
You say the earliest jazz music stays modern. To me, early New Orleans jazz doesn’t sound modern.
If you heard somebody who could play it, it would sound modern. It sounds modern to me. Why do we consider “modern” painting to be twentieth-century painting and not do this with jazz? It’s important to hear past the technology of the recording.
What does “modern” mean to you?
It means a group of people coming together and playing without prepared music. It means negotiating your personality against the personality, or with the personality, of another musician, with no controls over what the other musician is going to play. That’s modern, to me.
That never existed until the twentieth century. If someone says a piece of New Orleans jazz doesn’t sound modern, it’s because that kind of music is so often used to evoke a feeling of nostalgia. If you give somebody a copy of Whitman or Faulkner and he’s used to reading whatever people read now, he’ll say, “What is this? This doesn’t sound right.”
People confuse the trappings with the essence?
Right. That’s what I did, so I can relate to it. “Louis Armstrong? Duke Ellington? Aw, man, I don’t want to hear that. That’s for the Geritol set.”
Which brings us to our next tack. Who are the musicians in jazz history in whose work we can best hear what you’ve called its essential traits?