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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
Pops, Louis Armstrong. He was the first to play coherent, organized solos, and that was a stunning achievement. Other people soloed, but Armstrong figured out how to connect a theme to a theme to a theme while improvising. Instead of just group music, now you had group music and solo music. His sound carries the feeling and the meaning of jazz more than any other musician’s. It’s warm, it’s intelligent, it’s spiritual, it’s tawdry, it’s worldly, it’s provincial. Anything you want, he has it in his sound.
I thought you said jazz was the opposite of provincial.
What I mean is, Armstrong could play more complexly than anybody who’s ever played but still sounded like a country boy. Down-home but sophisticated. Now, King Oliver was a phenomenal musician, but he didn’t play trumpet well enough to be put in with Armstrong. At least, he’s not documented doing it.
Actually, King Oliver is the best example of getting vocal effects on your instrument. That man could make a trumpet sound like it was talking. No one else even comes close. Believe me, I’m trying to figure out what King Oliver did. Nobody knows what kind of mute he played with. If anybody finds out, I would like to know. Please! Next comes Lester Young, who brought a new attitude to jazz, something I think he got from Frankie Trumbauer. The Bix Beiderbecke-Frankie Trumbauer school of playing is more genteel. The only reason I wouldn’t name Beiderbecke or Trumbauer is because I don’t feel they had enough of the thing Louis Armstrong had, the flatfooted inventiveness, the syncopation and swing, and that real penetrating insight into blues playing. They had only one part of the equation.
Lester Young’s sound is his greatest accomplishment. He brought jazz a new sensibility, really melodic playing, and that real soft, ballad-like sound. When people talk about the birth of the cool, that started with Lester Young. He brought to jazz the notion of the really distinctively different musical personality. Almost eccentric, but with all that music in it. He was the first person in jazz who was really criticized for sounding different.
I almost forgot Jelly Roll Morton, jazz’s first intellectual. He showed how you can write jazz music down and have it still sound like jazz. And when you listen to Jelly Roll talk in the Library of Congress recordings—that’s what jazz is.
What do you mean?
That is the clearest statement there is. When you look past all his prejudices and things, past the jive about how he invented it, into the heart of what he’s saying—that’s jazz. When I first heard those tapes, I knew what jazz was. I could see how they put it together: the organization of the band, the riffs, the breaks, how to orchestrate. Jelly Roll gave me a way to understand Ellington. I could see how Duke organized things, how he used shout choruses and riffs and breaks and contrapuntal lines.
The man we’re talking about. Duke Ellington is the greatest intellectual of jazz. He codified the music. He put it down, like Bach did for European music. All the characteristics of jazz that we’ve gone through are in Ellington, all of them. Listening to Ellington, studying his scores, has affected my music deeply.
And after Ellington?
Charlie Parker. He brought a new level of psychological complexity, and he had an incredible sense of thematic organization. The greatest example is his solo in “Embraceable You.” It’s just—so great! His mind worked so quickly, he set a new standard for thinking and organizing. And Charlie Parker could play the blues. You combine that kind of intellectual capability with that type of deep soul and you’ve got something to contend with.
What do you mean by Parker’s psychological complexity?
There’s a level of neurosis in his music you don’t find in Ellington or even in Lester Young. With Charlie Parker you have a very 75 complex person, and all of his personality is in his music. Tremendous pride and joy. Anger, hurt, fear, compassion. There are so many emotions in his sound, and he can go from one to another, from elegant and refined to primitive.
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. …”
How is he more psychologically complex than, say, Armstrong? It’s a different world he’s describing. The mood changes from moment to moment; it’s changing all the time. To me, Louis Armstrong’s music has an overwhelming joy in it, of overcoming some tremendous obstacle. Charlie Parker’s music has a pensive quality to it, it’s more questioning. You have a sense that he’s ill at ease. How about musical complexity? He’s not more complex musically. Definitely not. Under no circumstances. What was the bebop innovation? They changed the shuffle rhythm. What about harmonic innovations ?
How is he more psychologically complex than, say, Armstrong?
It’s a different world he’s describing. The mood changes from moment to moment; it’s changing all the time. To me, Louis Armstrong’s music has an overwhelming joy in it, of overcoming some tremendous obstacle. Charlie Parker’s music has a pensive quality to it, it’s more questioning. You have a sense that he’s ill at ease.
How about musical complexity?
He’s not more complex musically. Definitely not. Under no circumstances.
What was the bebop innovation?
They changed the shuffle rhythm.
What about harmonic innovations ?