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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
They played a lot of extensions of the harmony. But when you’re playing modern American pop songs or blues, there are only five extensions of a chord anyway: the flat nine, the raised nine, the flat thirteen, the flat five, and the major seventh against a dominant chord. Armstrong and Ellington played stuff like that long before the beboppers. Like Thelonious Monk said, “Duke knows all the chords.”
But the way I’ve always understood bebop is that it brought a whole new level of harmonic complexity.
That’s not true. Not the accepted body of bebop, anyway. Monk—now, he’s a different story.
What about all the older musicians saying about Dizzy Gillespie, “He’s playing the wrong notes!” when he played all those dissonances?
It’s because of the way he organized the music. Rhythmically the music was different, so the dissonant notes fell in a different place. But if you’re talking about organizing solos around altered, complicated chords, Roy Eldridge played on altered chords. The beboppers were not the first people to do it. That’s something everybody has repeated forever, and it’s just not true. Listen to Louis Armstrong’s solo on “Potato Head Blues.” He plays a major seventh on a dominant chord, and it sounds good. It’s not because he doesn’t know the harmony. He heard that. He may not have made a habit of playing that way. But still, he did it. You always hear the same thing: “Pops was just playing triads.” It’s not true. Besides, playing on a triad ain’t nothing to laugh at. If you want proof of that—try to play on one!
Why do we think of the bebop generation as a watershed when jazz suddenly became different?
It is. Jazz changed. They played a different way. And the attitude was different, less tied to the entertainment industry. But the rhythm, not the harmony, is what stumped the older musicians. The emphasis is more on the eighth note as the basic unit, instead of the quarter note of New Orleans music. The call and response is much quicker between the musicians, like the way Bird [Parker] and Max Roach played back and forth. And the call and response isn’t prescribed, the way it was in big-band.
You started to say something about the shuffle rhythm.
It’s looser. It’s a looser shuffle. The older musicians were playing [scat-sings over a sedate rhythm] . But Charlie Parker and Dizzy played [sings a more relaxed, flowing shuffle] . When you hear Coleman Hawkins play bebop, the shuffle feels tight: tickty-tickty-tick. He can’t get the bebop feel. But he deserves a gold medal for trying. Not too many musicians of his generation even tried.
Who’s next after Parker?
Well, I’d put Monk with Parker. I think Thelonious Monk was the greatest musician from that period. He was the most sophisticated harmonically by far, and rhythmically. The attention to detail in his solos, the way he kept his concentration, is beautiful. He had a really original sound, but it contained all of the past in it, the blues and the church. Monk’s music had a big effect on me. It showed me how to appropriate blues dissonance. I was at Wayne Shorter’s house once and he played fifteen or twenty Monk tunes in a row on the piano, and when he was done he turned to me and said, “You dig?”
What was he asking you if you’d dug?
He wasn’t asking anything. He was telling me. Monk!
Dizzy—to me, the most sophisticated trumpet player harmonically, outside of Louis Armstrong. And Dizzy’s connection to Afro-Cuban music is very important. He’s a prime example of worldliness in jazz. Dizzy didn’t grow up playing the amazing things he did with Chano Pozo; he had to go way outside of himself to find these things.
What was it he liked in Afro-Cuban music?
I think he was attracted to the dance tradition. He didn’t want to lose the audience. That’s why he believed in humor, and he loved dancing. In Afro-Cuban music they still have a lot of the traditions—the dance tradition, the whole hierarchy of old and young, the concept of group musicianship. We just did a show at Lincoln Center with Tito Puente, and you can just see and feel and hear the tradition in that music. I’m sure Dizzy loved Afro-Cuban rhythms—complex, but still danceable. He was trying to keep jazz related to the community. You see all these guys trying to deal with the full range of the tradition. The concept of destroying your father may be a strain in Western thought, but it’s not for jazz musicians. When you talk with them, you never ever get that feeling.
I’d have to say Miles Davis. First, he was a great organizer. He knew how to use every element of his band, how to organize it dynamically. Sometimes just the bass and drums played, sometimes just piano and bass. Second, Miles’s trumpet sound had so many qualities. It’s joyous and sad, it has an ancient sound, like Bunk Johnson, but it’s modern; he plays with a lot of fire, but quietly. He had that real lyrical way of playing, like Armstrong, and he also had that bittersweet quality that comes out of that Lester YoungTrumbauer-Beiderbecke strain. Along with Armstrong, Miles is the biggest influence on my trumpet playing.