What Is Jazz?


I’ve listened to it. I’ve played with the musicians. I was at the first concert the World Saxophone Quartet gave. I played on bills with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It’s not interesting to me to play like that. If I’ve rejected it, it’s not out of ignorance of it. I don’t know any people who like it. It doesn’t resonate with anything I’ve experienced in the world. No food I’ve eaten, no sports I’ve played, no women I’ve known. I don’t even like Coltrane’s later stuff, to be honest. I don’t listen to it like I do to A Love Supreme . It was with the type of things that that late-period Coltrane did that jazz destroyed its relationship with the public. That avant-garde conception of music that’s loud and selfabsorbed—nobody’s interested in hearing that on a regular basis. I don’t care how much publicity it gets. The public is not going to want to hear people play like that.

Why do you feel that jazz reflects the American experience better than any other music?

Jazz is a music of conversation, and that’s what you need in a democracy. You have to be willing to hear another person’s point of view and respond to it. Also, jazz requires that you have a lot of on-your-feet information, just like a democracy does. There are a lot of things you simply have to know.

In jazz you have the opportunity to establish your equality—based on your ability. That’s the chance you have in a democracy. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be even, but you do have an opportunity. And often things won’t go your way; they’ll go the way the majority takes them. So you’ll have to go with them, and make the best out of a situation you might not like.

The principle of American democracy is that you have freedom; the question is, How will you use it? Which is also the central question in jazz. And in democracy and in jazz, you have freedom with restraint. It’s not absolute freedom, it’s freedom within a structure.

The connection between jazz and the American experience is profound. Believe me, that’s the heart and soul of what jazz is. That’s why jazz is so important. And that’s why the fact that it has not been addressed has resulted in our losing a large portion of our identity as Americans. Because the art form that really gives us a mythic representation of our society has not been taught to the public.

Why is jazz more reflective of the American experience than country music, or rock ’n’ roll?

They’re folk forms and they’re not as sophisticated as jazz. A country bluesman like Robert Johnson played what he played. Duke Ellington wrote Far East Suite . He dealt with the world.

Why does being sophisticated make something more reflective of the American experience?

Because the American experience is a sophisticated experience. You can have a regional expression that captures something heartfelt and very profound, but the American expe rience isn’t merely regional, it’s national. A guy like William Faulkner: How can you explain that? A guy who essentially came out of that redneck experience—but the range of what he wrote!

There’s much to be learned from the study of African history. … But when I touch ground in New Orleans, that’s when I say, ‘Yes! I’m home!’”

How closely is jazz bound up with the experience of African-Americans ?

It’s inseparable—in its inception. They created it. But why has who created it become more important than what was created? It has transcended its inception. The ancient Greeks have come and gone, but the Iliad is still here.

One wonders if there will ever be a jazz innovator, someone on the level of Ellington, who is white.

There might not, but it’s not important. It doesn’t make a difference. It is of no significance. I don’t say, “Well, Michael Jordan is a great basketball player, but, man, when is a black person going to invent one of these games?” I’ll settle for playing it. James Naismith, a white man, invented it? Fine, that’s fine with me. Why is it even an issue? That’s the thing you have to examine.

O.K., why is it?

Because in our time racism still carries more weight than musical fact. Duke Ellington didn’t have enough white in him? He’s an American. He’s from Washington, B.C.

People probably assume that it’s important to you to say that all great innovators of jazz have been black.