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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
I don’t have to say it. I just say “Louis Armstrong.” I don’t say “black Louis Armstrong.” I mean, what about a pride in humanity? Ellington’s achievement is his achievement. It’s a human achievement. Because, remember, the Afro-American experience is American experience. Whenever the Negro is successful at something, there has to be an excuse made up for why. The best way to do that is to make his achievement seem like something only he can do, for some racially derived reason—which removes the direct competition and exchange that actually exist. Ellington listened to Gershwin and Paul Whiteman, Jelly Roll Morton to John Philip Sousa. Michael Jordan was taught by Dean Smith. Bix Beiderbecke learned from Louis Armstrong. These exchanges go on all the time in American life. We like to look at stuff as black and white, but most people’s experience is not that way.
I’m an American. I’m from Kenner, Louisiana. I grew up on the other side of the tracks, where black people live, but I went to school with all white people. I looked at the evening news on the “Huntley-Brinkley Report” and heard their theme, from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, like everybody else in America. And I’m going to be true to my experience. I don’t want to capitulate to anyone, black or white. I don’t want to claim to be from Africa or from Europe. There’s much to be learned from the study of African history; there’s much to be learned from the study of European history. I would like to try to investigate as much as I can of all of it. But when I touch ground in New Orleans, that’s when I say, “Yes! I’m home!” When I’ve been in a foreign country and I come to the United States of America, I feel like I’m at home.
Now, one day the entire world will be the home of everybody. That’s not yet, but it’s what people in the arts strive for.
But you wouldn’t want jazz to be completely universal—as you say, it reflects the American experience.
For right now, it does. But in the future it won’t. But it won’t be jazz, it’ll be something else. The next whatever-is-goingto-come. It will be something else, for the world. Ellington was already dealing with that. That’s why he wrote Far East Suite, Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, Latin American Suite .
When did you consciously start to draw on the whole history of jazz in your playing and composing?
I learned that from Albert Murray. And from all the musicians. When Mr. Murray’s book on Count Basic, Good Morning Blues , came out, I played for Basic at the Village Gate. I was twenty-three or twenty-four. They said, “Make up some riffs!” I said, “Riff?” But I started trying, and they said, “Damn, that’s a hip-ass riff!” I was just listening to what they were doing and then saying, “Let’s play this,” and they played it and said, “Damn, you can hear.”
These were the authentic cats, who could swing. I had never hung with swing-era musicians a lot. I’d hung with bebop cats at the oldest. But now I started hanging with Sweets Edison. And I started to see things totally differently. See, for me the whole thing has been to learn to put my experience in the proper context, because I was educated away from my strength. I wasn’t thoroughly miseducated. I grew up around that environment, around New Orleans and my father’s jazz piano, so I had the music in me. I knew fusion wasn’t jazz.
But you didn’t know what was jazz.
Right. I didn’t know the range of it. Spending time with those guys made me understand that all of the history of jazz is the same. All jazz musicians interpret the same material. I had been told that by Mr. Murray and Stanley Crouch and musicians, but I’d never felt it. But when I played with Basic’s men, it felt good . …
Sweets told me things I needed to hear. “You need to get some weight on your tone. You need to learn how to play some blues.” The most important thing he told me was, “Man, you as qualified to play the blues as any mother—— who’s ever played. You from New Orleans and you a soulful mother——. Play . You don’t have to be out here trying to prove you can play. I’m telling you you can play, and I know more about it than anyone.” My feeling became: I’ll do anything I can do to learn how to play blues. But this wasn’t something I felt I had to go outside of myself to do. I heard blues all my life. All I had to do was play. Get the experience of playing the slow tempos. I grew up playing funk and fusion. Things Mr. Murray had been telling me for years, about blues expression—the richness of what he was saying hadn’t resonated for me. I hadn’t felt it in terms of how it could be translated into music.
“Soul. Healing. It’s a music of healing and love. It brings people together. That’s what I heard in John Coltrane’s music when I was twelve years old. …”
Is there any other jazz composer today doing what you’re trying to do: draw on the whole range, the whole history, of jazz expression? Not that I know of. Where in your work can we best hear the essential traits of jazz we’ve been talking about?
Is there any other jazz composer today doing what you’re trying to do: draw on the whole range, the whole history, of jazz expression?
Not that I know of.
Where in your work can we best hear the essential traits of jazz we’ve been talking about?