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What Is Jazz?

June 2024
39min read

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.

When Wynton Marsalis burst into the public eye in the early 1980s, it was as a virtuoso trumpet player. From the start he was an articulate talker too, but his bracing opinions were off-thecuff and intuitive; his ideas, like his playing, needed seasoning. In the years since, not only has Marsalis’s music deepened tremendously, his thinking has matured and coalesced to produce a coherent theory of jazz. Much of the controversy that surrounds him—he is accused of being an elitist, a snob, a killjoy—stems from the difficult position he occupies: that of the serious artist who is also a celebrity. Television talk shows are no forum for ideas; anyway, in America, intellectuals are “eggheads.” Marsalis is no elitist; rather, he is someone who loves jazz music because, unlike pop, jazz is an infinite challenge, a discipline you can spend your whole life mastering, humbling yourself daily but always growing. If he were an opera singer or a novelist, Marsalis wouldn’t be the butt of so much shallow criticism. It’s the price you pay for being the greatest living practitioner of a music that has its feet in two worlds: entertainment and high art.

Marsalis’s two biggest intellectual influences are the novelist and essayist Albert Murray and Murray’s protágá the journalist Stanley Crouch. Under their tutelage Marsalis came to accept the idea that lies at the heart of his thinking on jazz—namely, that jazz is the most American of art forms, the distillation of the American spirit.

Nor does jazz’s inventor, the African-American, occupy an isolated niche in American culture. Our nation’s cultural life is shot through with cross-influences; as Albert Murray is fond of saying, Americans are cultural mulattos. Jazz, born in that sociological gumbo pot New Orleans, is a multicomplexioned commingling of European concert music, brass-band marches, African strains, and Latin tinges; it is, in other words, the perfect expression of the hodgepodge, the stew, that is American culture. That is one of the tragedies of jazz’s waning popularity, Marsalis believes: We stand in danger of losing the truest mirror we have of our national identity. Accordingly, he is a fervent jazz missionary, giving dozens of workshops, lectures, and master classes per year, trying to sow the seeds of jazz. Approached after a show by a kid with a horn or a question, he will never turn the youngster away.

Jazz is more than the best expression there is of American culture; in practice, Marsalis argues, it is the most democratic of arts, a model of neighborly behavior. Jazz, he believes, teaches the rudiments of good citizenship, and that is the second reason Marsalis spends so much time in schools. His activism is inseparable from his aesthetics.

A decade ago Marsalis began to articulate the musical goal that motivates him now: to play “all of jazz,” to draw on the entire history of the music in his playing and composing. At its best Marsalis’s music may actually accomplish what he is shooting for. In its soulful, swinging, sweet-and- sour gravity, in its weight, it seems to embody the very essence of jazz, hovering almost eerily, cut loose from time, over the music’s entire hundred-year history, neither bebop nor swing nor New Orleans jazz, though bearing traces of each, but palpably itself.

Marsalis now concentrates on long pieces instead of five-minute songs. The Wynton Marsalis Septet, which he disbanded in 1994 to concentrate on composing and on his artistic directorship of the “Jazz at Lincoln Center” program, has recorded a pair of two-hour works, Citi Movement and In This House, on This Morning . Marsalis’s biggest piece, Blood on the Fields , an oratorio for three singers and a fourteen-piece orchestra, was performed at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in April 1994. Its recorded version will appear in 1996. The composer’s first string quartet, (At the) Octoroon Balls , received its premiere last May. Still a young man—he turns thirty-four this month —he has already released twenty-nine albums, a flood of music that will take years to absorb.

What follows is perhaps the most thorough examination of jazz Wynton Marsalis has ever made in print—covering its essential traits, its history, and his own place in that history. The conversation, conducted last spring, began in a Manhattan restaurant, was picked up ten days later on Marsalis’s band bus, and wound southward through the Pacific Northwest from Seattle to Eugene, Oregon.

Marsalis’s version of jazz history is by no means conventional. The bebop revolution, for instance, was rhythmic, he argues, and not, as received opinion has it, harmonic. Many disagree with him, but few, musicians or critics, have what Marsalis can claim: a thought-out, unified view, a cosmology, an aesthetic. Touched by genius, Wynton Marsalis is one of a kind. For the first time ever, jazz’s greatest musician is also its most articulate spokesman.

As I’ve understood you, the reason a jazz musician needs to master the history of jazz is to discover the music’s essence. What is it?

Some of the essential traits of jazz are things that have nothing to do with music, and others are musical traits. Of the things that don’t just have to do with music, first comes the concept of playing. You take a theme, an idea, and you play with it. Just like you play with a ball. If you’re teasing somebody, or flirting with somebody, you’re playing with ideas. So you have the spirit of play.

Next is the desire to play with other people . That means learning to make room. Take the proverbial kid who wants to be the star, with his ball, by his rules. You have to teach him the rules of sportsmanship—because nobody likes to lose—so you tell him, “No, you have to let the other kids play too.” When I started playing, my concept of jazz was, “This means I can solo, and people will clap for me.” When I joined Art Blakey, he was always telling us, “Man, y’all got to play more like a group, man. Soloing all night. … When your solo is over, stop playing! I build up to a solo and y’all just keep playing.”

Third, playing jazz means learning to respect individuality. You don’t have to agree with me; you have your own way of thinking, and that’s good. You and I, we come together and have a conversation. I consider what you’re saying. And I come away thinking, “It could be true,” or, “It’s definitely not true.” Playing jazz means learning how to reconcile differences, even when they’re opposites. That’s why it’s such a great thing for kids to learn. Jazz teaches you how to have a dialogue, with integrity.

So jazz is by nature social.

Yes. Good manners are very important. And spirituality. Jazz musicians always get back to spirituality when they talk about the music. They say, “Man, you have to have that love in the music.” The soul of the music comes out of that. You have to want to make somebody feel good with what you play. Many so-called cutting-edge forms assault the listener. But that’s not the identity of jazz. The identity of jazz is to present itself with some soul to people.

So it’s social not merely for the people who are doing it but also in terms of the audience.

Yes, because the jazz musician comes out of the audience. The jazz musician is not the storied ordained-by-God artist. The geniuses of the music, yes, but the average jazz musician is just … a musician. The guy who works in the cigar shop, pulls his horn out on the weekend, and plays some jazz. And part of the real tragedy for jazz has been that adults have stopped playing instruments.

Families used to recite poetry.

They can do it again.

It would be tough.

I can’t agree. In communities where two or three people take an interest in something, the whole community will be uplifted. I travel around the country, man, and see it. Whenever there’s one person in a city that works hard, you see the results of their work. When I was growing up in Kenner, Louisiana, we played ball because of one guy, Mr. Buddy. He didn’t have to, but he hooked it up so we could play.

All right, how about musical characteristics?

Number one is playing blues.

What do you mean by “blues”? Do you mean a piece of music with twelve bars and three chords?

I mean the philosophy of it. Blues gives the jazz musician an unsentimental view of the world. Blues is adult secular music, the first adult secular music America produced. It has an optimism that’s not naive. You accept tragedy and move forward. It has an endless quality—“Yes, this is messed up, but we do have that.”

Blues is a down-home sound. You come into somebody’s house and she says, “Come here, baby. Sit down. What do you want to eat?” You come into her house and she gives you a blues intonation. Blues is down-home sophistication. It’s what Mark Twain has in his writing, or William Faulkner or Ralph Ellison. Mark Twain gets to something deeply down home, but there’s a little dagger in there too.

“You can’t put one over on this yokel”?

Yes. That’s a big strain in American life. The Yankee peddler, the hayseed. We all know about the fool in the king’s court …he’s the smartest guy. “Y’all might be laughing at me but don’t be fooled.” He has the ear of the king too.

Blues is such a fundamental form that it’s loaded with complex information. It has a sexual meaning, the ebb and the flow of sexual passion: disappointment, happiness, joy, and sorrow. It has a whole religious connotation too, that joy and lift. Blues comes from spirituals. The central chord progression of the blues, IVT, is the amen cadence in church music: “A-men.” Mahalia Jackson’s favorite singer was Bessie Smith. A lot of good young jazz musicians come out of the church, because the church still has that expression in it. Secular music no longer does.

What expression?

A soulful way of expressing a song. An expression of joy, of praise. A lot of the joy has been taken out of popular music because of its emphasis purely on sex. But it’s still there in some of the church music.

And blues gives you a way to combine dissonance and consonance.

What do you mean?

Starting outside the note and moving back inside it. You could start a half-step or a quarter-tone outside. It’s usually called a blue note, which people think is always minor, but if you’re in a minor key it could be a major interval. I just call it a “blues tone,” an intonation that has blues in it. Someone like Son House could do it with one note, or Ben Webster, or Louis Armstrong. The real masterful blues players could do it, where one note had that dissonance and that consonance in it.

What else constitutes the essence of jazz?

It has to swing. Swing means constant coordination, but in an environment that’s difficult enough to challenge your equilibrium. In jazz somebody’s playing on every beat, generally the bass and drums. There’s not a lot of fat in the rhythm, unlike, say, in funk, where there’s plenty of space between beats. That’s what makes swinging in jazz a challenge. On every beat there’s the possibility of the rhythm falling apart. You have the constant danger of not swinging.

Swing isn’t rigid. Somebody might take the swing in a new direction, and you have to be ready to go that way. You’re constantly trying to coordinate with something that’s shifting and changing. You can’t be lazy in jazz.

In jazz, swing comes out of the shuffle rhythm. The interesting thing about the shuffle is, it’s a combination of the march and the waltz, the two basic rhythms in Western music, two-four and three-four. I think New Orleans musicians picked the shuffle up out of the march tradition. “Didn’t He Ramble,” one of the oldest New Orleans jazz tunes, is a sixeight march. John Philip Sousa’s “Washington Post March” is a six-eight march. A lot of what Afro-Americans did in music was refine things that already existed. The shuffle has always been out here; if you listen to some types of African music, often you hear somebody shuffling way up on top. The shuffle’s like basketball: Afro-Americans didn’t invent it, but they refined it to another level and put another type of American twist to it.

What else is essential?

Collective improvisation, people getting together and making up music as a group.

Can you have jazz without improvisation?

Yes, you can. But it won’t sound as good. You can play basketball without a basket and dribble the ball around and shoot at an imaginary basket, and it’s still basketball.


Syncopation. A syncopated approach to rhythm, which means you’re always prepared to do the unexpected, always ready to find your equilibrium. If you’re thrown off, you get back on. You challenge the rhythm. In jazz you’re impro vising within a form. You challenge that form with rhythms, with harmonies. Art Tatum challenged form harmonically, inventing new harmonies and resolving them. You can challenge form melodically, like Lester Young. Ben Webster challenged form with timbres and textures. It’s all connected to the notion of play. You set parameters and then you mess with them.

Is that the essential difference between jazz and classical music?

Yes. Classical music doesn’t prize improvisation. It doesn’t place a premium on individuality. In jazz the point is to achieve your identity on your instrument, no matter what role you play. You could play the most insignificant role in the music, just a simple riff—the challenge is, play that riff like you. That’s not the concept in classical music.

Sure it is. Beethoven used music to express the individual’s mighty soul.

O.K., it’s the concept for the composer. But in jazz the greatest composers are the ones who can write themes that invite others to improvise on them. What makes Ellington so great is that he could write something that Johnny Hodges would want to play on. In jazz it’s “How can we, as a group, organize the music?”

Let’s continue with our basic traits.

You’d have to include call and response: statement, then counterstatement and confirmation. Almost every kind of music I’ve ever heard has call and response, even Baroque music. In Beethoven’s Third Symphony, in the main theme of the first movement, say, the call and response is written out. In blues, call and response is formalized: The singer states his theme, the guitar answers. But in jazz, the call and response is spontaneous. You invent it. Players call and respond freely, all the time.

You have two types of call and response in jazz. The first is concurrent. In the King Oliver band, they’re calling and responding together. The response is also the call. The trumpet’s playing and the clarinet too, inventing something to go with the trumpet —and he doesn’t know what the trumpet’s playing! He’s listening and making it up. And the trombone’s playing too. So each is making decisions all the time—“I’ll play a long note here, a short one there.” That’s the most fascinating call and response, the simultaneous type. That’s true collective improvisation.

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?

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 ?

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.

Who’s next in the pantheon?

John Coltrane. Now, Trane is very, very essential. Trane is an example for all musicians because his development came from phenomenally hard work. And Trane’s sound has a special dignity to it, a deep compassion. It’s very earnest. It gives you a whole new idea of how the blues can be played. It’s not low-down, guttural blues, but it’s still deeply soulful. Listen to Coltrane Plays the Blues . Doo weee-ooooh— Trane sounds like he’s playing field hollers sometimes! Trane brought the spirituals back. Once again, his sound is ancient but new, something you’ve never yet heard, with both the sound of field hollers and the psychological complexity Bird brought into the music.

One thing about musicians like Coltrane or Bird or Monk or Miles, when he was serious about playing, is the amount of information they conveyed simply in their sound . Louis Armstrong’s sound—that might have been someone playing outside the walls of Jericho! That’s some ancient information. The musicians who are the most successful are the ones who cause the most eras to resonate.

And once you combine Coltrane with his drummer Elvin Jones—because without Elvin, Coltrane is not the same—that’s two people who pack the same amounts of information into their instruments. Elvin Jones sounds like some ancient African drummer. He’s from Pontiac, Michigan! But the ages resonate when he plays. The way Elvin hits a cymbal, it has the sound of the earth in it.

What did the best drummers contribute?

The drum is the heart of the music. The music has two things, incantation and percussion. It’s like the sound of a train: Ask a group of kids, “How does a train sound?” Some of them will go “Woo-woo-woo,” others will go “Chicka-chicka-chicka.” That’s the blues. Incantation and percussion. We have a tendency to talk only about the incantation side, Ellington or Miles Davis. But without the percussion side, without that rhythm section—no music.

And after Coltrane?

Well, there’s Ornette Coleman. He brought another way of playing the blues, a real country way of playing the blues, the Texas blues. The sound of Charlie Parker, the whole tradition of the saxophone—Parker, Johnny Hodges—really resonates when Omette plays. He plays very short themes, but they’re very melodic. He’s a genius melodic improviser.

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.…

What about the free-jazz innovations of his that everybody talks about?

That’s just what they talk about. He’s had one conception that was innovative, of playing across the bar. He hears phrases rhythmically a certain way. He doesn’t think, “I have to fit this melody into eight bars.” He’ll play it in seven, or seven and a half, or whatever. He hears across-bar phrases. I love that, and I try to write my own music like that.

Do you understand what he calls his harmolodic theory?

No, I think that’s just some type of theoretical conception he wants to talk about. I don’t think it’s what he’s playing.

What is he playing?

He’s playing country blues. In short phrases. I’ve talked to Omette about his notion of free jazz. I don’t understand it. I think it’s chaos. Maybe it’s not, but that’s what I think it is. Chaos is always out there; it’s something you can get from any fifty kids in a band room. I’m in favor of using that conception when kids first start playing. It helps them explore their instruments and music without restraint.

Are there any great contributors after Coleman?

There are so many I haven’t touched on: Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ahmad Jamal. There are so many bad mothers, man. The list of truly great musicians goes on and on. Now we have Marcus Roberts, somebody who’s actually rejoining the tradition to itself. But he’s not recognized.

Isn’t he too young to have a fully developed personality?

No, his personality is very clear. It’s highly developed. Once again, you get that deep blues sound. And then he combines a conception of rhythm that never before existed—playing in two totally different times—with the tradition of stride piano. No one has ever syncopated the way Marcus does. And he gives tremendous attention to thematic material. It’s the same few things we keep seeing in the great players. His solos are beautifully organized.

You would put Marcus Roberts in the same category as Monk?

I don’t know if I could do that, but only because I don’t know how far above an impoverished environment you can rise. Monk comes out of a golden age; Marcus Roberts comes out of a barren desert.

It has been a criticism of you that you’re deaf to a lot of interesting music since the era of Coltrane and Coleman.

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.

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?

Well, you can have an intuitive understanding of something even when you lack any real awareness of it. Way back on my first album, my brother Branford and I played a song, “Hesitation,” where we were trying to deal with a New Orleans way of playing, with group polyphony. We didn’t look at it that way, but that’s what we were doing. We had another song, “Twilight,” in the form of a Charleston. It had call and response in it, it had a blues in the middle, and it was a shuffle. Stanley Crouch said to me, “You know, I can hear the conception behind all your music in that one song, ‘Twilight.’”

How about your recent pieces—in other words, since your goal of “playing all of jazz” became explicit?

Citi Movement has a simple structure, but there’s a lot of improvisation on top of that. It has a lot of call and response, it uses the different moods in jazz. It’s got a little Latin tinge, a little calypso groove; it has passages where the horns moan and cry, all those human sounds. The second movement ends with a ballad—I always try to end with a ballad, something sweet. There’s a section with an African cyclical rhythm, and there’s a modal effect, like Coltrane’s music. There’s a chant, like church music and spirituals. There’s the trumpet call with the drums, a whole military, marching-band concept. And I tried to make the whole thing swing with a certain elegance.

That trumpet solo—“The Legend of Buddy Bolden,” which looks all the way back to the first known jazz musician—seems to play a central role in Citi Movement .

Yes. They say, “In the end is the beginning.” Something is over, so something starts. Somebody dies, somebody’s born. Death and rebirth. That’s the whole New Orleans tradition. The solo starts the third movement. The second movement is over, and then everything is chaos. We just play wild, a lot of loud noise, but noise has its place, because that’s what you’ve come to organize. And that’s when Buddy Bolden cuts through: “All right, y’all are playing noise, but this is some music.” And he plays a shuffle and a triad in the key of B-flat. He starts on the fifth, F, and then reaches up for the root, B-flat.


I want him to be going up from the dominant to the tonic, because that is the basic interval in the most ancient trumpet calls. And I wanted him to be reaching for something, reaching for the start, trying to make a beginning. Cutting through that noise and saying, clarion-like: “We’re out here to swing.”

Citi Movement seems very playfully put together.

It has some little tricks. In the second movement I keep using a theme that has a half-step in it. A close interval may be close on the scale, but it’s far apart harmonically. The keys of C and C-sharp are right next to each other, but they have only two tones, C and F, in common. I did that to reflect how people in the city, and all the different things they do, might be worlds apart but they’re actually very close.

Which piece of yours is the strongest expression of the blues?

Blood on the Fields . That has the deepest blues feeling. I think that’s my strongest piece, period. Some of that, I actually had tears in my eyes when I wrote it. Usually I try to have distance from the music, so it won’t sound like it’s just about me. But I was involved in this. I even had to get away from it!

What part hit you the hardest?

The part where the character Jesse sings the chant, “Whoa, anybody , hear this plaintive song/ Who wants to help their brother dance this dance?” I wanted to put the whole piece into that little two-minute section. The philosophy it expresses is what I believe in, deeply. When Jesse sings, “Whoa, anybody, hear this plaintive song,” that’s one man, in anguish, addressing the whole world. Anybody, hear this song. Then he sings, “Who wants to help me dance this dance?” Who wants to participate in life with me?

Now, it sounds like he’s defeated when he sings, “Hear this plaintive song.” But then when he sings, “I sing with soul,” he’s saying that whatever tragedy is in the land, which in his case is slavery, “I’m singing with soul to heal it,” which means, I’m coming with an attitude of soul, of helpfulness. I’m not here for revenge, or to make you feel guilty for messing me over, or for you to take pity on me. I’m coming to you with something to help us. And that’s what jazz music is.

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, that made me to want to play jazz music. You come to jazz with the attitude that you’re trying to work something out. Not just to complain. Complaining makes you accept a position of inferiority. Whenever you make someone else the central issue, make the fact that they did something to you the central issue, you’re making a big mistake.

But a lot of black people don’t complain. It’s not like there aren’t people out there with heroism, but when a black person has a vision that’s not whining, it won’t be endorsed by the media. The media in America pick certain things to celebrate, and with the Negro, if you aren’t complaining about something, or asking for something, it’s hard for you to get publicity—unless you commit a crime.

Was it a difficult leap for you to begin to write long pieces?

No, because that’s my talent in music, to hear form. In high school we’d have ear-training tests where you had to identify the form of a piece of music, like a Beethoven symphony. I could always tell the main theme, the secondary theme, the development section, recapitulation. When I write, I’m confident in the form. I know I can make a piece unified thematically. All of my music is like that. Every solo I play is that way. I don’t even have to think about it. That’s the only way, really, I can conceive of music. That’s how I think.

How does your music take from the masters and yet do things they didn’t?

There’s never been a band in jazz like the septet we had. We played a range of expression no other group had played except Duke Ellington’s. Our song “The Majesty of the Blues” isn’t like any other song in jazz. “Uptown Ruler” doesn’t sound like anything else. We’re describing a different world. That’s the only way I can really express it. Our music has its own consciousness.

Do you mean you’ve advanced beyond Ellington?

You can’t do that in music. You can’t advance beyond anybody. You can do something different, you can change the form, you can add something new. But Beethoven didn’t go beyond Bach.

Sometimes it seems to me that in trying to capture some of these essential traits of jazz, your music sounds anachronistic. For instance, a lot of Citi Movement sounds like a sonic portrait of an early 1950s city, not a city of today.

When I walk around Manhattan, that’s the city I see. I’m not going to give you the city someone else would see. Someone might say, “He needs to have homeless people.” That’s not what I wanted to depict in that piece.

Why do you use only traditional acoustic instruments? Can’t jazz be played on electronic instruments?

Yes, it can. Electronic instruments give you a much wider palate of sound—but it’s pure sound, not expressive sound, and in jazz it’s a question of expressive sound. I’m not interested in sounds as sounds; I’m interested in how people sound.

Could you see yourself ever composing for electronic instruments?

Sure. But when I start really listening to the instruments, I don’t like them. Jazz music is soul music. It’s bound to the earth through the instrument. Electronic instruments are fine tools, but they aren’t bound to the earth the way acoustic instruments are. Jazz is earth music. It’s healing music. That’s its identity.

But man is no longer bound to the earth.

Man will probably always be bound to the earth in some way, even if just the memory. Just like we’re always bound to our most primitive urges.

How do you answer people who say that your music doesn’t reflect life in the nineties?

Well, that means to me that they don’t know what life in the nineties is. Because I’m in the nineties, and people from the nineties come to check it out and enjoy it and swing.

But listen to the sound of the bus we’re riding on. That’s the sound of high technology.

That sound is from the 1930s. And it’s not the job of music to imitate technology anyway. It can do that and be fine. But music deals with the human soul. And the human soul has not changed for a very long time.

When we play the Village Vanguard, a pile of people from the 1990s who live in New York will come and swing and have a good time. And we’ll be playing a style of jazz that has never been played before, never. Now, that happened in 1991 and 1992 and 1994. So critics can say what they want. They can say, “Well, you’re playing music from the fifties.” Yes, we play music that has its roots in the fifties. We play music that has its roots in Africa, in ancient times, music that has its roots in New Orleans, music that has its roots in the Haydn Trumpet Concerto. But it’s never been combined in this way. And the people who hear us play and swing, they go home and make love and do whatever they do in that moment and have a good time. Now, people are also in the Palladium dancing and listening to the music you can hear on the radio and on television, but that music doesn’t have as many roots as the music we play. It doesn’t touch as many different times. It’s not as modern.

“ Why does jazz have to go down the same road that killed European music? We’ve seen that that doesn’t work.”

What do you mean, it’s not as modern? It’s ultracontemporary.

It’s bound to its time. It becomes dated very quickly.

How does that make it less modern?

Because being modern means that you’re addressing all of what is at your disposal. Somebody who’s on the space shuttle is using all kinds of technology. He doesn’t feel pressed to discard principles that have worked throughout the twentieth century in order to be up-to-the-minute. Being modern means addressing the entire history of what’s available to you, and using it. You don’t say, “Well, I’m modern, so I can’t do that.” That dates you.

If you incorporated electronic sounds, you’d be dealing with a fuller range of what’s available.

I don’t like those sounds. They’re not as expressive as the acoustic sounds. For me to incorporate those sounds would be to use less than what’s available, because a greater range of nuance, subtlety, and soul exists in acoustic sound.

I’m talking about creating music that’s the equivalent of that space module.

I don’t feel that the electronicness of electronic instruments gives you that. The soul of your music gives you that, the complexity of the form and the complexity of the interaction. What goes on between me and [drummer] Herlin [Riley] when we play, what we create—that’s the interesting thing about the music, not what instruments we’re playing.

So we have another case of mistaking the trappings for the essence—in this case, people thinking that mere electronics make music contemporary.

People don’t do that; people who write about music do. People know the difference. Some kids from the Arizona track team came to a concert of mine. One of them told me afterward, “Man, I had no idea that’s what jazz was.” It was amazing to him. He said, “You were playing, and I saw the other guy looking at you, and you changed. 8230; Man, the way you communicate with each other!” Which is what makes jazz modern. The modern world is about increased communication. Most of the twentieth century’s innovations are communications devices, but it’s not the fact of the telephone, it’s the fact that you can communicate. You have all these computers that are linked up. Now you can communicate.

In your recent book, Sweet Sitting Blues on the Road , you said, “Jazz is in a transitional stage.” What did you mean?

That was a safe statement, because jazz is always in a transitional stage. Right now, we’re trying to get back to people playing at a competent level of musicianship. Another battle is for musicians to be recognized as authorities on music. That’s never happened in jazz. And also we’re battling for the recognition of the ritual aspects of jazz, of the fact that jazz music is not like European classical music. Jazz music does not have to reinvent itself every five or ten years for it to be valid, or for it to be jazz music.

Why not?

Because that’s not what jazz music is about. The essence of jazz is that you play it. If you have something that’s changing every five years, nobody can play it. We should have jazz bands all over the country. You need a form of music that’s easy enough for everybody to play. If you keep coming up with the new thing that nobody can play, or nobody wants to hear, it’s like so-called free jazz, nobody wants to hear it.

But I can imagine people playing parade music and sounding good. Playing little simple tunes, Walt Disney tunes, man—they’re simple, they’re songs anybody can improvise on. I can imagine an elementary-school band learning how to play that. Why does jazz have to go down the same road that killed European music? We’ve seen that that doesn’t work.

The immediate goal for jazz is to teach people what the music is and to get people to play it. And people would love to play it. You don’t have to be great to play jazz. You can play simple jazz and sound good, man. That’s the one tragedy that I can see now. When I was eight years old, I played in Danny Barker’s band. I was awful, but I played, and I still remember all those songs, like “Little Liza Jane.” We played jazz music, a band of eight- and nine-year-old kids, and people dug it. If it weren’t for Danny Barker, we wouldn’t have been playing jazz.

I wonder if there isn’t a contradiction in something your colleague Stanley Crouch said recently, that jazz should 85 be given the same respect we give Brahms or Wagner. Wouldn’t that mean elevating jazz in a way that would prevent it from achieving mass popularity?

No. Wagner wanted his music to be popular. That’s what he was striving for. He envisioned masses of regular German people sitting down, saying, “Yeah! Richard Wagner!”

Is jazz art music or popular music?

It’s both.

The two aren’t mutually exclusive?

No, they’re not. Jazz is a high art, but at the same time it’s popular. That’s what Dizzy was fighting for.

But he lost the battle.

He didn’t lose the battle.

At a certain point in American history, jazz was popular. Jazz was the popular music in the 1930s.

Right. That time will never return. But the real jazz was never really, really popular. When you look at the record sales, the real jazz bands were never really the ones that were popular. The sound of jazz was used in popular music.

Maybe what that means is that the best, most serious jazz is never going to be popular.

I don’t agree with that.

Why not?

It won’t be as popular as some stuff, but does it have to sell ten million? Isn’t a million popular? I’ve sold millions of albums. I have two gold albums. That’s a million right there. Bringing jazz in its real form to as many people as possible …that’s what I’m fighting to do. That’s really what my goal is. Now, I won’t see a tremendous success in my lifetime, but basically the question is, Do you believe in people? And I do. Because I come into contact with a lot of people, and believe me, we’re going to succeed out there.

Sabat’s Jazz Jelly Roll Morton Bessie Smith Count Basie Art Tatum Louis Armstrong Duke Ellington Louis Armstrong Charlie Parker

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