Wynton Marsalis on modern jazz, classic literature, and what's wrong with popular music
The artist himself may not agree, but to many Americans at the turn of the 21st century, Wynton Marsalis is jazz. Since the release of his first album in 1982, Marsalis, 37, has made a career of reviving jazz while at the same time paying tribute to its masters before a growing audience. His elegant trumpet sound and frequent performances (he averages more than 120 concerts a year) have made him a household name—a rare feat for a modern jazz musician.
Marsalis first learned to play the trumpet from his father, New Orleans pianist and teacher Ellis Marsalis. With his brothers Branford and Delfeayo, he studied both jazz and classical forms, and at 14 he made his debut with the New Orleans Philharmonic. In the early 1980s, after a year at New York's Juilliard School of Music, Marsalis played with Art Blakey's legendary Jazz Messengers before forming his own group and emerging as a composer.
Today, Marsalis is busy promoting a series of eight new jazz and classical CDs titled Swinging Into the 21st, all of which will be released by year's end. "I'm excited about what the next century has to offer," Marsalis says. "Musical styles are going to come together. We'll see a real integration, and the results will be tremendous." He spoke with associate editor Andy Steiner from his home in New York City.
What musicians have inspired you?
Of course the jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. I also like a lot of classical musicians, including Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Bartok.
You work hard to promote the musical education of young people. Did anyone do that for you when you were growing up?
My father, of course, and the many teachers who took the time to nurture my talent and the talents of other students in our school. Then there were the older jazz musicians who hung around our house when I was young. I saw how much they practiced, how serious they were about their art. I knew then I had to work just as hard if I wanted to succeed.
Do established musicians have a responsibility to guide and assist young up-and-coming musicians?
Yes. We've done such a poor job with music education because as a society we haven't maintained the ritual of courtship that's paramount to a romantic education, the kind of education that a true artist and musician needs. Young people haven't been able to equate romance and talent with music. For instance, most of the people who make it in the music industry today have to look good. How they sound is secondary. Sarah Vaughan, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald: Those big, romantic queens of jazz music wouldn't make it in today's music industry, and that's a shame. We need to teach young people about the alternatives.
Your work takes you around the world. What kind of "world music" do you enjoy?
Folk music, I'd call it. Around the world, people make music that, if you listen carefully to it, sounds a little like the cadence of their language. When I'm far from home, I make a point of listening to regional folk music, not what's on the radio.
What's wrong with the music on the radio?
The same music is on the radio all over the world, and the American sound is overwhelming. Even the pop music that's produced and created in foreign countries has that American beat, that underscore of funk. As a musician, I'm not interested in hearing recycled versions of the same genre over and over.
So you're not a fan of pop music?
It's not just popular music. Any music that doesn't have a development section just isn't interesting to me. If you have, say, 35 seconds of song that's repeated over and over with no development, a song that's three minutes long with no bridge and very little harmonic interest and no solo sections and the melody isn't even that good but it's still repeated over and over again, the result may be a very clean, well-produced product, but not really a piece of music. Everything that has meaning has been taken out of it. It's just a skeleton.
Are there any media trends that hearten you?
What VH1 is doing with their Save the Music campaign is phenomenal. They're getting all these instruments out to needy kids. It's the kind of thing all networks should be doing.
Do you have plans to compose another long work, like your Pulitzer Prize–winning Blood on the Fields?
I'm working on a long one for the end of the year called All Rise, for chorus, orchestra, and jazz band.
What books are you reading right now?
I'm reading History of My Life , Casanova's autobiography. I always return to the poems of William Butler Yeats. Generally, I don't read much fiction. My favorites are Faulkner, Hemingway, Ralph Ellison.
What about modern writers? Your reading choices make it sound like you prefer the past.
I don't see it that way. Everything repeats itself. Everything we do today will happen again in the future. Everything we will do tomorrow happened yesterday. So if you're reading Shakespeare, you're actually looking into the future. If you read Mark Twain like I do, you'll realize that a lot of his views are more current than what you read now. He's dealing with forces that are always in existence and always will be. Where's the Mark Twain of our era? That's the question. Who's having a dialogue with him in their art?
Does the contemporary music press give jazz the coverage it deserves?
The music press has so much to cover these days, and jazz is just a small fraction of it. Because some people are intimidated by jazz, they don't cover it unless it's a big name. New jazz musicians don't get much of a break. A lot of editors don't say anything about jazz these days unless it's Marsalis. That's a shame.
What do you think will happen to jazz in the 21st century? Will it continue to grow and develop, or will it eventually become—like opera—an icon of an earlier era?
Opera is still developing. Everybody thinks that if you don't have a great figure like Puccini at the helm, then that genre isn't growing. A form of music can grow and develop even when those performing it are simply repeating or doing variations on what came before. Life is repeating. Most of what you did today you've done for the past 10 years. It's still beautiful. It's just variations on a theme.
Still—again like opera—I've heard a lot of people say they just don't understand jazz.
Jazz isn't something you have to understand. All you have to do is listen to it. You listen to it carefully, and you enter the world of each individual musician—the world of Thelonious Monk, the world of Charlie Parker. Each is entirely different: It's like each musician is talking to you. What more can you ask for?