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Jazz Culture: Marsalis Blows His Own Trumpet

By Malik B. Ali, Contributing Writer

As a performer, Wynton Marsalis won eight Grammy Awards for his jazz and classical trumpeting skills. As a composer of the jazz oratorio Blood on the Fields, he became the first winner of a Pulitzer Prize for a non-classical composition. As an author, public speaker, public television personality and director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, he has become a musical diplomat, a 21st-century Leonard Bernstein, lecturing and performing on six continents.

However, if Marsalis is tremendously accomplished, he is almost equally controversial. Many critics and musicians label Marsalis an artistic conservative with exclusionary aesthetic views, and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra has been frequently accused of reverse racism and gender discrimination in its hiring practices.

After his recent lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Askwith Education Forum, Marsalis sat down to discuss music and other related issues with Harvard Crimson writer Malik B. Ali and WERS-FM radio personality Simon Rentner.

The Harvard Crimson: Boston was recently visited by Sonny Rollins, whom many people consider to be jazz music's last living legend. Who are some of the great leading jazz musicians of the next generation, in your opinion?

Wynton Marsalis: Well, there's Marcus Roberts, a pianist from Jacksonville, Fl. He's a clear heavyweight.

THC: Would you say that he's spearheading a new jazz movement?

WM: No, he's not a spearhead, he's just the most accomplished.

THC: Many critics consider your views on modern hip-hop culture and music conservative. What is your response to people who say you are out of touch with the culture?

WM: That's one vision that could perhaps be the case. But it could also be the other case.

THC: Which would be?

WM: That I'm in touch and that it's actually some bullshit. It could be either one of those; it's up to everybody to investigate and decide for themselves. But in order to investigate you have to be able to step back far enough from something to see it for what it is. All of the most absurd things in history went largely unquestioned, because people were already indoctrinated in them. It would be something like going to the Coliseum if you were a Roman. The fact that people were getting killed and eaten by lions didn't seem strange to you; you grew up with that. Hip-hop's language and messages are normal now to people, normal to someone my son's age. I remember a time before that came in. To me it's still hard for that to become normal, it's hard for me to accept that. It 's hard for me not to see it as another commercialization of something, making money through exploitation. Now I could be wrong. But I could also not be wrong. That's about the words. I'm not wrong about the music.

THC: Is this what you mean when you talk about the craftsmanship of the music?

WM: That's laughable, man. That's my field. I'm not wrong about that, brother. Take my word for it.

Simon Rentner: There's a profuse number of white students studying jazz music in institutional settings now. There aren't many black students studying the music in that very formal sense. Do you think that matters?

WM: Education matters whether it's in a formal setting or not. The fact that the Afro-American is not in touch with pertinent cultural advances in Afro-American and American thought doesn't bode well. But if you look at the condition of the Afro-American community you can see it. There are a lot of things that are wrong that we need to correct, and that would be one of those things. As far as the white kids that are studying, that's always been the case. This has been 40 years now, it didn't just come up in the last 10 years. The question for a lot of kids who study jazz is a matter of content; not just that they are studying, but what are they studying? A lot of the information has been tainted, the kids are being taught things that are unfounded, untrue. It takes them farther away from their own identity, be they white or black.

SR: A lot of jazz people lean toward Post-Romantic Impressionists for classical inspiration. However, you always go farther back, always making a reference to Bach or Beethoven, where others cite Ravel or Debussy.

WM: Well, I'm a classical musician also, I've played with many orchestras, so my experience with classical music might be more extensive than a lot of other jazz musicians. Bach's music is one of the great wonders of Western man. Like the Sistine Chapel or the works of Shakespeare. Some things touch on so many things at such a high level of craftsmanship you just step back in awe and are just happy that you can understand it. That's one of the unimpeachable achievements in music. When you talk about Bach, sometimes you feel like you need to genuflect. It's just that good. I often speak of classical music as philosophical. It's not necessarily in terms of personal preference. I like Debussy's music, Ravel was a genius orchestrator, but there are many. Bartok, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, so many great composers.

THC: People often talk about a "jazz influence" in the visual arts and literature. Does a jazz influence exist in other forms of creative expression?

WM: Jazz has permeated everything in America in the 20th century, in terms of the elevation of individual expression, and the service of the individual expression to a group experience. Movies are always based on that. There's an irreverence for material, but a reverence for quick wits and thinking. There is the whole question of the sophisticated country boy. Abraham Lincoln was an example. This guy off of a farm somewhere delivered the Gettysburg Address. These archetypes exist in our way of looking at things. Jazz is about a process of putting things together. There's no right or wrong in it, it's just a way of doing things. It's been an inseparable part of America in the 20th century, but it will really achieve its greatest height in the 21st or 22nd Century. There was tremendous resistance to it in the 20th Ccntury because its greatest jazz artists were Afro-American. Now that resistance is fading away, because it's not as important as it was then to keep those people down.

SR: Duke Ellington was denied the Pulitzer Prize. You were the first to accept it.

WM: Duke Ellington was denied so much more than that. By the time they got around to considering him for the Pulitzer Prize, he was 60-something years old.

SR: On one of your albums, you make reference to Duke Ellington and his struggles on the road to get his music to people.

WM: And he did get it heard. That's the bottom line. He played it. He didn't stay at home bitching about it. He went out there and played it.

THC: If you look at many younger jazz musicians, there seems to be something of a rejection of any jazz artists who came before alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and any music that established before the hard bop movement of the 1950s?

WM: The greatest artists are always those that are many men thick. That's a constant in the world of art. We're in a renaissance. The greatest musicians I know accept the whole history of music. Marcus Roberts, who I named before, pianist Cyrus Chestnut, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, these are artists who deal with all of the music. They're not being addressed properly, but they're here. The archaic thought that abstraction is the only way to be modern, I don't know who still believes in that. Also, the idea that one period of something defines it instead of the whole of that thing is also archaic. America prizes change and being reborn, but our country has a history and documents that govern it. To function in our society in a position of leadership, it's incumbent upon you to understand those things, not just what you see when you're on the scene.

THC: It's an issue of dealing with things deeper than at face value?

WM: That's what it always is in life, whether it's with your kids, wife, girlfriend,'s always an issue of what's underneath the surface, what's more internal. Go in, then you can go out. If you don't go in deep enough, you can't come out.

SR: I hear that of all of your musical family members, you all unanimously consider your youngest brother, drummer Jason to be the most talented.

WM: There's no question about that. He has perfect pitch, none of the rest of have pitch. He knows more music than the rest of us, he can memorize and remember music, he has that type of mind. He's just very talented.

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