TOPICS > Arts

Changing the Beat

March 25, 1996 at 12:00 AM EST

TRANSCRIPT

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: New York’s Lincoln Center. For 34 years, home to the world of classical music. Now there’s a new sound in the house. (music) It’s a new sound for Lincoln Center but not a new sound–like Duke Ellington’s New Orleans Suite.

Although jazz concerts have been staged here since the late 1980′s, jazz at Lincoln Center is about to take on a whole new identity. This Summer it will become a so-called constituent of the nation’s premier performing arts center on a par with the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet. For Wynton Marsalis, the program’s artistic director, it’s a dream come true.

WYNTON MARSALIS: When we sat up there and they said we were going to be a constituent, I almost had a tear come into my eye. I had to catch myself.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Marsalis worked for years to elevate the official status of jazz. His friend, Al Murray, has worked decades. Murray is a writer and cultural historian and something of a mentor to Marsalis, who was deeply influenced by a book Murray wrote in the 70′s, Stompin’ the Blues. At a party last week celebrating the publication of two new books by Murray, a novel and a collection of essays, his editor, Erroll McDonald, read an excerpt from the now classic Stompin’ the Blues.

ERROL McDONALD, Editorial Director, Pantheon Books: “The main thing that it is always about is the also and also of dragging, driving, jumping, kicking, slinging or otherwise stomping way of blues as such.”

ALBERT MURRAY, Author: Life is rough. So are you gonna cut your throat, or are you gonna get yourself together and stomp at the Savoy by 9:30 that night? Stompin’ the blues means getting rid of the blues, but you don’t stomp it with power; you stomp it with eloquence, like his trumpet, you see.

(TRUMPET PLAYING IN BACKGROUND)

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: They’re a mutual admiration society, Marsalis and Murray, and we sat down with them recently to talk about jazz’s place at Lincoln Center and in American cultural life.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Al Murray, tell me why jazz at Lincoln Center, home of the opera, the ballet, the philharmonic, why jazz.

AL MURRAY: Well, jazz should be perceived as a fine art. For many years it’s been confused with pop art or pop music or folk music, whereas, it is fine art music. It’s not played by amateurs. You’ve got to be a consummate craftsman in order to play it. So it belongs where the finest development of musical expression is performed.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So why did it take so long to get it to a place like Lincoln Center?

WYNTON MARSALIS, Artistic Director, Jazz at Lincoln Center: Well, we don’t care why it took so long. We’re here to swing. If it took–it could take another 500 years–it’s here now, and we’re going to stop in the door, and we’re going to take care of business. Now, this is our first year as a constituent, but we’re going to try to expand our program and represent the music and include people.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Wynton, what exactly is jazz?

WYNTON MARSALIS: Essentially the creation of blues-based melodies and, and improvising in a form in which other musicians are improvising with a certain type of rhythm and syncopation and feeling. Of course, if you talk to a musician, you talk to a musician, you say, let us–you say let’s play some blues–they think you’re going to play 12-bar chords, right?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Let’s hear that.

(WYNTON MARSALIS PLAYING PIANO)

WYNTON MARSALIS: Now when you’re talking about percussion, that’s the way–I play a certain way, you know, with access. (Marsalis playing piano) That was 12 bars. It was kind of long, you know .I know you have to cut that, but we take that form and we improvise with it, so now with that 12 bars I might start the blues off and you might say one, two, three–uh–(playing piano)–or, you know, I might start it off and go–(playing piano)–you feel blues, but either way I’m playing with the rhythm, and Duke Ellington used to always say it was musical freedom of speech, but, you know, that’s as a general overwhelming, but it’s democracy in sound, because everybody has choices to make, and we all have the right to our individual path, our way, but we have the responsibility of attempting to make a coherent statement.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Albert Murray has a slightly different definition of jazz.

AL MURRAY: It was down-home people. It was down-home African-derived people who had a disposition to refine all musical statement in the direction of dance, beat, elegance.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Rehearsing for a concert of great orchestral arrangements from the 1930′s, Marsalis told his band members they had a long way to go.

WYNTON MARSALIS: We got to jump on the rhythm a lot more. It’s got to be crisp and swinging, like something we want to dance to. We just play well. You’d be sitting, sitting in a room with flowered wallpaper and potpourri. The main thing that we want to do is we want to bring jazz to the people. We want the public to come out and have a good time, listen to our music. Whether we’re at Lincoln Center or not, everybody’s got to be like they–it’s not like that.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You want ‘em to swing.

WYNTON MARSALIS: Yes. We’re out here to swing.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: While performance has been the focus of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, attaining constituent status brings other responsibilities, educational for one thing, teaching students how to play and audiences how to appreciate. For another, archival, collecting important documents like music scores, in some cases even creating them.

WYNTON MARSALIS: We have a lot of transcriptions which is very painstaking. You have to sit up with recordings and try to get every note on the recording right. When you’re dealing with seventeen or eighteen pieces in the record that was made in the 1940′s or something, early, you got to try to figure out these voices, it requires a lot of concentration and patience.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is that because the jazz musicians just improvised, they didn’t write things down?

WYNTON MARSALIS: I know from writing music myself, you write it down and you work it out, and you don’t really take care of the score, like it’s not the most precious document. The recording is the document that you think of, because that’s what everybody is going to buy; that’s what everybody is going to hear.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But you want to write this down now because what?

WYNTON MARSALIS: I think when you had scores in a high school band, somebody can play it. You know, it’s not like you’re going to have a band of 17 people sitting around, I think you play a D like you used to do when you were in the band in high school, you know, in the folk band or something, so it’s very important for us to have scores for the younger musicians and the professional musicians also, to have access to it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In terms of greatness, where does jazz say compare with some of the musicians that are celebrated here, Beethoven, Bach, Handel’s “Messiah”?

AL MURRAY: Well, they were doing what they were doing for European culture, European society, European customs and so forth, and what jazz does is an interaction of the learned tradition that was imported, plus the frontier situation, you see, and the improvisation that just took place. The adjustment which they made to that added up to something which, in effect, was original.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That sensibility, says Murray, is what makes jazz a uniquely American art form.

AL MURRAY: It’s based on the way we think about, about things. The Constitution of the United States is very much like a jazz arrangement. It has vamp, you know, the preamble has a vamp, then you have a series of choruses, you know, and how it sounds depends on who’s in the band.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So are you saying that this–are you saying then that this is the American form of music, you think?

AL MURRAY: I think so. I think it encapsulates the so-called black culture in the United States or blues–it’s comprehensive it’s mulatto. It takes in all of the other cultures, and it synthesizes it. Ironically, it’s because they–the captive Africans who became slaves in the United States were freer culturally speaking than other people because they didn’t bring as much baggage, as much cultural baggage as other people, so they made a synthesis.

WYNTON MARSALIS: It’s like gumbo in New Orleans, you know. We put everything in there, shrimp, chicken, you can even put chitlins in there if you want ‘em–you can put what you want in there, you know what I mean, and it’s going to taste good because it’s going to be a part of it, but you got to have that rule, and the rule is the thing that makes it a gumbo, and that’s like the blues and that’s like the consciousness, the disposition to integrate with other things.

(JAZZ PLAYING IN BACKGROUND)

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Marsalis has taken some heat lately for decisions he’s made about jazz at Lincoln Center. The main complaint, that he’s shut out newer, more experimental artists, in favor of the old masters, Loui Armstrong, Count Bassey, and above all, Duke Ellington. Marsalis doesn’t particularly deny the charge.

WYNTON MARSALIS: Well, I’m gonna do what I like. That’s my job as artistic director. I don’t think that I’m gonna program the type of like avant garde music that sounds a lot like European classical music, which I love classical music, but when the music starts to sound like not swinging, that’s not a style that I’m personally fond of. I want to look out in the audience and see people swinging. I don’t want it to look like a postcard, you know, and get a great review. I want to get–if it means getting a bad review and the audience is swinging, hey, I want to swing.

(JAZZ MUSIC PLAYING)