Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis

Originally aired on February 15, 2011

Jazz heavyweight and nine-time Grammy winner discusses the long-term price Americans are paying for abandoning arts in education and analyzes their confusion of entertainment with arts.

Virtuoso trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is one of the best-known figures on the international music scene. A student of jazz and classical music, he's won Grammys for best soloist on records of both genres and was the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize in music. Marsalis has a passion for education and is co-founder and artistic director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program. He also donates his time and talent to several non-profits and was extremely active in supporting the post-hurricane rebuilding efforts in his New Orleans hometown.


Tavis: Always honored to have Wynton Marsalis on this program. The multiple Grammy-winning jazz great is the director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which includes a tremendous music education outreach program that has helped thousands and thousands of kids gain access to music instruction all across this country, and for that matter, around the world. Skain, always good to see you.
Wynton Marsalis: All the time.
Tavis: Glad to have you on, man.
Marsalis: It’s a pleasure.
Tavis: I was saying to our staff that over the eight years of doing this show you’ve been on a number of times, never in-studio.
Marsalis: It’s nice in here, though. (Laughter) You got it feeling right.
Tavis: You’re always on satellite feed in New York or on the road somewhere. I’m glad to have you in L.A.
Marsalis: I’m glad to be here.
Tavis: How have you enjoyed your time at our Disney Hall?
Marsalis: Great. It’s a great hall, everybody – the staff, the philharmonic, I love them; we play with them a lot. We recorded “All Rise,” a piece that I wrote after 9/11 with the philharmonic.
Tavis: Great piece, that’s (unintelligible).
Marsalis: That’s right.
Tavis: Yeah.
Marsalis: So I’m happy. The whole band, all of us, we’re having a great time.
Tavis: What do you make of the person who’s all the rage in this town right now, speaking of music – Gustavo Dudamel?
Marsalis: I love Gustavo and I love what he does for classical music, and I love what he comes out of, El Sistema and the old man Abreu. When we were in Venezuela, I had the chance to go to his building. He had, like, five or six orchestras playing of kids from the hood playing, like, Mahler’s third symphony and Shostakovich fifth and Beethoven. Man, it’s unbelievable. I mean, they could play.
He also introduced me to his oldest teachers, who are trumpet players. He started with a couple of teachers and they’re both trumpet players, and they have an unbelievable system and he’s a great representative of that system and a great representative for the younger generation in classical music.
Tavis: I want to talk about music education in a second here, but since you mentioned your time with Abreu, Dudamel’s teacher in Venezuela, we all saw the “60 Minutes” piece just a few weeks ago, a great piece on you on “60 Minutes,” in part about your traveling to Cuba.
What do you get out of being exposed to these young folk? We’ll come back to America in a second, but when you move around the world and we see you talking to kids in Cuba or talking to kids, playing with them in Venezuela, what do you get out of that?
Marsalis: Well, first it helps you understand the cycle of life, because you give them information but they’re also giving you information. As you get older – for example, in our band we have members of our orchestra, like Carlos Enriquez and Ali Jackson and Walter Blanning. I taught them when they were in high school, and now they teach me.
I’ll regularly call Ali and say, “Man, can you break this rhythm down for me?” Or Carlos was actually our music director in Cuba, and he’s been instrumental in a lot of my education, and I started to develop a saying with them, because they tease me all the time – you get older, you have that familiar relationship – I say, “You have to follow your young leadership, too.”
So I get so much from having the opportunity to interface with the younger people and to bring information to them and to represent our culture and our way of life. The feeling and the warmth and the love, it’s unbelievable. The type of exchange that goes on between students and teachers or visiting people who are doing master classes, and not just when they’re musicians. Even general classes, when the students are not necessarily musicians.
Tavis: I’m not sure this is accurate, but it was certainly my read when I saw the “60 Minutes” piece and I’m curious as to your take on this. I get the sense, as I’ve seen footage of you around the world engaging these young people, that there’s a certain – again, my words, not yours – a certain energy, a certain enthusiasm, a certain anxiousness, a certain thirst that these kids around the world have for the music, jazz, that we gave to the world that might not necessarily exist, that thirst, in this country. Am I right or totally off-base here?
Marsalis: I think that – I don’t think that’s really accurate.
Tavis: Okay. That’s why I’m asking.
Marsalis: Like if I could tell you how many times, especially when I get into poor areas or if I deal with our kids, Afro American kids, if I could tell you how many times I’ve taught kids and they just start crying – not musicians, necessarily, because they want to feel that love and that feeling. I have a lot of experience teaching.
My father was a teacher, my mama was a community worker, I taught in so many schools. So when you get that experience of how to communicate with younger people, put that hand on them and give them that old-school feeling, the maturity and adult, a lot of our kids just need the feeling of that love, and that’s the frame of reference that I teach from and that’s the frame of reference that all of our musicians in the Jazz at Lincoln Center.
We all teach from that same frame of reference. We’re like neighborhood – the people who have had the opportunity through this music to gain a platform and spread the message of this music, which is basically love in a form of communication that’s honest and truthful. Our kids want it, too. They’re distracted a lot of times because they’re marketed to a lot, and they’re seen as a commodity. But when you get underneath that, man, our kids are beautiful.
Tavis: All right. So Dudamel and I had a deep conversation about this back in December for a special we did here in prime time on PBS, and I’ve been anxious for you to get in town so you and I could masticate on this. What is the price that we are paying as a country for the abandonment of music education in our schools?
I ask you that – this goes to your point now – you are the one person in this country, more than anybody else, who’s cutting against the grain. You are still finding the worth and value in spending time with and teaching these kids and exposing them to music. But, pardon my English, ain’t nobody else doing that.
The school system doesn’t quite see it that way, so what’s the price we’re paying as a country, long-term, for abandoning music education in our schools?
Marsalis: Well, first, let’s not even say music education; let’s say just arts. The fact that we are culturally ignorant and we don’t know what our heritage is, the price that we pay is that we act outside of ourselves almost all the time. We make very bad decisions how we deal with other people and their culture.
We no longer want to be a melting pot, because we don’t understand what is already melted. We fight for territory. We see it in our Congress, we see it in our political systems, we see it in our ways of life, how separated we are. When we moved out of the cities and we lost all of the memory that was in cities, and we – one of the highest achievements in our culture is to be able to segregate yourself from everyone else, and the deep thing is the deepest punishment is solitary confinement.
But our culture is what we did together. What did Walt Whitman represent for all of us? What was his message to us? That is an inheritance, and when we squander that inheritance we act outside. We don’t know who we are; we don’t know where we are.
So what we’re battling over, it’s like we’re suffering from an identity crisis, and that identity is in our arts and the fact that we don’t find it chief amongst our agendas to teach our kids who we are as a nation and the battles we’ve had on this ground and how they’ve been successfully resolved. We can’t enjoy the fruits of the labor of our ancestors.
One day, we will find it. I just always have prayed and hoped it’s before I die, but it may not be, and that’s why we constantly look around, and we have to compete with Chinese people or we have to compete with people in India. Well, what are we competing with them over? We need more math classes, we need more science. It’s the art of math and the art of science that creates all the innovation, and we have a tradition of great arts, great music.
Man, we created the spirituals. We created so much great music, jazz chief amongst our innovations, teaching us how to prize ourselves and how to speak to one another, that our kids don’t know that achievement, there’s no way in the world that could be good for us.
Tavis: Let me deconstruct what you’ve just said now on a couple different fronts. First, because I want to be clear about what you’re saying, what your point of view on this is. Jazz, let me be frank about it, jazz was created by us, and by us, I mean Negroes, Afro Americans, whatever you want to call us. We gave this to the country; we gave it to the world.
Marsalis: Right.
Tavis: When you answered the question a moment ago about what we suffer by abandoning music education, you said that jazz is our identity. I got the sense that you were talking about the nation, about the country. If you were, how is jazz part of the country’s identity as juxtaposed against the identity of Black people, since we’re the ones that created it and gave it?
Marsalis: Well, who creates a thing is not as important as what the thing is. Who created baseball? Who created basketball? Who created the space program? Who created – we could go on and on. We could argue about who created something. We all are participants in it.
If you didn’t have the amalgam of Blacks and African-type sensibility and European sensibility, you wouldn’t have jazz. Even in the negative and in the positive ways – if there was no slavery and the abolition of slavery, there would be no jazz.
So when we spend all of our time trying to separate that which is already joined, it’s a waste of time. And also for Black people, we’re one of the only groups of people that for some reason to express love of yourself, in some ways, is misconstrued as a dislike for someone else.
To say that the Afro American created jazz doesn’t mean anything bad about Anglo Americans, and I always teach my younger jazz musicians that at this point the entirety of the American tradition is your heritage, and you need to know it. That is jazz and Afro American music, it’s Anglo American songs, it’s the music of George Gershwin, it’s the American popular song, it’s bluegrass music, fiddle music, which has an Afro American base.
The musicians, Duke Ellington, his thing was not about separating himself from the rest of America. Louis Armstrong – go to the forefathers of our music – Jelly Roll Morton – they’re not preaching a separatist agenda. They’re not taking their music and saying, “This is for me.” Okay, the music came from them, but Jelly Roll Morton in the Library of Congress records, man, he’s laying out a broad range of music, of American music, of opera, that incorporates all of the people who were in his environment, and that is the achievement of jazz.
So when I say “our,” I definitely mean all of America. It’s not less pertinent for you because it comes from a Black person, just like a great achievement by an Anglo American is less important.
Tavis: That’s the answer I knew you were going to give, and that’s why I pressed on it. I wanted to open that up a little bit.
Marsalis: No, I’m sorry if I –
Tavis: No, no, no –
Marsalis: I get passionate about this stuff.
Tavis: No, I know this. That’s –
Marsalis: I get intense about it, but – (Laughter)
Tavis: I know. That’s why I wanted you on the show. But I wanted to make the point, and you made it clear, that it is all of ours, and we celebrate that. Now, at the risk of violating your personal confidence and our private conversations, I want to put this out there because I know it to be true, and I really want you to open up about this to the extent you want to.
It juxtaposes nicely against your comment now that jazz belongs to all of us, and yet I know that it does – you tell me – hurt, sting, disappoint – you know where I’m going –
Marsalis: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: – when you look out in the audience across the country and don’t see African Americans in significant numbers. I’m going to let you unpack that any way you want to unpack it, but tell me more.
Marsalis: It’s painful. It was painful for all of the jazz musicians before me – Dizzy, it hurt him. We talked about it. We could go on and on. I saw my father and them and the gigs they did. It was never really – our people don’t support the arts in general, and it’s painful.
For me as a person who’s in the arts and as someone who understands the magnitude of our contributions and the price that was paid to contribute to that, that we just have not gotten that together. I will do all that I can to get in front of our kids, to try to teach them, but at a certain point the people have to want it and come towards it.
Tavis: There’s a biblical verse that says, “A prophet is without honor in his own homeland.” So then your own home space, at your home base, oftentimes you aren’t appreciated the way you are perhaps by others around the world, and we could take that a bunch of different ways for the sake of this conversation.
But what I’m getting at is how it is that you stay motivated, genius that you are, icon that you are. How do you stay motivated when you are – how do I put this delicately – when you’re the recipient of the White normative gaze, so your celebrated by the elites, but you look out in the audience oftentimes and don’t see your own people who are celebrating the contributions significantly that you are making. You stay motivated how?
Marsalis: Well, the people are not coming because of me. They didn’t come before me. It’s because of a lack of education and understanding, so it makes me more motivated. It’s like my mother said about having an artistic child – she learned more from him and he gets more attention and more of the love, not less.
It doesn’t make me less because – and that’s what our institution does, Jazz at Lincoln Center. If there were not problems with the arts, you wouldn’t need us to be where we are. I accept that and I love it and I embrace our people. Also, I my everyday life, when I go places, man, I go uptown, I’m on the elevator, I’m around our people, I’m always met with love.
They might not know what I do or they might not know my name – (laughter) “Yeah, you’re that dude who plays clarinet.” I don’t care where I go, man. Around the corner from my house, in the hood, kids, they come to me for stuff. They know the love and the feeling I have for them on a personal note.
The rejection, I never have felt. It’s of me; it’s of our arts and our contribution by our people, and of the arts – the arts by our country, our arts by our people. It hurts. I would be lying if I didn’t say it hurt. It hurts because I know what it would do for us. It’s like you know a medicine who could help somebody but they just – they can’t see it.
It’s our job to just do as much as we can to enlighten the people about it and to represent it by playing it with some integrity. That’s what I try to do.
Tavis: Here in L.A., where we sit right now, we’re in this season of the arts, if I can put it that way. It’s Grammy season, it’s Academy Award season, everybody is in town for these various events.
What’s your sense of how, as a country – I ain’t talking about Black folk now – as a country, where this disconnect, this split came between the American people and a true, deep appreciation for the arts? Did it ever exist?
Marsalis: I think it existed at one time, or the American popular song wouldn’t be so well-crafted. Like Jerome Kern and them are writing songs, they have complexity and richness. People used to have pianos in their homes. I think that when the education system started to be dismantled during the first Great Depression in the 1930s, we didn’t recover from that.
Then we started to confuse entertainment with art, because art has a component of entertainment. It has to have that or it becomes too boring. It becomes too lost in its own devices. But I just think that we started to lose, and even before that, it’s not necessary. Art is a luxury. It’s not necessary for you to – you can work your job and you can make some money and never know who Walt Whitman was, and never read a poem.
But the arts shows that you’re civilized, and it makes life sweet. So you can exist and you can buy more things and you can be more – we’re dealing with a form of commercialism that obscures a prior relationship to quality, and it’s a national problem. But once again, that’s what we’re out here to – that’s why when you and I are talking, that’s what I’m saying.
It’s here; we just for some reason can’t focus our attention on it. We don’t have the leadership or the understanding of the value of this, and when your political systems and your economic systems start to fail, it’s only a cultural understanding that allows you to reconstruct them and to get back to who you are. For some reason, it hasn’t dawned on us yet.
Tavis: I think I hear your suggesting that commercialism is the, or certainly one of the culprits for the blurring of that line, the morphing of entertainment and art. Am I right about that, commercialism? Is that the answer? What I want to know is –
Marsalis: I mean crass commercialism.
Tavis: I got you.
Marsalis: Commercialism that has absolutely no relationship to quality whatsoever, only quantitative assessment of a thing. So now I’m trying to figure out.
Tavis: Got it. How many you sell, how many tickets, yeah.
Marsalis: How many nutrients can I take out of your food and sell it to you? What is the guidelines? How can I figure how to give you the least amount of whatever it is and charge you the most? (Laughter) So I’m always exploiting you, you know what I’m saying? When I’m talking to you, I’m not telling you what I think. I’m trying to – well, how can I get my PR thing hooked up so I can make these people believe, or how can I create – you lose a grip on reality.
Then the unreal becomes real, and up is down. So that’s why the arts, they always say – it’s like when you go home, people always joke. You go home; your mama makes you take the trash out, slap you upside your head. It’s like you got to know where home is, and in this country, we have a home and a center.
It is housed in our arts. We don’t know it. Now we’re kind of out here – come home.
Tavis: But that begs, Skain, the $64,000 question – recession; $54,000 – (laughter) deflation. How do we get back? Can we get back? Is the damage irreparable at this point?
Marsalis: Oh, man, it’s not even close to irreparable. The arts speak across epochs. If you think that people started to build a cathedral in 1315 and the people worked on that cathedral, it wasn’t going to be finished until 1585. So they were thinking 200 years from now. Maybe by the time I die, this wall might be put up.
If you think of the history of the arts, we can still listen to Palestrina’s mass, Beethoven’s symphonies, Bach’s pieces. Think of how long ago they were written and the type of obscurity a person like Bach worked in. No way he could have known –
Tavis: But that requires, Skain, having – and I think herein lies the problem – that requires having a long view, and we live in a world where everything is about right here, right now.
Marsalis: But you’ve got to remember it was the right here and right now when he was alive. That’s why they didn’t like him. So Duke Ellington’s pieces are well documented, and now with the whole boom in electronic media, you can get all of this stuff. There’s much more available than when we were coming up.
Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” is still in print. They’re debating right now over Mark Twain. He’s still available. Winslow Homer can still be seen. Man, our arts are – they’re there. We got to go get them and understand that this is an important legacy for our country.
When you study our greatest artists, you will find that they give us a key to understand how to deal with each other, and that our bloodlines are intertwined. It’s not hyphenated America. That there is an America, and it is expressed in those arts. It gives us a key to figure out how to negotiate with each other, and it tells us actually who we are.
You don’t always have to speak in slogans and terms that have nothing to do with (unintelligible) because we are related. We have had a history on this land. We have gone through struggles and we have survived it and we’ve come out in style and it is documented.
Tavis: How does all of this that you’ve been putting forth here now, how does all of this impact your composing? I ask that because you’re not just a great artist – more and more, you’re kicking out these compositions and many of them are complex and complicated. We were together the other night and you pulled out –
Marsalis: (Laughs) Right.
Tavis: You pulled out, what – I’m just trying to follow the notes, man. You got notes on top of notes. So your compositions are complicated and complex and beautiful all at the same time, but how does all of this that you’re obviously wrestling with, that you’re marinating on all the time, how does that impact your composing?
Marsalis: Well, the composition is a complexity of relationships, so I try – I remember when I wrote a piece, “Blood on the Fields,” it was a while ago, it was about slavery and about two characters, and I studied so much of music, I would always go back to the original documents, and as much as I can get original chants and slave chants and different type of beats and rhythms and ring shout.
When I did the Abyssinian mass, I went through the whole history of the church music and the gospel music, even with the Anglo American hymns, the Afro American hymns, the spirituals and how it developed, up to Thomas Dorsey and the Dixie Hummingbirds, going through the history of the music, jazz musicians.
I try to put a lot of our music in my music – by that I mean of American music. If it’s going to be Charleston, I put the Charleston on a bunch of different beats. Orchestration, the use of the singing trombone. I’ll write down and catalogue all the different devices that are Americana to me, and I try to have a historic depth and breadth and also the things that we do in our time, the type of vamps and chants, things that are available to us.
But I believe in putting – I read something Beethoven said in one of his sketchbooks, because when he went deaf he would write down his thoughts and ideas because he couldn’t (unintelligible). He said, “When it comes to church music, go to the original modes.” He was saying if he writes something on a church mode, he wants to go to the original manuscripts of these modes.
I’m a believer in our music I experience on this (unintelligible) because I think all human beings’ experience is always the same. It could be the American people, the Indian people, the Greek people, because we have a heritage. We have our ethnic identity – Afro American, Anglo American, the American – but we also have our human heritage, and our human heritage is the big heritage, and that’s who we actually are.
That’s the point at which we all have that same DNA strain, and that’s what the greatest art always comes from.
Tavis: To your point now about our human heritage, I wonder, silly though the question may sound, since I’ve always thought of music as a healing force, with all the troubles and travails in this country and the world right now, does music still have the potency, the power, the capacity to heal?
Marsalis: It can’t help it, because it’s under language. Even if nobody’s singing, just when you talk, you’re singing. I’ll meet somebody and say, “Oh, I’m tone-deaf.” I say, “You’re not tone-deaf, because if you were tone-deaf you would speak like that. But you’re ‘Oh, I’m tone-deaf.’ You already sang a song to me.” (Laughter)
We learn a language through its song, and even if you don’t have music you have the song of people you love’s voice, and you’ll notice that song in their voice. When it comes to songs and music, yeah, people love to sing and dance and play music and tunes, and that stream of consciousness that exists in music, nobody knows where that comes from.
It’s a spiritual stream that extends back to the very beginning of existence, and yes, that heals us all the time.
Tavis: Last question in about 30, 45 seconds – when kids get exposed to you and Jazz at Lincoln Center in these schools – I want to end where I began – they’re getting what? What’s a typical day? What are you doing with these kids?
Marsalis: We’re teaching them about the history of music. We’re teaching them with the feeling of love that’s in our music, and we’re teaching them three basic things. One, it’s all right to be you. Celebrate yourself. Two, other people are themselves, too. Figure out how to work and get along with them through swinging.
Another thing is that the blues is always there. It’s going to be hard out here, but it’s all right. It’s all right, and that’s what the blues teaches you. You got to roll with the punches and find your equilibrium.
Tavis: He’s the best our generation has to offer and I just love – as you can see, I just get giddy being in his presence all the time. I so enjoy talking to Wynton Marsalis any time – on the phone, in person or on this set. Wyn, honored to have you in town. Don’t stay away from L.A. so long next time.
Marsalis: You know I love and respect you.
Tavis: I’ll see you. We’re doing this show live, I think, the last week of April. We’re going to be at our new studios in New York at Lincoln Center, so I – around the corner from your house.
Marsalis: Yes, sir.
Tavis: So put the pots on.
Marsalis: All right. (Laughter)
Tavis: I’ll be there.
[Video clips of Wynton Marsalis playing in concert]
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm