INTERVIEW- Significant music: Marsalis places excellent ritual over novelty
Wynton Marsalis has been known to spark controversy as a result of his rigid views on jazz pedigree, but he backs them up with passion, logic, and raw skill with his horn. He's easily the most important voice of the trumpet in decades, and for the past 20 years, he's been the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. This Tuesday, September 11, he brings the fruits of that project to one of the Paramount Theater's most impressive shows of the season.
The Hook: You've been playing with some pretty important musicians ever since you were a teenager. What made you feel like you had finally matured artistically?
Wynton Marsalis: Oh, man, that's a difficult question. I don't really know. I felt like I always had my own style, my own way of playing. I guess I was 26 or 27. There were so few people trying to play in my generation, I was always on my own anyway.
The Hook: Why was that?
Wynton Marsalis: It's a lot to figure out how to be an artist, and there's very little reward. A lot of it is intellectual achievement: you have to figure out all the different elements of art. Younger people were trying to play pop music or funk music.
The Hook: And it's harder to be a jazz artist than a pop artist or a funk artist?
Wynton Marsalis: [Pop] music has taken a turn– the people at the top are not talented. They're not even musicians at all. That's a turn that no other field has taken. Film, maybe. Many of today's most popular musicians are not musicians– they're personalities– so music has been devalued.
The Hook: But somehow jazz seems to remain divorced from the public consciousness. Can that be changed? Should it?
Wynton Marsalis: It's like comparing Beethoven to the Beatles– it's hard to compare them, just because of the insight and the depth of his musical craft. It's not really divorced, but the presence of black people caused a wild card in all of American music. American music had to then be devalued enough to make Elvis Presley a star. It's a mythology of opposites– Louis Armstrong came along, and he could play, and he was the opposite of who should be a star, so it was important to create someone who was the opposite of that.
The Hook: Well, wait, what about hip-hop?
Wynton Marsalis: It's not on top. The Rolling Stones are on top. John Mayer is on top. Disney has a lot of albums that are selling. If you want to go on a safari, you have these figures providing you with a minstrel show. But the black minstrels were never on top. It's hard for a minstrel to be on top. Pornography makes money, too– but it'd be hard to make a case that they're on top in the entire culture. Who would make the most money when they went on tour?
The Hook: I think the top-grossing tour last year was the Rolling Stones.
Wynton Marsalis: There you go. That lets you know what we wanted for the mythology– that's who we wanted on top. They're from England– you can't get no better than that. The country you fought for your independence came over and made all the money copying the music from your country. You can't get better than that in the mythology, or the people calling each other 'niggers' and 'bitches' on records, and their main instrument is the drums, and now it's played by a machine. Music was the only field that Afro-Americans excelled enough in to get international acclaim. That, and law– all the changes in the American Constitution during the civil rights movement. And the African American is an international joke now.
The Hook: So what needs to happen, either musically or socially?
Wynton Marsalis: The musical picture is more about education and informing tastes and the development of taste.
The Hook: You mean educating listeners?
Wynton Marsalis: No, for all of us to be educated about our music. Just how to listen to music– let the music exist, know about the objectives, basic forms of American music, how to follow themes. We look at a basketball game, and the announcers are constantly telling us what it means when the defenders are in the box. You need information to enjoy something. It's not like we as a culture are averse to receiving information– we like to do that.
The Hook: Okey dokey. So where do we start?
Wynton Marsalis: We're already doing a lot. We've had band programs in our country, and we've had arts education in the schools. But it's not just like dessert– it helps us understand who we are in the modern world. Now that we have such a clash of cultures in the world, it's even more important, because once you understand your own culture, it helps you address other peoples' cultures with respect.
The Hook: You've said that you feel like you're part of a continuum in the history of jazz music. But is it possible to be culturally relevant if you're not in the continuum?
Wynton Marsalis: Things are not important because of their newness, they're important because of their significance. Many times, reputation comes from something that is new. A person cannot continually come up with a new thing. The demand for something new is never-ending. Would the greatest chef be a person who, every day, cooked you something you had never tasted? Or do they cook something that you know about, but they do such a great job that you can't wait to taste it again? Ritual is part of all arts. For ritual to be removed from art is one of the biggest mistakes in the 20th century progression of art.
That's what gave you the endless stream of pieces that became more and more abstract so that you couldn't interface with it, and the language became so specific to one person that it wasn't about you listening to it, it was about they wanted to say. It's much easier for me to invent some new form than to play a blues– okay, this is a seven-bar form with the chords going up chromatically every bar. That's easy.
Because Picasso drew cubes, that doesn't make his art more significant than Goya. Because Charlie Parker played fast and had a quick mind, that doesn't make him more significant than Duke Ellington. Literature didn't stop after Shakespeare. But I don't know that any of them "pushed things forward" from him. Does that mean Faulkner is not significant?
So much of the academy has invested itself in abstraction; people didn't even consider that it might have been off base. That's about a hundred years of European art, which American art mostly seems to want to imitate.
The Hook: So then how do we legitimize something new?
Wynton Marsalis: I can't determine that. There are many things that Duke Ellington invented that have never been legitimized, many things that have never been imitated. Are they a part of the canon? I don't know. I don't really care. It's just important to find things that you can listen to that nourish you. If that's something based on a triad, why is that less sophisticated than a 12-tone row? I can understand how theoretically the explanation can be interesting...
The Hook: But not artistically.
Wynton Marsalis: Is a computer going to replace a conversation between two people? It can do math faster, but there's a lot that it can't do. Very basic things, like smile at you.
Wynton Marsalis performs at the Paramount Theater on Tuesday, September 11. $65.50-$125.50, 8pm.