Wynton Marsalis on Jazz as a Tool for Understanding Life
Trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis spent his formative early years around seasoned Black artists who taught him about American culture from their perspectives. It started with his father, Ellis Marsalis, the late jazz pianist and educator, who introduced him to music by way of his funk band, pushed him to perfect his practice, and showed him how to confront reality while he was growing up in New Orleans, during the 1960s civil rights movement. After moving to New York, in 1979, on a scholarship to Juilliard, Marsalis met other artists—including drummer Art Blakey, novelist Ralph Ellison, choreographer Alvin Ailey, and poet Stanley Crouch—who recommended books and works of art for him to engage with, and quizzed him to ensure that he understood them. Looking back on it now, Marsalis says, “they were out on a ledge, dealing with stuff”—deep racial inequalities and discrimination—and generously showing him the context of the history he was stepping into. As a result, Marsalis became all the more serious and intentional about his craft. For him, music is a way of talking, specifically about the beauty and ugliness of the world, without using spoken language.
Marsalis, now 60 and the managing and artistic director of New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), has never seemed to run out of steam. He began his classical training on the trumpet at age 12, and joined Blakely’s Jazz Messengers band in 1980. He signed his first recording contract, with Columbia Records, at 22, and went on to release more than 100 jazz and classical recordings, win nine Grammy Awards, and author six books. In 1987, Marsalis co-founded a jazz program at Lincoln Center, which, following the initiative’s success, made it a formal part of the performing arts complex in 1996, giving the musical genre equal stature alongside the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York City Ballet. The following year, his album Blood on the Fields, an oratorio about slavery, won a Pulitzer Prize. A passionate teacher and advocate for music education, Marsalis holds more than 40 honorary degrees.
Not even the pandemic could stop him from using music as a vessel for knowledge and expression. As New York went into lockdown last March, Marsalis accelerated JALC’s digital programming: He launched a weekly YouTube conversation series, Skain’s Domain, hosted a virtual edition of JALC’s high school jazz band competition, and composed and recorded, with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, a single called “Quarantine Blues.” In August 2020, he released The Ever Fonky Lowdown, a horn-powered survey of the forces that divide people and a vision of how we might rise above them. Marsalis is currently touring his annual “Big Band Holidays” show with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and, in March 2022, back at JALC, he will present “Journey Through Jazz: Fundamentals,” a new concert series that details the evolution of jazz and the blues. Through it all, Marsalis has remained passionate about the power of his work. “Music is important,” he says, “because music, and all art, is reenactment. The reenactments exist to let you understand the meaning of things across time.”
On this episode, Marsalis speaks with Andrew about jazz as a metaphor for democracy, communicating through instruments, and how understanding music lends itself to understanding life.
Marsalis speaks about his experience of the pandemic, and how he coped by starting a weekly YouTube conversation series and teaching classes over Zoom. He also discusses the ideas behind his albums The Ever Fonky Lowdown (2019–2020) and The Democracy! Suite (2021).
Marsalis talks about writing Blood on the Fields, his Pulitzer Prize–winning album. He also details why he composes and performs with listeners in mind, and discusses the similarities between jazz and government.
Marsalis explains how his understanding of music—and its mechanics—is a tool for understanding life.
Marsalis remembers the deep, lasting influence of his late parents, Dolores Marsalis and Ellis Marsalis. He also recalls the difficulty he experienced during his initial years studying music at Julliard in New York City.
Marsalis speaks about the many creatives who took him under their wings in New York, and how they encouraged him to constantly reflect on American culture.
Marsalis discusses his lifelong interest in Frederick Douglass, and how he inspired a new work that Marsalis is currently composing. He also talks about up-and-coming musicians who give him a sense of hope.
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WYNTON MARSALIS: I don’t think of music as older or newer, because people are not old or new. Bach is old, [but] he was thinking about stuff that we haven’t gotten to. People are only thinking of the same thing, like, How did he deal with the divine paradox? Shakespeare is the best example of it, because it’s in words. Everybody understands it. If you take any Shakespeare quote that people know—you pick your quote that you like. It doesn’t matter how cliché it is. What quote would that be of Shakespeare?
ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: “To be or not to be.”
WM: There you go. That’s the divine paradox. It’s always that.
AZ: It transcends time.
WM: Yeah. That’s always the question. How do you ride the lightning wave of the friction of two concepts? That’s what time is. Time is a third dimension that puts pressure on things.
AZ: At [what] point did you start thinking about jazz in terms of time? Or music in general?
WM: My dad [Ellis Marsalis] is a jazz musician, and I always noticed that when I played with them, it was difficult to play in time. But when I played with our funk band, it was easy to play in time.
AZ: At 13.
WM: Yeah, 13, 14. But I grew up with them, so I was always around them, listening to them talk. And even [though] I couldn’t play, and I wasn’t into the music, I was always around them, and they were always talking about something interesting. Even though I didn’t understand what they were talking about, being around that level of thought and talk about music, and constant discourse about culture…. That’s all they did, was talk about these things, politics. They were all struggling, so they had a perspective that was the perspective of struggle.
WM: It was interesting.
AZ: Well, we’re going to get to so much, but I did want to start with this moment, which is that you’re about to do a performance [at Jazz at Lincoln Center] on the eighteenth [of November] that celebrates your sixtieth birthday, which will not have been your first performance since lockdown, but probably the first in front of a large crowd, no?
WM: No, we’ve been in front of people. We did a tour all over Europe [this past fall]. We played through the pandemic. We toured even the first fall that you could play. We played outdoor concerts, then in the spring we played in ’20. We played in ’21, in the spring and in the summer. We’re playing now, we played through the fall.
AZ: One of the things that I was so interested in during lockdown was Skain’s Domain, the Zooms you would hold, these videos. It seems like part of the way you dealt with the moment was to not go quiet, but to really connect with people. Generosity, community, compassion. I think the first one was like March twenty-third. It was like, immediately. And you talked about how your fear of flying—
WM: [Laughs] I’m still scared of flying.
AZ: You talk about it, which is great. But you also talked about how you’ve had to deal with it—you have to fly sometimes—and you just have to embrace being in the space you’re in. You also talked about community, not as geography, but how Covid was making light of how these borders don’t exist. Did you find yourself going very internal during that time?
WM: Well, I think we all went internal, because there was much more isolation. Unless you were a hermit, you definitely were much more social than you had to be during Covid. So of course, I did. But for me, because I spent so many times in a car with another person, or two people, and then after years we don’t talk that much, it’s just a twenty-hour drive—okay. It was the same people. When you’re writing music alone, pieces of things that take a lot of time, you spend a lot of internal time.
AZ: You talk about these long car rides, these forty-hour car rides, where you would play games with each other, tell stories.
WM: [Laughs] Stories, yeah. To learn about people’s lives and stuff like that. And Covid was, in a lot of ways, for many of us…. There’s so many changes, there’s so many different circumstances in the world and ways of living and ways of life, different levels of turmoil and resources—who has and who does not have. We got a chance to really see and experience a larger slice of experience and what experience is.
The entire world is such an ever-changing tapestry, like a mosaic of so many things, that it’s really impossible to comprehend. We can only comprehend it on the most fundamental level, dealing with the largest thoughts. On Zoom, you can look into people’s homes, you can see the wealth disparity. I could see [it] teaching different people, and I could also see about different ways of life. Some people didn’t have a lot of means. Like, I taught a lot more classes in [South] Africa. Some people didn’t have means, but they weren’t impoverished. Other places I taught, I could see people struggling just in their background environment, and they were also online seeing how much wealth exists, too.
AZ: That became really clear at the beginning with Zoom.
WM: Right. But it was surprising that that didn’t create the type of backlash I thought it would create.
WM: But I think it was a time—it is still a time of reflection for all of us. It’s an inflection point. That’s why you see so many people leaving jobs, and so many people making different decisions to remake their world and make the world anew. I think that’s probably the greatest thing that has come out of it, the fact that it has forced change. My only hope is that there’s some degree of humanity in the management of that change. That’s not the general way things go, but you never know. The humane idea, it stays around, and it stays around for a good reason.
AZ: Yeah, of course. Also, during that time, you were incredibly productive. You found ways, outside of just talking to people, to make music. The Ever Fonky Lowdown.
WM: Right. [Laughs]
AZ: What were you thinking with that record? You meant it to be hopeful.
WM: Yeah, but [there’s also] this conversation my younger brother Ellis [Louis Marsalis III] and I have had for years. We call him the oracle—he’s always reading and studying. We just always talk about the difference between a predatory approach and a symbiotic approach. So what does a predator do? And [where is] the chance for human beings, for us to be symbiotic? Once again, it’s difficult balancing. It’s not right or wrong. To find the common means, like what the Constitution is designed to do.
We’d also talk about things like the ethical frame of reference, or the apocalyptic frame of reference. So the difference between trying to nurture and develop the slow-burning flame, it cooks all the way through, [and] the desire to fire and brimstone, punish, create a lot of energy and spark, and quick power. What [are] the two frames of reference, what [do] they give you? What do they yield? That’s what The Ever Fonky Lowdown [means] when it says, “I know I must fight.” The question is, What are you fighting for? You’re going to fight, but what are you fighting about?
AZ: What’s worth fighting for?
WM: Are you fighting for your personal freedoms? Are you fighting to create more plural-minded systems? Or are you fighting so that you can step on somebody else? Or are you fighting to….
AZ: What are you fighting for?
WM: Yeah. What are we doing? What do we want to be about? The Ever Fonky—I had been thinking about it for a while, and I wrote the libretto first. A thousand cue cards with the libretto on it. Man, I worked through it just, long before the music.
AZ: Did you find that you had more time to work in that way?
WM: No, that was recorded right before the pandemic hit. So the pandemic was ’20, right? I lose track of years.
AZ: February ’20, yeah.
WM: It was ’20, okay. The Ever Fonky was…
AZ: We’ve all lost about a year and a half.
WM: So The Ever Fonky was recorded in [October and] November of ’19, [with additional recording in March 2020].
WM: But I had started thinking about it, and it was premiered in ’18.
AZ: When did you write the track, “That Dance We Do”?
WM: I think that was recorded in the fall of ’20.
WM: So in the summer. I wrote all that at the same time. It was written maybe a month before. Those pieces are much easier to write than something like The Ever Fonky Lowdown. That’s much more complex.
WM: So that took maybe three months of working around the clock—
WM: To write that. The Democracy! Suite took maybe a month, but not working all day, not as much. Not as high a volume of music.
AZ: But it’s incredibly accessible. I’ve had it spinning all week. And there’s something about it that—and we’re going to get into a bit more—but this idea of equivalence that you can create in instrumental music, of the speaking through the instruments, where you can sense what you’re talking about without language.
WM: Right. It’s underneath language. This is why you and I could read a Martin Luther King speech, but it doesn’t mean the same thing. We could be actors and we could do a good job reading it, [but] it doesn’t mean the same thing.
AZ: Of course not.
WM: Because what is in the sound…. There is an ephemeral thing that shows up deep, deep, deep in the micro world. It’s so micro and so macro at the same time, the only word we have for it is spiritual. It’s why John Coltrane’s tenor saxophone’s sound itself communicates what he’s saying, and why when you hear him play a ballad, and Ben Webster play a ballad, they don’t have anywhere near the same meaning. We all learn how to speak our language through the music of it. That’s a baby babbling—you’re trying to figure out the music. Through the music of the language is the poetry of the language. Then we start to fill words in.
AZ: Yeah. The vibration comes first.
WM: The first thing is the song of it. Da-da-da-da-da. That’s why sometimes people say, “Well, I’m not musical at all.” [And] I say, “Oh, you’re musical. Because you wouldn’t have said, “Da-da, da-da-da, da-da.” You would have said, ‘I’m not musical at all.’ You didn’t say that.”
AZ: [Laughs] This, of course, isn’t the first attempt at looking at the current moment through the context of history. Blood on the Fields, which won the Pulitzer [Prize for Music] in ’97, which was [a] first for a jazz composition, am I right?
WM: Yeah. Those things are not…. Because jazz sits inside of a system that’s tremendously prejudiced, whether you’re first, it doesn’t matter. Any of these musicians deserve to win awards, [but] they weren’t going to win them, just because they were Black. So did you win something? Great. You’re not ungracious or angry at winning anything. If I come to your house and get a meal, I’m happy for that. I’m not going to say, “Another meal.” A meal, wow. [Laughs] But the first jazz or the first—
AZ: Didn’t mean much to you.
WM: No meaning to me whatsoever.
AZ: But there’s a section called “Sloganize, Patronize, Realize, Revolutionize [(Black Lives Matters)].” What were you specifically responding to at that time? Was there something in that moment of time, or was it the aggregate?
WM: It’s a slogan that’s going to go away. I lived through the 1970s. The civil rights movement was a big deal in the sixties. I also lived through the eighties, when there was a huge national walk-back of the civil rights movement, as there was a national walk-back of the Civil War with the end of Reconstruction. So you say, “Okay, here we go again.” That’s why I say it’s “Sloganize, Patronize, Realize, Revolutionize.” If we realize we’re in the same cycle, then we can actually revolutionize. But if we sloganize or patronize, okay. We can patronize Black Lives Matter. “Right on, baby. Black power!” It’s always some kind of theme and little slogan. Somebody says it, then everybody says it, and you have to get behind it, because we’re all saying it. Then, when it’s time for whatever it represents—which [is why] it’s always better for a slogan not to really represent anything too specific, because then you don’t have to worry about underlying mechanics. It can all be, “You know.” When something is “you know,” then you know.
But if civil rights, and civic rights, and rights and responsibilities are serious to you—and it’s not just for Black Americans, because white people are losing their civil rights at the same time, but not in the way that it’s being portrayed. [Laughs] You look at it as portrayed as if the white American is in favor of police violence, and the Black American is against it because he’s the one getting killed, but they’re beating up a lot of white folks, too. A lot of poor white folks fought in the Civil War, not for slaves that they owned. So there’s a connection there that was brought out in The Ever Fonky Lowdown.
AZ: Yeah. You’re also speaking of this divisiveness, which—you had this beautiful conversation with President [Bill] Clinton recently, and you talked about that. And he said, “I put three billion dollars into sequencing the genome and found out that we’re, like, half a percentage different from each other. Nothing.” The divisiveness is addictive.
WM: Yeah, it’s fun.
AZ: Something to do.
WM: It’s just fun, man. I grew up in the South. Segregation is fun. People enjoy that, terrorizing other people, picking on the kid that has a lisp, or the fat kid, or throwing rocks at somebody’s house.
AZ: It’s a way to define the self and protect the self.
WM: It’s a thing. But we have the opportunity here, [and] always, to go out on that ledge and fight the battles, to just make incremental improvements that weren’t considered before. The Romans weren’t thinking about that.
AZ: No. With The Democracy! Suite, [your] latest work written during Covid-19 lockdown, it’s this incredible journey, obviously, through emotion of this time. You feel it palpably. What were you hoping to offer listeners? Did you have an intention in mind, and do you write that way? Do you write with the listener in mind?
WM: Always. I always write or play with the listener in mind, because I’m trying to give music that’s difficult to hear if you don’t listen to that kind of music, and I don’t want to water things down to make them listenable. I don’t want to be like the evangelical preacher who changes the message to be with the congregation. But I also don’t want to speak in so esoteric a language that if you actually want to listen to it, you can’t hear it.
I weigh when things happen, what the moods are, I use all the tools at my disposal. Different instrumentation changes, and interludes, and things that will take us into different grooves. But I still want to keep the sophistication of chord changes, and improvised solos, and group interaction, and swing, always.
I want to play in four-four time, so you always have the feeling of the time, and it’s not just always a vamp and a groove, because every song is a vamp. You can turn on any radio, any TV show, every commercial [or] a music video, and everybody’s vamping. Because I grew up vamping, I’m not against a vamp, but don’t get rid of the swing because you’re vamping. I’m always cognizant of the audience, and I’m always intentional with what I’m playing and what I’m thinking about. I’m intentional now, talking with you. If I was just in your house and we was just talking and hanging out, it could be something—
AZ: No, we’re having a formal conversation. [Laughs]
WM: I would be intentional. We could be even bullshitting on the street, [and] I would be intentional.
AZ: Yeah, of course.
WM: Even if it’s just trying to listen to you, I want to be intentional, and I want to listen to what you say, and be serious about hearing it. I’m in a cab sometimes, going back and forth with cab drivers, [and I’ll] say, “Damn, man. I didn’t know we was going to get into all of this!”
WM: With my music, but it’s not by—each piece has a different thing. But it’s not by piece, because I’m always writing music and there’s always a lot of it. We have a lot of records in the can that we can release, and I try to be serious the entire time about it.
AZ: How do you think jazz is a metaphor for democracy, which is what you explored here?
WM: It is the art form that is that. It’s designed to do that. It’s a balance of rights and responsibilities, and it puts a premium on participation, and there’s a form that is in place that allows you to speak, and to improvise, and co-create things with other people.
AZ: Like government.
WM: It’s exactly like government. And like government, you can violate that form. You can violate that opportunity by thinking it’s only the freedom of improvisation. Freedom of improvisation is only one part of it.
AZ: There’s a story you tell [about the tenor saxophonist Frank Foster when he was playing a street concert in Harlem. He] was like, “No, play the B-flat,” to the younger musician. [Laughs]
WM: “Play the B-flat,” right. “It’s what I’m feeling.” “Well, feel it in B-flat, motherfucker.”
WM: “I’m not against you feeling it.”
AZ: You’ve also remarked on the blues as a democratic form in terms of the call and response.
WM: The call and response, all the varying elements that are part of it. If you look at our Constitution, it has all kinds of democratic thinking from across time. Everybody always says the Magna Carta, but okay. You can go through the list of documents that influenced the Constitution. The Virginia Plan to the Constitution, the attempt to take grievances and place them in a context that they can then become a government.
[There’s a] big difference between something like the Communist Manifesto and the Declaration of Independence. They’re telling you what you don’t like or what you would like to see, but it’s not a government. When you start to put plans and systems and things around things, then you have the opportunity for collective action. That’s what jazz is. It lays out a format for collective action. Other formats, good formats, have different objectives. Many of the formats that we have of music, they don’t have anything to do with collective action, but they’re not democratic forms.
AZ: Yeah, they’re mostly like….
WM: Back up a singer or—
AZ: There’s a hierarchy there.
WM: There’s a hierarchy, not that jazz does not have a check-balance system. In a hierarchy, we have a president, we have different things. But it’s like our Constitution, when it’s actually read and understood in its spirit, how sophisticated the attempt at checking and balancing was, and that you have to maintain that same level of sophistication to create momentum in the document, instead of just arguing over a point of it and misreading. Like “freedom of speech.” Freedom of speech is designed to protect you from the king. It’s not designed for you to go into school and tell your teacher, “Fuck you.”
But all of these concepts—“the right to bear arms.” At that time they were talking about that, you didn’t have densely populated areas and the ability to get firearms like we have today. It’s a check and a balance. You have to always be looking at what in the spirit of this document is an intense fight, intense negotiations around the balance of all things: states’ powers, the power over city, the power over state, power over federal government. Now we’ve simplified it to, “Oh, well, states’ rights is Republican, federal rights is Democrat.” No, it’s not like that.
AZ: The truth goes away when context goes away.
WM: There you go.
AZ: That’s what we’re experiencing right now.
WM: But we’ve been experiencing it, so, yes. That’s been part of it. For me, my whole thing is about, What does this mean? Music is important to that, because music, and all art, is reenactment. The reenactments exist to let you understand the meaning of things across time. That’s why you reenact things. That’s why. Then you have the opportunity to say, “Well, okay. That meant that, but how can we do this? But we don’t want to lose this meaning.” You have so many things you can change, endless variations you can come on with things. Each human being is an endless variation on the human form and human substance, but you don’t want to say, “Okay, you know what? Let’s change this to this.” Well, hold on a second. Let’s not change this to this. We’ve got to know what we’re changing things to.
AZ: You studied jazz so deeply for so long, and have thought so much about the mechanics. When you came in, you talked about some thoughts you had on time and describing jazz, because I think it’s amazing how so many people who don’t engage with active listening with jazz, which requires…. It’s not like, background.
WM: Right. You have to listen to it.
AZ: You have to listen to it as a fully focused thing. And so many people don’t understand it, and don’t understand the mechanics, and what’s underneath it.
WM: It’s difficult to understand. I grew up listening to it, not liking it, so I don’t have a problem understanding why you would not be engaged with it. I was literally on gigs with people playing real jazz from the time I was 2 or 3 or 4. I sat up in clubs hour after hour: “Why are they playing this? That’s not what’s on the radio.”
AZ: Does your understanding of the mechanics, of the time and how jazz works, help you appreciate it in deeper ways?
WM: I started appreciating it when I was 12 or 13, so yes, it does, but it helps me appreciate life in a different way. The understanding of music helps me to understand life, not so much [that] the understanding of the mechanics helps me to understand the music. I’m a musician, so that’s what I’m supposed to understand. That’s like, a doctor has to understand what doctors understand.
AZ: How would you describe the mechanics of jazz, in terms of time?
WM: You figure, from a technical standpoint, the drums are in six, the bass is in four, so you have two, the odd and even, pulling against each other. You’re playing rhythms that are expressed in the framework of four, or in the framework of three, and depending on your ability to wave, [to] ride the wave of those rhythms, you’re going to swing or not swing, you will.
Then the other aspect of swinging is how we all come together in balance in terms of volume, intention, how we find each other, because there’s no perfect time. The bass player may rush a little bit; the drummer may drag. So they have to then find each other and say, “Okay, we’re going to make this feel good.” A groove is about balancing separate rhythms, identities, separate conceptions, and coordinating them for a time so you hear the difference, and then you hear them come together.
So they roll in it, they come together, and then to maintain it,—to maintain the equilibrium is very difficult. To find equilibrium, okay, you can start holding your balance. When I was younger, we used to walk on the railroad track. Man, you could get on that railroad tie, maybe you could take ten steps on it, but can you take two hundred steps? So it’s in that way. The great Art Blakey, the drummer, was teaching me polyrhythms. He said, “When you play a polyrhythm, it’s two rhythms played at the same time,” like [slaps rhythmically]. So it’s four over here on the left, the six over here on the right. He would say, “Don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.” But then he would say, “But notice that when you get off in the rhythm, it’s always when the hands hit at the same time.” As long as you all are doing opposite things, you’re okay. [slaps rhythmically] But when you go [slaps rhythmically], when they hit together, that’s when you get off.
So it’s an existential kind of…. And also, it’s metaphoric. And with music, you have the mechanical part of it, the scientific part of it, you have the metaphysical part of it, which includes, in the metaphysics of it, a philosophical perspective. In other words, I’m telling you technically what swing is. The cymbal of the drum is really a high pitch, and the sound of the bass is really a low pitch. So if I tell you, “You all have to play in time together.” But the bass is soft; the drums are loud.
WM: Man, do you want to play in time with that? You’re in six way up there and you’re in four? Now you’re getting into the metaphysical part of it. Find him, or find her.
WM: When you find them, stay found. [Laughs] You don’t want to stay found. You want to do what you’re doing. With soloists, it’s the same thing. We can play as long as we want because the music goes on a cycle. Be a good citizen. Nobody wants to hear you play eight hundred choruses on a song. You want to do that, [but] don’t eat all the chicken at the table. If there’s nine of us sitting here, take less than one-ninth, and you’ll be fine.
AZ: It’s so fascinating how, when I’m hearing you talk, and knowing a lot about your history, your life and the journey of your life informs so much of this. If you had been an only child, do you really think you would understand this in the same way? Of course not.
WM: I don’t think so. The only thing I’m going to say about that is we never know what anybody understands. I know, having four kids, every kid understood something different. Why people understand things, we don’t know why. We really don’t. It’s a mistake. They are born knowing whatever they know. So it’s easier when you have a large family, you have to learn how to share with people.
AZ: Absolutely. One of the tracks that’s incredibly touching is “Deeper Than Dreams,” about loss of loved ones during Covid, and of course, you lost your father, who was a huge inspiration to you. And you wrote beautifully about it; you’ve spoken beautifully about it. But I did want to talk a bit about him today, and about some of the things that he taught you about music, and almost more importantly, about life. So I wanted to start with humility.
WM: Well, he was very philosophical. We were younger, in a fiery time, in the sixties, in the seventies, so everybody was colorful. My father was—all the musicians in his band, James Black, this drummer that played with him, he was very colorful, wild. But my father was always … he would talk to anybody. I remember once he talked to a homeless guy for a long time. I said, “Man, what are you talking with him about?” Maybe I was 12 or 13. He said, “Man, this cat used to be an architect.” He went into this whole thing about who the cat was, what he did, where he was coming from. I said, “Man, but that dude is homeless, man.” He said, “Man,”—I’m quoting him—he said, “Man, there are bad motherfuckers all over the world. The question is do you know when you’re meeting one?” So he would always get impatient when you showed a type of ignorance. I think about that now—it’s ironic, but that’s one of the things I think about all the time, about him. Things that he would say.
AZ: You also talk about how you had this incredible rapport with him. Like, lots of teasing.
WM: I teased him a lot, because he was real serious, so he was easy to tease. No matter how much I messed with him, he would just say, “Oh, man. This cat.” He always rolled his eyes: “Man, this cat is crazy.” So it just was how—
AZ: How you guys were.
WM: I just liked messing with him, man. I called him and played the piano and stuff, but he was funny too, now. He could say funny things. When I was growing up, me and my mama fought a lot. So one time when I was 16, it got to a point where I was like, “Man, you’ve got to make a decision.” My daddy was like, “We’ve got to wrap, man. You’ve got to make a decision, this might be time for you to leave.” But he was really serious. “You’re making your own money.” I was working. He said, “This is not—we’ve got to put an end to this.” I said, “Yeah, man. But mama does.…” I started rolling down all my list of grievances, you know, not unusual of people.
He said, “Your mama pays the bills. She takes care of my autistic brother, [Mboya Kenyatta]. She determines the direction of the household. She cooks all the meals. So when she leaves, we lose all of that, and she’s my old lady. So when she leaves, we lose all of that. If you leave, we have more money.”
WM: Then it was quiet in the car, so I had to kind of laugh. I laughed, but he didn’t laugh. He was just looking at me. I used to have this thing I would do, I’d mess with him, I’d put my thumb in my mouth. [Laughs] Whenever I was indicating something. So I just looked at him, we were in silence in the car, when he said, “We’d have more money,” I started laughing, he didn’t laugh, and I just put my thumb in my mouth.
WM: I just sat there. He said, “Are you going to work this out?” I said, “Yeah, I’m going to work it out.” So, I worked it out. He would make you deal with reality, like, “This is the reality, man. You need to work this out. She don’t need to work it out. You need to work it out.” It was like, “Okay. I’m going to work it out.” [Laughs]
AZ: Your brother Branford [Marsalis] once said, “I have to thank God every day for giving me a mom who treated us like children, not peers.”
WM: No question. [Laughs]
AZ: “The social narcissism that was sweeping the country in the seventies didn’t play well in the house of Dolores Marsalis.”
WM: Dolores didn’t play, man. My mama didn’t play with you.
AZ: Your perspective changed. At a certain point, you realized that she was a human being.
WM: It’s hard to know that about your parents, you know? Because they control so much, if you have parents that are that involved in your life. Of course, a lot of my friends didn’t have that same level of concern, mainly from fathers more than of mothers, but a lot had fathers, too. But it was a struggle during that time for people. But almost everybody had the type of women…. When you go to games or anything like that, if people from families came, it was almost always women. When you went into people’s homes, it was always women who were carrying the identity of, this is the family album, and it was always, you would see somebody’s mama more than their daddy. It was a certain type of culture and a certain type of way.
My mama carried a lot of weight. She was also very philosophical, more so than my father, actually, in terms of understanding something about the human. She grew up harder than him, and she took it hard. So she wasn’t to be played with. And many things I learned, watching her: how she dealt with people, how she dealt with my great aunt when my great aunt died, human things. As a younger person, when you see your parent deal with something outside of what you do in your house, it’s often very instructional.
WM: The kind of advice she would give. I remember once—I have a brother that was severely autistic. And when he was born we’d never heard of this, what autism was. So if I told people that my brother was autistic, they would say, “Really? What does he draw?”
AZ: People didn’t know at the time.
WM: No, nobody knew what it was. We didn’t know. I remember being in a parade with my mama trying to carry him, and I kept telling her, “Let me carry him.” She started heaving him from left—you know, an autistic kid, just two years old or something, running around at a parade. And then she told me, she got tired of me asking to carry him, and she said, “How heavy something is depends on how you feel about carrying it. When I have some groceries, come carry them.” So it’s just her outlook. She told me when I started to get a lot of scholarships to schools—academically, not from music—she said, “Ooh, you’re getting a lot of scholarships from schools.” Then at the end of the seventies, there was a push to try to get Afro-American students in good colleges. Then, of course, that went away in the 1980s, but it was a reality between ’76 and ’83 or ’84, so I was right in that sweet spot of that desire for that to happen. That’s why I had that type of volume.
She said, “Well, you’ve got to be careful with your choice, honey. You have to always think about, What is the substance of my education? Because I can give you a diploma that says, ‘I am a fool,’ and you’ll walk all around the world proudly displaying a document that says you’re a fool. So it’s not that you are educated, but what is the substance of your education?” She was like that.
AZ: Both of your parents seemed to have had such incredible perspectives on the self in relationship to the world. You tell this story about [when] your dad was [playing] in a club, and it’s late, and there’s one dude in the club.
WM: Yeah, man. He’s going to stay there until the end—nobody in there. We’ve been in this club, he’s been playing [there] since 1971 or something, it’s now ’73 or ’74. Come on. These gigs, nobody is there. “Let’s go home, man.” “No, man. Sit your ass down until two-thirty. Then we’re going to leave.” That’s what we did. [Laughs]
AZ: Because it’s about integrity?
WM: Well, this gig goes from X to X. So we’re doing it.
AZ: You were in this funk band in the seventies, and you’re 12, 13, and then by the time you get to 17, you leave. You go to New York.
AZ: On your way out, your father gave you a book.
WM: Yeah, man. He gave me the Autobiography of a Yogi, [by] Paramahansa Yogananda. Man, I went to all kinds of gigs with my father. I was in cars with him. I hung with him. I heard him talk to his friends day and night. I was close with him in terms of just hanging with him, and there were no other kids hanging. Why would you want to be in a club with five adults playing that kind of music? I never heard him mention one word about a yogi ever. Now I’m leaving, and you give me some big book with a lot of Indian people’s names, and say, “Read this book.” I’m thinking, man. So I read it, I started to read it. And it was abstract to me, like, Why would the guy give me a book like that? As I read it, I understood what it was about. But that was just a thing about how he was.
AZ: You get to New York because of Juilliard.
WM: Right. I came two months early, so Julliard hadn’t let in, so I had to just figure out how I was going to survive. It was rough for me at first.
AZ: What was it like?
WM: Hard, man. Just to figure out how to not look at people. Like, in New Orleans, we looked at people. New Orleans was always a violent city, so it wasn’t so much that I was afraid of getting my behind whupped. I knew, I understood. But it was a different level of harshness up here.
Then also, if you’re a Southerner, you don’t realize how the prejudice works in the North. Remember, when you don’t have nothing, you’re subject to what’s going on. Nobody’s interviewing you. You’re just another person, here, dealing with what everybody [else deals with]. The prejudice here was different at that time. Where the subways were at—we didn’t have subways in New Orleans—and the way you could just see how stuff was, man. Uptown, downtown, the segregation of everything, the poverty.
AZ: At one of the darkest times in New York history.
WM: Yeah. It was a rough time. And then there was the transit strike, I think it was in 1980 in the spring, and then I had to walk from one hundred-and-something street all the way down to 66th Street every day, with a four-trumpet case. I don’t regret it, but all the experiences made me understand. It wasn’t like I was going to get in any cabs. I didn’t have money to waste money. I was on a budget.
AZ: But that was short-lived.
WM: I started to work. But even then, in New York, I remember, I bought a coat for one hundred dollars. I didn’t have a coat; I had an Army jacket. I bought a coat for one hundred dollars. I remember the price of it. A down jacket. I said, I can’t be freezing in New York. I told my mom, “Yeah, I got a down jacket. It cost a hundred dollars.” She said, “Ooh, a hundred dollars. And what else does that coat do?”
So I started to work. I was very lucky that other musicians looked out for me. One of the wives of a guy gave me a lot of work. I played a lot of, at first, Afro-Latin music. I was playing salsa bands. I played in the Bronx. And I wouldn’t speak, because I thought if they knew I wasn’t Puerto Rican, they weren’t going to hire me. Eventually I started to work and make some money, but in the beginning, no.
I remember the first Christmas, because I was determined—I wasn’t going to go back home. I was so contentious when I left home: “Y’all ain’t never seeing me again. Kiss my behind.” Man, I missed home so much. It was like, New York is different from New Orleans.
AZ: You missed your brothers.
WM: Not that so much.
AZ: You just missed the warmth.
WM: I missed home, man. You could go to the deepest part of the hood in New Orleans, everybody always [said], “What’s happening, bro?” Even if it wasn’t your neighborhood. We had all kinds of stupid petty rivalry between Hollygrove and Pigeon Town, and all the stupid stuff. We had that. But it just wasn’t—
AZ: New York’s lonely, though.
WM: Man, New York was rough for me in the beginning. It was a harsh time.
AZ: Then you somehow started playing with Art Blakey.
WM: I played with Boo. I sat in with him, and I followed him around. Eventually, he put me in the band. I wanted to play with him, so. I didn’t have no pride about it. I wanted to learn how to play.
AZ: Then this also is when you meet Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray.
WM: I met Crouch, started hanging with him. Going to see Murray, [Ralph] Ellison. [I’d] go up to Ellison’s house. Romare Bearden. All the heavyweights. For some reason, I had a chance to meet Alvin Ailey. I was into the culture, man. I was young. I was into the culture. I was always calling people, asking them questions. I wanted to know about it. I guess it was rare, you know? And also from being around all the older jazz musicians, like Dizzy [Gillespie] and Sonny [Rollins], Sweets Edison, Lockjaw Davis—all of the people I had grown up around and seeing. I understood how humble you had to be when you approached them, and I also understood that there was a bunch of great people walking around that nobody knew about. So it wasn’t about my generation so much.
AZ: You had access to this incredible, iconic—
WM: Right. When I called them Mr. Murray or Mr. Ellison, or when I went to their homes, it was always them, it was always a familiar thing. I’m Southern, man, I’m coming into their environment with the right respect and understanding. When they give me something to do, I’m doing it. If Murray said, “Read Joseph and His Brothers,” I read it. Now, I picked the book up first, and said, “Man, this is like nine hundred pages.” But I wasn’t coming there if I didn’t read it, because he was going to say, “Did you read it? Did you read this? Turn to this page and look at that.”
[If] you’re around Ralph Ellison, he’s going to tell you—he’s going to give you something to do. If you do it, he’s going to give you more to do. If you don’t do it, he ain’t going to dislike you, but you’re just going to be like everybody else to him. Romare was like that, too. Tragically, I ended up playing a lot of everybody’s funerals. I played August Wilson’s funeral, I played Ralph’s funeral. I remember thinking, Man, this is sad to be playing all these funerals.
AZ: You’ve talked about how you began to think about understanding American culture.
WM: Yeah, they taught me that. I didn’t think about it on my own. I was living in it, but that wasn’t a part of what we knew about.
WM: It was strictly because I was around those types of thinkers: “Hey, read this book. John Kouwenhoven. [The] Beer Can By the Highway.” Always put things in the broadest context. Read Ralph’s Shadow and Act. Going to the Territory. Read Invisible Man again, and try to understand it, really. And this is what this means, understand the regional differences between South and North, know about architecture. Romare was all about mythology and talking about painting: “Hey, you need to look at this and see this.” So he’s a painter, he’s an artist, he’s a collage-ist and a painter and he’s telling me about Walt Whitman. “Yeah, Walt Whitman. I read that in school.” “Do you know what this is? Do you understand how alive all this stuff is?” You’ve got to be aware.
AZ: This is when your love of [William Butler] Yeats and—
WM: That was Murray. But for Romare, it was [Joseph] Campbell and mythology. His thing was all mythological. I’m thinking, This dude is a painter from Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, and everything with him is about some type of mythology and Greek mythology. He did a series on The Iliad: “They’ve got a new translation of The Iliad. You’ve got to read this one. You’ve got to check this out.” So the level of what they were talking about was extremely high, everybody. Alvin Ailey, man, these guys, they were out on the ledge, dealing with stuff. Being around them and in their home environment, it was revelatory.
AZ: I’m sure. You were signed quite young—first taste of success. First of all, I wonder—it’s unprecedented PR you got at the time. The label [Columbia Records] got behind you big time, and you had this huge amount of publicity. What I was thinking about was, did you realize it was happening? How were you processing that moment?
WM: I realized it. I was trying to just be for real. I got even more publicity because I was outspoken about all the racism and the bullshit. So for a younger person to squander the opportunity to make money, to be philosophical, was considered, “Wow.” Then the things that I did not know was then the fun of hunting that down, and killing it. [Laughs] If you could kill that, oh man, that feels so good. So that gave me another ten years of publicity. We’re just going to kill this.
There was always a distortion of what I was saying. Then it became an unbelievable attack, from everywhere. Because that kind of success for being serious, or for real about something…. I thought we would be more like my father and them. I wasn’t thinking of being no star and all that. None of that really had any meaning to me, or value. I think it was one advantage I had. It was not in my value system. I wanted Ralph Ellison to respect me. I wanted Al Murray to have respect. I wanted my father [to], ultimately.
Even at the age I am now, with my father passed, it took a lot out of me, because I never realized just how much a lot of what I did, and a lot of what I thought about…. I wanted him to always be like, “Okay, you didn’t come out here bullshitting.” Even at this late age—which, we have so many funny things we talk about and all of that—but these things are deep inside of you.
Then as I met more of the musicians, more people, different races, men, women, even Sarah Vaughan. When I met her, the amount of investment she put into me. Or Betty Carter. All she did to make Jazz at Lincoln Center survive. And she didn’t really like me personally. She would always call me the “Prince of Jazz,” and make fun of me, which I understand now, later, because this woman, I mean—all of what she could do, her genius as an arranger, her unbelievable singing, all the infrastructure she had to build for herself. She’s looking at a younger person get all this publicity, then it reached almost a point of obsession, because, “How can we tear this guy down, philosophically? And make him grovel, and raise his hands and say, ‘Yeah, rock is number one.’” Or, “Yeah, for whatever the white philosophy is that y’all are pushing, I’m going along with that.” That became a part of the mythology. Whereas Betty Carter had never gone along with any of that. And even given that, in my lack of understanding of it at that time and at that age, if I called her and said, “Can you play this concert? Can you do this for free? Can you come and do…” She did all of it. She raised money, she did fantastic concerts, inside of all of that was the “Prince of Jazz.”
Then I was in my twenties, still, and the investment that level of musician had in me…. Or Gerry Mulligan, [who would] sit up and listen to whole sets of us playing, and then talk about the arrangements he heard. He and I arguing about race relations in America. The level of honesty he would come to talk about that. I’d say, “Man, you know the Birth of the Cool is nothing but Miles [Davis] and a bunch of white boys.” He would go through everything about it, and he would say, “We couldn’t rehearse here. Did you know Gil Evans did this? Did you know this?” Five or six facts, he said, “Huh?” I said, “No, no, I didn’t know that.” He’s say, “Huh? I’m sorry they didn’t teach you that in your sociology class.”
So the musicians were a certain way towards me, with a lot of love and a lot of, “You need to understand these things, man. Because there comes a time nobody’s going to be here, and you don’t want to be this ignorant, representing this.” That’s what he would do. I could go on and on through figures, and musicians, and the amount of time and energy they took, and what they expected of my education and to try to make sure that I was armed to deal with what’s out here.
AZ: It has a lot to do with this position you’ve taken of teaching, which seems to be just part of this tradition that you came through. What are you experiencing? How does the teaching enrich you? Why is it something you’ve always been drawn to?
WM: My daddy did it. And all the musicians—Dizzy did it. I remember the first time I met Dizzy, my daddy said, “Hey, Diz, this is my son.” I was like 15. Dizzy came over, “Hey, man. You’re a trumpet player?” “Yeah, I play trumpet, Diz.” Dizzy gave me his horn, he said, “Play something.” I played—[makes blowing sound]—he had a small mouthpiece. I played something. It was terrible. [Makes trumpet sound] Dizzy snatched his horn out of my hand and looked at me, a long kind of “Yeah….” My daddy said, “Practice, motherfucker.”
We, in the club, all the time he spent on me—all the trumpet players, Sweets Edison, I can go down the list, man. Then for piano players…. Marian McPartland came to our school, played with us, did all kinds of stuff. So I was from, already, that tradition of the musicians, and it was only natural.
Then to play the style of music I wanted to play, I had to teach a lot of the musicians how I wanted us to play this: comp like this, or play like this, or let’s do this. Because it’s not a matter of just playing like people played in the past. If you do that you actually don’t have an imprint on your time. You actually are doing what the critical establishment was saying we were doing, because they were trying to get out from underneath the yoke of the Black musician. They wanted that Black musician to be a fool, and the jazz musician, you couldn’t make him into a fool. Because I was so philosophical, I understood it philosophically, but it didn’t mean I could play. You can understand a philosophy very well, but playing is another whole….
AZ: Yeah, the doing.
WM: The doing of it is very different from talking about it.
AZ: Before you finish, I did want to hear a bit about the piece you’re working on, you may have finished, about Frederick Douglass, which was [based on his] book [Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which] you were reading with your father.
WM: I’m still working on it. It was supposed to be a big band piece. I had to write a tuba concerto, which I just finished, for the Philly Orchestra and Carol Jantsch, [an] unbelievable tubist. But I have all my outline. I have a whole outline of Frederick Douglass’s whole book in a music notebook, and I’ve written themes and all that. Now, I need to get back to it, but it’s actually given me a chance to really try to study the wind band more. I didn’t finish that.
AZ: Why did it come up now? The book—why did your interest in Frederick Douglass come up now?
WM: I always had it. The first time, when I was 6 or 7, we went to this museum in New Orleans called the Cabildo. It burned down, but it had all of the slave artifacts, everything. It was a powerful museum to go to. When you left that museum, they gave you a cartoon book. And in that cartoon book was the [Narrative of the] Life of Frederick Douglass. So me and my brother would read the book, and talk about scenes of it. There’s all kinds of scenes of what Frederick Douglass did, when he got in a fight with [Edward] Covey, the overseer, and what he realized about different things, and when he came to the North and what it [was] meant to be, what abolitionists were, and him and [William Lloyd] Garrison, and so on and so forth.
So I always had it on my radar, and I had read his Narrative Life twice. I read it when I was a kid, pre-going into middle school, and then I read it in high school. My senior paper from high school was on slavery. Blood on the Fields was about slavery, so I had a lifelong…. My great uncle, who was born in 1883, his parents were slaves, so there’s a tradition of slavery I knew about. They were born into slavery. My grandmother’s people grew up on a plantation. My grandfather on my father’s side, he comes from a tradition of sharecroppers. So we think these things are long ago, but they weren’t. And they would talk about it—my great uncle really was philosophical, so he always talked about the repeal of Reconstruction. So yeah, I was interested in it.
I started to read the Frederick Douglass book, I think, because of my father. He said, “Hey, man, check out David Blight.” So we were reading it. And he didn’t finish the book even when he died. So my whole thing with him was like, “Man, where are you at in the book? Did you get to this part?” In our last conversation, I asked him, I said, “Are you finished with the book?” He said, “No.” I said, “Do you want me to tell you what happens in the end?” He said, “No, man. No, don’t tell me what happens.” [Laughs]
AZ: So now you’ve got to finish the piece.
WM: I should have told him. I should have told him what happened.
AZ: I did want to talk about—you’ve been critical of other forms of music for a long time.
WM: As I should be.
AZ: As you should be, of course.
AZ: Not unfairly—you know how to have a critical argument. You know how to support that.
WM: I’m not walking none of that back, either.
AZ: Exactly. You’ve expressed concern about what some of these genres represent.
WM: Everyone should.
AZ: In this moment in time, what’s giving you the most hope? Who are the musicians that are giving you a sense of optimism?
WM: Always Cecile McLorin Salvant. She’s great. I think a lot of younger musicians, Isaiah [J.] Thompson, Joe Block…. The public don’t know, but Joe Block came to my house two days ago and played a couple of pieces of his music. Fantastic. Domo Branch, great young drummer, really can play. Philip Norris, fantastic bass player. Summer Camargo, great trumpet. Giveton Gelin, great trumpet. Anthony Hervey, great trumpet player. Sean Mason, fantastic piano player. Endea Owens, unbelievable bass player.
AZ: [Are] any of the musicians that are working in the mainstream that you’re looking at thinking this is important? Jon Batiste, for instance?
WM: J-Bat is older, so, of course J-Bat knows music, and he’s bringing it to popular forms. But it’s different, because J-Bat comes from a family in the tradition of entertainment. So he can bring a musicality to entertainment. I’m okay with that, but I’m about musicianship. So it doesn’t mean that I’m against J-Bat, his musicianship. I love him. He’s literally like my son, the depth of the love I have. He and I talk about this a lot—he has to make the decisions that he would make. But I’m a proselytizer and an advocate for the arts in America a certain way—which he also is, but from a different perspective. Of course, I love him, his musicality, and what he represents. I’m sure there are other musicians and other people in other forms…. I can respect what people do in other forms, even older people. Like rappers, somebody like Papoose. It’s not a person that’s known by people, but as a little older, the dexterity and the skill…. He had the thing where he rapped through the alphabet and stuff. To listen to the kind of dexterity of it is amazing.
But for me, the general movement, from pimp movies to celebrations of gangsters and the use and descent of language and always denigrating a Black person, the use of the N-word all the time, always criminality being elevated—I’m never going to support that, ever. I don’t care if the nation loves it. I don’t care if every Black person I know loves it. I’m Black. I grew up in the hood. I don’t need to be hijacked by some bullshit to tell me, “This is your identity.” It’s not. I hate that those clichés are what have been sold to our kids, and it’s a way that they have to feel. They have to feel authentic by imitating this negative type of mythology. Yeah, I’m against it. Strongly against it. I’ve been that way and I’m going to die that way.
At some point, in the nation, there will not be the fear and the need. The civil rights movement created that backlash. The backlash to you wanting your civil rights was: You’re a criminal, you’re a pimp, and you’re a gangster. Before that movement—I’m old enough to remember—every Black person in every movie was afraid of everything. I used to hate to see a movie with a Black person in it, because I knew they were going to be cheesing, and tomming, and afraid. How are you going to go from being afraid of ghosts and afraid of your shadow and always victimized by some white people—
AZ: No sense of agency on either side.
WM: To being predator number one, and the most criminal in fifteen years? That’s what the civil rights movement did for you. You want your rights? You’ll win some battles led by a largely religious figure and a U.S. president from the South. Now you get to that, and the end result is, “Let’s make sure we destroy the transportation system, because we don’t know about these buses. Something is involved with it.” You’ve got to remember, you’re going for feel. It’s not mechanics. “Let’s make sure these people can’t move around.” So they always undermine transportation. And, they’re all criminals. No. Even today, look at the New York Post. They’ve got two Black people up there. One is saying, “We’re going to attack the police.” The other one is saying, “Not on my watch.” [Laughs] It’s all bullshit, man.
AZ: Yeah. But it’s a very different experience at Lincoln Center.
WM: Man, we tried to set a symbol and a standard, and we have a lot of citizens involved. We need more public participation, and we need more of the Afro-American citizens around New York to participate in the art form and be a part of it, as we all as citizens need to participate more in this democracy and not think that some “they” is going to come—myself included—that some “they” is going to come and “they’re” responsible. We are responsible. And if we don’t take that responsibility, they’ll take it.
AZ: Thank you so much, Wynton. This was beautiful.
WM: Man, thank you. Such a pleasure.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on November 12, 2021. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by our executive editor, Tiffany Jow. The episode was produced by our assistant editor, Emily Jiang; managing director, Mike Lala; and sound engineer, Pat McCusker.