Tag Archives: Wynton Marsalis

For Marcus Roberts’ 53rd Birthday, a Jazziz Feature From 2014, a 2009 Interview on Jazz.com, and a 1999 interview for bn.com

A day late for the 53rd birthday of the singular pianist Marcus Roberts, I’d like to present a feature piece that I was given an opportunity to write about him for Jazziz in 2014,  a lengthy March 2009 interview that initially appeared  on Ted Gioia’s now-much missed http://www.jazz.com ‘zine, and a 1999 interview for the Barnes and Noble website when selling CDs was still part of their business model.


Jazziz Article (“Visionary Man”) — Spring 2014:

Wynton Marsalis, who does not suffer fools and has built an empire doing things his way, does not readily accept criticism. But when pianist Marcus Roberts speaks, Marsalis listens.

During a 2005 interview, Marsalis enthusiastically recalled discussions with Roberts during the pianist’s 1985-’91 tenure in several of his bands. “We discussed philosophical questions about music, like whether in jazz the bottom can move like the top,” he told me. “It’s hard to create a groove with melodic motion in the bottom. So what do you do with the bass? We talked about a lot of harmony versus no harmony; atonal music versus tonal music; should we focus more on abstract concepts or on melody? Is abstraction a dead-end street or on the cutting edge?”

Two years after that conversation, in October 2007, Marsalis drove 1,100 miles from New York City to Tallahassee, Florida, to collaborate with Roberts — who teaches at Florida State University — on a range of educational activities, and to play a concert with the pianist and record in the studio with Roberts’ trio, then comprising bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Jason Marsalis, Wynton’s younger brother. Six years after that busy week in the Sunshine State, in November 2013, Roberts simultaneously released separate CDs of the proceedings — Together Again: Live in Concert and Together Again: In the Studio — along with a 2012 studio session titled From Rags to Rhythm, a 12-movement suite performed by his current trio, with Jason Marsalis and bassist Rodney Jordan. All three discs were released on Roberts’ imprint, J-Master Records.

The Together Again albums document the Marsalis-Roberts partnership for the first time since the 1991 performances included in the Wynton Marsalis Septet’s 7-CD box set Live at the Village Vanguard. “We wanted to showcase the natural way we communicate, and we chose music you could play without much rehearsal,” Roberts says, speaking by phone from his Tallahassee home in December. “The playing is spontaneous and comfortable. We both know way more about music than we did when we were making records together. But the way we relate hasn’t changed, as it probably never will.”

The settled, old-master quality contained on the Together Again discs contrasts with the exploratory quality of earlier encounters like ]J-Mood, Live at Blues Alley, Marsalis Standard Time, The Majesty of the Blues, Blue Interlude and the three volumes of Soul Gestures in Southern Blue. Those albums represent Marsalis’ shift from the vertiginous, high-energy rhythmic and harmonic abstractions of his 1983-85 quintet (with Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland and Jeff Watts) to the blues-grounded, groove-oriented, orchestrally sophisticated, “all jazz is modern” conception that, after 1988, would define the Wynton Marsalis Septet and continues to bedrock the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

“We attacked specific problems,” Roberts says of those albums. “When I entered the band, we were playing primarily original music, but our ballads sounded terrible. I identified that to Wynton as something we needed to work on. When we played standards from the ’30s and ’40s, that didn’t sound good. I remember mentioning that we needed to play more blues, but when we played them, it wasn’t that happening either. So the blues pieces on some of those records were us working on putting more human feeling into the music, making it more accessible to lay people.

“Wynton taught me a lot about how to identify the things you work on. With his notoriety and fame, he could easily have continued in our prior vein of music. But for him — and for me — it’s always been a question of dealing with the code of ethics that the music itself imposes.”

Those ethics were already in place in 1980, when Marsalis, then 19, met Roberts, a 17-year-old senior at the Florida School for the Deaf & Blind, at the Jazz Educators Convention in Chicago. As his own career ascended, Marsalis stayed in touch, sent Roberts recordings by Thelonious Monk, brought him to various gigs to hang out and sometimes sit in. After Kirkland and Branford jumped ship to tour with Sting, he offered Roberts a job. Drummer Jeff Watts recalls Roberts’ command of the repertoire on his first gig with the band, in Salt Lake City. “What he played, I’m sure he would like to take back,” Watts says. “But he knew it cold. There was nothing that was going to prevent us from playing anything in our book. I use Marcus as an example to people who make excuses about not having one thing or another together. He is at the top with regards to work ethic.”

Himself no slouch in the hard-work-is-good-for-you department, Marsalis attested to Roberts’ diligence and his refusal to allow his disability to impede creative expression. “Marcus was still developing his playing then,” Marsalis said. “I called him because he had the most intelligence and depth of feeling and integrity — personally, as a man — of any musician I’d encountered around my age. I knew it from speaking to him, and I wanted to be around that kind of feeling. The size of his mind was good for me. I found out how serious and thorough he is about studying and learning and playing. We had long, long pieces, and he’d learn the music by ear before we could learn it by reading.

“From watching Marcus develop, I learned that your artistry is your integrity and who you are as a person. That’s the most important component, not whether you can hear chords quicker or play a more complex polyrhythm than somebody.”

For Roberts, putting in the hours is as much a matter of necessity as an ethical imperative. “Because of my disability, I’m not able to sight-read,” he says. “If I don’t learn the piece inside and out, the likelihood of something going wrong is greater. So from the time I was 12, I didn’t just learn what the piano was playing; I tried to understand the whole structure. I don’t learn music quickly; to this day it takes a long time to absorb it into my system. But when I really know something, I can hear what it should sound like based on what I can bring to it. It’s almost like I can manipulate it as I go along, hearing it in my head as I go, based on how I can use the piano to shape the overall architecture.

“After our first tour, I worked just on comping for two months, six hours a day, before our next set of gigs. I listened to a lot of Duke Ellington and Hank Jones. When we went out, everybody was shocked that I’d advanced so much in that short a time. But the bottom line was that if I was going to be out there doing it, it needed to be right. I was always taught there’s not much point in doing anything halfway. This music is only desirable to people if played at the highest level. Enlightenment comes from above, not below.”


Between 1988 and 2001, Roberts released 14 solo, trio and ensemble albums. Before the arrival of 2012’s Deep in the Shed: A Blues Suite and Across the Imaginary Divide — on which his trio finds common ground with banjo giant Béla Fleck — and the three new albums, Roberts had released only two discs since 2001.

He began his recording career as a leader with The Truth is Spoken Here, an all-star ensemble gathering, which he followed with the first version of Deep in the Shed, a suite of original music with a unit that included Marsalis and other close generational contemporaries. Then came 1991’s Alone With Three Giants, a solo outing on which Roberts found new routes into repertoire by Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington and Monk; 1992’s As Serenity Approaches, which contains solo and duo performances of original pieces and items from the American Songbook and stride-piano canons; and 1993’s If I Could Be With You, another solo recital. Portraits in Blue, from 1995, features Roberts improvising to the piano parts of orchestral works by George Gershwin and James P. Johnson, while on The Joy of Joplin, from 1998, he offers solo renderings of 16 numbers by early-century ragtime poet Scott Joplin.

On these albums, Roberts grapples with the vocabularies of the European canon and the foundational streams of American jazz, addresses the material on its own terms of engagement, interprets it with virtuoso execution and conceptual freshness, pulling a thick, sweet, legato sound from the piano. He advanced his goal of “always expanding while using the whole history of the music all the time” on a pair of late-’90s trio sessions (both released just after the millennium by Columbia, which then dropped him) with Guerin and Jason Marsalis. His statements on the 16 Nat Cole-Cole Porter-associated pieces that comprise Cole After Midnight and the 12 Ellington-inflected originals on In Honor of Duke incorporate elements of Ellington, Monk, James P. Johnson, McCoy Tyner, Kirkland and Danilo Perez.

Roberts contends that From Rags to Rhythm represents the most comprehensive realization of his aesthetic. Composed in 2001 on commission from Chamber Music America, and reworked and refined as the aughts progressed, it’s a 12-movement work with interchangeable themes that reappear in various contexts as the piece transpires. Roberts explains why it, the 2006 session From New Orleans to Harlem (issued in 2009) and 2011’s Celebrating Christmas are his only trio releases of the 21st century.

“I’m sure a lot of folks wondered whether I’d disappeared or wasn’t doing much,” he says. “I recorded a lot of stuff during this time. But I was no longer on a major label, and the industry was changing. Possibilities on the Internet had not matured. So I decided to wait while figuring out methods and strategies to disseminate my work to the public. Also, I was exploring more deeply how classical music and jazz could be presented together, so I needed to invest myself in the piano to prepare for the next big stage of my career. I was overhauling my technique, exploring a more refined approach to sound, expanding the amount of nuance I can play through voicing and pedaling, playing contrapuntally with a certain balance and articulation.

“I was happy with the trio, but didn’t want to record again until we were able to organically improvise that concept with a certain feeling. At this point it’s more a way of life, a philosophy, what we believe in. Whatever we play, it sounds completely different from night to night.”

“Marcus always plays experimentally,” says his 48-year-old bassist Rodney Jordan, who regards Roberts as a kindred spirit to a pair of his own early employers, outcat veterans Kidd Jordan and Alvin Fielder. “To my ears, he’s no different than them in terms of feeling free when you play music.”

Roberts takes the comparison in stride. “What interests me is that, whatever we’re playing, we all communicate and respond to what each person is playing, so that we can freely determine what should come next,” he says. Then he preemptively addresses brickbats thrown at him over the past quarter-century for paying too much attention to older styles and too little to bebop and beyond.

“Most people think I’ve been playing that stuff my whole life,” Roberts says, after observing that he didn’t begin to investigate Jelly Roll Morton’s music until 1988, for a “Classical Jazz” show that Marsalis presented at Lincoln Center. He notes that his formative sensibility gestated not only from playing piano in his mother’s church and accompanying her in their Jacksonville, Florida, home, but also covering ’70s hits by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Natalie Cole. He pinpoints his jazz epiphany to age 12, when a local swing era-oriented radio show exposed him to Duke Ellington, as well as Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson and Mary Lou Williams.

“I’d never heard any chords like what Ellington played on the piano, and the sound interested me,” he says. “The music was from the 1930s or 1940s, but to me it was like new. It was modern. It was the same with Jelly Roll when Wynton got me into him, and I realized how profoundly difficult his stuff really is; it turned my approach and world of piano upside-down. As I got deeply into it, I saw relationships to the church music I grew up hearing. When I hear two styles, what intrigues me is not what makes them different, but where they intersect, how to unite those two sounds into something else.”

One way Roberts individualizes his sound is by utilizing orchestral devices initially borrowed from the Ahmad Jamal Trio. In the course of a single piece, he constantly modulates grooves, tempos and keys, plays separate time signatures with the right hand and the left, and, as he puts it, “flips around the roles of the piano, bass and drums by giving everyone an equal opportunity to develop the concepts and themes, to change the form, to get us where we’re getting ready to go.”

“I’ve always experimented with whatever music came into my environment and tried to figure out how to use it in my own way. ‘New’ is anything of value, anything that’s relevant to helping me do what I want to do right now. There’s no big agenda. The goal is just to play better every day. Your individual identity as a musician is there, just like the identity of the sound of your voice. The question is what vocabulary to use through that voice. That’s what Wynton and I always understood without having to state it. It’s never been about jazz, per se. I don’t consider myself to be a New Orleans pianist or a stride pianist or a bebop pianist or a classical pianist. I study the whole history and try to develop globally that way.”


Title: Leaning Classical

In 2012, Marcus Roberts composed a three-movement piano concerto, titled “Spirit of the Blues: A Piano Concerto in C-Minor,” dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King. He premiered it with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and his trio on April 4, 2013, the 45th anniversary of King’s assassination.

After receiving the commission in 2010, Roberts spent more than a year preparing and contemplating. “I didn’t want it to sound like a jazz guy who is dabbling in classical music,” he says. “I had Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestration and Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration scanned to Braille, and I studied them thoroughly.”

Once the composing began, Roberts used CakeTalking for SONAR, a program developed by Dancing Dots Braille Music Technology. “I established maybe 30 tracks, put an instrument on each track, and played in what I wanted each instrument to do,” he says. “To hear what the flute is doing at measure 32, I press a command, jump to the measure, solo the flute, and hear it exactly. Once I finished each movement, I exported the file into Sibelius, and my copyist and I would prepare it to [conductor] Robert Spano’s requirements. The tempos change constantly, so they had to be communicated clearly. Since I’m a blind guy playing a new piece with an orchestra, we wanted to make sure the transitions from section to section were seamless.”

Roberts modeled each movement after iconic concertos from the classical canon. The first movement, “The Blues,” connects blues chords to motifs refracted from Beethoven’s “Third Concerto in C-Major, Opus 37”; the second movement, “The Dream,” is inspired by the second movement of Ravel’s G-major concerto; the third movement, “Freedom,” whose Latin elements and percussive textures palpably connect it to the jazz continuum, evokes both Bartok’s second piano concerto and the third movement of Prokofiev’s third concerto.

Roberts is proud of more than the notes and tones. “In a weird way, it’s symbolic that I’m representing this struggle to independently compose a piece of this scale that blind musicians have faced for decades,” he says. But he also feels that the work embodies his aim of “continuing to push the envelope in bringing jazz and classical music together.”

“The orchestra authentically plays the classical part, the trio does the authentic version of the jazz,” he says. “Hopefully I’ve written into the composition how the two forms coexist and melded them into one unified entity that represents modern life, which is global.”


Interview with Marcus Roberts for http://www.jazz.com, March 24, 2009:


Jazz criticism over the last two decades has usually ascribed to pianist Marcus Roberts the aesthetics of “conservative neotraditionalism.” But the truth of the matter is somewhat more complex.

A virtuoso instrumentalist and a walking history of 20th century piano vocabulary, Roberts is concerned with sustaining a modern dialogue with the eternal verities and transmuting them into present-day argot; abiding by the motto “fundamental but new,” he takes the tropes of jazz and European traditions at face value, and grapples with them on their own terms, without cliche.

“What I’m advocating is always to expand while using the whole history of the music all the time,” Roberts said in 1999, articulating a theme that he more fully develops in this interview, conducted a decade hence. At the time, he had recently presented his nascent, individualistic conception of the piano trio on a songbook homage to Nat Cole and Cole Porter Cole After Midnight and a suite of original music inspired by his muse, Duke Ellington called In Honor Of Duke, augmenting a corpus that included an improvised solo suite on Scott Joplin’s corpus and customized arrangements of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and James P. Johnson’s “Yamacraw.”

“As an example,” Roberts continued, “Ellington was not somebody who was going, ‘Oh, there’s Bebop; let’s throw away the big band and solo all night on ‘Cherokee.’ He was about using the logical elements of Bebop that made sense inside of his ever-expanding conception. I don’t consider myself to be a New Orleans pianist, or a stride pianist, or a bebop pianist or any of that. I study the whole history and try to develop globally that way.”

Now a working unit for 14 years, Roberts and his trio (Roland Guerin, bass; Jason Marsalis, drums) deploy that approach on New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1,”his first release since 2001. They address repertoire by Joplin, Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and Thelonious Monk, laying down a pan-American array of grooves, channeling the essence of the old masters without regurgitating a single one of their licks.

“Marcus Roberts was a whole other whole category of musician for me to play with,” Wynton Marsalis told me a few years, reflecting on the ways in which Roberts, who replaced the mercurial Kenny Kirkland in Marsalis’ band in 1986, helped trigger a sea change in the way Marsalis viewed his own musical production. “I had never encountered a musician around my age with that level of intelligence and depth of feeling about the music. He gave me a lot of strength. He made me understand you can’t make it by yourself. You have to play with people, and his music is about getting together with other people. Marcus made me understand that if a person has a belief, that is their artistry. What Marcus Roberts told me then (and we were both very young men) is the truth: Your artistry is your integrity and who you are as a man. Who you are as a person. What you are about. What’s inside of you. That’s the most important component, not whether you can hear chords quicker than somebody or play a more complex polyrhythm. I learned that from him, and from watching him and his development.”
Is From New Orleans to Harlem the recording that you’ve been trying to find the right time to put out over the last few years, or is it very recently recorded?

I first recorded it in 2004. I edited it and mixed it and mastered it, and ultimately it just wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be, so I re-recorded it in 2006, and now I’m putting it out. It’s really the second version. I re-did the whole thing. If I’m going to put it out, in my estimation, I need to be happy with it if I’m going to expect anybody else to be happy buying it.

What dissatisfied you about the first incarnation?

I can’t even put my finger on it. I just didn’t feel that it captured where we had evolved to. By the time I’d fixed it and edited it and did all the post-production, we were playing—honestly—so differently that it didn’t feel to me as though we had captured that in the first iteration. The other issue was that the last recording of mine on a major record label, Cole After Midnight, came out in 2001, but it was actually recorded in 1998. In other words, the last anybody heard of my work really dates back 11 years.

What are some of the reasons for that gap? It’s not like you disappeared and hid in a cave. You’ve been performing a lot.

It’s been a few things. For one, after leaving Columbia I knew that I didn’t want to sign with another major record label. So I was no longer interested in going in that direction, but at the same time, a lot of possibilities now available on the Internet had not matured yet. A lot of changes were still in process, and I wanted to wait and allow us to use these different methods, strategies, and approaches to disseminate our work to the public.

The other reason was that, as happy as I was with my group, we needed to do some work to fill in some conceptual holes that I thought were there, and I didn’t want to record anything until I felt those things had been resolved.

The third reason is pianistic. I needed to look at some major things to overhaul my technique, which you really have to do every five or ten years. You need to constantly examine what you’re doing, what you think about your general approach to sound, what new technical principles you’re interested in exploring that might require real time. So I felt I needed to take some time and invest myself in the piano to prepare for the next big stage of my career.

Those were the main reasons, off the top of my head, why it’s been so long. One final one is that I took a job, a half-time position at Florida State University, my old school, to teach jazz and help them with my jazz program. I’ve been teaching young people my whole life, since I was a kid. I always liked doing it. You learn a lot when you teach, because you really have to think about what they need, what their talents and gifts are, and find a way to develop them using their skills and abilities, not just your perspective. It’s hard work if you want to be good at it, and it took a long time. I’m in my fifth year at FSU, and finally I feel I’m making a real contribution to the program.

Let me follow up on points two and three. You said the trio needed to bolster some things conceptually and you needed to overhaul your technique. What specific technical and conceptual things were you looking to do?

I was developing a real interest in exploring more deeply how classical music and jazz could be presented together. That meant I needed to invest more time. Conceptually, I was and am interested in exploring a much more refined approach to sound, which meant that I needed to pick up some old repertoire and really investigate it. Bach, for example, which is the foundation of any keyboard technique. I wanted to go back to Bach for my concept of contrapuntal playing, viewing the piano as an instrument that is primarily interested in more than one line at a time, which is one of the big gifts that the piano offers. Another issue is to be able to play these lines with a certain amount of balance and clarity and articulation—so Bach is perfect. Then, another issue has to do with balance, being able to work on voicing and pedaling so that you can increase or expand the amount of nuance that you are capable of playing on the piano at any given time. I tried to focus on making sure that, if I’m playing something soft. . .well, where is the threshold when I feel I’m starting to gain control of that nuance, of these soft colors? You can play a lot of different things when you study classical piano. The literature is clearly laid out, so if you know which things to study, you can cover a lot of territory. For example, if you’ve been trying to work on articulation and more of a light, clear touch on the instrument, you’ll play Mozart for that. If you want to deal with color and sonority, well, you can’t get any better than Debussy and Ravel. If you want somebody who is in a direct line from Bach and Mozart, but a more romantic, sensual attitude, then Chopin is challenging, because you have to be able to play things very light and beautiful, but also play certain passages with tremendous power and virtuosity.

 It’s hard to do consequential R&D when you’re on the road a lot, too, isn’t it.

Well, it is a difficult thing to do when you’re on the road. It’s difficult to do when you’re in the middle of presenting music that you’ve been playing for a while. New information reinvigorates you. Inspiration, in my opinion, is the key to a good imagination. Without inspiration, you just start playing the same old stuff, and your playing becomes, in my opinion, annoying and predictable—and I just don’t ever want to go there. I’ll stop first. There is no point putting on the stage something that you don’t care enough about to work on. That’s just for me. Whether we want to call it “new” or “old” or “innovative” or whatever else, if you’re not investing in it every day of your life, then you’re not as serious about art as some great artists have been. That’s all I can say.

Back to point two, what did the trio need to accomplish?

I have to say that they’re so talented. Jason Marsalis is capable… You might sit down with him and be playing just a regular B-flat blues, and say, “You know what? We’re going to modulate to A-minor, and when we modulate to A-minor I want you to keep the same form but play it in 7/4 time.” He has perfect pitch, so when you modulate he knows you’re there, plus he can keep track of those two time signatures at the same time. No hesitation. Roland has a different kind of natural ability to use syncopation and grooves on the bass in this more folk type of style—funk music, zydeco, Louisiana playing—and also has a love of Ron Carter’s role in the Miles Davis Quintet, and a real deep connection with Jimmy Garrison from Coltrane’s group—he’s figured out a way to put all of that stuff together. The two of them playing together get this sophisticated, more abstract view of groove and time and rhythm.

What I wanted to achieve with them was showcase that talent, write arrangements that would make it easier for them to exploit nuance. That’s one component that the public can address and digest comfortably. In the same way that when you go to a very sophisticated restaurant, you may not know the 20 ingredients in this chicken dish, but you know that it tastes good, and you know that there are some subtle reasons why. So I wanted to pay attention to these nuances and go in the direction of some of the other great trios that existed. The Oscar Peterson Trio was fantastic. Their execution was flawless. They had such a huge dynamic range. When Ray Brown would start to take a bass solo, it was a bass reflection of OP’s virtuosic piano sound and style. Or Ahmad Jamal, who right now, today, can sit down at a piano and blow you away by himself, with a trio, with his conception, with his accompaniment… Frankly, we live in a loud culture, so everybody’s view of a jazz trio is kind of, “Oh yeah, cocktail music” or “it’s kind of cute, it’s kind of nice…” Now, if we want the American people, or any other group, to take a jazz trio seriously, we have to work hard to present a group that has the same power, virtuosity and delicacy that we can find in a quartet, or quintet, or septet.

Then the second way to do it is by flipping around the roles of the piano and bass and drums. My modern view is that if we make room for the bass and the drum, they’ll be able to have equal access in bringing us where we’re getting ready to go. If Roland wants to change the form or the tempo, how do we set up a cue system so we actually can do that without the piano having to set it up? We had to figure out how to do it, and that changed the way we play.

You’ve been evolving that concept for some time, haven’t you. You were talking about this ten years ago.

We talked about it ten years ago as a conception. It became a philosophy when we really started to be able to do it. That’s the difference. The conception is always something that we can talk about, but the question is whether you’re going to really push and figure it out, or whether it’s going to be mainly conception.

Looking at the repertoire and the concept of the recording, I can’t help but be reminded of the recording Alone With Three Giantsi, from twenty years ago, on which you interpreted repertoire by three of the composers—Morton, Ellington, and Monk—whom you represent on New Orleans Meets Harlem. Let’s talk about the arc of the repertoire. It seems to represent a fairly chronological timeline from the turn of the century to modernity, beginning with Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin and concluding with tunes by Monk and your own original piece.

When you’re putting any record together, you’re trying to sequence it in a way that shows contrast and the naturalness of the set, so that when people listen they don’t get tired in the process. I’ve even listened back to some of my own records and thought it was a little too intense the whole time. Just general observations.

So you want an ebb-and-flow.

Yes. You want people to have time to digest what they’re hearing. So we start the thing with Jelly Roll; he’s at the beginning anyway, so why not? “New Orleans Blues” I thought was a good selection to start it off. Also, we kind of used that blues by Jelly Roll to be a sort of microcosm of jazz, because the way we do it, we are able naturally to cover a broad range. From my vantage point, the 21st century in jazz music has to be about presenting or being informed by the entire history of jazz at all times, not restricting oneself to a particular ten-year period. Which may have been how the music was built, brick-by-brick. But at this time in history, we live in a collaborative community, a world community, a global community. Where technology is right now, everything moves at the speed of light, and jazz music is the one music that can keep up with it. It has everything in it. It has virtuosity. It has folk music. It has stuff from the inner city. It has grandeur and sophistication and aristocracy in it. It has democracy in it. It has perhaps even tyranny in it, depending on who the bandleader is. Everything is there.

Most of the pieces on this CD I’ve been playing for years. There’s not really a whole lot of new material. What is new about it is that it’s all trio, and the concepts are organic, because I’ve been playing this stuff for a long time, and I’ve figured out how to rebuild from the ground-up to where it has a specific individual sound. To me, that was an important component.

So your Duke Ellington homage, In Honor of Duke,” which was primarily comprised of original compositions, or Cole After Midnight, or Gershwin For Lovers, all trio recordings from the ‘90s…how do you see those now?

I don’t really see them in any particular way. A record just reflects where you are in your development. For example, Gershwin For Lovers was with Wynton’s rhythm section, not my band. That was about slick arrangements, to give a good record to Columbia that I thought they could sell. In Honor of Duke represents the beginning of my original trio conception. When you come up with a concept that you believe is different or new, you often have to use original music to bring it to the forefront, because there’s no music written for the conception yet. So I wrote that music, and also the previous record, Time and Circumstance, to represent the concept, if you will. But New Orleans Meets Harlem represents the philosophy. It’s matured. It’s grown-up. It’s no longer really a concept. At this point it’s more a way of life. It’s how we play, what we believe in.

At what point in your life did the notion of having entire timeline of jazz interface in real time become part of the way you thought? I’m sure it took a while to germinate, and once it begin to germinate, it took you a while to find your way towards articulating it. Were you thinking this way before you met Wynton Marsalis?

I guess it’s always been there. Meeting Wynton was more confirmation than introduction. But the thing about Wynton is, he’s the only one in my generation who could articulate intellectually and with any real clarity what we were doing and why we were doing it, and he was the only one who really knew how to execute and operationalize it. Again, a lot of people have great ideas, but they don’t know how to make them operational. You’ll get in the middle of it, then: “Oh, I didn’t consider it whole.” “What do we do now?” “I don’t know.” So making ideas operational is important, and as I have developed, I have had to work very hard at sniffing out how to streamline some of my concepts, to bring together an operational structure with a conceptual structure. Those are the real problems artists like to solve. For example, when you write a piano concerto, it needs to be playable. I mean, it might be difficult, but it shouldn’t have you doing something that’s physically going to hurt you. So if you play a great piano concerto, or a great piece by Chopin, what’s amazing is how well it lies within the natural reach of the hand. He’s got all these problems with thirds and octaves and chromaticism and these kinds of elements, but he also has the solution right there. You just have to practice it!

As far as when I started to think in terms of the history: Well, I’ve always been in search of one general sound that I heard in church when I was 8 or 9 or 10 years old. I can’t even explain what that sound is. From time to time, you hear and play things that have an eternal resonance. You’ll play or hear a melody, and you don’t know when it could have been written. It could have been ten thousand years ago. Somebody might have hummed that way in Africa someplace, or in Japan, or in Europe. It’s timeless. It’s beyond the scope of our understanding. It’s like a subconscious-unconscious thing. Then, there’s the conscious implementation of a design that you impose on it. That’s more “modern,” new, relevant for our time, relevant for our generation, etcetera. But to me, you need both. I’ve always thought in terms of integration—of more than one thing. That takes you into the realm of multiplication as opposed to addition. I mean, it becomes easy to play something “new.” I’ve never had any shortage of creativity or imagination. I’m sure if you talked to Wynton for any length of time, he could say the same thing. It’s never been a problem actually to find new things to do.

One thing you do that Wynton likes to discuss when he talks about you, which he says is new and is pretty distinct unto you, is your ability to play different time signatures with two hands.

That came as a result of playing with Jeff Watts. It’s a different view of rhythmic syncopation. Monk was a master of syncopation; his music has syncopation built in on multi-levels. There’s the syncopation that occurs between any two notes that are a half-step apart. That’s my real view of blues—the tension that is established harmonically between two chords that are a half-step apart, two notes that can be a half-step apart, between a rhythm that could occur on-beat and another rhythm that could occur on the end of one. Syncopation means we’re imposing something on it against the ear. The ear’s got into this, and then we’re going to change it this little bit. It could even be dynamic syncopation—your ear has gotten accustomed to something soft, and all of a sudden, BAM, here’s something loud. It could be the syncopation of two instruments playing, and now, all of a sudden, we’ve got a third instrument. It’s a real complicated thing.

When you get to rhythm, once you have the general understanding of where the quarter note pulse is, and a tempo that is carrying that pulse, then the only issue is to determine on how many levels can we interject this quarter note pulse. Tain was able to calculate and understand the real math behind these permutations. To be honest, I never really understood it the way he and Jason Marsalis do. They’re on a whole different planet as far as understanding the rhythms you can play at these various tempos against other things. So that was a big part of Wynton’s philosophy, and my philosophy with my group. I was interested in adding blues to that concept, so that always, whatever the tempo or concept, it has the real feeling of jazz. That’s that folk element I’m talking about. Like, when you hear Mahalia Jackson sing. That voice—she could have been singing it a thousand years ago. It goes way beyond the generation you’re in. As I said earlier, you want to get beyond reducing anything to a ten-year period, which is kind of what a “generation” is. When you hear a Bach chorale, are you really thinking about 1720? No! You’re thinking that it’s moving you right now. “Wow, this is beautiful. How did somebody write that?” If somebody could write a Bach chorale right now, trust me!—nobody would be mad! They’d say, “Oh, Well, my-my. Somebody can do that again?” So we’ve got to be real careful in terms of how we evaluate critically the value of something based on the time period that it took place in. That’s a delicate issue.

New Orleans Meets Harlem begins in 1905, with “New Orleans Blues,” and ends in 1956 with “Ba-lue Bolivar Blues Are.” So you’re spanning the first half of the twentieth century in American music—in Black American music. Do you have any remarks on the broader implications of this body of work?

Again, they solved problems. “Ba-lue Bolivar Blues,” or any great blues that Monk wrote, has layers of syncopation that we can look at. Monk’s music to me always sounds like poetry or real modern folk music. He’s almost a modern equivalent of Jelly Roll Morton. Monk’s music is strictly jazz. Strictly. You’re not going to confuse it with German music, you’re not going to confuse it with African music, you’re not going to confuse it with anything. American jazz. Period. If somebody said, “Give us four pieces of music that sound 100 percent like jazz,” well, you’d pick a Jelly Roll Morton piece or a Louis Armstrong piece, you’d probably pick a Monk piece, you might pick something from <i>Kind of Blue</i>. I won’t speculate on the final thing. But for sure, you couldn’t go wrong picking a Monk piece. You couldn’t go wrong picking a Jelly Roll piece or a Louis Armstrong piece. You probably couldn’t go wrong picking a Duke Ellington piece. Why? Because that music has such expansiveness. Monk, Jelly Roll, Fats Waller, Joplin, and Ellington, all were serious about the piano and serious about exploring different forms, different types of nuance, which is what I’m interested in. For me, it’s always a question of figuring out who has the information that I need to develop my artistry. That’s the selfish component. Now, I’m not necessarily going back to Jelly Roll Morton to be caught up in recreating what he did. First of all, it would be very arrogant to pretend you could do that anyway. Because you’re talking about somebody’s life’s work, what they REALLY went through. And again, these recordings are just a snapshot of part of a day of your life.

And Jelly Roll Morton had quite a life.

Man, quite a life. So I think the more relevant issue is what part of Jelly Roll Morton is also part of me and what I believe. So I’m playing “New Orleans Blues,” which is a staple piece that I always will play and always have played. “Ba-Lue Bolivar Blues,” I don’t know how many arrangements of that tune we haven’t thought up in this trio. We’ve played it all kind of different ways. “Honeysuckle Rose” is another one that we’ve played several different ways. The version on this record is not exactly the same version from 2004.

So I think the importance of all the great composer-pianists, first of all, is that they reflect a range of understanding of the piano. Scott Joplin wrote down his music. He knew what he wanted people to play. Of course, he didn’t really want folks improvising on it, but we do it anyway. But he was a serious scholar of the piano. His music, again, has this urban sound, but also this melancholy—a kind of aristocratic Folk sound. It also has this connection between pre-jazz and the classical music of Chopin. In other words, it has variety built into it. It has options built into it. It’s an operating system, like Windows XP. You can put anything that you conceptualize inside of that. It doesn’t impose the moves of what it can be, but it does say, “Well, you’d better write it in 32-bit code, or the operating system won’t acknowledge it.” There’s the science of it, and there’s the art of it, the creative element. Again, you’re always balancing the design with the conception.

Who are some of your contemporary piano influences? By “contemporary,” I mean roughly within your generation. Ten years ago, you mentioned to me Danilo Perez, and I’ve heard people who know you mention Kenny Kirkland, whose chair you filled in Wynton’s group. Are there other people within striking distance of your birthday who have influenced you?

Those probably would be the two. Kenny Kirkland, first of all, just his knowledge of rhythm, his knowledge of harmony, and how he could intersect the two using not just Latin influences, but also chordal structures taken from the music of Bartok and Hindemith. He was a modern thinker. A lot of stuff Kenny was playing was way more profound than the structure that he played in. He understood theory on an extremely high level. He’d play a chord that had a rhythmic function to hook up with Jeff Watts and a harmonic function to hook up with Wynton or Branford, whoever was soloing at the time. He also, frankly, was typically the most serious person on the stage. Kenny Kirkland was one of the most consistent pianists that you could hear. I mean, tune after tune after tune, he was swinging, playing an unbelievable modern vocabulary, a great sense of Herbie Hancock’s and Chick Corea’s conception, but again, put in this really modern but delightfully percussive manner—because it still has the theory and this European training behind it.

Danilo is someone who understood another culture’s view of our music, and was able again to interface them very organically. He could sit down with you and explain how he did it. Again, it’s that concept of making something operational. Any programmer, before they start writing code for a computer program, first has to understand the function of the process. Once we know the manual procedure, then we can automate it. Danilo understood manually each of these styles, then he figured out where they intersected, and then he picked music to showcase what he’d figured out. It’s just brilliant stuff. It’s well-executed pianistically. I personally hate sloppy piano playing—somebody who doesn’t understand that the sustain pedal is there and what you’re supposed to do with it. He’s a refined player. He understands the vocabulary of these Latin cultures, where he can get away with superimposing it, where he should leave it alone. Also, he inspires the musicians he plays with, which is another job of a pianist. You have to provide an inspirational environment for the bass player and the drummer to do their thing. You have to know when to lay low and stroll so that the piano doesn’t get in the way of what somebody else is trying to play, even if it’s your conception, your philosophy and your group viewpoint. It’s a hard job. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

You were mentioning earlier that you’ve been looking your whole life for a sound that you heard as a kid in church. One development in jazz since you and Wynton got together has been a burgeoning of black musicians with church backgrounds and southern roots. This coincides with a period when MTV and hip-hop were rising in visibility and influence, and jazz wasn’t part of the zeitgeist. Any speculations?

Well, I can’t speak for anybody else’s experience. I can only tell you that this was the source of my upbringing and what led me into the piano, led me into jazz music, and that sound spoke to me. Now, did it speak to me differently than it spoke to Charles Mingus from Los Angeles, California? Probably not. I don’t know.

I’m thinking of the time and place in which you grew up.

That’s still so personal. The only thing I can tell you is, somehow or other, you’ve got to access two conflicting things. One is the value of something that is bigger than you, older than you, greater than you; the other is the physical organization that is from your generation. That’s the issue. If you grew up in church, then you found access to it that way. If your parents were jazz musicians, like Jason and Wynton and Branford… Look, they didn’t play in church. Obviously, the church is not the only way to find it. I think the main key for any jazz artist, any serious artist of any style, is you must find a connection with the beginning of it somehow. Somehow. It is never going to be enough for it to come just from your generation. That’s never enough. You’re not going to find anything great without it.

With your own label, do you plan to document your work more frequently?

Well, I’ve been documenting a lot. That hasn’t been the problem. There are a whole bunch of records still to come out. Oh yes! But I’m just starting to put the stuff out. We certainly won’t be waiting another eight years to put out a record. It will be more like six months.

Primarily trio, or a diverse range of contexts?

It’s diverse. I have a solo piano record that’s already done. I have another trio record of original music that’s done. I’ve got some septet stuff from live shows that I plan to put out—I don’t know if I’m going to go in and redo it. But yes, I’m always trying to deal with a diversified viewpoint.

Any special projects for the spring and summer?

The most important concerts that I have coming up are with the Atlanta Symphony. [These occurred on April 4th-6th.] We’re doing Gershwin’s Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra. That’s important to me, because that’s the first major symphony orchestra in the United States that we’ve done this work with. I hit it off with Robert Spano; he’s a great conductor over there. So I’m hoping that we can do a lot more work with them. I’m talking to him about possibly trying to do the same sort of thing with the Ravel Left Hand Concerto that I did with the Concerto in F. For me, that would be a huge undertaking, and it would take a tremendous amount of time and effort to pull off. But we are discussing it. At this stage of my career, I’m interested in meaningful collaboration. It’s certainly a little more streamlined. I’m not interested necessarily in just the regular play-gigs type of career.


Interview with Marcus Roberts for BarnesandNoble.com, October 22, 1999:


TP: I would like to ask you first of all about a contention that you make several times in the press material, which is that your concept of the interactive trio and of all of the members of the trio being in a position to lead the proceedings at any given time is a new concept. You say “fundamental but new.” Now, I think the trio does it with great skill and imagination. But would you explain to me a little more why it’s a new concept, as opposed to what, let’s say, Ahmad Jamal was doing in the late ’50s and the ’60s?

ROBERTS: Well, first of all, we have to address the fact that new doesn’t necessarily mean better. “New just means that no one has done it.” If we’re talking about Ahmad Jamal, the way his trio was set up, the piano was fully out front, and Ahmad wanted space so that he could manipulate through cues, visual cues…so he could manipulate the direction of the music. What he would do is, if he wanted Israel’s voice to come out more here, he would leave space and point to him as if, you know, “Play”… In other words, he was a very-very hands-on, great trio… I mean, he put together, in my opinion, the best trio I ever heard! [LAUGHS]

TP: Was he very influential on your concept of trio playing?

ROBERTS: Oh my God, yes.

TP: Talk a bit more about the dynamics of that, and talk about your antecedent trio concepts that inflect the way your sound has evolved to this day.

ROBERTS: Well, we’ve been influenced specifically by Ahmad Jamal, and certainly Errol Garner’s playing has had a profound impact on me — that whole Pittsburgh school of piano playing.

TP: What are the characteristics of that Pittsburgh school?

ROBERTS: Well, they believe first and foremost in swinging and grooving, number one. In the case of Errol Garner, we’re talking about somebody who sort of was a transitional figure from the Big Band swing players and sort of the Bebop era. Errol became very popular in the ’50s at a time when everybody was kind of into the Hardbop of Blakey and Miles, but Errol Garner just had such a hard-driving swing. In his left hand he typically used to emulate Freddie Greene’s guitar playing in the Count Basie band, and then in the right hand he would play a lot of times what you might think of as saxophone figures or trumpet figures in a big band. So he organized this within a trio concept, and the power has always been very attractive to me — just the swing and the power of Errol Garner’s playing.

Then sort of the finesse and the imagination of Ahmad Jamal, who again influenced… Most of what Miles Davis got done in the ’50s, he got pretty much directly from Ahmad Jamal, and Ahmad’s concept of expanding the form. So Ahmad would take a tune like “Autumn Leaves” that has a pretty straight-ahead AB kind of form, and he would expand the A-section until he just didn’t have to play on it any more. He’d point and say, “Okay, now we’re going to go to the bridge.” So it was a very-very flexible way of expanding form. Now, he might put a different kind of groove on the bridge. It just brings the whole tune to life, a whole different way. That’s something that I definitely was very taken by and very influenced by, that this was just a brilliant bandleader who knew how to make the piano sound like an orchestra, how he would make a single line played in the highest register of the piano ring, and then you’d hear Israel Crosby playing all kinds of hip stuff underneath; you know, Ahmad’s left hand wouldn’t be in the way or anything with the harmonic direction that Israel might want to go in…

But again, what I think we’re trying to do is introduce a concept that has an agenda that says that there are many times where the piano does not have to be out front, and rather, there are times where you have to relinquish not only a solo space, but an actual direction, an unanticipated direction that you as bandleaders don’t control, to the bass or drums. And this just isn’t done.

TP: In some ways, this is a very Ellingtonian notion, isn’t it. I mean, Ellington always had control, but it was always control based on his knowledge of what the untrammeled imagination of his improvisers would do. It’s like his concept was built around that intimate knowledge of each of his voices. Since the recording is called In Honor Of Duke, and you say it’s not Ellington repertoire but more an impression of Ellington, the idea seems consequential.

ROBERTS: We are certainly building on very, very fundamental aspects of what Ellington did. He wrote music, number one, specifically for the talents of all the men and women that he worked with throughout his career. And I think in his case, you’re talking about somebody who certainly preferred that his orchestra vision not necessarily be expressed from the standpoint of piano alone, but typically from the expanding of other people’s ability to shine. And he gave them tremendous flexibility, but he did tailor-make the music for them that allowed their imagination to come forward. But again, Duke Ellington did typically maintain control at the piano. This is why we have typically a piano introduction, because Duke Ellington was not going to risk the wrong tempo being set — he was not going to risk any of that stuff. So he did permit imagination, but you have to understand, it was definitely from the standpoint of him making sure that the environment was how he wanted it to be for that to happen. And he had very clear visions as far as what the bass and drums were going to be doing in the big band. He wanted that foundational groove there, and not being manipulated too much.

So again, if we’re talking about the bass and the drums, this is the issue that makes this new. The issue is that there hasn’t been a band that I know of where the bass and drums can dictate throughout an evening the direction that the band goes in. I haven’t heard it.

TP: Talk a bit about the cuing system you use to keep the collective spontaneous interaction organized in some sense.

ROBERTS: Well, we can have, for example, one cue that allows for anybody to either speed the tempo up or slow it down, on any tune. We have another cue system where the tempo can be changed above abruptly at any time. Then we have the music itself, which is organized in a way where there are moments where the direction of the music is in the hands of somebody other than myself, again both in terms of tempo… For example, on two separate occasions, that particular tune, every 8 bars in every break after the …(?)…, control shifts, and it’s beyond just taking a break. Typically when you take a break in jazz, you take the break at the tempo of the preceding material. Well, in this case, we don’t feel that you have to do that. The break could be at any tempo. And you can set up a whole different tempo after your break is done for the next person, so you are dictating the tempo that they play at. So that’s just like one small example of it.

So it’s just things like that. And it’s not to say it’s new like there is no relationship to using material or concepts about the form, because that is certainly not where I’m coming from at all. It’s just a matter of trying to identify things that you don’t feel have been done that can perhaps be a contribution.

TP: A quality you share with a lot of the older piano players is a very organic two-handed conception and orchestral conception of the piano within your trio concept. I don’t know if that’s a question or not, but is there anything you care to say about that?

ROBERTS: Well, I agree with that 100 percent. I love to hear the piano explore with the sense that it could be an orchestra, because it certainly has the range to do it, and it has the ability for you to play many voices at one time. So yeah, I think that is one of the things I certainly strive for every time I play the piano.

TP: You make a comment here that as a youngster and someone with a gift for playing the piano, that Ellington was really the person who turned you around when you first heard him, when you were 12 years old.


TP: Who were some of the other pianists you encountered in your formative years, let’s say between that and going to Florida State University?

ROBERTS: Well, Teddy Wilson. Mary Lou Williams. Of course, I was listening to Classical music as well. I mean, I heard Horowitz the first time when I was 13 after one piano lesson. Art Tatum, obviously. And probably McCoy Tyner to a lesser extent.

TP: It differentiates you from a lot of your peer group who weren’t exposed to any of these prewar musicians at all until maybe later, and kind of came up with the orthodox piano lineage that’s taught in universities and academic institutions. It kind of puts you apart from a number of them.

ROBERTS: Well, the only thing that puts me apart from them, honestly, is just philosophy. You have to understand that in jazz music, typically (or more disciplines, I guess), people tend to look a generation back. That’s just what people do. Because they want to take issue with what’s been done, and either change it or agree with it or just totally reject it. So I think that what I’m advocating, and what somebody like Duke Ellington certainly advocated throughout his illustrious 50-year career, is that you should always use the whole history of the music all the time. That was obviously his conception. He was not somebody who was going, “Oh, now there’s Bebop; let’s throw away the big band and solo all night on ‘Cherokee.'” He was saying, well, let’s use the logical elements of Bebop that make sense inside of his ever-expanding conception.

TP: It was an incremental concept.

ROBERTS: Yes. And this is where I think the power of Ellington’s legacy is second to none. Because it’s always expanding based on the whole history. My philosophy is, I don’t consider myself to be a New Orleans pianist, or a stride pianist, or a bebop pianist or any of that. I mean, I study the whole history and try to develop sort of globally that way. For example, I studied Mildred Falls, so I could really understand how you should accompany a Gospel singer. She played behind Mahalia all those years; she must know something about that. So I mean, I studied her playing on about four of Mahalia’s records, so I could know, and correlate what I heard in Mildred Falls that I also heard in McCoy Tyner. What was I hearing in Teddy Wilson that was being passed down to Nat Cole and to Oscar Peterson? These are the things. Or how did Count Basie go from studying directly with Fats Waller and understanding that whole Harlem Stride thing, and then over time developing actually what a lot of people would think was a contradictory way of playing, with all this space.

TP: Actually, what I hear when I listen to you and reference older pianists is a kind of rhythmic affinity for the way Earl Hines phrases and sets off rhythms. It’s the most visceral connection I feel. Which may or may not have anything to do with your reality.

ROBERTS: Well, Earl Hines, man, that’s…again, that’s another… I try, you know. But I think… See, a lot of the young pianists that I talk to, they pick, like, an era that they’re into, or they respond to a particular philosophy that they don’t want to be associated with. You have some kids who maybe they’re just into claiming that they are expanding based on the 20th Century view of the European piano is what they’re doing, or some people make it clear that Bebop is what they’re interested in. Whatever it is. I mean, that’s fine, whatever a person is into. But I just encourage them to get as much information from the reservoir as you can.

TP: Which certainly puts you on a similar track to Wynton Marsalis, and hearing you say that makes it clear to me why the two of you have been so close over the years.

ROBERTS: Well, yeah. But again, like I say, we have a model far greater than Wynton and myself in Duke Ellington. We have a very clear example of somebody… Or Thelonious Monk. We have figures where this is not some newly discovered fact. I think in most disciplines, this is how things work. Now, we aren’t really suggesting that Einstein wasn’t influenced by Copernicus or Newton; we’re not really suggesting that. So to me, it’s kind of basic, kind of fundamental. I think that Wynton, certainly, just based on how he hit the scene and everything… A lot more is made of that really makes sense to me, but maybe that’s just because that was my experience and I was there.

TP: Let’s talk about your trio. You’ve been together four years now?

ROBERTS: Mmm-hmm.

TP: A few sentences about their individual qualities and the blend you’re able to get.

ROBERTS: Well, I think that first of all if we were to begin with Roland… Roland likes to groove. He comes from a generation where he’s got Parliament-Funkadelic records and Earth Wind & Fire records and all that stuff. He’s a lot like Reginald Veal in that he just loves to groove. Anything that’s got a groove on it, he’s interested. So he actually likes the traditional role of the bass and drums as just laying that groove down. In a strange way, that’s sort of what helped unlock this new way of thinking, to sort of fluctuate between those states in a seamless way. And he has, over time, developed a very-very strong solo vocabulary and has a lot of really nice things that he does, like with slapped bass based on Slam Stewart, and taking that to another level that I haven’t heard. So he brings strength and just a whole lot of soul and grit to the bandstand.

In the case of Jason Marsalis, this is just like a brilliant, genius kid who can hear three or four tempos simultaneously. He’s somebody who has a completely perfect photographic memory. You can tell him to play “a Roy Haynes conception, but I want the touch to sound somewhat like Tony Williams, and then when you come out of it I want you to play like Baby Dodds but in five.” So you can tell him that…

TP: Is that the way you talk to him?

ROBERTS: Oh yes. I can look right over to him and just say, “Baby Dodds,” and he will go immediately into like a modern depiction.

TP: So the image is correlated into a sound for him.

ROBERTS: Yeah. I mean, he’s a genius. I have no idea how it happens, but I can tell you it’s like split second. A lot of it honestly is just there. I mean, from what I understand, he knew the solo to “Giant Steps” when he was 4 years old. I mean, he didn’t go to school and somebody teach it to him. Nobody knows. I mean, he’s somebody who just has an unusual, tremendous amount of natural talent.

But the other thing about him is that he is very dedicated, and in terms of this particular trio he has gotten very interested in taking a very active role in helping to develop it. One of the things that he told me that he’s doing… I asked him. Like I say, I’m not interested in me dictating every step. He’s interested in taking a lot of the drummers who were not trio drummers, like Max Roach and Elvin and Tony, and using their concepts in a trio context. A lot of drummers, if they play trio, they build pretty much from what we consider to be the traditional trio figures — Ed Thigpen, Vernell Fournier, etcetera. What Jason is saying is that he wants to contribute a modern dialogue with the vocabulary of some of the other drummers who are not associated with trio, and put it in that context.

TP: Just as those drummers would do when they found themselves in a trio context. Because Elvin and Tony and Max Roach and Roy Haynes all did play trios, but they weren’t “trio drummers.”

ROBERTS: Well, no. And I mean, they didn’t play trio in the way that Vernell did. They were not known as helping to develop a particular trio conception. But I think what he’s talking about is developing an identity inside of a trio that is based on not just the standard trio figures, but is (?).

TP: Was all this music more or less collectively developed over time? Talk about the process of composing the music for this trio.

ROBERTS: Well, the music for this trio really began with Time and Circumstance. That’s where my philosophy about piano, bass and drums really is put on record the first time.

TP: With another bassist.

ROBERTS: Well, it was recorded with another bassist, but actually I’d worked on a lot of that stuff with Roland. Roland was not on the record, but believe me, he was very instrumental in the development of the music. Then it sort of went there. Time and Circumstance was composed probably over a 5 to 6 month period of time. In Honor of Duke was done in a 2-1/2 month period of time. But the key thing is that it was written specifically for those two improvisers, and that it was written specifically — honestly, from the very beginning — with the concept: How can we bring the bass and drums more up-front? How can we sort of flip-flop these positions, so that the position of the piano is not lost in power, and we’re not just having these sort of generic, traditional ways at times of playing behind bass players, which I hate. It’s like every time a bass player starts to play somebody starts playing on the sock cymbal. There’s nothing wrong with that. But why is that the only way that we can think of to play behind a bass solo? It’s ridiculous. So we try to find different ways to accompany instruments that are typically not out front.

TP: You use a lot of Latin flavors on this record, explicitly and implicitly. There’s specific clave and then that sort of New Orleans inflection which has an inherent Caribbean feel. Have you been exploring Latin rhythms a great deal in recent years?

ROBERTS: A lot of that has to do with having heard Danilo Perez play. I love what he’s doing. We sat down and played, and I explained some things to him about the sort of straight-ahead piano philosophy, and how he can continue to develop his very incredible, hip, innovative Latin was that he takes a lot of the jazz standards and things; and then he shows me a lot of the basics of Latin playing, and explained to me some things that I can do to sort of bring that into what I was already doing. What I figured out is that it’s another huge reservoir of material and conceptual knowledge out there about that. So that’s why you’re hearing that. It’s something I’m feeling very driven to explore.

TP: Is composition a constant process for you? Are you always writing, or project-driven?

ROBERTS: Well, both. I have an arrangement for Trio and Symphony Orchestra of “Porgy and Bess” that I’m almost done with. That’s really consumed a lot of this year, along with the Ellington. I have a solo record that I’m working on for Columbia of all ballads, because I haven’t ever done a record quite like that, solo. I’m always trying to think of different things to do, to sort of do two things. To keep me in touch with the Folk foundation of life, but also to always stretch my imagination, always stretch my mental intellect. Because I think it’s really the combination of both things without losing one or the other that keeps progress in modern thinking kind of moving forward.

TP: In terms of your own pianism, what do you feel you need to work on? I’m assuming you’re never satisfied with what it is you do, but I assume there are certain aspects of what you do that you’re more comfortable with than, let’s say, others — or maybe I’m wrong.

ROBERTS: What I’m working on is trying to get to the point where my playing is, for lack of a better word, beautiful and poignant and clear. Balanced. Playing of Bach and Beethoven sonatas and Chopin. Those are the things that right at the moment I’m interested in doing. I have not had a whole lot of time, but I am very interested in just playing through a lot of those things. Because, see, a lot of the European masters did write specifically for the development of piano. So it’s one of the few instruments that has such a huge history both in Europe and America, you see. It’s a huge history. So to the extent that I can understand as much as I can, that’s what I plan to do. I don’t know how much better I’ll get, but that’s essentially what I’m driving by.

TP: Do you see the European Classical tradition and Jazz as a seamless entity in your mind, or are there separate personalities that come out for you?

ROBERTS: For me it’s seamless in that it’s all put and organized in a context that is jazz-based for me. I’m not interested in playing note-for-note the Beethoven Third with the New York Philharmonic. I have no real desire to do that, because I don’t have the hours and the days that it would take to really authentically represent that repertoire. But I am interested in writing music that will showcase the piano in a jazz context, but being drawn from a lot of European roots and Latin roots and other sort of merging of sensibilities.

I’d like to mention that the music is always ultimately only valuable if there is an audience for it that you can reach. That’s the most important (?) thing of any of it.

TP: And therefore the extent of your educational activities.

ROBERTS: Yes. And not only that. You are being educated. When people spend two hours getting dressed up and showing up to your event, they are just as interested in communicating with you as you are in communicating with them. I think this is where Jazz music has introduced a whole nother element, this interactive element, which I think has had a tremendous impact on how quickly jazz has moved in the past hundred years.

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For Wynton Marsalis’ 55th birthday, an Essay-Interview Written on the Occasion of the Premiere of Blood on the Fields

For Wynton Marsalis’ 54th birthday, I’ll reclaim a piece that’s been on the internet since 2001 via the Jazz Journalist Association website. I put it together in 2005 at the instigation of  Steve Cannon and Gathering of Tribes on the occasion of the premiere performance of Blood On The Fields. It contains an essay-review, followed by a long composite interview.


The Reigning Genius of Jazz to his admirers, the Emperor With No Clothes to his debunkers, Wynton Marsalis has attracted public attention and provoked ferociously divergent responses like few musicians in the music’s history. Since his emergence in the early 1980’s as a trumpet virtuoso and composer-bandleader, the result of Marsalis’ choice and treatment of material and his penchant for salty public statements is a public persona akin to a massive lightning rod or magnet that absorbs and repels the roiling opinions and attitudes informing the contemporary Jazz zeitgeist.

A visionary revisionist, Marsalis has worked tirelessly over the last decade to build a bully pulpit from which he speaks as advocate, spokesman, teacher and musical implementor of the aesthetic notions of continuity and inclusiveness intoned by Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. Committed to Jazz, perceiving it lacking a functional basis in contemporary Pop culture, he preaches the necessity of a fully idiomatic assimilation and refinement of the music’s lineage all the way back to its polyphonic roots in New Orleans as the road to a rooted personal voice. Perhaps his most important achievement has been to influence many of the most talented musicians of the generation after his (Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton are a few) to follow in his path.

What kept me from jumping on the Marsalis bandwagon during the 1980’s was that the volume of his bark was often disproportionate to the bite of the music that he was producing. Marsalis was forced to experience the growing pains of apprenticeship before an ever-expanding and largely uncritical audience for whom a Wynton Marsalis record was often more a status symbol than an object of serious reflection.

Marsalis’ strengths were substantial. He was capable of spinning out solos of a logic and lyrical force reminiscent of Fats Navarro’s greatest efforts. His compositions were based on the language of the 1960’s. He blended the scintillating turnarounds and swinging odd meters concocted by James Black in the isolation of New Orleans with the Ellis Marsalis Quartet, the harmonic and structural parameters of the Miles Davis Quintet, and the modal, almost Pentecostal feeling of John Coltrane’s Quartet. But as one might expect of a prodigiously gifted young musician in the process of feeling his oats, adding and discarding, his performances too often struck me as brilliant simulacra that did not comment on their sources. When I listened to Marsalis play his music, it was frustrating that he seemed to be almost willfully holding back, restraining the passion of his individual voice, a voice which burst out in full splendor on occasions when one heard him sit in with, say, Frank Morgan at the Village Vanguard, or at a memorable engagement at the Public Theatre with his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, and Edward Blackwell.

Since Marsalis became the focal point of Jazz programming at Lincoln Center in 1988, he has taken advantage of the opportunity to play the music of the keystone composer-improvisers of Jazz in variously idiomatic settings, from the inside-out so to speak, to develop a relationship to their vocabularies that is both functional and poetic. As his ideas have matured and consolidated, he has found a way to conjure his omnivorous musical interests into a highly personal, detailed compositional sensibility. Recent recordings such as the 1990 soundtrack for Tune In Tomorrow and the 1991 dance score City Griot revealed an ambitious composer who already had imprinted his cosignature to Ellington’s expansive timbral palette, Jelly Roll Morton’s organizational techniques, Monk’s percussive harmonic dissonance.

Furthermore, Marsalis has dramatically increased his range as a soloist. The sometimes mechanistic harmonically and rhythmically complex solo lines spun by the Freddie Hubbard admirer of earlier years have coalesced into clear, direct shapes. Marsalis is now capable of bringing to life a spectrum of stylistic approaches — the to-the-point heavyweight tales laid down by Louis Armstrong and Clifford Brown, the smooth modulations of Joe Smith and Joe Wilder, the sonic extremities of Ellington trumpets Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams, the allusive modernist progressions of Booker Little and Woody Shaw.

The two March 1994 performances at Alice Tully Hall of Marsalis’ lengthy commissioned composition for large jazz orchestra, Blood On The Fields [scheduled for an early 1996 release on Columbia-Sony] upped the ante. It is the first self-contained extended piece from Marsalis that I have heard in which form and function blend seamlessly. It tells a story whose internal dynamics are about dialoguing voices, stories and songs. It is also a conversation with the history of Jazz on its highest level. No imitation of its antecedents, Blood On The Fields demonstrates Marsalis’ sophisticated reading and revision of his sources, does justice to his oft-stated, oft-derided mission of reaffirming and reclaiming the optimistic narrative thrust of African-American culture.

What most impressed me about the performances of Blood On The Fields was the rich language of its complexly metered, starkly intervalled vernacular libretto, sung with elegant fluency and finesse by Cassandra Wilson, Miles Griffith and Jon Hendricks. Ellingtonally, Marsalis gave each musician in the orchestra a voice, and the orchestra itself a meta-voice. Call-and-response, New Orleans polyphony, shuffles, Ellingbop, dirges, parade march press-rolls, second-line struts, intricately detailed ensemble dialogues, impossible unison brass lines, idiomatic solos — even a Greek chorus! — signified and counterstated the songs. And they swung hard all night!

About a year ago I had the opportunity to meet with Marsalis twice for discussions about his music. During a week’s engagement of the Wynton Marsalis Septet at the Village Vanguard in December 1993 Marsalis visited my “Out To Lunch” program on WKCR-FM in New York and spoke on a variety of topics. The interview began with Marsalis’ brief description of each of his band members (Wessel Anderson and Victor Goines, reeds and woodwinds; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Eric Reed, piano; Reginald Veal, bass; Herlin Riley, drums), three of whom are from New Orleans (Veal has since left the band).

TP: Why is the New Orleans connection so important to you in terms of the musicians you perform with? It sounds like sort of a naive question, but I just would like to hear how you see it.

WM: Well, you know, it just has worked out that way. I didn’t plan it that way, really. It’s not like I went to New Orleans to find musicians, because I’ve been in New York for twelve years. But Herlin Riley and Reginald Veal with the drums and the bass, are from New Orleans, and they give us the ability to really play some New Orleans music. When you don’t have New Orleans musicians in those two positions, it’s difficult to get the authentic sound of the music. But you can always distill that sound, like the way that Duke played. He got that type of sound out of Jimmy Woode and Sam Woodyard. It’s just that it was transformed. It didn’t sound like the New Orleans beat.

TP: Of course Ellington got that sound out of Wellman Braud in the 1920’s.

WM: Well, he’s from New Orleans. As a matter of fact, Wellman Braud is in my family. You expect that New Orleans musicians will play like that. In Duke’s early bands, he had Sidney Bechet, he had Wellman Braud, he had Barney Bigard — he had access to New Orleans musicians. He had Bubber Miley, who even though he wasn’t from New Orleans, he was the closest thing you could find to King Oliver outside of Louis Armstrong.

TP: What type of repertoire does the band play in performance? You’ve accumulated such a diverse body of work in your recent recordings. Do you play the whole spectrum of material?

WM: We play all of it. Even the stuff we used to play, like “Black Codes From The Underground” or “Knozz-Mo-King.” We play Duke’s music, Monk, Wayne Shorter — anything really. We haven’t played that much of Wayne’s music recently, but we’ll really play pretty much anything… Some cats will play ballads. Or we try to play some of Trane’s music…

TP: Two of your band members, Wessel Anderson and Reginald Veal, studied with Alvin Batiste, who has been associated with your father for over forty years, playing contemporary and very strong music.

WM: Right.

TP: And Edward Blackwell was part of their circle, too, over forty years ago.

WM: That’s right.

TP: Did your father’s work with [drummer] James Black in the early 1960’s have an impact on some of the early things that you were doing with your group?

WM: Definitely. You know, for me, it was more that I just absorbed the music, because I was always around it. I didn’t like it when I was growing up. We were really Country. We lived in Little Fork, Louisiana, in Browbridge, in Kendall, Louisiana — and nobody I knew liked that kind of music. My Daddy and them always were kind of like outcasts. They were trying to play Modern Jazz in New Orleans at that time. But I always loved them because of their hipness. They had the combination of the intelligence and the soul. So as a kid, that manifested itself in things like, if we were in the barber shop, my Daddy would win the argument.

TP: With anybody, huh?

WM: Yeah. Well, he just knew a wider range of things. He was a Jazz musician. He had a more sophisticated understanding of American culture.

James Black was the same way, even though he had a volatile personality. But out of the cats in my father’s band (Nat Perillat, James Black, my father), I liked James the most. He wrote a lot of tunes, like “The Magnolia Triangle.” He had the talent. But he had a volatile personality. He was always getting into some kind of trouble, and he was always ready to fight at the drop of a hat. You never knew what he was going to do; he was unpredictable. But as a boy of like, seven, six, eight, there was always something about him I liked. He also was a trumpet player. I was influenced by his music. I liked his songs, like “A Love Song,” and things that the people wouldn’t know…

They played in a club called Lu and Charlie’s that was on Ramparts Street in New Orleans, and when I got to be, like, eleven, I would hang out in the club. I would go to the club just to see the men and the women and hear what they would be talking about, not to really check the music out so much — but the ambiance had a profound effect on my understanding of how the world works. Because you’re liable to see anything in that type of club. And also in New Orleans, down in the French Quarter there’s a wide range of things going on.

TP: Human activities.

WM: Yes, human…

TP: The full range…

WM: Yes.

TP: The depth…

WM: …and levels of human intercourse taking place. As men they had a profound effect on me more than as musicians.

TP: Had you picked up the trumpet by that time? Did you know music was going to be…

WM: No.

TP: …what you were going to do then?

WM: Well, I had a trumpet. I played in Danny Barker’s Fairview Baptist Church band when I was eight. Herlin Riley actually played trumpet in that same band, but before I was in it. I was only in the band for like six months or so, actually longer, maybe a year. We would play parades, things like “Over In The Glory Land,” “The Second Line,” “Little Liza Jane,” “Didn’t He Ramble.” Now, I had a trumpet, but I didn’t want to be a trumpet player. I wanted to be some type of athlete or in some type of scholarly activity, be a chemist or something — I had my little chemistry set, and I liked playing with it.

But the thing I always try to convey is just the feeling of that time. Because my father and them were all men struggling, they had their families, they weren’t making any money, they were trying to play Modern Jazz in New Orleans. An album like The Monkey Puzzle, I might have heard that a million times; it’s like a New Orleans underground classic. They had a belief and an optimism, a belief in the music, a feeling that they had as men, that’s the thing that I really could relate to. Because during that time, that music really wasn’t that important.

We had a little league football team, and we used to lose almost every game. This was during real segregation, so they had like three Black teams and seven or eight White teams. The Black teams always had like the saddest equipment from the city, and our fields didn’t have hashmarks or anything. We were glad just to be playing. Because before our age, they never had Black teams. But we would lose every game. Our coach was a cat named Gus, and he had a black-and-tan car we used to call the Judge, a GTO, and he used to sit on his GTO… We’d go to the games, and we’d always lose. One game Gus didn’t show up, and my father coached. He packed all of us into this little Buick Skylark; he had like eleven of us in a Buick Skylark, man…

TP: In uniform and pads?

WM: Oh yeah, in full dress. I don’t know how we got in there. We were laying all on top of each other! And we went to the game — and that’s the only game we almost won.

TP: Why did you decide to get serious about the trumpet? What was it that inspired you?

WM: Well, then I went through puberty, and I wanted to have something that would distinguish me so that I could be able to rap to the ladies and they would have some respect for what I was saying…

TP: A lot of musicians say that about it!

WM: Oh, man, that’s a motivating factor, now. And also just the competition of being in high school; a lot of people could play. And then I actually started listening to music. I started listening to Coltrane’s music first, and then later on Clifford Brown and Miles Davis…

TP: Who turned you on to that?

WM: Well, my father always had the records sitting around. I just had never taken the time to listen to any of them. Mainly before that I was just listening to like James Brown or the Isley Brothers, whatever was popular — Earth Wind and Fire then was becoming popular. We’d go to those little house parties that they have. Once again, it was still in the country. We weren’t living in New Orleans yet.

In the summer that I was twelve, I was working, cleaning up a school. That’s when I started listening to Trane. I would come home from doing that, and then I would listen to “Giant Steps”, and then I’d listen to Clifford Brown and Max Roach On Basin Street, and then Clifford Brown With Strings, and then a Miles Davis album entitled Someday My Prince Will Come, and then a Freddie Hubbard record entitled Red Clay. That got me into Jazz.

TP: How about Jazz education? Your father, Ellis, along with Alvin Batiste, was one of the major educators in Jazz really in the country in the 1970’s.

WM: [CHUCKLES] Well, I always hear that, and it makes me laugh. At most, my father never had more than five students in a class. We had the raggediest room in the school…

TP: Look who came out of it!

WM: Well, none of us knew we were going to make it playing Jazz. We really didn’t even want to play Jazz, with the exception of me and Donald Harrison; we were really the only two who wanted to play Jazz. When my father would try to explain something to us, by the time he would leave the blackboard to come back to the piano, we’d be playing a Funk tune. Alvin Batiste was the same way. He and my father, they’re like brothers almost. You know, I would always see them struggling, trying to have workshops in the community that no one would attend, always doing stuff — never for any payment, of course. Nobody was that interested in Art.

So now my father has this big reputation of being a teacher. And he is a great teacher. You have to be around him and really get the feeling of the music from him, because that’s what he carries with him, the seriousness and the joy and the love that’s in Jazz. He teaches his students through that method. But when we were growing up and in his classroom, it was only me, Donald Harrison, Branford, Terence Blanchard — we were the only five or six in the class. He would be just experimenting with us, walking the bass lines.

TP: You must have become extremely passionate about the trumpet to have worked that hard at it throughout your teenage years.

WM: Well, I always believed in working hard. You know, I used to cut lawns. And in New Orleans it’s hot. And in Kendall they have them big…them country lawns, so you have to really cut a lawn. And my attitude toward cutting a lawn was that my lawn was gonna be even. And this is when I was ten or eleven. So however long it would take to get the job done… That’s something that my father and my great-uncle would always tell me. My great-uncle was a stone-cutter for the cemetery, and he was in his nineties. He would always say, “Learn how to work a job. Your job is your identity. You don’t work a job for somebody else. You work your job for yourself.”

So when I got to be serious about music, I started practicing, and trying to look for teachers. I was very fortunate, of course, to have my father and Alvin Batiste, even Kidd Jordan. We would go over to SUNO, Southern University in New Orleans, and play what they call Avant-Garde music. We would all just get in a big room and just play as loud and as wild as we could. Even though after a while I got tired of doing it, in a way it was hip, because it allowed us to just express whatever we felt like expressing — which wasn’t that much. But we would all laugh about it. We would play some of Alvin’s tunes, one tune called “Naningwa.”

TP: He’s written some wild tunes.

WM: Yeah. So we grew up in that type of environment. My first teacher was a guy named John Longo. He also was at Southern University in New Orleans. He had grown up in New Orleans, and attended St. Augustine High School. John Longo studied with George Janson, who was my second teacher. George Janson had studied with William Vaggiano, who became my teacher at Juilliard. George Janson was from New York, and he had moved to New Orleans, and he was one of the few teachers who would teach the Black musicians in the 1950’s.

But in New Orleans it’s not like Jazz is a form of scholarship. They were Jazz musicians, my father and them, they were struggling with the world and trying to raise their families and deal with the social situations and all of that. And we were growing up in that, and we were just a part of it. The relationships in the New Orleans musical community were a certain way. And of course, always hearing the tradition of music, even though I didn’t gravitate toward it at that time, because I always equated it with Uncle Tommin’… We were from like that other generation, with the Afros and Malcolm; all of that was popular in my age group. But still I was around the people like Teddy Riley and Ford, and earlier Danny Barker. It was a community, a very small community, and everybody knew each other. And if you were in that community, you participated in what was in it.

TP: The other aspect of music in New Orleans in the Sixties and Seventies was the vernacular music that was embedded in the cultural fabric of the city — the Neville Brothers, the Meters, all of these great bands. Was that something that you were aware of and involved with at that time as well?

WM: Well, we played Funk music at our gigs, and we knew about the Meters and the Neville Brothers, of course. Everybody in New Orleans knows about them; they have hits. But the type of music that most of the people in my age group listened to was Parliament or Earth, Wind and Fire, just like in New Orleans today most people listen to Rap music or whatever is on the radio. They don’t really listen… Most of the teenagers, the kids in our age group, they don’t really have a sense of the New Orleans tradition. At the end of every Funk gig we would play the Second Line. In New Orleans you can play a second-line any time. That’s the New Orleans classic from the traditional music. But in terms of the Meters’ songs and covering their hits or the songs they used to play, any type of historical perspective — we didn’t really possess any of that. Let alone to deal with Fats Domino or Dave Bartholomew or any of the 1950’s musicians. We were mainly just trying to be popular and current. So when a new record would come out, that’s what we would play.

[The conversation turned to clarinettist Dr. Michael White’s presentations of early jazz at Lincoln Center.]

WM: We don’t do Repertory Jazz. When you hear Sonny Rollins play “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise,” that’s not a piece of repertory music. If you had heard John Coltrane, when he was alive, play “I Want To Talk About You,” you wouldn’t say that was a piece of repertory music. There’s this belief that what we’re doing is transcribing things off of albums and playing them like the way that they were played a long time ago. We don’t do that, and we aren’t trying to do that. These styles are always alive, because Jazz has a ritualistic component. Its history won’t be just like Classical music. It’s just that those who write about the music don’t understand that yet, that part of the music is a continuum, and that the earliest New Orleans style is still the most Modern style of Jazz because it allows for the most freedom for more people participating. You have that polyphonic horn style, which is very difficult to play.

When Michael White comes to New York, when he comes to Lincoln Center and we present New Orleans nights, we do that because he is the foremost authority on that style of music. He breathes life into that music. A lot of times we don’t even have arrangements. I’ve played on a lot of those concerts, and all we have is like a sheet with written instructions — “One Chorus, Clarinet,” “Two Choruses, Head,” “Ensemble Improvisation.” What we are trying to do is play that style of music the way that we know how to play it. We aren’t really trying to necessarily recreate the sound of a given band, because you can’t do it.

All of the musicians, everybody who plays, learns from that type of music. If you’re a trumpet player, it teaches you how to play melodies and how to play quarter notes. If you play clarinet or if you play the trombone or the saxophone, it teaches you how to play with other musicians on horns, how to play longer-note values, when to play riffs, how to respond to something while still playing, how to address the dynamics of a group of horns playing at one time. If you play bass, it teaches you how to play that two-groove and how to stick to a basic beat feel, how to provide a good foundation. If you play piano, you learn different ways of comping, like the quarter-note comp, and it teaches you how to play with the left and the right hand, the stride style.

Now, after you learn that, you can do whatever you want with it. You can always do what Marcus Roberts does, which is something that you would never hear any of the older pianists do, play in two and three different times at once, all kind of real sophisticated syncopations and different harmonic conceptions. It’s just a matter of addressing the fundamentals so that you know the building blocks. Then you have the tools at your disposal to do whatever you wish to do with them. When we play the New Orleans music, that’s what we’re trying to do.

TP: When you came into the studio, before we went on the air, you were talking about how difficult it is to train people to play like that. Do you want to elaborate on that a little?

WM: Well, it’s just that there’s not much impetus in the culture for group improvisation. Everybody wants to solo all night. It destroys the architecture of the music. Also, we have gotten used to this form of just playing a head, and then soloing for two thousand choruses, and then playing the head out. Whereas in that New Orleans music, they played marches and waltzes. They actually played quadrilles. They played music with a wide range of forms. The forms are much more sophisticated. So you might only play eight bars, or you might only play a solo for eight bars, but you’re playing all the time. It’s very hard to get the younger musicians to understand the value of that type of expression. Also, they used Blues expression, whereas it’s very hard for today’s young musicians to learn that, not because they lack the talent or the ability or that they don’t have that aspect of their lives or that they don’t have the soul, but because the sound is not prevalent in the culture.

It’s very difficult to teach that. That’s the advantage, I think, of studying with someone like my father. He doesn’t teach you technically, but he teaches how to transmit that feeling. Now, I don’t really know what that feeling is. That’s how Art Blakey was also. There was something in his feeling that could teach you what the meaning of Jazz was. It’s that combination of intellect and soul, and a seriousness toward the music, and a desire to groove and to continue to groove, and to develop material. And to pass that on to younger musicians is really difficult.

TP: New Orleans, of course, is a port city on the Gulf of Mexico and deeply connected to the whole Caribbean region in complex ways. I’d like to ask you about the aspect of New Orleans music that Jelly Roll Morton called “the Spanish Tinge.” Have you been influenced in any way by the Cuban trumpet tradition, particularly in terms of the sonic aspects of it, the timbre and so forth?

WM: Well, not from that aspect. But I always liked Rafael Mendez, who was Mexican. It has always been my feeling that next to Louis Armstrong, he was the greatest trumpet player I have ever heard. Just the soul that comes through his sound. [SINGS A PHRASE] I like that kind of real bravura sound. And I think that the Cuban trumpet players I’ve heard have that. Sandoval has that, and musicians like Chocolate [Armenteros], they have that kind of thing, and even guys who are not well-known in that way, somebody like Victor Paz, who I had the opportunity to play with, he has that type of feeling in his sound. Of the younger generation of musicians, I think a guy like Charlie Sepulveda has that in his sound.

When they say the Spanish Tinge of New Orleans, it’s that BOOMP-BUM-BUM, BOOMP-BUM-BUM — the accent comes on four. And that’s how the New Orleans beat, BOOMP-BOOMP-DABOOMP-BOOM, BOOMP-BUM-BUM… So when they sing like the New Orleans music, [SINGS THAT BEAT AND CLAPS IT] — it’s that same rhythm. [SINGS THE RHYTHM] So in that way we have a lot in common with the South American and the Caribbean sounds. But of course, in the Caribbean they have a much more sophisticated version of it. In Cuban music, they have so many grooves and it’s very, very sophisticated. We don’t have that level of sophistication.

TP: I’d like to take up your previous comments on the misunderstanding about the ritualistic aspect of Jazz amongst many observers of the music. Do the words “classic” or “classicism” have a different meaning when applied to the Jazz aesthetic as opposed to, say, European Music?

WM: Well, you know, I never really know what they’re talking about. Some people say “Classic Jazz,” and they mean the 1930’s. Some say New Orleans music. Some call Coltrane’s group the classic quartet.

TP: What do you mean by it, though?

WM: Well, personally, a term like “Classic Jazz” really has never meant anything to me. You know, that’s the title that was used for the Lincoln Center series that we do in the summertime. Jazz in Lincoln Center is what I believe in.

My feeling is to call it “Real Jazz.” Because Real Jazz means that you are trying to swing. And when I say “swing,” that means that you are dealing with the rhythmic environment that allows for the thematic development, consistent thematic development, in the context of a Jazz groove. Which means that you don’t have to be going TING-TINKADING-TINKADING-TINKADING… A Jazz musician will take this same groove, DOOMP-DUM-DUM, DOOMP-DUM-DUM… That will be repeated, but all of the instruments will be improvising and the soloists will be constructing solos that develop thematically.

So it’s a matter of development, whenever you want to distinguish whether something is Jazz or not, and the range that is played on the groove. A Jazz drummer like Elvin Jones will take a groove like that, and he’ll play many different things on it. Whereas people who are not playing in the style of Jazz might take that same groove, and they will still be improvising, but what they will be playing will be more proscribed. They can improvise, too, but it will be off of the clav? or off of a certain thing that’s set, whereas a Jazz drummer also includes that into his vocabulary. Which is not to say that Jazz is more sophisticated. It’s just different. Because the other way is very, very sophisticated.

But when the horn players play and the soloists play, we deal with interaction. The key to Jazz music is the interaction of the voices. And the way you can tell whether a piece of Jazz is being played is if it’s being rendered with some Blues feeling, Blues melodies, rhythms and harmonies, in the context of some type of form. That means that you’re always addressing syncopation, some rhythms are being set up and they’re being resolved. If it has the Blues in it and also if it’s swinging, then it has that sound that we identify with Jazz.

It also becomes then a matter of percentage. For instance, if I would take a gallon of water and squeeze one lemon in it, technically you could say it’s lemonade. But it’s not. It would be like some water with some lemon in it. And we’re always concerned with the range and the precision and the degree of control of the idiomatic nuances. That really determines whether something is Jazz or not.

Jazz music has always been burdened with a tradition of writers who hang onto it, they’re paternalistic, and they always feel as though they know more than the musician knows. This is the thing that I’ve always been trying to say in public, and why a lot of times they’ve said I’m outspoken and all of this. I’m not outspoken. It’s just that these people who are supposed to be conduits between the musicians and the public don’t function in that fashion. They feel that they are above the musician or that they are above the music, and they aren’t.

These people like James Lincoln Collier, who writes these ignorant books. See, a lot of times all you can find in libraries of colleges will be James Lincoln Collier and one other book. James Lincoln Collier makes statements like, “The question is not whether Duke Ellington was a great composer, but was he a composer at all?” He’ll say Louis Armstrong, actually must have been born earlier to attempt to diminish the genius of Louis Armstrong — when in actuality Louis Armstrong was born later.

There’s always this confusion between sociology and music. When you try to teach students, you can’t teach them sociology. You have to teach them something about music. I can’t stand in front of a class and say, “Well, man, I want you to go home and stand on a corner with a chicken wing, and then come back and put some barbecue sauce on it, and come back next week, and then you will be able to play some Blues.” You have to come with something specific, which is not necessarily technical.

Like what I was saying about my father. He wouldn’t necessarily teach you technically, but he would transmit to you the feeling of Jazz, which is the combination of soul and intellect and the engagement with the consciousness, with American consciousness and with American culture. But we are burdened with a lot of the guys who write for our music because they lack the humility to really successfully communicate the feeling of the music to the public.

TP: Another aspect of learning to play the Blues or the idiomatic nuances of Jazz is just functional, practical experience. Where do young musicians get that these days?

WM: It’s very difficult. Young musicians from around the country call me all the time saying, “Man, there’s no place to play.” Nicholas Payton is one of the finest young musicians in the country. He lives in New Orleans, and a lot of times he calls me and says, “You know, I’m not playing; I don’t have anywhere to play.” So we have a lot of problems in terms of training younger musicians to play. But it’s much better than it was when I was coming up.

TP: How so? Can you elaborate on that?

WM: When I was coming up, we didn’t even know what Jazz was. I could tell what it was from being around my father and them. But what we considered Jazz, like in my band and stuff, that was like some Funk tune with somebody putting a solo on top of it. The thought of trying to learn how to play Blues, the thought of interacting with each other… Now, we would play a Blues every night and we’d play the Second Line every night, but we’d play like kind of Funk licks on top of it. We weren’t trying to get to any real profound adult level of emotion on it, like what you have to try to do when you play the Blues. We were trying to do what we heard on the radio basically.

TP: But you got to play, let’s say, with Art Blakey for a year-and-a-half, Herbie Hancock for a while, different bands around New York. Before you started your career as a leader, you still had those two or three years of functional experience with other people’s bands.

WM: But you don’t have those kind of bands up here now. Who are you going to play with?

TP: Really I’m just trying to get your reflections on the state of things as they are now. Optimistic? Pessimistic?

WM: No, I’m very optimistic. Because there are more and more people who want to play. When I was, like 17, there was me and Wallace Roney, and then Terence Blanchard was kind of coming up. But before I met Wallace Roney, I had never met another trumpet player who really wanted to play real Jazz. Wallace really wanted to play. I would hear about him, “Yeah, there’s this kid in Washington named Wallace Roney, and he knows about the tradition and swinging.” But when I would meet Clark Terry or when I would meet Sweets Edison or the guys when I was 15 or 16, they would be telling me, “Man, there’s almost nobody who wants to play.” I sat in with Sonny Stitt once when I was 15, and he was telling me, “Man, you could be great in this music, but you have to practice and be serious. And I can see that you’re going to be serious. But you have to play this music. Because I’m traveling around the country, and I don’t see any youngsters who even want to play it.”

Whereas now, when I go around the country, I see hundreds of kids who want to play. Now we have to put the systems in place to enable them to learn and prosper and develop. The kids are ready. But the systems just are not in place to support them.

For example, there are people in the Jazz community who will complain because some twenty-year-old kids have a contract. Well, to me, this is a reflection of deep ignorance. The people who have their contracts are not the young Jazz musicians, it’s all the people in Rap music or in Pop music or in all these other forms of music where the contracts are awarded — 15 and 20 contracts a day are given out. Instead of complaining against the five or ten young Jazz musicians who are at least trying to play, complain against all these other people who aren’t even trying to play music, who just want to get a hairstyle and make some money.

But what is the response of the Jazz community? It’s to cut the younger musicians down, to hold them to a standard that’s far above what their upbringing would allow them to be on. Somebody like Roy Hargrove might have been the only person in Dallas who wanted to play and really seriously swing at his age. So he can’t be compared to Miles Davis when he was 15. I mean, Clark Terry, Hot Lips Page, Dizzy Gillespie, all these great people were practicing.

TP: Well, they had the music all around them. It was the culture.

WM: This is what I’m saying. A guy like Roy Hargrove has got to be celebrated by the Jazz community. Instead of saying, “Well, he sounds too much like Lee Morgan” or “he needs to do this and he needs to do that.” Maybe all of that is true, or maybe it’s not true. But the fact is, he is trying to play. I’m not saying you shouldn’t criticize a man’s style. But you have to be cognizant of… Are you the Jazz community or are you not the Jazz community? You don’t shoot the only warriors you have. You don’t say, “Well, you’all are not going to be able to fight like the people fought fifty years ago, so instead of us engaging in battle, let’s just kill all of them.”

What happens in the Jazz world defies logic. It’s absurd almost. I never can really figure out if the intellectual community and the writers who surround the Jazz community are interested in the music. Like, they will say something is a new version of Jazz if a musician says he’s not playing Jazz. The latest example would be this so-called Jazz-Rap trend, where it’s just somebody rapping and somebody plays solos like we used to play in the Seventies on top of it. Then all of the people who are supposed to be dealing with Jazz jump on the bandwagon, and they’re talking about, “This is the new form of Jazz, and finally people are overcoming the conservativeness of…” This is just crazy! It’s ludicrous.

TP: Well, a lot of it is also marketing, and a lot of marketing is inherently ludicrous anyway.

WM: Well, from the record companies’ standpoint. But I think in terms of the Jazz writers, it’s a lack of intellectual integrity, how they will attempt to apply political terminology… Like they will call one group “Neoconservative” (I guess that’s what they’ve tried to put on me), when, in actuality, the true conservative position is held by them. Because they are the Establishment. So they want to assign somebody else the term “conservative,” and I guess they are avant-garde or something, and that means they’re in the front of something. Well, that’s not true. Because they’re not in the forefront of thought on Jazz. Because no kids or people who want to learn how to play are learning practicing their philosophy. And they are so stubborn and they lack humility, that they end up being detrimental…

They are an albatross. They sit on top of our music and they push it down instead of raising it up. That’s why I’m always forced to come to the public and plead with the public, “Well, look, you can’t trust these people who are supposed to be a conduit.” You have to go to the schools and try to convince the kids of the value of learning how to play.

TP: On your last few recordings, some of the ensemble pieces have utilized Ellingtonian voicings and tactics in a very creative and I think personal way. I can really hear some things coming out that were touched on and echoed in past years.

WM: Well, just trying to be a part of the tradition. This is a steady growth process for me. I try to educate myself as I go along. And I’m coming from the 1970’s, where I would never listen to a Duke Ellington album.

TP: When did you first hear Duke Ellington?

WM: I was 18 or 19. Stanley Crouch played some Duke for me. He said, “Check this Duke out.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah, just some old ballroom music for people. I mean, I was so steeped in the philosophy of my generation that… Then gradually I would start to listen to it, and hear all kinds of different forms, and people playing in different times, and the harmonic sophistication coming out of the Blues. Then I got in touch with Jelly Roll Morton through the concert we did at Lincoln Center, the Jelly Roll Morton concert, and that gave me an understanding of how to construct these forms.

I mean, there’s nothing really you can say about Duke. His genius speaks for itself. I went to the Smithsonian to see his scores, and there’s walls full of large cabinets packed with Ellington’s music written in his own hand. Anybody who is ever in Washington, it’s really a great education to go in there and look at some of the volumes of music that this man wrote. The thing that’s most amazing about Ellington’s music is that when he wrote it down the first time, he really didn’t change it that much, apart from structural changes he would make. You will see pieces of music with people’s phone numbers on it, and it will be “The Harlem Suite,” and the whole suite will be written out. His conception is very, very clear, and his penmanship is very neat. He writes the notes very small. It doesn’t mean that much, but for someone who wrote that much music it’s very neat.

TP: A final question. When people write about you, one of the things that’s most often noted is your virtuosity as a trumpet player, both in the Jazz area and in European Classical music. Would you discuss the place of virtuosity in Jazz and in improvising?

WM: Well, I think that virtuosity is the first sign of morality in a musician. It means that you’re serious enough to practice. And there are many different aspects of virtuosity. Many times, when we think of virtuosity, we think only of velocity. But there is also tone, flexibility, and then the virtuosity of nuance or ability to project different types of feeling through a sound. Then there’s all the growls and smears and stuff that Sidney Bechet said that he practiced on, which is called effects.

But you find in the history of Jazz that the musicians have always been virtuosos. That’s what distinguished Louis Armstrong from other trumpeters; he could play higher, with a bigger sound, with more harmonic accuracy, would bend the notes better and with more… Art Tatum, of course. Thelonious Monk. Charlie Parker, Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins — the list is endless of people who were serious practicers. Coleman Hawkins. Paul Chambers. Mingus. All of these men were virtuosos, and all these men believed in technical competence.

That’s very, very important to being a musician in general. It’s like Paul Hindemith in the beginning of his book, The Craft Of Composition. He said he always hears about people talking about their feeling, “but must not this feeling or impulse be tiny if it can manifest itself in such little knowledge?” That’s just how I feel about technique.

After this interview aired, the editor of this magazine contacted me about printing the interview in conjunction with a brief review of Blood On The Fields. He suggested I speak again with Marsalis to flesh things out. In June 1994, three months after the concert, I visited Marsalis’ apartment for a more specific discussion of the development of his aesthetic and procedures, and of the genesis of Blood On The Fields. I began with a question about his relationship with Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray, Marsalis’ intellectual mentors.

WM: I met Stanley Crouch at Mikell’s when I was 18 –I had just turned 18. He came down to the club. My father had told me earlier in the summer about having read an interview with Stanley and Imiri Baraka, where he had said that he thought that Stanley was making much more cogent points. This is when I didn’t know really who Stanley Crouch was, or even Imiri Baraka, for that matter. I had just come from New Orleans. And Crouch invited me to his house. Then I would be having to cook for myself and stuff, and I didn’t know how to cook, so I was glad to be invited to anybody’s house to eat, because that ensured that I would get a good meal.

So I went down to Stanley’s house. Stanley was living in this small apartment, but he had thousands of books and records. He reminded me of a history professor that I had in high school. His name was Diego Gonzalez, and he lived three blocks from my house on Hickory Street in New Orleans, so I would stop by his apartment sometimes on my way back home. He was a Classical Music fanatic, so he had thousands of Classical albums, and he also was the coach of the chess team.

So when I went to Crouch’s house, first just looking at the albums and the books kind of blew my mind. Because I mean, my father is a musician; he’s not a scholar. I hadn’t been in that many people’s homes which were like libraries. And Crouch, he was a writer, so it wasn’t organized; it was all over the place. So I immediately liked him because he was soulful, and he was extremely, extremely intelligent, but he also wasn’t above putting his foot in somebody’s booty if he had to do that. So I really could relate to that.

He started playing all of these albums for me, and asking me what I thought about it. Well, I had never heard any of that. He asked me what I thought about Ornette Coleman, and I said, “Well, Ornette Coleman, yeah, that’s out.” I just would say whatever I had read. I had never really listened to it. Then he put on a record and said, “What do you think about this?” And I would be saying stuff like, “Man, I didn’t know Charlie Parker played like that.” And he said, “No, man, that’s Ornette Coleman.” The first time I really listened to Duke Ellington, Crouch brought this big Duke Ellington collection over to me. He says, “Man, check this out. This is Duke Ellington.”

So just in general, he imparted a knowledge and a history of the music — and I didn’t have any of that. I mean, I had been around the music my whole life, but I had never looked at it artistically in that way. I had never studied it. I didn’t feel that it was something you had to study that way. I felt like you could play it or you couldn’t. That’s what we all thought, basically. I was so used to being the only person I knew that really was into Jazz, that to meet somebody like Crouch blew my mind really! And he had all of these books… Most of the stuff he would be talking about wouldn’t even be music! It would be stuff that I had never heard of before. It was just fascinating to me.

Then we started talking. I would call Crouch, and he would just tell me about all of these books and things to read… Still. Still today it’s that same way. I still learn a lot from him. He and I talked last night. We haven’t been talking as much recently, in the last month or two. But there was a time when me and Crouch would talk almost every day. And we never have, like, lightweight conversations. It’s always something… I’ve learned so much from him, not just about music.

TP: What were some of the books he turned you on to that were important to you?

WM: Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers. Well, actually, that came from Al Murray. Al Murray told Crouch to read it, and Crouch had read it. He was telling me about the whole big lesson of a blessing being a curse, how you might get all this publicity and all this, but you also have to deal with the weight of this other thing. That goes all through Thomas Mann.

Proust. William Faulkner. I would read something, and then I could discuss it with Crouch. I would say, “What do you think about this?” He would say, well, he thought this. Then sometimes when we were talking, he would say, “Well, let’s go see Al and rap with him about this,” and then we would talk about it. Something like The Invisible Man, Crouch knows that inside and out, or Herman Melville, Moby Dick… But a lot of the homework and stuff he was giving me, I still haven’t done. The real, true level of discussion we could have about a lot of literature, we haven’t had that, because I haven’t really read all of the material like I should… I just need more time.

But there’s even more stuff. I’m leaving out a lot. All kinds of stuff on music, man. Books on music like Early Jazz by Gunther Schuller. Of course, Al’s book, Stompin’ The Blues really helped to uncover a lot. That was the first book I had ever read that addressed the expression of Jazz the way I knew it to be. It’s like I had known it to be that, but I had never really been educated in it, so I didn’t really know it. Because there was such a big breakdown… My generation was really only into Pop expression, and Pop music, and Pop thought. So even though I didn’t really want to be associated with that, you can only rise so far above everybody else that you’re around. Most of the seriousness I experienced when I was growing up really only came from me. It wasn’t like I had a group of friends who were all so serious. I was always trying to make them become more serious! And things about Afro-American culture that I maybe knew intuitively, like New Orleans music — I liked it, but I didn’t really like it. I associated it too much with Tomming, which didn’t have anything to do with the music. That was like a social thing. And I would always be confusing social science with music.

Stompin’ The Blues really helped to clarify the whole question of playing with Blues expression. We grew up playing Funk music, which has very little Blues in it. Our generation of musicians, the Funk musicians, so little of the Blues was left in that, that it’s very hard to produce a Jazz musician out of that style. When you’re playing on Funk, most of the time you’re playing with a lot of accents, and you’re only playing pentatonic scales. I mean, that’s the kind of stuff we grew up playing. Our style of music wasn’t really based on creating the melody in the context of an improvising rhythm section. Because we were playing Funk [SINGS FUNK LINE A LA KOOL AND THE GANG], so the rhythm section was going to be playing that the whole time you played, [SINGS LINE], whatever the vamp was, or whatever they were playing.

The Blues music is more continuous. You have to come up with ideas, and you develop them through the form. Whereas on Funk music, you mainly are playing on a vamp, and you’re just trying to excite the audience. You don’t really have aesthetic objectives. If you can trill a note up high and circular-breathe on it, you do that, you know…

TP: Albert Murray writes about Blues as a cultural style. How does that translate into this period?

WM: Well, what Albert Murray is writing about mainly only existed in the Church tradition. Now, in New Orleans, we had the Jazz parade and all that, but the parades we played in…well, first, everybody would be playing loud, and we wouldn’t really be playing with that type of expression he’s talking about. He’s talking about the real adult expression and also the optimism. Most of that wasn’t in the music that we played. Our music was mainly party music. The music was a background, really. It wasn’t the center or the focus of anything. Like, most of the shouts and the call-and-response that’s essential to the Blues between the musician and the audience, even in Funk gigs, you never really experience that. People would shout for you if you played something that was flashy. But you never really got that type of cosignature that goes on in a church when the preacher is… First the music would be so loud that if you said “Okay” or something, nobody in the audience would hear you. The whole dialogue in the society was different.

So when I read Stompin’ The Blues, I noticed first how Albert Murray differentiates between the Blues as such and the Blues as music. In our generation, we would say, “That’s only a Blues,” like, the Blues wasn’t really nothin’… We felt, man, “Giant Steps, that’s what’s hard to play; the Blues, anybody can play that — that’s just three chords.” We didn’t really think of the Blues as nothin’ important to learn. We would play a Blues every night on our Funk gig, because we would play the New Orleans Second Line. But we didn’t really see the Blues as being central to Afro-American expression. To us, the Funk was what was central. BOOM-BAP-DE-BOM-BAP, the backbeat, that’s what we really…

Now, when I was in high school, I kind of knew that it wasn’t the backbeat, but I didn’t know what it was. You know what I’m saying? It’s like when something is wrong with you and you know something is wrong but you really don’t know what it is. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was.

TP: Another essential aspect of Albert Murray’s conception of the Blues is that the Blues is a narrative tradition, and a tradition that connects generations and spans place and time as well. That seems to be something you’ve tried to elaborate with the Lincoln Center hookup and a lot of your activity in the last decade.

WM: There are certain things that Albert Murray strongly believes are at the root of the real Afro-American and also the American experience. He doesn’t believe in the generation gap. Now, I always felt this, but I didn’t know that I felt it. Like, I never looked at the people my age as being that different from my father. Of course, my father was a Jazz musician. So I didn’t know anybody as hip as him. I never was a part of any movement when I was 15 or 16 that I felt was hipper than what my father was doing. We had our Afros and our dashikis and platform shoes, and whatever the trend of the day was, and we played Funk music. But I never had the feeling that what we were doing was as hip as what my father could do, or that we knew anything more than what he knew — or my grandfather, or my great-uncle.

Albert Murray believes in that, in the continuum. The whole question of affirming something, having a dialogue with something; counterstating it or else affirming aspects of it.

The true central proposition that I really learned from Al is optimism. Because in that way, the Afro-American expression is fundamentally different from European Art expression. A lot of European Art, especially in the Twentieth Century, is pessimistic, is tragic, has a tragic vision of what stuff is, whereas the Blues expression recognizes the tragedy but is optimistic.

When I wrote Blood on The Fields, I wanted to make it tragic the whole way through, with no redemption, just go “Okay, this is just a messed-up situation, and it’s still messed-up.” I talked with Al extensively about that, and he told me if I wanted to do it, fine. He sat down with me, and we went through all the different forms of tragedy, going all the way back to Greek tragedies, to Oedipus, The Libation Bearers and Agamemnon, how you set the tragedy up, the modes of tragedy, the complaint and plaint — we analyzed all of these things. But he said, “The thing you’ve got to understand is that if you’re going to make it all tragic, the expression that you will be coming from will not really be Afro-American, because that’s not in our expression.” It’s only in the last twenty or thirty years that that way of looking at the world has taken over our culture, and it is not our real attitude.

I started to really contemplate what he was saying, and I came to an agreement with what he was saying. At first I was against it, but then I had to say, yeah, that is the transcendent value of the Blues and of swinging, and that is what makes Duke Ellington’s music so great in relation to something like Bartok or Stravinsky. You listen to Stravinsky’s music, and you will like it, and it will be some great music. But Duke Ellington was swinging. So you have the complexity, and you still have that optimism, where it’s saying, “Man, this is a tragic situation, but it’s gonna be cool.” And that’s a very important part of that expression, of the Jazz expression.

TP: It seems to me that you’ve effectively used the opportunities of the different presentations of Jazz at Lincoln Center to engage in a dialogue with the different genres of music in performance situations, and that you’ve assimilated the vocabularies in a very personal way.

WM: Well, that was always what I wanted to do. But that was my intention from the beginning of playing music, from my first album. Even though I didn’t know a range of music, I still would try to use Charleston rhythms, I would try to change times, use stuff with modes on it, play standards. Whatever information I knew about, I was always trying to include it. Play stuff that had, like, a New Orleans call-and-response, play standard forms like “Rhythm” changes, and try to transform them.

My thing is to not cut myself off from my own tradition. That tradition can be anything from John Philip Sousa marches to Beethoven’s symphonies, to the Blues, to whatever. Because I grew up playing all of that different type of music. I didn’t understand it, but that is what I grew up doing. I played in a waltz orchestra. I played in the marching band. I played in a Funk band. I played in a Jazz band. I played in a circus band. Played on a Broadway show. Played Salsa music. All of these musics are part of my experience as a musician. So I don’t feel that I should cut myself off from the traditions I come out of to create a narrow style that’s easily identifiable.

TP: To the contrary, I think it’s very expansive. But I think the point I was making is that it seems to me that you have assimilated everything you’ve been working on from the inside-out more or less, and that it’s coming out in your writing in a very natural way.

WM: Well, it is very natural to me. First, I only went to school for a year — to Juilliard. I went for one year. And there really was no Jazz class. I remember the first band we had, my brother had gone to Berklee, so he knew more about Jazz music, because they have all these exercises and stuff that they had done. So I would always be saying, “Man, what is this and what is that?”

A lot of what I have learned about Jazz music, I have learned from the musicians. I learned stuff from Art Blakey. I had the opportunity to play and talk with Elvin Jones, and I learned a lot from him. Sweets Edison. Clark Terry. Whenever I’m around the musicians, I’m always really checking out what they’re playing, and listening very carefully to what they are saying. Roy Eldridge taught me how to growl on the trumpet, then I started trying to learn how to do that. How to use the plunger. Joe Wilder gave me lessons on how to play with the hat. I mean, these things I just learned. To me they are all techniques that are important to know, because the expression of Jazz music is something that you have to just be familiar with.

I’m from New Orleans. My Daddy’s a Jazz musician. So even though I didn’t really necessarily understand the music, my whole life has been nothing but being around musicians and around Jazz music. I remember being around Blue Mitchell or Sonny Stitt. When they’d come to New Orleans, my father would say, “Man, go check out Blue”… Even more than being around them, I know the life of the musician from birth. Something like a New Orleans parade; I played in parades when I was eight years old. It’s just what it is. My real true feeling and affinity is for Jazz music and for swinging, and it’s always been that. Now, because the environment that I grew up in was so poor in terms of what my generation was playing, my playing suffered. But in terms of my understanding of the Jazz lifestyle and of Jazz music and the musicians, that’s never really been anything I had to study.

TP: In Blood On The Fields there are some impossible-sounding ensemble passages for horns that were executed flawlessy and totally flowed. It’s surprising that you only had one year of formal schooling to develop the technique to express the sounds you seem to be hearing in your head.

WM: Well, I just learn slowly. I get these scores of Duke Ellington, and I study them. I talk with Dave Berger. He helped me, just some basic things about the voices and about the instruments. Even in my year in school I was studying Classical trumpet; we sure didn’t study Jazz music. And even that year that I was in school, after a half-a-year I started playing with Art Blakey, so I didn’t really take that year that seriously. I really wanted to play with Art Blakey, or to play Jazz music.

It’s just a matter of slow study. Like, when Crouch brought me those Duke Ellington albums, it was twelve years ago. I remember listening to it, I said, “Man, this music is so complex; it’s impossible to even figure this out.” And I remember Crouch telling me, “Man, look. You never know what you’ll be doing in ten years.” And that was like twelve years ago.

So it’s just a matter of consistently studying and working and trying to think, to figure out how to make these colors work… As far as the ensemble passages go, or the different rhythms, mainly what I do is, I write out what I would play on the trumpet. I play a style that has a lot of multiple rhythms in it and a strange kind of chromatic way of playing through the harmony. So when I write it out for the ensemble, it sounds very strange. I turn the beat around. But I have been playing that way for ten years.

TP: The lyrics to Blood On The FIelds are extremely expressive and were sung with great elegance and interpretative nuance by Cassandra Wilson. Considering the sonic extremities and metrical complexity of the music, it was some of the most formidable singing I’ve heard.

WM: Well, Cassandra did a great job. She wanted to sing it. That’s the basic thing. She worked real, real hard on it, and it was very, very difficult to get it together. Really, she just worked on it and hooked it up. Miles Griffith also worked very hard on his parts.

Part of the story comes from a Stephen Vincent Benet story called Freedom Is A Hard-Bought Thing, which deals with the knowledge it takes to get free. There are a lot of little side stories, too, in Blood On The Fields, about a woman losing her mind, and she’s on this ship. There were a lot of different things I was trying to investigate.

Most of the words are generated from today. I used the situation of the people today, but I made them speak like they were slaves. But it’s not really about them being slaves; it’s about how people are today.

TP: So the language illustrates a broader time continuum.

WM: Yeah. The crux of it is the point where Miles sings, “Oh! Anybody, hear this plaintive song.” He’s speaking to the whole world. That’s like the position of the people, especially the position of the Afro-American people. Anybody in the world, hear this plaintive song. When you see the kind of stuff that’s going on out here today, this is the cry for help. Like the whole Rap expression and the violence and the ignorance that’s just taken to be a part of the Afro-American culture, and it’s not. It’s like a cry… When somebody does something that’s absurd, you say, “Man, they must need some assistance.” It’s anybody, hear this plaintive song.

Then it gets specific. “Who wants to help their brother dance this dance?” We need help. Who wants to help their brother? And then it’s not even so much about Afro-American people; it’s just about life in general. First you address the whole world: Anybody hear me, I’m trying to exist out here. Who out of all these people will help me dance this dance? That’s life. Just to hold the dance… You dance your way through the world, through life. Dance is the first art. So it gets more specific, like a community of people. Who wants to help me dance this dance?

And then this is what I’m doing for my part. “Oh, I sing with soul to heal this wounded land.” That’s about the United States of America. That’s what the whole question of soul is in America. It’s a healing agent. That’s what soulfulness is about. A great tragedy has occurred, but that’s all right. It has forgiveness in it. It’s beautiful. It has a beauty to it. This is the thing that has been devalued. And this is why we have such a tremendous tragedy on our hands today dealing with our society, and with our culture, because we’ve lost the real meaning of soul, which is that whole redemptive thing that it has in it. It’s been confused with, like, some fried chicken or some hipness or something that has…I don’t know, with some slang or something, man. I don’t know. But the whole lyric comes down to that one thing. Who wants to help their brother dance this dance? “I sing with soul to heal this wounded land.”

TP: How did the song forms start to come out?

WM: Well, each one comes out of the experience. The first one [“Move Over”] is supposed to be on the ship, so it’s like a wave. It just goes up and down, up and down…

TP: And you had the different sections going against each other on that one.

WM: Had the sections going against each other. Like, a minor section, I’ll go into a groove. [SINGS] And the harmony goes that way. I have a whole dialogue where she’s losing her mind. She plays, and the band is like the waves pounding against the ship; it just keeps coming in. Then the harmony goes inside. She goes, “My head is spinning round and round,” [SINGS MELODY] I’m trying to use things out of the experience she’s singing about to give it that feeling.

And Cassandra heard it. She adapted to the form so quickly. Because I felt that the form would be difficult for her to grasp, but she understood it immediately. She just gravitated toward it and sang it. And when the man comes in and sings [“You Don’t Hear No Drums”], he’s singing the Blues, with the same refrain. Because he’s on the ship, but he’s not really rocking up and down too much. He’s so mad, he’s not really cognizant of any of that. He’s addressing her, saying his rage is something that he’s… So it’s like real harsh, at the top of his range; he’s screaming it out.

When they do the coffle march, she sings like a dirge. [DOM-DOM, DOM-DOM] Then he sings a march, “I’ll never be a slave.” [“I’ll never slave for any man.”] So when he comes in, the snare drum comes in. It’s like some Country people. Every song, like that chant he sings, “I sing with soul to heal,” this three-part chant; it’s a Blues, but the changes are all switched around. It’s done like in the style of the Spiritual.

So I used forms that came out of the experience of whatever that thing is.

TP: Are all the lines initiated in songs, or songs that you’re hearing? How are they generated in your mind?

WM: Well, it depends on where they are. I try to have the whole piece be integrated. I’ll just keep bringing themes back, harmonies back, progressions, lines. Something that was the harmony will become the melody of another thing, or some theme will be turned around. I have big central progressions going through the thing. The form is very difficult for me to explain, because it’s very complex. I’m trying to just connect things.

TP: You seem to have assimilated several decades of Ellington’s development in terms of the tonal palette of the ensemble, but the harmonic language sounds like very much your own.

WM: Yeah, some of it. Sometimes I use verbatim stuff I heard Duke do, or Jelly Roll — whoever I know of. I don’t really suffer from an identity crisis. so anybody’s music I’ll use. I’ll steal from anybody.

TP: Well, they say the mediocre person borrows and the top cats will steal.

WM: Yeah, I’ll steal, and I’ll admit it freely.

TP: Is this part of a connected series on African-American life or some other connected theme? That’s how I’ve heard it described.

WM: Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it yet. First I’m going to finish this one. It’s still not finished. I didn’t really initially plan it to have a plot that was that literal, but since it ended up being like that, the end of it is kind of messed up. It doesn’t follow clearly all the way through. So I’m going to rework that and record it in September.

I really want to do something on the Civil War. I’m thinking I’m going to wait and learn how to write for strings, and then just write one big integrated piece, like an opera or something, on the Civil War, make it long, like 20 hours or something. [Marsalis’ commisssioned composition for the March Jazz at Lincoln Center will be performed with the Center Chamber Orchestra.]

TP: The piece also used the Chorus of Greek Tragedy as a connective device.

WM: Well, I got the idea for that from Al. Well, not to use it for Blood On The Fields, but just the whole concept. As I said, we were talking about tragedy, reading Oedipus, and I got Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, and Agamemnon — I was reading that. And the whole thing of the chorus coming in, singing, and setting the stage helps you go from thing to thing, too. But I liked that, the fellows in the band sitting up there, commenting on the stuff and then playing it! It was sort of cantorial, like a call-and-response.

TP: It was very funny.

WM: It had to be funny. But I conceived of it as being funny — ironic. Like, these guys are sitting up there saying something like that, and then they play some music.

TP: In Blood On The Fields and in recent recordings, the sounds that have been coming out of your trumpet have been really extreme, evoking the “Avant-Garde” of Jazz. What is your sense of the Avant-Garde in Jazz, however you would define it?

WM: Well, I believe that the challenge of Jazz is to create coherent solos through a harmonic form, to swing at different tempos, to play with some Blues authority, and to deal with contrast. Now, there’s many different styles that they call the Avant Garde. Like, Ornette Coleman is totally different from Cecil Taylor, but they will both be lumped into the same thing.

My feeling, since I played a lot of Classical music, is that the styles are not addressing swinging, most of them, that just deal with like sounds… Like, you hear somebody playing something like… [HE PICKS UP THE TRUMPET AND PLAYS A PHRASE THAT SOUNDS LIKE A PARODY OF BILL DIXON]. I mean, that’s not Jazz to me. Rhythmically, it sounds like Classical music. People say, “Man, this is real modern.” It’s not even Modern. There are people who have been doing that for forty or fifty years.

Because you have a certain hairstyle or you talk about being from the community or whatever, all that social jargon, that doesn’t mean anything to me. Because I’m from the South, man. Railroad track South. So there’s a lot of social commentary that’s passing itself off as a badge of authenticity and all this, man…

The thing I like about some Avant-garde music is that they deal with a wide range of styles. But the thing about what they’re doing is that a lot of times the level of musicianship just is not that high, in terms of their actual ability to address harmony, really truly swinging, and playing in the time at different tempos consistently… The hard thing about swinging is not to do it for twenty measures; it’s to do it all night. Swing is a certain thing. It’s continuous. Now, when I say “swing,” I don’t mean that same groove, TING-TING-TA-TING-TA-TING-TING, but I mean a sensibility that does come out of the shuffle rhythm, and something that requires that you are continuously coordinating your ideas with the rhythm section and with other people that are playing — at different tempos. That means you’re trying to swing fast, slow, medium-tempo.

And what’s being called Avant-Garde… I think that they play in an expressive fashion, now. I will say that, in terms of the best of the Avant-Garde, like David Murray, Olu Dara. I feel that when you hear them play, they play very expressively. Archie Shepp. They play the melodies, they have the vibrato and the thing that they play with. But for me, what a lot of times was lacking was the real true degree of sophistication that’s necessary to play Jazz, just to play Jazz music, let alone to be on the forefront of Jazz.

TP: Is Jazz avant-garde in its essence?

WM: The whole of Jazz is avant-garde. Like, the conception of a group playing with no music and improvising on a form, playing all these different rhythms, playing polyphonically, and it sounding good — that’s an avant-garde conception. It’s never existed. That’s the conception we should be trying to develop. I think one of the problems in Jazz education has been too much focusing on harmony, in terms of harmony being the only way of recognizing innovation, like, “Well, they played this on this chord or that…” Most of the analyzation is harmonic analyzation. Rhythm is very important and also the dialogue is very important.

I feel that the New Orleans Jazz is still avant-garde, because you have three horn players who stand up and play and make up their own parts, and it’s coherent. Almost nobody in the world can really play that style. Maybe there are three or four people. But you will never hear three horns playing together and they sound good. This is a part of the concept of Jazz that’s very important, that we have just let go. The whole conception of arrangements, ensemble parts, key changes — all of these things are an important part of our music. And it’s all in the context of a dialogue and a desire to converse musically with other people, while still swinging. Very seldom do you hear people who want to really, truly swing hard all night.

We’re in a position now where we have to reassert what our values are going to be. Jazz musicians make a big mistake when they use the same philosophies and conceptions that helped to destroy the audience for Classical music. This whole self-absorbed concept of innovation. What if that concept is impoverished? There are certain things that are just taken to be true that have to be questioned. The whole Oedipal strain in Western thought, where everybody thinks the next person has got to devour what came before it. You don’t have to do that. I was reading a book on Picasso where the guy keeps saying that Picasso emasculated his father, because he was such a great painter. His father gave him the paint brush and said, “Well, you paint now; I’m never going to paint again.” This whole thing that runs through so much of criticism.

The continuous thing of ritual is actually important in Jazz, which is what Albert Murray always says. And that means that whole Oedipal strain of, well, you have to destroy your father and you have to create a new thing, that might just be one part of what the greatest people do. There might be another whole branch of people who play the same thing and sound great. I always think of a musician like Sonny Stitt. He represented the highest level of musicianship. Now, he wasn’t Charlie Parker in terms of that type of innovative genius and brilliance. But he represents something that is not to be disrespected on any level. And Charlie Parker respected him. We need more musicians like that.

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For Ellis Marsalis’ 79th Birthday, a Jazziz Feature from 2002

For Ellis Marsalis’ 79th birthday, I’m posting a feature piece that I wrote about him for Jazziz circa 2002, the interviews that I conducted for that piece, and a pair of WKCR interviews from the ’90s, on one of which he joined me at the studio with Jason Marsalis.

* * *

By Ted Panken:

“Jazz is about the art of discovery. Not discovery in terms of guesswork. You give a person a certain amount of information, and make sure that information is communicated. From that point, they begin to make decisions about that information. All you really need is the spirit of adventure, applied to the music that is being presented to you.”
—    Ellis Marsalis, June 2002.

Widely known as the paterfamilias of a musical dynasty, Ellis Louis Marsalis, Jr. retired in August 2001 after a phenomenally productive 37-year teaching career on the high school and university levels. Ironically, the 67-year-old pianist, a professional improviser for half-a-century, never intended to make education his life’s work. Early tangents began to surface while the New Orleans native attended Dillard University between 1951 and 1955, moonlighting as a journeyman tenor saxophonist on local gigs with blues singers like Big Joe Turner and playing piano behind Big Maybelle and other singers at an Uptown boite called the Dew Drop Inn. Other possibilities arose during these years as he worked on and recorded original music with a peer group that included drummer Edward Blackwell and clarinetist Alvin Batiste, and later with saxophonist Nat Perrillat and drummer-composer James Black.

After earning his Music Education degree from Dillard, Marsalis enlisted in the Marine Corps (stationed in Southern California, he spent off-hours in 1956 woodshedding with Blackwell and Ornette Coleman), was discharged, and returned to New Orleans where, in quick succession, he married Dolores Ferdinand, and fathered his famous sons Branford, in 1960, and Wynton, in 1961. With a young family to support, Marsalis today recalls that “the gig situation in New Orleans, which was never great anyway, had changed tremendously, with virtually no jazz — as we consider it — to speak of. I figured I might as well try to use my degree.”

From 1964 until his retirement, Marsalis dual-tracked as a performer-educator. He took a position as band director at a high school in a small Louisiana town, serving until 1966. From 1974 to 1986 he taught and designed a curriculum at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), a multi-disciplinary arts magnet high school that students attended on elective from their home school. Marsalis’ pupils included his four sons — saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo, and drummer Jason – as well as Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Kent Jordan, Reginald Veal and Harry Connick, Jr. In 1986 he left New Orleans to head the jazz program at Virginia Commonwealth University. He returned in 1989 to create the jazz program at the University of New Orleans, remaining there until his retirement.

The beginning of Marsalis’ teaching career coincided with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which abolished Jim Crow laws that had stood for decades. Living under statutory segregation, he had accumulated and processed the vocabulary of jazz “in a sort of shotgun approach — a piece here, a little there,” and could draw upon no codified pedagogy to teach it. At Dillard, he recalls, “We got the basis of European music, taught in a slapdash way, depending on who was teaching. The rules of the music department were modeled to be a kind of mini-conservatory, focusing on the things band directors are expected to do, with an abundance of courses in theory and almost no practical. So there was virtually no sound, formal training ground that emanated from a specific black tradition where you could learn to play jazz on the instrument. You learned just about everything on the job, because there wasn’t any place else for you to get it. Jazz was always second-class.”

Jazz continues to be but a blip on the collective consciousness of popular culture, but the idiom’s stature has evolved tremendously since Ellis Marsalis was a young man. Under the artistic directorship of Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center, jazz enjoys  equal institutional pride of place with classical music and opera at America’s equivalent of the French Ministry of Culture. Furthermore, dozens of universities offer degrees in jazz performance. Marsalis is one of a national cohort of pioneer improviser-educators (others include Donald Byrd, Jimmy Heath, William Fielder, and New Orleans colleagues Alvin Batiste and Kidd Jordan) who revolutionized the way jazz is taught, and his curricular first principles are seminal in the recent intellectual history of jazz education.

At NOCCA, Marsalis relied on those first principles while cobbling together a pragmatic, homegrown pedagogy designed to teach the building blocks of jazz and improvisation so that, as Wynton Marsalis puts it, “people can go out and get a gig, whatever kind of gig they can play.” “Whatever it is that I managed to do didn’t really come by way of a philosophy,” the elder Marsalis notes. “Mostly it happened by reaction. I heard a story about Thomas Edison. His assistant said they had done 150 experiments. None of the lightbulbs worked. He said, ‘Man, we ought to give up on this, because we’re making no progress at all.’ Edison supposedly responded, ‘On the contrary, we know 150 ways that do not work.’ We don’t always think about going to the things that don’t work as a path to finding what does.”

Like a painter in medieval Europe who required apprentices to mix paints and prepare canvases before allowing them to wield a brush, or a master bata drummer breaking down the beats for an initiate, Marsalis taught with artisanal focus, forcing students to learn the skills of their trade before they can think about expressing their personalities through the medium. “You can get into a lot of trouble trying to figure out at what point it becomes art,” he reflects. “That becomes more philosophical than realistic. I’m concerned about whether these guys can put one foot in front of the other.”

Asked how he would synopsize his method to a grant-bearing arts administrator, Marsalis responds: “Basically, it’s important to learn the three elements of music — rhythm, harmony, and melody, not necessarily in that order. We didn’t distinguish between European music and jazz. All the students at NOCCA had private instruction. New students learn two songs a semester. You apply those component parts to each piece, drilling on intervals, on individual notes, on the correct scales. Then, if your personality is suited to it, you work on the concept of improvisation.”

Marsalis began his work at NOCCA by focusing on the blues. “Learning how to play blues is like mastering the fundamentals of arithmetic before moving to algebra, trigonometry, and calculus,” he says. “It’s the simplest approach to learning improvisation. I would write out 12 measures of chords that, when played, turned out to be a blues. They got the sound of the notes in their ear, and got their fingers used to the positions. They got a tangible manifestation of the form of blues in one chorus. The chord symbols represented vertically sounds they would deal with in a linear manner. And they’d be sensitized to the rhythmic flow, to deal with music in motion.”

Ear training is crucial. Marsalis insists students internalize the fundamental building blocks so that transcription and memorization of classic repertoire will become a more organic process. “Without the oral component of music, you take away its natural ingredients,” he says, lifting an analogy from his bottomless well of metaphors. “It’s like the difference between preserves and fresh fruit. Preserves tend to taste the same; you can get them whenever you want. But the apple on the tree will be there only so long. In the same way, a solo only exists in the moment. The students who really pursue this have to learn that the concept of a solo is not unlike a novel or short story, with a beginning, a developmental section, a peak, and ultimately a climax or ending. The more references you can draw on, the more possibilities you have.

“Too much academic description can make a student lose the ability to hear certain subtleties. Someone might analyze a solo by discussing its technical components, for instance, that so-and-so used this scale and that scale and another scale – but the person who did the solo wasn’t thinking about that at all! It’s bad enough you’re listening to a recording, which can remove the essence of what was actually going on. There’s a story that somebody was talking to Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines about the recordings of Art Tatum, and Fatha Hines said, ‘Man, forget the recordings; you got to have been there!’ It makes you realize that whatever analysis you apply to this music is inadequate in terms of what was actually going down.”


With his utilitarian bent, Marsalis is a lineal descendent of such mid-century African-American teacher-autocrats as Walter Dyett from DuSable High School in Chicago and Samuel Browne from Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, whose programs produced dozens of outstanding jazz musicians from Marsalis’ generation. Eschewing the authoritarian methods by which they kept students in line (Dyett was legendary for the accuracy with which he hurled his conductor’s baton at erring students), Marsalis won hearts and minds by treating his charges as young adults with minds of their own, as individuals accountable for their actions and decisions.

“Ellis encourages and motivates his students, but he’s also direct and won’t pamper you,” says Victor Goines, Director of Jazz Studies at Juilliard School of Music. A 41-year-old New Orleans native, Goines studied privately with Marsalis in the ’70s, apprenticed with his combo in the ’80s, and has played saxophone and clarinet in the Wynton Marsalis Septet and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra from 1989 until the present.  “With me, he could be painfully truthful, but also compassionate to my needs as a young man. If it sounded bad, he didn’t pull punches. He was for real.”

Goines borrowed a number of Marsalis’ dicta in creating the jazz program at Juilliard, beginning with the notion that working musicians are the most effective teachers. “Ellis brought to the classroom experiences from the oral tradition he’d learned as a performer, as opposed to learning the theory of education in the classroom and trying to go out and play after the fact,” Goines says. “He believes that working with small ensembles is important because of the freedom for improvisation. Students need to have perspective on the music’s history. They need to be able to function in different idioms, and to always realize that you’re not preparing for the gig you’re doing now, but the unknown gig to come. Ellis puts you in situations that you have to work your way out of. He always told me that to try to get to something great, you have to be willing to take chances, to make a fool of yourself. He said that you shouldn’t get on a bandstand with someone you wouldn’t get in a foxhole with; if everyone isn’t working toward a common goal, it’s a waste of time. He even teaches you to take care of the business aspects. He covered all the aspects of what it takes to be a professional musician.”

“I was shocked as a kid the first time I went to his school, and heard his students call him ‘Ellis,'” says Branford Marsalis. “That just didn’t happen in the South in the ’60s and ’70s. Later I understood how hip that was. My pops was just having a dialogue with the students, to the degree of almost demystifying education. He points the finger and forces you to think for yourself. He twists standard American colloquialisms so that they make more sense to him. He’d always say, ‘You know, son, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him thirsty.’ That’s brilliant! Once he told a student to listen to a piece of music. The student said, ‘I don’t want to.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Man, I know what I like.’ My father said, ‘No, son, you don’t know what you like; you like what you know.’ I thought about it, and realized that in order to say that you know what you like, you have to know a helluva lot. What he was getting at is that you should study the music for your own sake, not just because he tells you to. If you don’t, you’re putting yourself behind the 8-ball.”

“My father’s first principle is, ‘You don’t know unless you know,'” says Wynton Marsalis. “Don’t assume anything without first-hand experience. Don’t get chord changes out of the book; get them off the record. He always gets you to question what you know. He stresses that there’s no right or wrong way to hear. He’d guide you in a direction, but he wouldn’t tell you what to do. He gave you the opportunity to figure out your own thing.”

For a teacher to give students that much rope demands not only self-confidence, but tremendous faith in human nature. An unflinchingly realistic man devoid of illusions, Marsalis is explicitly not religious. To trace the source of such fundamental trust is therefore an intriguing endeavor.

“My father believes in jazz — real jazz,” Wynton Marsalis declares. “He never believed that jazz was White or Black. He believes it’s a universal expression, a thing that brings whoever addresses it into contact with their greater self. He doesn’t suffer from cultural intimidation. He’s very clear and uncompromising that you have to face jazz — or J.S. Bach — on its own terms, not change the music or put it on a lower level so you can feel comfortable in your relationship to it. If you practice and learn what you have to — and have the ability — you can play it. If you don’t, you can’t.

“The foundation of how I teach — what I think and know — comes from watching him. Long before we even had Jazz at Lincoln Center, when I was 19 and 20, I did workshops and went in the schools, because I saw my father doing it. The way to conduct a workshop, to present material, to pick tunes to play, to use analogies to make something clear, the importance of teaching form, the central position of the rhythm section in the band — all these concepts come from him.”

For all the inherent optimism implied by his lifelong struggle to communicate jazz values, Ellis Marsalis is not exactly sanguine about the present state of things. “The schools are teaching jazz with a conservatory approach, nice clubs are cropping up, and jazz is now a respectable area to function in,” he says. “But mainstreaming it removed a lot of individuality. Listen to the saxophone players in the conservatories that have good jazz departments. All of them can play! But when they solo, you can’t tell them apart.”

What case, then, would Marsalis make for talented musicians to study jazz in school?

“I don’t necessarily think they should,” he responds. “Jazz is a highly individualistic art. You’ll do better with a good private instructor and being around people who are well versed in the style of music you’re trying to play. Actually, there’s no real reason why anybody should continue to play jazz at all, aside from the music speaking to you. But more and more, I think that the study of jazz, across the board, can help a musician or lay person better understand America, because the music reflects the whole of the citizenry so completely. In some ways, jazz is a form of glue that keeps American culture centered. We live in a world where people do not necessarily even have to have a skill to become rich and famous as a pop artist. So a disciplined approach to anything is something this country very much needs.

“I often think of America as a 10-year-old kid whose folks died and left him a candy store, with nobody to guide him. He goes into this candy store and proceeds to be a 10-year-old kid. If he’s not unfortunate enough to get diabetes and die, he’ll ultimately learn, after he gets a bellyache, that there’s something to know when you got this place. It’s not just, ‘Oh, great, this is mine.'”

No longer teaching in any capacity, Marsalis is focusing on his retirement, making decisions about his future involvement in education. He works most Fridays at the prestigious Snug Harbor club in a trio with youngest son, drummer Jason, and leaves town for occasional jobs. In the autumn he’ll release a self-produced trio CD on ELM, his own label, and will go in the studio to record several CDs worth of material. In his manner, he’ll continue to do what he can to help that 10-year-old grow up.

“My father never preached,” says Branford Marsalis. “And he never wasted any time trumpeting his strengths. He was always interested in addressing and eradicating his weaknesses. That’s something I believe in. The great thing he passed on to us was to always go for something you like, because it’s about expanding, not finding your little place in the box and staying there.”



Ellis Marsalis (6-24-02):

TP:    Some nuts and bolts questions.  Are you still teaching, or are you now retired from any institutional affiliation?

MARSALIS:  No, I retired August 10th, 2001 from the University of New Orleans.

TP:    So you’re retired for a year.  Are you still teaching in any capacity?


TP:    So your artistic focus is on being a piano player.

MARSALIS:  I’m focusing on my retirement.

TP:    How are you spending it?

MARSALIS:  Well, first getting used to it.  I started putting some unfinished portions of things into my computer, which is something that I’ve been slowly learning about doing.  Because the program can be very difficult.  But I’ve got some gigs.  I usually play every Friday night at a local club called Snug Harbor.

TP:    That’s the top club in New Orleans, isn’t it?

MARSALIS:  Right.  And I go out occasionally.  This summer we have a couple of grandchildren who are staying with us, going to some summer camps. So I’ll be here doing that; my wife and I will be taking care of that.

TP:    When did you begin to teach?  How long have you been teaching?  What were the circumstances?  Was it the NOCCA experience in the mid-’70s?

MARSALIS:  Well, not really.  When I graduated from Dillard University.

TP:    So way before the 1970s, then.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  I didn’t really want to teach, but eventually I went into the military and got out, and got married, and the gig situation in New Orleans, which was never that great anyway, changed tremendously, and as a result, I figured I might as well try to use the degree I’ve got.  So I started to teach in 1963.

TP:    In what situation?

MARSALIS:  It’s hard to really describe.  Because I went in to be like a music teacher, and they never had a band in there at the school.  What happened, I ended up with two or three science classes and some general music classes, with one period to develop a band.  So I stayed there for a year, and I said, “Well, I know I need the money, but I’m not going to cripple people because I need the money.”  And I didn’t know nothin’ about no science!  So I left there, and I started teaching in a small Louisiana town, Browbridge.  I was band director there for a couple of years.

TP:    Is that when you started to develop a pedagogy?

MARSALIS:  Yes, I would say.  Definitely.

TP:    By 1964, you’re an established musician in New Orleans, such as the scene was, and you’d been playing professionally for a little less than 15 years.

MARSALIS:  Wait.  When are you talking about?

TP:    Let me see if my chronology for you is correct.  You’re born in ’34.  You go to Dillard when, about ’51 to ’55.  You go in the Army in either late ’55 or early ’56?

MARSALIS:  No, I was in the Marine Corps in ’56.

TP:    You spend a lot of that time in California, and it seems that your military service wasn’t so arduous as to prevent you from playing music.

MARSALIS:  Well, basically, that became my job.

TP:    So you’re another one of the people who got to play music as part of their Service duties.


TP:    And you get back to New Orleans around ’58 or ’59, and you start to have your children, and because the economic situation in New Orleans was what it is, you start to teach.  And in the mid-’60s, you’re teaching in that high school in Browbridge.

MARSALIS:  Right.  ’64 to ’66.

TP:    In one of my earlier conversations with you, you spoke about how you learned, about your formative process, that you started playing clarinet when you were 11, started playing tenor saxophone in high school, did a lot of rhythm-and-blues gigs, and you were studying the piano, and that when you got out of high school you decided to be a music major, that Dizzy Gillespie turned you on, a bunch of things turned you on.  You said: “I had been studying with a really great piano teacher. Of course, studying piano at that time either meant that you were learning from a mentor in the church that you went to, or you were learning from someone who was either in your family or was a friend of the family that would teach you the tradition of the music according to earlier styles, or you studied with a piano teacher who basically was teaching formal approaches to European music.”  You said that you weren’t playing in the church, which was to your regret, and you didn’t know anyone who was really playing piano from a traditional jazz point of view, and you gravitated to the two areas that were closest to you, being Rhythm-and-Blues and Jazz, and I guess some European tradition — which you’re not saying here — with that piano teacher.

MARSALIS:  I didn’t really study with her long enough to develop a repertoire.  I studied with her maybe about a year or so, and then I started at the university.  And I couldn’t put it together to continue studying with her.  Her name was Jean Coston Maloney.  You see, I couldn’t put that together, because if I had thought about it and had figured it out, I could have continued studying with her.  But I said, “Well, I can’t study with her and be a music major over here at the same time.”  I said, “When I graduate, I’m going to go back and start studying with her.”  Of course, by that time she had left town.

TP:    Would you say you had a good music curriculum at the high school that you attended?

MARSALIS:  No.  There was no music curriculum. There was none at all.  There was the marching band and the concert band.

TP:    What was the level of instruction that you received in that band?  How was learning done?

MARSALIS:  Well, that school was in transition at the time, and in fact, it closed my sophomore year.  And the band director, who had really been great, left the year before I got there, and went off to Southern University to direct bands there.  So what we did was sort of limp along.  The last part of the year, we didn’t have a band teacher at all.  We just did it ourselves.  So I didn’t learn much about music at all in high school.

TP:    I see.  Because I’ve talked to a few of your contemporaries from New Orleans, like Clyde Kerr, and I gather his house was a focal point for a lot of like-minded musicians.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  That was true with Clyde.  Clyde, Sr., was a music teacher also.

TP:    Were there any teachers in New Orleans who were equivalent to the great black high school teachers of segregation days — such as Walter Dyett or Samuel Browne or the woman at Cass Tech in Detroit — in inspiring musicians of your generation?

MARSALIS:  If I had to pick somebody, it would be Yvonne Bush.  There’s a book coming out which is going to be very interesting, and she’s featured in that book.  In fact, the guy who wrote the book, Al Kennedy, had in his first printing of it a chronology of all of the people that she influenced.  It was one of those pullouts.  Now, I don’t know if Scarecrow is going to keep that.  I mean, it may make it and it may not.  But Yvonne Bush is one of the people that I would tend to think was close to what you’re talking about.  She was a trombone player, and I think she had spent some time playing with the Sweethearts of Rhythm during their later days.

Anyway, Clyde Kerr… There was also a younger guy named Alvin Thomas who helped a couple of guys.  But he died young.  He was younger than me.  He was still in high school when I was doing my (?).  He was also one of the students of Yvonne Bush.

TP:    But in the process of learning the vocabulary of jazz and the tools that you would need to be effective, how did it operate before you went to college? Was it totally informal, like you and Alvin Batiste would get together and take down solos from records?  I know a lot of people from your generation were very homegrown, but then, other people had substantial formal instruction.  And given the subject of this article, I’m interested in how you accumulated and processed vocabulary.

MARSALIS:  In a kind of shotgun approach. Some here, a piece over there, a little bit here, a little bit there. Because once I decided that I was going to be a piano player, one of the things that I didn’t know was the dimensions involved.  That is, if you are a tenor saxophone player, you play the tenor saxophone, but you may have studied the chronology of saxophone players who played your instrument, so you get a pretty good understanding of who came before you.  But when you’re a piano player, the significance of being a piano player is that you wear several different hats. There’s solo piano, which Art Tatum scared everybody to death with that. Then there’s the trio piano playing, the stuff that Oscar did and various other people who played. Then there’s playing piano in a rhythm section, which is one of the things that you end up learning to do because of working conditions.  Usually, all of the piano players at some point end up playing in a rhythm section.  And the accompaniment role, in some cases, if you happen to be in a group with a singer.  And it’s all different.  And there was nobody there to tell me that, so I just learned it as well as I could.

TP:    You made a comment in my second radio session with you that accompaniment is the most difficult thing to teach.

MARSALIS:  It really is.  It shouldn’t be. But the reason why it’s so difficult to teach is because music programs are not structured in a way that the vocalist and the other instrumentalists are taught in a complementary manner.  By “complementary” I mean this.  If a person says, “Well, I’m interested in playing jazz piano,” unless you have a singer who is interested in singing jazz in accordance with the tradition in the same sense that that piano player understands their role, you don’t have a thing!  You see?

Most of the metaphors that I used when I was teaching was through athletics.  I would tell the students various things, especially when Jordan was still playing.  I would try to get them to focus on learning melodies to a song, make sure you know what that melody is.  If there are words to that song, at least learn the first verse to it, so that you see how those words connect with that melody.  The harmony is a part of that.  Learn that harmony the way that the guy wrote it, so when you hear the alterations from other people, you have a reference point. Know the rhythm so that you understand what category the piece falls in.  It may be a Rhumba or a Congo or a Bossa-Nova, or it may be a ballad, or it may be up-tempo.  I used to use Michael Jordan.  I said, “When you look at him, what you see is somebody who has developed every facet of the game, whether it’s his defensive play, or his ability to shoot around the perimeter, or it’s the various ways in which people develop moving the ball around, the free-throw shooting…”  Like, all of the aspects that go into the whole of the person.

Music teachers rarely teach like that.  The reason that music teachers rarely teach like that is because you have too many people involved, and they only hired one music teacher, and that music teacher is expected to teach a band well enough to go out on a halftime football show.  So it can become very difficult to try to deal with subtleties when it’s just you and 100-and-some students.

TP:    How did you deal with that when you were at Browbridge?

MARSALIS:  I didn’t deal with that.  I had a concert band which I dealt with, and then the football season.  I had somebody who could do the little halftime steps and all that, and teach the band that, and go out and do the halftime football show.  Basically, that’s it.

TP:    At Browbridge.

TP:    And at that point, would you say that by the age 30, you had developed pretty much the pedagogy — given, of course, the various refinements and elaborations over time — that you continued to teach? Or did it springboard you into developing that pedagogy?

MARSALIS:  See, it’s hard to answer that, because I didn’t pursue teaching sort of like in a straight line.  Like someone who wants to be a doctor.  You may end up being a surgeon or internal medicine or a podiatrist.  But you still go in a straight line.  But see, I wasn’t really that interested in teaching, and when I left Browbridge, I came back and started playing in the Playboy Club, and I stayed there until such time as… I mean, the job in and of itself was not really going anywhere.  It was a good job, playing six nights a week.  But I wasn’t satisfied with it.

TP:    Not artistically satisfied.

MARSALIS:  Well, not really, man.  It was a jazz gig.  It wasn’t like you had to play something other than that.  But even if you’re playing jazz, if what you are playing isn’t really saying anything… And then, it really wasn’t my group, so to speak.  So even though I was playing every night, there was little or no chance to do anything with them or with anybody else.  Because the city at that time had just moved away from legal segregation — maybe two years earlier, in 1966.  So it was a city in transition, and there were still a lot of older clubs and older musicians playing, and a lot of younger guys coming in who were bringing a different brand of funk to what they were doing.  There was virtually no jazz — as we consider it — to speak of.  And there wouldn’t really be any straight-ahead stuff until, oh, much later.

TP:    Let me step back to Dillard and address the way the curriculum you received there affected the musician you became.

MARSALIS:  Well, what about it?

TP:    Let me put the question to you this way.  Do you feel you received a solid music education at Dillard?

MARSALIS:  Not really.  It was a small school, a private school, and the emphasis was on the nursing school, which had a very good reputation, and also on education.  Because heretofore, teaching and education degrees were areas that college-minded Black students could go into and get a job as a schoolteacher.  So the idea of performance was ludicrous.  At the time, I didn’t really know that was the way people were thinking who were administering the school!  So what we got was really the basis of European music, and in some cases, taught by people in a kind of slapdash way.  Not everybody.  It just depended on who you got.  It was modeled, so to speak, kind of after a poor man’s conservatory — which most of them are.

TP:    You mean most of the black colleges during segregation?

MARSALIS:  Well, most of them were anyway, even the ones that weren’t Black.  The thing is, your primary customer… For example, even at the University of New Orleans today, the primary customer is one who is going to be in music education.  So consequently, what you get is all of the rules that are set up in such a way that resemble a mini-conservatory.  So many hours on your major instrument, so many hours on the minor instruments, all those kinds of things that they expect band directors to do.  And for the most part, courses in theory.  In a lot of cases, you have an abundance of theory classes and almost no practical.

TP:    Whereas people like Yvonne Busch and Walter Dyett and Samuel Browne were extremely practically-oriented and performance-oriented.

MARSALIS:  I imagine so.  But it’s kind of hard to tell.  I used to talk with Eddie Harris about Walter Dyett, because Eddie studied under him.  And I talked a little bit with Joe Williams about the Colonel, from Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago.  He went under a guy who had been a Colonel, I think, in the Army.

TP:    The guy at Wendell Phillips was Major Clark N. Smith, then Dyett succeeded him, then Dyett went to DuSable when the school was founded in 1935.

MARSALIS:  Yes, it must have been the Major.

TP:    He had the Chicago Defender Boys Band, which Lionel Hampton came out of.  I think he was a no-nonsense Marine, like you!

MARSALIS:  Also the school in Detroit, Cass Tech, where Donald Byrd… A lot of those cats went to Cass Tech.  See, we didn’t really have schools like that.

TP:    Oh, I’d been under the impression that one of the black high schools in New Orleans had a good music program.  I guess I was under the wrong impression.

MARSALIS:  How long ago?

TP:    I was thinking the late ’40s and ’50s, but my memory may be incorrect.

MARSALIS:  Well, when people say that so-and-so had a good music program, you don’t ever know what that means!  I had a guy that told me he was going into the studio down here, and he was trying to get some musicians, and he heard that St. Augustine High School had these great musicians and this great music program, and he got some of them kids in the studio.  I knew what he was trying to do, and I didn’t call him on it, but he was trying to get over cheap.  But anyway, he got those kids in there, and they didn’t know jack!  They’re not being taught any of that.  They’re a marching band, and their reputation is that.  But a lot of times, people don’t really know.  They look at these situations, and they’re not involved in music, and go, “Oh, this is a great program.”

TP:    One thing that occurs to me is that in thinking of people like Dyett and Samuel Browne and these high school music programs through which talented young black musicians emerged and were prepared to become skilled jazz musicians in the period when segregation was operative, there was a certain type of pedagogy and a certain type of attitude and a certain type of world view that was conveyed that helped these musicians function.  Looking at you from the outside, I see your work as very much in a continuum of that, granted, of course, that you were doing it in a different time.  So I’m fishing here to see if this sort of attitude stuck to you and informed your perspective on your own teaching.

MARSALIS:  Well, by the time that I started to teach music in high school at the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts, which was a different school… There was no marching band.  There was no band.  There was no core curriculum of math or science or any of that.  This was an arts high school that students went to, using their elective from the home school.  You could not graduate from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts with a diploma that was recognized as anything.  In other words, you had to go to the regular certified high school that taught math and science and English and history, and then half-a-day, you would study your discipline.  Now, a discipline at NOCCA could be dance, theater, music, visual arts, or creative writing.  And we had a faculty of artists.  So the curriculum was designed by the artists for young people who would anticipate becoming professional musicians, dancers, singers, whatever.  That was the greatest faculty that I was ever on.  There was only three of us.  That faculty was fantastic.  I learned as much as the students did.

TP:    Was that you, Alvin Batiste and Kidd Jordan?

MARSALIS:  No-no, not at all.  Alvin was teaching at Southern.

TP:    He wasn’t teaching there at all.

MARSALIS:  No.  Alvin was the artist-in-residence, I think, for the Orleans Parish School system.  So when that school opened, Alvin called me, and told me that they were opening up the school, and that it would probably be good for me.  By that time, I had already gone and started taking courses at Loyola Graduate School, and wasn’t interested even in interviewing for the job.  Because I had developed a plan, a modus operandi, which took me to graduate school, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to veer away from that plan.  But I did go and interview, and eventually they hired me.

So I was able to function on a great faculty.  It was Bert Braud, who was also an instrumental music teacher, and also a vocal teacher, Lorraine Alfaro.  One of the things that we didn’t really do was to emphasize or make a distinction between European music and jazz.  All the students had to study.  All the students had private instruction.

TP:    I gather you had a grant, and members of the Symphony were teaching for the amount of the grant.

MARSALIS:  Well, not always.  They would take the grant, and sometimes the students would have to supplement the grant.  But it wasn’t a lot of money for the level of instruction.  The grant was about 8 bucks, and the symphony people at that time were teaching for $12 for the students.  But it was a marvelous opportunity for them.

TP:    Would you say, then, that your pedagogy developed through the imperatives of setting up a curriculum for NOCCA?

MARSALIS:  That’s right.

TP:    So you get your first class or your early classes, and what do you present them with?

MARSALIS:  When I first started there, I hadn’t a clue as to how I was going to approach this.  But invariably, I just started with teaching students a lot of blues.  Then I’m trying to pick standards that I knew related to a particular instrument.  For example, I knew that just about all of the trumpet players should be expected to play “I Can’t Get Started With You” and tenor saxophone players would be expected to play “Body and Soul.”

TP:    You broke down those tunes and they had to show…

MARSALIS:  They had to play them.

TP:    Did you give them recordings to listen to, or first principles that they should follow?

MARSALIS:  If I had them.  Yeah, I would do that if I had them.  We eventually hustled up some money and bought some recordings.  Also, we bought some old Collins speaker.  They might still be in use, man!  Clyde Kerr was using the same speakers, and doing…kind of piecemealing what we could do.  But I was very big on the practical side of playing.

TP:    How do you mean the practical side?

MARSALIS:  That’s it.  Play.

TP:    When did you ascertain that a student was moving in the right direction?  Was that through your knowledge as a working jazz musician?  I’m thinking about criteria, the right thing and the wrong thing.

MARSALIS:  Well, the right thing and the wrong thing is easy.  Because one of the things they had to do was be able to play scales.  Either you understood and played the right ones, or you didn’t.  And if you did, I’d work on the concept of improvisation, which is not something that’s suitable for everybody’s personality.  But there are ways in which you can get people to improvise if they are susceptible to that process.  When I say susceptible, what I mean is that some people are just not comfortable with the process of improvisation.  If it’s not written on a page or instructions that come from on high or whatever, they are just not comfortable improvising.

TP:    So when you found someone who you determined had talent… I assume that given the type of students who were coming in, you were able to take very individual approaches with each of them.

MARSALIS:  Yeah, but not because of who was coming in.  Mostly because of the way it was structured.  Because we just got public school students, period.  Whoever came to audition.  We didn’t know who was talented and who wasn’t.

TP:    I did a piece earlier this year on Harry Connick that was a cover story in “Jazziz,” and I talked to Branford about him.  He said this: [ETC.] “…if you walk in the room, my father says, ‘okay, why are you here?’  Virtually every other teacher would say, ‘Turn to page 13.  Okay, that’s great. Come back next week and give me another $100.’  My father is like, ‘Why are you here?’  ‘I’m here for you to teach me.’ ‘What do you want to learn?  I don’t know.’ ‘Come back when you’ve figured it out.’


TP:    I said, “What do you think Harry wanted to learn?”  He said, “I don’t think Harry knew, and that’s what my father wanted to get to — what is it you want to learn?”  He says he doesn’t know what you taught him, he and Wynton would rough him up and go outside, but he assumes you would do studies on the blues because that’s what you made piano players deal with first, blues and rhythm.

It seems that so many people who have studied with you are able to access the maximum of potential from themselves, and I’m interested in your philosophy of dealing with people, particularly at that very sensitive time in their lives, when things can go in so many different directions.

MARSALIS:  Well, I don’t know that I had even developed a philosophy.  See, the thing that I remembered, that I fell back on, is that when I was in elementary school, in the early elementary school, first through sixth grade, that [things were done by drill]  ….[END OF SIDE]…. We had English classes, we had math class, and in all of those classes, one of the key components was drill.  So when I started teaching at NOCCA, I began to use that aspect.  Because it stuck with me.  You just drill on something and you drill on it until they get it.  And it wouldn’t matter…

See, this is another thing.  It wasn’t so much about whether somebody was into jazz or classical.  The drilling aspect had to do with whatever the subject matter was at the point that you were teaching.  Because I was also responsible for teaching Classical students, not just what we call jazz students, and I had to develop a sight-singing class which everybody had to take.  The biggest part of that that I used was drill — drilling on intervals, drilling on individual notes, drilling in all of that.  Basically, you concern yourself a lot with whether or not somebody wants to be a certain thing.  Like, I would ask students, “Give me an example of a model or somebody that if you could be like that, if you could sing like that or play like that…who would it be like?”  And you would use that sort of as a guide of trying to figure out how they were thinking.

But I think what Branford was talking about was usually private teaching.  Because you can’t do that in a school!  Now, one of the things that we used to do also was make students responsible.  You see, one of the major problems with public school education today is that, from what I can see, students are never responsible for anything.  You don’t have to be responsible.  I just read in the paper the other day where this woman in a town, she and 12 other people just resigned, plus the principal, because they wanted her to change the grade.  The parents were calling up all hours of the night… What it was is that she gave an assignment, and 23 of the students cut-and-pasted their way over the end of that, and turned the papers in, and she could see what they had done.  So she gave them all zero, and got in a lot of trouble because of that.  Because nobody wants the students to be responsible.

But that was one of the things we had that was in our favor.  We had a principal at NOCCA whose discipline was theater.  His name was Dr. Tom Tews.  The only thing he asked us to do was, “Just tell me what you’re doing,” because he didn’t want to be blind-sided by somebody coming up to him saying that the faculty is doing something he didn’t know nothing about!  But we had unlimited opportunities to restructure what we were doing curriculum-wise, and change it around to meet the needs of the students that we had — just to do a lot of things that were flexible.  But we would make students responsible, even when the parents would come in hollering and screaming.  And I think that’s basically what the problem is right now.  They’re not allowed to be responsible.  Then they get out in the world, and there it is!  But that’s a whole other story.
TP:    It would seem that a magnet arts school, where you have motivated students, would be well suited…

MARSALIS:  Well, that’s a myth, see.  The whole idea of having very motivated students comes either after they get there and discover that there’s something they can develop if the platform is suitable for their individuality.  Otherwise, the motivated students usually get turned-off at school.  Because schools do not emphasize individuality.  And when people become motivated, they become motivated as an individual.

TP:    Do you emphasize individuality?

MARSALIS:  Oh, we had to.  That’s the only way an arts school can work.  You cannot herd an art school and have it really work effectively.

TP:    Donald Harrison told me that Kidd Jordan would call him at 8 in the morning to make sure he’d done what he was supposed to, that he’d take extra time and so on.  Did you take a role with students outside of the school?

MARSALIS:  Not a lot.  Well, I had a lot of other responsibilities.  If it was something that I could help them with and it took some extra time, I’d find that.

TP:    Let’s get through NOCCA, and start talking about… You started teaching at the University of New Orleans when?

MARSALIS:  1989.

TP:    So the timeline is, you’re at NOCCA from 1974 to what year?


TP:    Then you go to Virginia Commonwealth.


TP:    That’s where Victor Goines and Clarence Penn and various others come under you, then you get a faculty position at the University of New Orleans.

MARSALIS:  Yes, but that’s not really so much true for Victor Goines.  See, Victor was a kid that I knew along with my kids when he was still in high school.  He didn’t go to NOCCA.  For a while, he was at Loyola.  Before he graduated from Loyola University, he started to study privately with me.  And eventually, I just put him in my band.  Because I had a quartet.  The band went on a Southeast Asian tour in the month June of 1986, before I left to go to Virginia Commonwealth.  Because see, Victor was teaching math at St. Augustine High School.  After I left, he decided that he wanted to come up and go to graduate school!  That’s what he did.  But to tell you the truth, while I was at Virginia Commonwealth, I never had any classes that Victor was in.

TP:    So there are three different categories.  There’s the New Orleans public schools, the Catholic schools, and there’s private tutelage.  So musicians in New Orleans coming up would go through any combination of these routes.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  There was also the total practicum, like the kids who went to the junior high school and learned some basics, and then put a band together and went out on the street, and opened up their cases, and started playing for the tourists.

TP:    Which is something that’s distinct to New Orleans.

MARSALIS:  Well, a lot of places, they’ll put you in jail if you play on the street. You can’t just play on the street.  But in New Orleans, that’s a different town.  They may have some restrictions by now.  But man, a lot of people were playing on the street, some who now have careers!

TP:    Kidd Jordan disapproved of the effects of that.  He said it sort of stifled the urge to learn or expand or explore.  In a broader sense, how do you see the impact of the vernacular aspect New Orleans music and the Caribbean tinge of New Orleans culture on the way musicians develop and evolve and think?

MARSALIS:  Well, for the most part, I think it’s all economic-driven.  I mean, those people who call themselves music teachers in public schools… It’s economically driven.  If there were no jobs out there, they would not subject themselves to four and five years of college training to get a degree not to work.  And these kids get an early start, especially from some of these junior high schools with these brass bands.  Now, I don’t think that it’s anathema to learning at all.  I think kids get turned off by adults very early in life.  It’s not the music that’s causing them to do that.  It’s the mere fact that there’s nothing going on in the schools.  If there was something going on in the school, they wouldn’t quit.  Or if there was something happening musically, they wouldn’t want to… For example, Terence Blanchard was going to John F. Kennedy High School.  A marvelous band instructor over there.  I mean, this guy was great — the concert band.  Well, he played in that concert band while he was a student at NOCCA, because there was something going on over there.

Branford went to de la Salle, and the music program over there was okay.  But Branford was talking at one point about going and being a lawyer or something.  Which was all right with me.  I didn’t care.  But it didn’t appear to me that he was doing what he needed to do to be at the school.  So we came to the mutual agreement that he ought to leave that school and go to the one of the public schools, and then just attend NOCCA and study the music for the remainder of his high school time.

TP:    So to you, the cultural thing in New Orleans where the younger musicians play and the oral tradition aspect is a very positive thing.

MARSALIS:  Of course.

TP:    Could you elaborate a little on why it’s a positive thing?

MARSALIS:  Well, mostly it’s positive because, first of all, it’s economically driven, and the kids who do it generally need whatever monies they can come up with.  It also promotes a certain amount of teamwork, because it means that these kids have to organize themselves into a functioning unit with virtually no adult supervision at all.  That’s another thing.  And that skill is a very useful skill for anybody or any group of people to learn early enough in life.  The next thing is, they begin to understand a friendly relationship with the general public.  When you go out there on the street and open up your case, there are things that you can get to learn.  You learn what people will put money in the case to hear you play, and probably they don’t want to particularly put their money in… In other words, if you’re out there and you have a group, and your group was playing some Bach chorales with a brass ensemble, the amount of money that you get is going to determine whether you keep playing that.  Now, if you keep playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” and people start putting money in the box… I mean, it don’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out!  So these kids go out there immediately playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” or some other piece like that.  Now, it’s anybody’s guess to assume that at some point they will have wanted to play some chorales of J.S. Bach.  We don’t really know.  And a lot of people say, “well, if they wouldn’t have been doing that, then they would be learning this over here.”  We don’t really know that.

There have been numerous times… There was a wonderful band teacher who passed on, named Donald Richardson.  Donald Richardson had a junior high school, and he was totally devoted to his kids, and when they would graduate from that junior high school, if they went to a high school and that high school didn’t have a challenging band, the horns were in the case, the case went under the bed, and they went and did something else.  So we can’t make the assumption that kids have this undying need to learn certain kinds of music.

TP:    What kinds of music?

MARSALIS:  Any kind.  Anything that would be considered by the people who make those statements as challenging.

TP:    There’s a quote in an article I saw on the Web from Jason Marsalis that instead of telling a musician everything, you tell them just enough so they’ll discover certain things on their own.

MARSALIS:  Yes, I think jazz is really about the art of discovery.  And I don’t mean discovery in terms of guesswork.  What I mean is that give a person a certain amount of information, and you have to make sure that that information is communicated.  Then from that point, they have to begin to make decisions about that information.  And like I said earlier, not everybody has the personality to improvise.

TP:    What sort of personality do you need to improvise?

MARSALIS:  All you really need is the spirit of adventure, and it’s applied to what your understanding is of the music that is being presented to you.  Because it’s very easy, man.  I did a workshop, and I can’t remember where it was, but it was a guy who had a band; there was a whole room-full of students in there, and it was just me and this little raggedy piano.  And I developed a way where I could give a kid maybe five notes, and play some little things on piano.  If you just play those five notes any way you want to play them, you can’t go wrong — except if you don’t play at all.  This one kid was playing vibraphone, and I said, “I want you to try it.”  Oh, no.  He was real shy.  And his fellow students started to encourage him.  So finally, he decided that he’d try it, that he’d play, and I backed him up as he played.  And about ten minutes, man, we couldn’t shut him up!  He wanted to play the rest of the workshop!  Now, I don’t know that he had an opportunity to do that before. He didn’t act like he did.  But he didn’t even want to try.  So you don’t really know.
TP:    So half the battle is breaking down the resistance to trying.

MARSALIS:  Well, if it’s in the personality.  There was a young man who was a trumpet player, and he came into the class.  And I could not communicate with him what it took for him to experiment in improvisation.  It didn’t appear to be in his personality to want to do that. I mean, he tried and he wanted to do it.  He went on eventually, man, to become a principal trumpeter in the symphony orchestra.  So the musicality was already there.

TP:    Let me get back to what Branford said you do with piano players, and what you said you did initially in NOCCA, which was deal with the blues.  Now, there’s no established pedagogy for the blues, certainly not when you were beginning 27 years ago.  How did you organize your principles of teaching the blues?

MARSALIS:  See, what I had to do… It reminds me of dealing with a kid with Play-Dough.  What you do is, you give him the play-dough, and you say, “Here, take this and make something out of it.”  I would write out some notes which, when played, would be 12 measures of the blues.  So they could do two things.  One, get the sound of the notes in their ear; the other is to reposition their fingers in such a way that they would play when they would practice.  Their fingers would get used to those positions.  I have one exercise where it was just the left hand, another exercise where it was both hands, another exercise where it was the left hand with some different chords.  But it was all based on the blues.  And there again, it’s just a matter of drill.
TP:    A matter of drill and then their personality accepts it or it doesn’t.

MARSALIS:  Yeah.  Well, with the piano players it could be a little different.  Because with the piano players you’ve given them notes which basically outline a whole form.  It’s a different thing with a piano player.  The piano player still has to do the same thing from an improvisatory standpoint.  But what you do is, you give them all of the notes in the beginning.

TP:    Would you say that your experience as an improviser informs your teaching and the way you relate to students?

MARSALIS:  Yeah, definitely.  First of all, it helps me to understand a lot better what it is that I’m trying to get them to do.  Because if I can’t improvise myself, there’s no way that I’m going to be able to teach them.  But see, what causes one to be able to teach, and somebody else to be a great improviser and maybe not be able to teach, is that they don’t necessarily do respective thinking about what they are doing so that they can convert it and create a language to communicate that.  Because all of teaching centers around a language.  How could you teach Medicine if you don’t have a name for the principles.  It’s the same thing.

And a lot of times, the problem… Well, I don’t know if it’s the problem or not.  There is not a codified language for jazz.  There are some things, the blues… But “blues” is a general term.  It’s not by any means as specific as, say, the heart would be if a doctor studies medicine.  That’s very specific!  But what I’m saying is that we have to have enough terminology so it can communicate what the essence is in terms of studying jazz improvisation.

TP:    In one of these things I saw on the Web, the writer describes you asking a trumpeter if he knows “Caravan,” the student replies that he has the sheet music, and you say that “the sheet is always secondary — always.”  Does jazz continue to be an oral music in any manner?  And how do you deal with that quality within the prerequisites of teaching within an institution and a curriculum?

MARSALIS:  Well, the thing about jazz being an oral music is that if you don’t have the oral component of the music, what you will have done is taken away the natural ingredients of it.  It’s sort of like the difference between preserves and fresh fruit.  See?  Like, if you could walk up to a tree and there are some apples on that tree, you can pick an apple, and you can eat that apple.  Now, there are people who learn how to make preserves, and in most cases, they always taste the same.  And you can get it whenever you need it.  But the apple on the tree is only going to be there for so long. Like the solo.  I mean, if somebody plays a great solo, if you’re not there when they do it, then you won’t hear it.  If it’s a recording, you hear sort of a replication of it.  Which would be like the preserves.  Which is why the term “preservation” comes into play.

TP:    That’s a very interesting metaphor.

MARSALIS:  But that’s basically what it is.  And any student has to develop an understanding of what a solo really is.  Solos are not unlike a novel — or a short story.  You have a beginning, you have a developmental section; you have a point or a peak; and then ultimately you have a climax or an ending.  Solos are like that.

TP:    To what extent do you give students vocabulary from other players as part of their repertoire?  A process a lot of people do, maybe you did this yourself with Oscar Peterson or Bud Powell, is the imitation of solos and an understanding of how master artists organized vocabulary in different periods.  Is that important to your curriculum and pedagogy?

MARSALIS:  Yes, but I don’t like to academize it.  See, students spend so much time with academic descriptions of things, until they begin to try to put everything in that category, and they begin to lose the ability to hear certain subtleties.  I mean, it’s bad enough you’re listening to a recording, which can sometimes take the essence away from what was going on.  It reminds of something I read that Earl “Fatha” Hines said. Somebody was talking about the recordings of Art Tatum, and Fatha Hines said, “Man, forget the recordings thing; you’ve got to have been there!”  That’s a whole other level of experience in that music.  Students have to learn, the ones who are really going to pursue it, that the concept of a solo is in the development of it, and the more references that you have to draw from, the better possibilities you have of a solo.

TP:    To extrapolate on that Fatha Hines quote, “You have to have been there,” it’s becoming increasingly hard for younger musicians to be there in terms of at least of expressing the older vocabulary as expressed by the people who created that vocabulary.  Is there any contradiction in there?

MARSALIS:  How could it be a contradiction?

TP:    It could be a contradiction, because if someone is dealing with getting the sound of Jelly Roll Morton together, such as Eric Reed, who dealt with it functionally in the LCJO, he wasn’t there to witness it, but he dealt with it in a real-time situation.  One thing that’s often noted by younger musicians is at once the increasing options of vocabulary available to them and the increasing distance from the people who created that vocabulary.

MARSALIS:  I know what you’re saying.  Well, the point is this.  There again, I use metaphors in athletics.  The same could be said of Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson.  Those who were there when Magic was doing what he was doing, got the experience that those who were not there didn’t get.  Now, it doesn’t mean that those who were watching Kobe Bryant cannot appreciate the game, the style of play, which essentially was a part of the same thing that Magic was doing.  But I think what happens with music is that it becomes so academic.  When I say “academic,” it becomes like the analyzation of a solo in which somebody starts talking about the technical parts of it, and the scale, and how he used this scale and that scale and another scale — and that’s not what the person who was doing the solo was thinking about at all.  I’ve also used as a metaphor that it would be like if somebody asked a student to do a book report, and when they got ready to do the book report, they’d stand up and say, “Well, the person who wrote the book led off with two prepositions, three nouns, two adjectives, followed by a period,” and go through that whole thing.  Now, if you want to analyze the sentence structure, that may be true.  But I doubt very seriously if that’s what the person who wrote the story was thinking about.  And it’s a similar kind of thing with music.

So when Fatha Hines said that you had to have been there, I mean, that’s one of those things that sort of vibrated sympathy.  Obviously, he couldn’t have been where Tatum was, but it expressed something that makes you realize that whatever analysis you apply to this music is inadequate in terms of what actually was going down.

TP:    How important is it for students to know about the milieu in which the music was going down?

MARSALIS:  It’s important totally.  There again, it’s the same thing with athletics.  I mean, the average kid, when he comes into the NBA today, he knows about the City Game!  They know about the City Game.  Kareem knew about the city game.  All of them!

TP:    Well, Kareem was part of the City Game!

MARSALIS:  So what I’m saying essentially is that what a lot of students don’t get, in some cases, is the academic complement.  I think if you can get an academic complement, so that the experience becomes total…

TP:    But the way I mean the question is: Is it important for a kid who is marching in brass bands and is then going on to further musical education to understand, let’s say, the historical origins of brass bands, how marching bands might relate even to customs in Africa, as you once described on a radio show we did.  Is that sort of well-rounded knowledge essential to a contemporary aspiring jazz musician?

MARSALIS:  Yeah.  I was listening to one of those guys in a brass band doing an interview.  And one of the first things he said when a young guy came into the band… He said, “The first thing you’ve got to understand is that this is part of a tradition, but when you come here, you don’t come here with no strange attitude.”  And he wasn’t talking about music to him.  What he was talking  about are those things that are peripheral, those things that put some meaning into that.

I remember Wynton made a statement to me one time, and he was waiting for me to rebut him.  He started talking about bebop.  He said, “man, bebop brought a negative element into the music.”  And I said, “Yeah, you’re right.  It did.”  And that’s a generation that I was a part of.  And the reason why that occurred had as much to do with the recording industry as it did with anything else.  Because in the recording industry, technology advanced to a point where people could begin to play longer and longer and longer. When you go back and listen to Charlie Parker…

TP:    Three minutes.

MARSALIS:  Well, maybe five.

TP:    He has the famous quote, “If you can’t say all you have to say in two choruses, you’re practicing.”

MARSALIS:  That’s right. So essentially, what happened is that another negative element… Well, actually, I don’t necessarily consider that a negative element.  When they started to emphasize the whole drug scene.  Well, that has to do with something else.  I mean, whoever controls the press decides what’s going to get in it.  And if anybody was paying attention, the amount of jazz musicians interested in drugs wouldn’t even register 0.000-whatever.  So that element I didn’t consider.

TP:    I think in bebop it was a pretty consequential element.  I’ve been doing articles on people like Jimmy Heath, who had that experience.  I spoke to Frank Wess on Friday for a piece, and he said one reason music today is better than it was then is that the musicians then dissipated themselves in an almost commonplace manner, and today that isn’t the case.  I think that’s a fact about at least a lot of the musicians of the time, for better or for worse.

MARSALIS:  Well, it’s not so much that that’s not a true statement.  But I don’t know that that could be proven.  I’ll tell you the reason why I say that.  First of all, there are peripheral factors involved.  When I say “peripheral,” let’s take, for example, the first fifty years, from 1900 to about 1950-ish.  The total economy of the jazz musician was gangsters.  There was no other economy.  Now, that managed to produce a lot of fantastic players in spite of the fact that that was the situation.

Now, as great as some of the young players are today, the democratic process that goes on with the schools teaching jazz and some clubs coming along, and… Like where I work.  It’s a nice club!  The situation is conducive now to make jazz a respectable area to function in.  In reality, it has lost a lot of its individuality as a result of that.  Because when you mainstream something… Everything has a good and bad side.

TP:    It’s a dialectic.

MARSALIS:  Right.  But when you go back and you start listening to all them tenor players, man, from Chu Berry on, and people who were lesser lights, like Eddie Lockjaw Davis, and…

TP:    To some, he is not a lesser light.

MARSALIS:  Well, when I say “lesser light”…
TP:    I know what you mean.

MARSALIS:  Believe me, man, Jaws was a personal friend of mine.  I loved Jaws and I worked with Jaws. I listened to Jaws play some introductions, man, on his own… [LAUGHS]

TP:    I’ve heard people from every sphere of music talk of him, like how did he get those sounds with the fingerings he used?

MARSALIS:  The only reason why I said “lesser light” is because Lockjaw Davis never forgot that he was in show business.  He could never have been a John Coltrane attitude-wise.  He was never that.  So that level of dedication was not going to be there.  And it was the same thing like a Charlie Parker, who spent an enormous amount of time practicing, trying to figure all of this stuff out.  Jaws was a product of the times!  He was going to be representative among the players who was there.  He was the straw boss of Basie until he couldn’t… He and Basie philosophically fell out.  But what I’m saying was by no means saying a lesser light…

But when it comes down to it, when you listen to these kids, you hear them and you say, “Oh, man…”  My youngest son, Jason, is very responsible for some of these younger kids, and he’s almost like a senior to some of them.  The reason why is because Jason has learned the importance of researching the older guys, so he can tell a young drummer about Dodds!  About Baby Dodds!  See, he’s already researched that.  He can also tell them about, “Look, when you’re getting ready to present a solo, this is what you do.”  He did a session just recently with Curtis Fuller, who was in New Orleans during Jazzfest.  When Curtis got ready to play a ballad, the producer was saying, “Look, this is just with piano, bass and trombone.”  And Jason immediately knew what the problem was.  He didn’t say nothing.  So when they started playing, Jason got behind the drums and started sweeping.  So this guy said, “Yeah, man, that’s hip.  Not too many young guys can even play brushes at all.”  But see, he knows that.  And he knows about people not knowing the technique of playing brushes.  And he also understands when it started, and the whole ball of wax.

So I’m saying all of that to say that it is necessary that young kids understand and learn all of these things, because otherwise it becomes kind of like a guitar player, a kid who came to NOCCA when I was teaching there.  He was a senior, and usually we didn’t take seniors, because it was too late.  I said, “Look I’ll take you, and whatever I can do for you in a year, I’ll do.  Play the electric guitar.”  I put some records on to let him hear that.  I put George Benson on, and the recording George Benson made of “Paraphernalia” with Miles.  When the record was over, I said, “Well, what did you think?” He looked real bewildered.  He said, “I don’t know, man.  All I ever thought there was to Benson was ‘Breezing.'”  So consequently, what you get is a bunch of kids who just don’t know!  Because there’s been nobody there to say, “Hey, man, if you’re playing tenor saxophone…”


TP:    …among black musicians was the notion of having your own sound, above and beyond just about anything else, in many ways.

MARSALIS:  Essentially, that was one of the things that contributed to the fact of whether you were going to work or not.

TP:    So again, it’s economic.

MARSALIS:  Well, that was one of the factors.  It wasn’t just the only one.  But the thing is, there was no uniformity.  You go up to Eastman.  They’ve got a great music department at the Eastman Conservatory. Look at the cats in that band.  I mean, there’s a conservatory approach to jazz.  All the saxophone players got the same sound.  And they can all play!  And you listen to these guys playing a solo, and you can’t tell which one is what!  There is no individuality, man.

And having your own sound has as much to do with… I remember Jug told me, Gene Ammons told me… See, Gene Ammons went to school under Walter Dyett.  Gene Ammons said, man, “When I went to study in the band, the first thing the dude did was gave me the mouthpiece, and I had to play that for a month.  Then I got to the neck, and I had to play that for another month or so.  Then finally, I got the horn.”

TP:    Von Freeman told me the same thing.

MARSALIS:  Yeah!  He said by that time, what you do is develop a sound.  In some cases, it’s not so much my sound as much as it is a sound.  Because when you start to play jazz especially, you hear differently than what happens when you study classical music.  And even with Classical music, there are people who have individual sounds with that, even though you’d have to be really attuned to hear them.

TP:    Well, connoisseurs can tell Michelangelo Benedetti from Pollini, or Dinu Lupatti from…

MARSALIS:  Michelangelo Benedetti was one of my favorites, especially for French music.

But for the most part, I think that’s one of the things that sometimes people misconstrue when they say “my sound.”  Everybody’s got a sound.  Because once you learn how to play that instrument, whatever comes out of it is going to be your sound anyway.

TP:    I’m trying to circle around to an ending.  How, within your pedagogy, did you give students that imperative of developing your own sound?  Is that just implicit within what you give them?

MARSALIS:  Essentially it is.  Because I never had them for that long.  That’s the one thing you’ve got to realize about teaching in a high school.

TP:    But now I’m talking about college, too.

MARSALIS:  Well, college is totally different.  See, the thing about college and universities, you get students in clumps.  If you’re teaching an improvisation class, you get all of the students that’s taking that at that time.  Now, they’re studying their instrument with somebody else.  You see?  And if you happen to have a combo that you’re teaching, there are some things you can pass on to them in that context. That’s teaching a combo.  But that individual approach is not there nearly as much.  Because by the time you get to the university, you have to spend a lot of time, hopefully, in dealing with refining what’s there.

TP:    But do you use the same principles in dealing with your university students as you did with your students at NOCCA?  Is what you did at NOCCA the building block for the Ellis Marsalis way of teaching?

MARSALIS:  Yes, definitely.

TP:    Let’s say I’m some administrator giving you a grant.  How would you boil down your principles for me?  The one or two minute synopsis.
MARSALIS:  Basically, it’s important to learn the three elements of music — rhythm, harmony and melody, not necessarily in that order.  And you apply that to each piece that you play.

TP:    Since you only took ten seconds to answer: How are you going to go about giving it to them?  Through drill?


TP:    It’s all drill.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  You can really study two songs a semester, and teach everything that you need to teach in that given semester.

TP:    What two songs would those be?

MARSALIS:  Any two songs that have to do with the form.  Like a 32-measure form, AABA… It doesn’t matter.  Because all of them are going to have rhythm, harmony and melody.  It’s a busy-word(?) concept to give somebody 25 songs to learn.  I was telling my colleague that.  He said, “Man, they ought to learn 25 songs at a minimum.”  I said, “But what are they going to play on those songs?”  You take one song and say, “Okay, here is the verse, here is the melody, this is what the harmony is.”  Now, the first thing you’ve got to do is learn how to play each of those component parts.  And it takes time to do that.  Now, you multiply that by ten, and what time do you have?  You don’t have no time.  You’re scuffling, trying to make some arbitrary deadline.

TP:    So you really are like Walter Dyett and Samuel Browne in a lot of ways.

MARSALIS:  I hope so. [LAUGHS]

TP:    You really are.  I’m glad I’m not imposing some rigid thesis on you.  One final question.  What do you think of the state of things in jazz now?  We’re talking about some negatives, like maybe lack of individuality among young musicians, but overall, what’s your sense of the state of things as opposed to 15 years ago, when you started at Virginia Commonwealth, or 28 years ago, when you started at NOCCA?

MARSALIS:  Well, those are very short periods of time.  I think that jazz ultimately will become a major part of the cornerstone of American music.  I just heard a trio… This was a classical group.  I think all of them went to Juilliard, and they were playing a piece by one of their contemporaries, who is a violinist, who has been playing with a Rock band, and is now composing music, and has been playing violin with Ornette Coleman.  It was piano, cello and either violin or viola.  When they started to play his piece, I could hear “Lonely Woman,” man, in the beginning theme of it.  That’s the direction that the music is going in.  And the people who are going to make the biggest contributions towards it are the same as it was in Europe as composers.

TP:    When you say “that’s the direction,” do you mean Ornette Coleman or do you mean the hybrid?

MARSALIS:  The hybrid.  That’s it.  It’s going to be like this violin player, the bluegrass player… He’s written a composition that’s very interesting, too.

TP:    A young guy?

MARSALIS:  Not too young.  He’s younger than me.  Top of the list.  Top line.  The representative of that.  Well, anyway, I’ll think of it.

TP:    Another aspect of the hybrid is all the musicians internationally who are coming here with substantial idiomatic knowledge of jazz and bringing their own cultural information to the table.  I’m thinking particularly of musicians from all over the Caribbean and South America.  And it seems to me that the rhythmic template of jazz, things that were maybe esoteric 10-15 years ago, are no longer esoteric.  Do you perceive this internationalization of the music, that it’s incorporating more information at this point?

MARSALIS:  Of course.  That’s the way that is. That’s why we get terms like “globalization.”  I don’t think music is the only representation of that.  I think whatever you see is happening in terms of economics, in terms of the market, in terms of trade… There was a big thing in the paper here yesterday, they’re trying to make a deal between France and New Orleans to build a super-port.  So it’s all-inclusive.  That’s what I’m saying.  It’s not really a separate thing.

TP:    So the world is smaller, people can transcend the particularities of their locale, and you can get anywhere in a day, that sort of thing?

MARSALIS:  That’s right.

* * * *

Ellis Marsalis (7-01-02):

TP:    Virginia Commonwealth was your first university position?

MARSALIS:  Correct.

TP:    What was the situation when you arrived there, and what did you do?

MARSALIS:  There’s different layers to that.  First of all, there’s the idea of moving to another state at that time in my life, and a lot of pressures that it brought on my wife.  That’s one situation.  Then not only was it beginning a job, but a university job in a program that was rather young.  They had a jazz program when I got there, but it was not totally defined in any strict way.  The band director, Doug Richards, was probably the best jazz band director that I had ever seen; he could really get a tremendous amount out of a jazz band.  But there wasn’t anybody there who really wanted to actually head a program.  In other words, we had a whole lot of soldiers and no real chiefs.  The faculty was a very able faculty across the board.  There were 44 people on that faculty, most of whom were in classical music, but it was not an antagonistic situation.  So there were things I had to get used to.

But it’s one of those things that the more I did it, the more I found out that it wasn’t that much different than teaching at NOCCA.  The reason for that is that when you teach in a typical high school, there’s an adversarial situation between the administration, the teachers, and the students which is built in.  And the laws of any given state do not permit you to treat the students as really the way they are.  They’re really like young adults who have intelligent.  But the various state laws don’t permit you to function with them like that.

TP:    As young adults.

MARSALIS:  Right.  So teaching in the average high school, they have virtually no real responsibility that’s allowed.  All the classes are like herds.  you go in one herd to Class A, and then to the math class, and then to the history class, and then at some point you go home.

Now, at the university, there’s a lot less pressure from that end, because the students decide what they take and what they don’t take.  So it creates a different kind of pressure, if you will.  Because students who go into high school are going mostly because they either need it as a means to get somewhere else or because it’s mandated by the state after a certain age.  At the university, when a student chooses to go to a university, they do so because they think that it’s going to affect their lives in some way.  So the way that we taught at NOCCA, it was very much like a college, even though it wasn’t a college, because the students that we would retain were students who had shown a determination towards performance at a professional level.

TP:    Did they tend to sort themselves out?  How did you ascertain that they were ready for that?

MARSALIS:  Well, it isn’t a case of them being ready for it at all.  It’s a case of them making a decision based upon what was asked of them, whether or not they wanted to pursue that particular discipline as a career.  There were five disciplines at this school.  Then what they had to do was to look at it and make that decision.  And encouragement for professionalism was always there.  At the average high school, band directors would never tell students in the band that they could be professionals, unless that person was a pro himself and would sort of pick somebody and put him in a group with them and say, “Look, if you want to, you could probably do this.”  Because in most cases, teachers who teach in high schools… I remember something that the chairman of the music department told me at Virginia Commonwealth, which I really thought was tacky.  He said, “Most of the people on this faculty are failures.” I said, “What do you mean, they’re failures?” He said, “Well, they really want to do what you do, but they don’t really have it, so they teach instead.”  I said, “Damn, man, that’s a little bit jive.”

TP:    I’ve heard a lot of musicians say, for instance, who went to Berklee, that they were taught by someone who couldn’t play, etc.

MARSALIS:  Well, a lot of times, people are hired on that basis.  The reason for the preponderance of an emphasis on certification by way of academic credentials is that it creates the means by which people can hire someone, and as a result, blame it on somebody else if it doesn’t work out.  Because if you have a Ph.D and whatever, that’s the justification to pay you X amount of dollars and give you certain… I think my wife was telling me, or somebody, that the corporations are beginning to look differently at MBAs, saying an MBA is nothing, that hiring people on the basis of that is not the thing to do.  The school system here just got rid of the second superintendent in a row, and it’s decided that the procedure they’re going to go through is not to go and look for some superstar somewhere, but to actually go within the university community to see if they can get someone to be the superintendent of the public schools in the city that they function.

TP:    So someone who knows New Orleans to deal with the New Orleans schools.

MARSALIS:  Well, that could be what their mindset is, but believe me, nothing could be further from the truth.  Like I said before, man, there’s a lot of things about the law which nobody really deals with, which just doesn’t permit you to do certain things in the schools.  And the kids know the law.

TP:    I’m getting away from the college, and I want get back to it.  But it seems the subtext to what you’re saying about what you were able to accomplish at NOCCA is that you were able to do it precisely because it was a magnet school.

MARSALIS:  Precisely.  It was a magnet school, and we had a principal who came from the theater as a background [Tom Tews].  Consequently, his philosophy was, it’s much easier to get forgiveness than permission.  So we would do a lot of things that were good for the students, and if necessary, tell the school board people later.

TP:    I think I’m restating we talked about last week, but you developed a lot of your ideas about what was good for the students through your experience as a working jazz musician and an improviser.

MARSALIS:  Precisely.

TP:    I had asked you to boil down your educational philosophy as though I were an arts administrator, and you said, “Learn the fundamentals of melody, harmony and rhythm, and do it through drill.”  Can you boil down what it was you learned as a professional jazz musician and improviser that gave you the sense of what your students needed to know?

MARSALIS:  I think I discovered the relationship between the Blues and the American Canon, the music canon, and how it related to… How can I put this? Learning how to play Blues became like learning arithmetic.  Before you can get to algebra, calculus and trigonometry, you must have mastered the fundamentals of arithmetic.  The Blues is like arithmetic.  It’s the simplest approach to learning improvisation.  And that’s one of the things I learned about Blues.

TP:    And why is it the simplest approach to learning about improvisation?

MARSALIS:  Because you don’t have a lot to deal with.  Like, 12 measures is equivalent to one chorus.  It’s a repetitive situation, chorus after chorus after chorus.  And the students can be given relatively few notes.  I would write out 12 measures of chords that would turn out, when played, to be a blues.  I was doing two or three different things at the same time.  One, I was presenting them with a visible manifestation of the form of blues in one chorus.  Two, I was using chord symbols to represent in a vertical manner the sounds that they were going to deal with in a linear manner.  See, after a while, this thing gets to be complex.  The next thing is getting them to a point where they could deal with music that’s in motion.  When you start to play and you count off the Blues, they begin to understand that you have to be at Measure 1-2-3-4, in a certain time frame, so you become sensitized to the flow of the rhythm.

TP:    Of the knowledge you had accumulated up to this time, what percentage of it was vernacular and functional, and what percentage of it came from your academic training?

MARSALIS:  None of it came from my academic training to speak of.  First of all, I did not go to a music school.  The university that I went to had an ample music department, which was sort of typical.  It was sort of like, “Okay, this is a university, we need to have music, so we’ll just put something there.

TP:    Didn’t Dillard have a very good art department in the ’30s and ’40s?

MARSALIS:  Well, in the ’30s and the ’40s, there were people there who had the beginnings of what could have evolved into a great music program — or a great anything.  See, when you start to talk about the ’30s and the ’40s, you’re talking about a completely different America.  What happened after the Second World War had a tremendous amount of effect on shaping what we’re going through right now.  I don’t care if you want to talk about Enron and WorldCom and them, or whether you want to talk about those young guys who’s out there playing a million notes a second in the name of Jazz, or the rappers who, when all else fails, curse.  It doesn’t matter.  What happened at the end of the Second World War set the stage for the American culture that we see today.  Now, what was going on before that was the beginning of something that sort of was just left behind.

TP:    What sort of things?

MARSALIS:  There were things that were common among universities.  For example, at one time, university presidents could help shape public policy.  Nowadays, university presidents are about fundraising.  Then, we’re talking about a predominantly black university, and there were several of those, and they were producing very good students.  For example, Tuskegee had George Washington Carver, who was doing miracles with the soil in Alabama and actually created crop rotation.  People like Charles (?), who at Howard helped to develop plasma, which saved the lives of a whole lot of guys in the Second World War.

What I’m saying is that the seeds that were planted during those days could have evolved in a lot of different directions.  Now, it’s for another generation at another time to go back and begin to ford all of that stuff out.  It’s sort of like looking at why the Roman Empire collapsed.

Anyway, in reference to what you were talking about as far as college is concerned, one of the first revelations that I had after I got there… I ended up meeting with the Chairman, and the Chairman said, “I was just looking over the applications that came in for the Fall, and I don’t see any jazz students’ names on these applications.  So what are you going to do about that?”

Well, that was a shock to me.  Because I had never been in a situation where I was under the gun for the RR — Recruitment and Retention.  See, that’s one of the things that you have to face when you’re going into a university — Recruitment and Retention.  Then I was forced to begin to say, “Now, who actually is the jazz student?”  We would take the big band and go straight up I-95 in Virginia, and go to these  different towns and these different high schools, and we’d leave there and go up into Maryland, where the high school similar to NOCCA, the arts high school… Antonio Hart came from one of them.  Then we’d leave there, and go on up to Philly, and go into that high school where Chris McBride and Joey DeFrancesco, some of them came from.

But eventually, what I started to realize was that most of the students we ran into, especially the trombone players, the good straight-up musicians, not necessarily people who were well-versed in jazz, but the good musicians — they were all talking engineering.  And the ones with the 1400s on the SAT, none of them were talking about going into the music.  And it wasn’t that I blamed them!  It’s just that I had never really thought about jazz studies.  Because in a high school, like at NOCCA, we were there for students to explore the possibilities of a career in one of five disciplines, whereas once you get to college, the students who come to a college are there to make decisions that will affect, if not the rest of their lives, at least a sizable chunk of them.  And whether it does or doesn’t, the motivation for going to a university is based on, “Hey, I’m trying to make a decision that’s going to help me to get a job here, doing this or that.”  Jazz was not viewed as economically viable in terms of university students, period.  Now, there’s always exceptions.  But you can’t run a program off of exceptions.  That’s one of the things I learned real quick.

TP:    Well, Chris McBride and Joey DeFrancesco went right into the fray.  They didn’t go to college, or at least not into that sort of program.

MARSALIS:  That’s right.  Well, those are exceptions.  That’s why I said I wasn’t talking about exceptions.  There are people who do that now.  There are even people, man, who are leaving high school and going into the pros.  In fact, they’re not the first ones anyhow.  Moses Malone did that.  I think essentially, if you can stay, that does… Because even if you go all the way through college, that doesn’t mean you’re going to stay.

TP:    That’s right.  You can go backwards in college.


TP:    So you were faced for the first time with having to recruit a band.  It brought your job description to a different plane than it had been before.

MARSALIS:  Yeah, I had go to out and try to find some students.

TP:    And I guess in competition with other programs, too.  You had to be like a coach.

MARSALIS:  Well, you’re always in competition with other programs.  Everybody is.  With the exception of whatever those programs are that just automatically get a huge body of people that they just have to say, “Well, we don’t want any more.”  I don’t know if Engineering is like that.  It may not be.  I was talking to a friend of mine who knows a professor at UCLA who teaches composition.  I had one lesson with this guy.  I forgot his name, but anyway, he was telling him that at one time, of his composition students at UCLA, he would get maybe 4 or 5 or 6 who were interested in film scoring.  See, all of them are now.  Every single one of them.  And when you think in terms of what has been happening lately, there is much more of a pronounced emphasis on John Williams, on Howard (?), on even one or two of the Newman family, of which there’s been an abundance in the film scoring world!  So television and movies play an important role in the decisions that people are making, and I think ultimately, the universities haven’t really figured out some of that.  I’m sure some institutions have.  But when it comes down to it… I was reading where Harvard University had a course called (?) that they just got rid of, because there wasn’t anybody taking it.  One of the things that was an assist when I got to UNO is that there were a lot of courses which had been approved through committee, and there was nobody teaching it.  So those numbers were there, and see, a lot of times, man, if you know what they are, you can go and take the number and develop a course without having to go totally through committee.  Because going through committee can sometimes be a hassle.

TP:    So you’d do an end run.

MARSALIS:  It’s kind of like an end run, yeah.

TP:    But at VCU, a number of musicians went through who are making an impact now.

MARSALIS:  Well, there’s only three that I know.  Clarence Penn, Alvester Garnett and Loston Harris.

Victor was teaching math in high school in New Orleans.  He’d been in my group.  I used to tell him, “Vic, if you really want to teach, I don’t see anything wrong with that, but to me it doesn’t make any sense to be teaching at these schools.  You ain’t got no benefits, man.  They could fire you tomorrow!  And you have no recourse whatsoever.  So if you really want to teach, you ought to teach in public school.  At least you’ll get some benefits!”  And when I left to come to VCU, he told me he’d thought about that, and he said, “Man, look, I don’t want to be sorry one day looking back and saying ‘I should have.'” So he split and came up there to work on his Masters.  He really did it in a year, but they wouldn’t let him finish in a year. They made him come back and register for a recital.  Eventually, he started to utilize his saxophone skills in different ways.  He went up to New York and was doing sub work in some of the Broadway type shows. I think at that time “Ain’t Misbehavin'” was running and a couple of other ones.  I remember he told me that when he went up to New York, somebody up there was talking to him at an audition, and the guy said, “Hey, man, do you know how to read?”  And he said at first he got insulted!  “Man, what is this?”  He said after he was around New York for a while, he found out why he was asked that. [LAUGHS] A lot of the musicians up there couldn’t read!

TP:    What would you say you brought to the faculty at VCU that hadn’t been there before?  Did you bring a new attitude, a new way of teaching?

MARSALIS:  I don’t think so.  Because I wasn’t there long enough.

TP:    Three years, right?

MARSALIS:  I was there for three years.  And I’m not sure to what extent that would have been a possibility to do.  Because I came in without the benefit of the kind of experience… Just to give you an example, there’s a guy at Virginia Commonwealth, a trombone player named Tony Garcia.  He edits the “Jazz Educational Journal,” which is the official organ of IAJE.  He sent me an email and asked me if I would be able to come up as part of a program that they are doing, and he outlined some of the things that he was able to do.  This is over the period of one year.  It’s fantastic.  Because what this guy was able to do is nothing short of miraculous.  Well, for one thing, he was instrumental in getting somebody (I don’t know the guy personally) to give 2 million bucks to the jazz program at VCU.  No jazz program has ever gotten that kind of money.  Not in a state institution.  I was the recipient of a million dollar chair.  But when it came down to it, nothing like that.  What it takes to be able to do that is the kind of press-the-flesh…

TP:    You need to have very solid political skills to pull off something like that.

MARSALIS:  That’s right.  There’s just an awful lot of things, man, that he was able to hook up.

TP:    The question has more to do with philosophy: Looking back, what would you have done that you didn’t?

MARSALIS:  One of the first things that I realized about Virginia Commonwealth was that being in Richmond meant… There was no music tradition in Richmond.  There was one little small space — I never went to that space — where some of the guys would play.  There was another space that was like a restaurant, but it was bigger.  And every now and then, they would bring somebody in.  But for the most part, the benefits of being in a city that had a history of music, where students who were coming out of high school as well as those who were coming out of the city of Richmond to go to VCU, would have been able either to participate in or just be a spectator of.

When I go to work on Friday nights at Snug Harbor, there’s a live band that’s playing right across the street.  On the corner from there, there’s a place Cafe Brazil, with live music.  Across the street from Cafe Brazil, there’s live music.  Now, we’re not even talking about what might be happening on Bourbon Street.  Then there’s all of these other different places in the area.  On North Rampart Street, there’s three spaces within two blocks of each other, one called Funky Butt, the other one called Donna’s Bar & Grill, which specializes in brass bands, and then a blues joint which the owner of Funky Butt owns.\

Richmond didn’t have that.  So when I looked at that, I started to realize that getting some people to come to Richmond, especially during the ’80s, to study Jazz, was seemingly very difficult.  So I decided that if I was going to stay here, I needed to find a niche, something I can, which would really not only justify being here, but make it a positive musical experience for most of the students.  So I was thinking of concentrating on developing rhythm sections — the piano, bass and drums.  That would mean getting people to come here and trying to specialize in that area.

TP:    Thus Clarence Penn and Alvester Garnett.

MARSALIS:  Right.  Now, Alvester I met while he was still in high school.  He came to VCU the following year.  So I was there I think a year while he was there.

TP:    I want to step back to your comments about what happened after World War II.  Is what you’re saying, in one sense, that the focus on core curricular values started to deteriorate at this time and it had a deleterious effect on the culture?  You made a very strong statement.  The tone of voice is strong.  The words are strong.  It seems what happened is an important issue to you.

MARSALIS:  I need to be more speculative here than direct, because it’s very difficult to be as close to that and be accurate historically.  What I’m beginning to realize is that we tend to be judgmental about things which are different from the way we grew up.

Anyway, the thing that happened after World War Two was television, for one thing.  And for the first time, here we have an invention which goes right into people’s homes, and within five years, which would put it right around 1950, there were about 10 million sets in the country.  Now, what television managed to do was twofold, at least.  One was to instantly let you know whatever was going on in almost any other part of the world that the networks chose to broadcast. Unlike, for example, “War Of The Worlds” on the radio with Orson Welles in 1939.  I mean, there were people out there in fields in the Midwest with guns waiting to go to war with the Martians.  And America, before World War Two, was not that much different, even going back to the past century.  I mean, there just was not that much of a difference in terms of the way the country was going on.  But as soon as World War Two came in, things like plastics were invented… I wish I knew all of them different inventions.  I remember we got our very first refrigerator in 1941.  Before that, it was the icebox.

TP:    In New Orleans, that was an important thing.

MARSALIS:  Well, it was an important thing everywhere.  Because what it meant was that you could now keep food one or two days longer than you could otherwise.  So many things started to happen.

I think what happened with jazz is that jazz moved closer toward the musical objectives that have been prevalent primarily in European Classical Music.  What I mean is this.  During the time of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver and Kid Ory, all of these earlier guys, they played music for the sheer entertainment of people.  They played dances, and when they played the blues, it was for people to dance to.  They had cutting contests, but the cutting contest was music played at the level of the audience themselves.  For example, what they would do, they would have these flatbed trucks, and two bands would come. [The ballyhoo.] Whoever won that one, that’s where the people would go to dance.  By the time World War Two came (and I’m using World War Two more as a marker than the cause of anything), you had musicians coming out of the Swing Era with the dance bands, like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and various people… The top level of people was one thing, but then there were all of the disciples, if you will, like Sonny Stitt and various other people.  So the emphasis started to be placed on the soloist.  The elements of the music carried over was related directly to the band.

TP:    Max Roach used to say that had something to do with the tax the Federal government started putting on dance…

MARSALIS:  I know what you’re talking about.  That was in Dizzy’s book.  During the war, the government put a war tax of 10% on all venues that had a show.  Now, shows could be anything from juggling to dancing girls… For example, the Cotton Club, where Duke played.  Now, I don’t think the Cotton Club uptown was going on during the war years, because Owney Madden had gone to jail by then.  But anyway, 52nd Street had a lot of these little bitty clubs, and they would put a combo in there.  So with the combo, not having a show, the guys, especially the soldiers and sailors passing through… Ultimately, what you begin to get were bands that played for people who were sitting around the bar.

TP:    Minton’s wasn’t unlike that either.

MARSALIS:  Actually, Minton’s looked like a toilet almost.  There wasn’t nothing happening when I went to Minton’s in the ’50s.  It was in August and there were some bands there, but it was just a big old space.  I think there was a piano in there.  But it was like a lot of joints I’d seen in New Orleans.

Anyway, most of those places were like hustles.  That’s what I called them.  A hustle is when a guy opens up a club, because he either likes people or he’s fortunate to have someone leave him a piece of property, or whatever, and you didn’t really need anything other than connections to get a license and sell some booze.  Because at that time, I don’t know if anybody was dealing with food in these places anyway!  But Prohibition had gone by the wayside by 1933, when Roosevelt came in, so you’re looking at the development of the urban community on all fronts.  At the end of the war, you start to see the suburban community come into effect.  They’re building all of these post World War II houses in these little towns, and selling it, and the veterans is coming back, man, $500 to get you a house… [LAUGHS]

All of this played out in terms of signalling exactly what was going to be happening in America, and the music was no different.  Monk came out of the dance bands, too.  But when Monk started to play Monk, Monk was expressing Monk via his musicality and his intellect.

TP:    [rambling question on the way Monk, Bird, Powell were educated vis-a-vis contemporary musicians]

MARSALIS:  You’re looking in terms of trying to get an analogy between they learned and the way musicians learn today.  For one thing, it’s hard to really nail it down.  For example, on the back of a vinyl album, Willie The Lion Smith made the statement that a lot of people don’t understand how important it is to develop the left hand through learning the music of J.S. Bach.  James P. Johnson was very good classically; he was accompanist for a soprano at that time named Sister Rita Jones. Fats Waller was one heck of an organist.  So there had been all along people studying and learning European music.  Except as we get later and later into the century, we begin to find that schools primarily utilize European music as a discipline criteria to reinforce the attitudes, in some cases cultural, in some cases blatantly racist, and exclude anything else than European concert music in terms of teaching — you develop orchestra, choruses, choirs.  Everything you do centers around practicing and playing European concert music.

So jazz and any folkish music was on the outside.  The bluegrass players were like fiddlers.  Some of them used to have a joke that said, “He was a great fiddle player, but he went to college and learned to become a violinist.”  So the folk music aspect was kind of forsaken.  And jazz really was a folk music.  But the difference between jazz and other types of folk music was that jazz became grist for the mill of composers, even Ravel.  I think we are now beginning to get some composers looking at bluegrass.  Copland did to an extent, but it was all surface with Copland — “Billy The Kid” or “Appalachian Spring” you can hear that influence slightly.  But jazz sort of became a more formal statement of Americana through the development of the instrumentalist.  And when I say “the development,” what I mean is that the process of improvisation was something that was an intellectual development, and it occurred over a period of time with a considerable amount of musicians honing in on it, and it became separate from dance music.  Lester Young came to maturity with a lot of the stuff that he did in the Basie band, which was a dance band.  Woody’s band was a dance band.  Stan Kenton’s band was a dance band.  All of those bands were dance bands.  So the soloists had kind of a minor role.  In the early days, Billie Holiday used to complain about the fact that she had to go up there and sing just half-a-chorus and go back and sit down.  All the rest of those bands, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Bob Eberle…

TP:    Jimmie Lunceford.

MARSALIS:  Definitely.  Lunceford was a straight-up show band.  What I’m saying is that basically the bands were really like dance bands.  Sometimes in colleges they would refer to them as “swing bands.”  When I was in high school they had what they called a swing band. You could go buy arrangements.  There would be stuff like “9:20 Special” or you could get the stuff that Harry James was doing.  You couldn’t get no Duke Ellington, but you might get an arrangement somebody made for a standard band of something that Duke did.  But for the most part, that’s the way it turned out to be.

TP:    One thing a lot of people who passed through the bands note is that they themselves were a training school, like a functional conservatory, in terms of standards upheld and information being passed on.

MARSALIS:  In some cases you would find that.  But for the most part, there were several differences just in terms of who was doing what.  For example, jazz had always been a music that you either already had to know how to play, or you had to have a significant skill on the instrument in order to get it, and you just about learned everything on the job, because there wasn’t any place else for you to get it.  And there were a lot of kids learning because their daddy was a player or some other relative.  I saw that among musicians in New Orleans who were younger than me.  Clyde Kerr. The French brothers, Bob French and George French, the sons of Albert French, who played with Papa Celestin.  Sammy Alcorn, whose daddy, Alvin Alcorn, was a trumpet player.  But invariably, it was always second-class.

TP:    Jazz was second-class.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  It wasn’t like nowadays.  When I read the stuff that was done at Lincoln Center, they have status with the other aspects of Lincoln Center now.  There’s a big building going up, which they have a part of.  We’re speaking about a whole different thing.

TP:    It occurs to me when you say that many of the principles you espouse or the way you teach, in terms of how they got filtered through Wynton, are very much responsible for why Lincoln Center is in the position that it’s in, or what Victor Goines is doing at Juilliard.  So again, what your first principles are would seem to be very significant in the intellectual history of jazz at this moment because of the way they’ve been transmitted and filtered through other people. Maybe you think I’m wrong or overexaggerating, but I don’t think so.  When I hear him speak and hear you speak, I hear a lot of similar thought processes.  His own mind, certainly, but similar thought processes, similar metaphors.  This piece is about you as an educator, but I’m trying to pinpoint what it is about your first principles, the principles you bring to conveying information and the way you’re able to do it that has stuck.  The proof is very much in the pudding here.  We have these facts, these institutions.  This is a tangible change from 1987.  And in 1987, when the Lincoln Center Jazz program started happening, it was a very tangible change from 1974.

MARSALIS:  I think that the whole process is somewhat like America as a nation.  We’re still in the process of evolution.  We’re still evolving.  And I think the same thing is the case for the music.  I think if you would look at the formal aspects of European music, for example, at some point there was a peak which was reached by way of the composer.  And, to some extent, not only by the composer, but the performer.  I mean, Beethoven never heard his music on a Hamburg Steinway.  He would have no idea what that sounded like!  But it didn’t prevent him from writing the kind of music that makes stars out of people who do play on Hamburg Steinways.

So what we’re looking at is a multifaceted kind of thing.  The guy who invented the saxophone, his invention was too late for the European Masters, as they called them.  And the Rhapsody that Debussy wrote… He didn’t even like the saxophone.  Some woman gave him a check for about $500 for a piece, and he delayed as long as he could, and the woman aggravated him to a point to where he finally wrote this rhapsody for saxophone.  Now, there were other French composers who probably didn’t feel the same way about the saxophone.  Probably Ravel, because he wrote saxophone into “Bolero” which played a rather prominent part.  But the thing is, you can’t overlook that also.

So whatever it is that I managed to do didn’t really come by way of a philosophy.  Mostly it came by way of a reaction.

TP:    The music and the circumstances were telling you what to do at any given moment, and you were responding.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  And I would begin to do, I imagine, since I haven’t really studied, something similar to what Thomas Edison was doing.  I heard a story that his assistant said they had done about 150-200 experiments, and none of the lightbulbs worked.  Finally he said, “Man, we ought to give up on this, because this thing ain’t workin’!  We ain’t makin’ no progress at all.” And Edison supposedly said, “On the contrary, we know 150 ways that do not work.”  We don’t always think in terms of going to what doesn’t work.  That was one of the things that I started to learn.  For example, I remember one of my colleagues who was teaching instrumental music, he said, “Man, these kids need to learn 25 tunes a semester.”  Well, what are they going to play on those 25 tunes?  Because his expertise in terms of improvisation was really not that strong.  So he didn’t understand that you do practice improvisation, that you do actually do that.  But basically, I didn’t have a philosophy per se.

TP:    But you had first principles.
MARSALIS:  What do you mean?

TP:    You had a set of aesthetic values that governed your responses to these situations, and you had a culture and a milieu from which you emerged to face these situations.

MARSALIS:  Right.  That’s true.

TP:    This is all I’m saying, and it’s one reason why I’m so interesting in hearing you address the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, and how you perceive those times vis-a-vis today.

MARSALIS:  Essentially, the situation in the ’40s and a large portion of the ’50s was based on the entertainment side of music.  So jazz did not enjoy an acceptance in any academic sense.  And it’s not that people didn’t study.  I think I told you about this book that’s coming out on Yvonne Bush.  People went to school, and they studied, and the better teachers you had, probably you were most fortunate to have learned whatever you learned.  But when it came down to it, how to apply it was sometimes tied directly to employment opportunity.  I remember listening to stories… See, I had a chance to work with Cab Calloway.  I also had a chance to work with the Judge, Milt Hinton, and I knew Dizzy also.  The Judge would tell me how, during the break between shows somewhere they were playing, Dizzy would say, “Come up on the roof, man,” and he and Dizzy would get together on the stuff Dizzy was working on, and he’d tell him what to play.  Cab told me how… This is a little ancillary story.  They were doing a live broadcast for NBC Radio, and while they were going through the broadcast, Cab got hit in the back of the head with a spitball…

TP:    And it wasn’t Dizzy.

MARSALIS:  No, it wasn’t.

TP:    It might have been Jonah Jones.

MARSALIS:  It was.

TP:    Then they had the knife fight…

MARSALIS:  Yeah.  Then Dizzy stuck him in the rear with the knife.  But Cab told me, “Man, the next time I saw Dizzy, Dizzy came through with this arrangement, man, and said, ‘I’m going to try this arrangement; listen to this.'”  So they played it, and Cab said, ‘Man, what is that?'” Dizzy said, “Man, this is the new stuff; this is what’s happening.”  There were all of these people, like Gil Fuller, who was doing some of the writing, and Tadd Dameron.  To some extent, some of these people were also teachers.  For example, John Lewis was a teacher at CCNY.  I think Ron, too.

See, I have several ideas that I have yet to be able to implement.  First of all, I think that the drumset is the most important instrument in the jazz band.  That’s the first thing.  I’ll tell you an example.  I was doing a workshop in North Carolina with the jazz band at a university called Shaw.  It was a pretty good sounding band.  So after they finished playing, I asked the guys in the band, “Can you guys hear the drummer?”  See, a lot of times what happens, nobody takes the time to find out whether or not some of these people in the band can really hear from one end to the next, and unless they’re experienced players, they don’t know to tell the band instructor, “Hey, man, I can’t really hear what this guy is doing over there.”  So I asked them, could they hear the drummer, and they said, “Yeah, we can hear.”  So I said, “Let me ask you something.  When you listen to the drummer, tell me what you hear.”  Do you hear [SOFT ARTICULATED BEATS] or do you hear [UNDIFFERENTIATED BUZZ]?”  They said, “Yeah, that’s what we hear [LATTER].”

So I knew what was wrong with that.  And these were all very serious players.  I’ve done some workshops where guys come in with marching band sticks broke in half, no tips, paper on them.  They’re not even serious.  So I asked the drummer, “Hey, man, what size sticks are you using?”  He said, “I’m using 7A.”  He said, “Well, 7A, man, is a combo stick.  If you’re going to play and kick and a big band, you need at least a 5A, and if you’re going to play with a 5A, when you practice, you need to practice with a 3A, so that you build up to that.”  See, these are some things that I found out later on.

TP:    Very practical.  To help them succeed.

MARSALIS:  Oh yeah.

TP:    So you take for granted that they are going to have the fundamentals down through drill.  It’s as though the process of learning music is like learning a trade or an artisanal skill, and then it becomes art through all the permutations to which those skills are applied.

MARSALIS:  Well, you can get into a lot of trouble, man, trying to figure out at what point it becomes art.  That becomes a lot more philosophical than it does realistic. I mean, I listen to cats talk about “the art of hip-hop.”

TP:    But I’m talking about the art of Charlie Parker.

MARSALIS:  Yeah, I know.  But, see, that’s where the argument comes from.  Who gets the right to use that word?

TP:    The word “art.”  Do I have the right to use it.

MARSALIS:  Well, everybody has the right to use it.

TP:    But you know what I’m saying.

MARSALIS:  Yeah.  But it at some point it may become art, and it may not.  See, that’s the thing.  We don’t really know to what extent it will or won’t become art.

TP:    But you’re not concerned about that when you’re teaching, then.

MARSALIS:  No.  See, what I’m concerned about is whether these guys can put one foot in front of the other.  Because it becomes very difficult to start dealing with philosophy.  I think I might have told the story about the guitar player who was doing… When you get students like that, they have not had enough experience dealing with anything of a philosophical nature to start trying to preach “art” in that sense.  In most cases, you get to be lucky if they can play their instrument.  And if they can play their instrument, we just go from there.

TP:    Let me take you to University of New Orleans, so I have the chronology.  You stayed at VCU for three years, and then for a variety of reasons, I’m sure, you move back to New Orleans.

MARSALIS:  Well, for one reason.  The chancellor came and he made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse.

TP:    But I guess he didn’t have to hold a gun to your head to get you back to New Orleans.

MARSALIS:  Oh, no!  I still thought that New Orleans was the best place to develop a jazz program.  I think that New Orleans today is still the best learning town in the world!

TP:    Why is that?

MARSALIS:  Because of the various places that exist to ply your trade, to practice.  There are so many different spaces here to play in, so many different kinds of places.  You could play a brass band, you can play in trad bands, you can play in a traditional jazz band, you can play Ska.  There’s all of this stuff.

TP:    You can play in Latin bands now.

MARSALIS:  That’s right!  The people who come from other places to come to New Orleans, they don’t have to concern themselves nearly as much about property.  At one point, guys were going around Soho…well, they weren’t even calling it Soho then…

TP:    You could rent a cold water flat cheap.

MARSALIS:  Yeah, you could get a loft, man.  Now that’s all gone.  New York becomes one of those places that if you go there, you’d better have a gig when you go there, and when the gig runs out, you’d better be ready to go back somewhere else.

TP:    So you’re saying that in New Orleans you can learn music on a major league level without having to shell out $2000 a month for a railroad flat.


TP:    Very practical.  What was the program like at UNO when you got there?

MARSALIS:  There was no program.

TP:    So you actually had to start the program and get it off the ground.

MARSALIS:  There was one guy on the faculty named Charles Blancq.  In fact, he’s got a son who I think is living in New York now, who was at one time teaching at Queens, named Kevin Blancq.  A good little trumpet player and arranger.  Anyway, I knew Charles for years, even when he was a music student at LSU, the club that I had, and all the rest of that… Anyway, the Chancellor asked me to come back to New Orleans, we finally came to terms, and I agreed and went back.  I did one more year at VCU, for the seniors before they left.  So Charles Blancq and I put together a curriculum over the telephone, and that enabled Charles to go to the committee at UNO to get the courses certified for a degree.  Because it was a liberal arts degree.  They were all basic courses.  Because as a freshman going into this university, a good portion of what you took in the first 17 hours was like English, Earth Science, history, just the fundamentals — not music.  You got so many hours for playing in a combo.  It was maybe three or four years before we really got a big band.

TP:    Around ’94 or so?

MARSALIS:  I forget the year.  Maybe even later.  But what I’m saying is that this is where we went to.  Ultimately, we had a series of meetings where we tweaked this or changed that, or tweaked that and changed this, or reorganized that… We knocked it down from 132 hours to 128 hours to graduate.  All the while, putting a major emphasis on performance.  We had to develop ways for evaluation.  Like, when we listened to the guys play, what were we listening to?  A lot of things that we started out with and ultimately changed were concepts we got from the existing wing of the music department, which was the Classical Department. We eventually got permission to do recital hours with just the jazz students.  Also, we were able to get the jury… Most times what you would get would be the faculty for a particular instrument, and the private teacher would come in, and they would talk about the student, and the student would play whatever they were working on.  So we had meetings about that.  We said, “Man, this doesn’t really make a lot of sense.  What we really need to do is go and listen to the students in the context of what they’re playing, hear them in the combo that they play with.  Because that’s really where they function.”  So we were able to change that.

TP:    Is University of New Orleans part of the State University of Louisiana?

MARSALIS:  Right.  But basically, those are some of the things we were able to do.

TP:    You retired last August.


TP:    Who are some of the students who came through University of New Orleans?

MARSALIS:  There’s a guy in New York right now named David Morgan, a piano player.  He was the first graduate from our program.  There’s a saxophone player who came at the same time he did named Bryce Winston.  There’s a couple piano players — a guy named Josh Paxton, who works down here, and finished in the graduate program.  There’s some people who came and didn’t really stay.  Nicholas Payton came and stayed a semester.  Irvin Mayfield stayed a couple of years.

TP:    Was Peter Martin involved?

MARSALIS:  No.  Peter was teaching, doing adjunct teaching over there.

TP:    Why should people go to school to study jazz?

MARSALIS:  Well, I don’t necessarily think they should.  That’s not a statement that I would make.  I think if they really need… Well, let me put it another way.  As I mentioned to you earlier about the concept of being in a state of evolution, there may be a time in the future when going to school to study jazz would be maybe the same thing as going to school to study engineering.  Maybe.  But as it stands right now, jazz as we know it is such a highly individualistic art, until, if you get a good private instructor and you’re around in a situation… I’ll have to say that this excludes pianists.

TP:    Why?

MARSALIS:  Because you can play by yourself.  You can do the Keith Jarrett thing.  But if you are around people who are well enough versed in the style of music that you’re trying to play, then you really don’t need it.  You’ll do better with private instruction and just going out and playing.

TP:    Why should people continue to play jazz?

MARSALIS:  There’s no real reason why anybody should continue to play jazz.  Aside from whatever personal reasons that they bring to it, that the music speaks to you.  Now, I think more and more that the study of jazz, across the board, whether it be as a musician or as a lay person, can help you to better understand America and its relationship to the citizenry as a whole.

TP:    Why is that?

MARSALIS:  Because the music itself reflects the whole of the citizenry, moreso than any other music.  In other words, you can listen to and develop an appreciation for the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven, but that don’t have nothin’ to do with America!  Neither does any of the other musics developed in that canon.  But if you listen to “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong, and really get to appreciate what was going on in there, you begin to understand what was going on in the early part of the century in America, and you begin to connect that to the numerous blues players that were wandering across the country during the time when the Depression was on and nobody had any money.  You can connect it in Chicago, where all these blues players were.  That’s basically what I’m saying.

TP:    But how does that pertain to the here-and-now?  It’s an interesting situation.  You have all these skilled jazz players of many different generations, and as far as the broader culture is concerned, even with Lincoln Center and the various institutional stronghold in the universities, it’s just a blip on the consciousness of popular culture.  As an educator and thinker and the father of four extremely accomplished musicians, what do you think playing jazz offers to young people of today?

MARSALIS:  I think in some ways we can look at jazz as a form of glue that keeps American culture centered and provides avenues for research, whether it be formal research or whether it just be chasing down the name of somebody you find and enjoy and seeing what else that person has done.  In the kind of world that we live in now, people do not necessarily even have to have a skill to become rich and famous as a pop artist.  So consequently, a disciplined approach to anything becomes something that’s very much needed in this country.  As I mentioned to you, jazz is the only music that started as a folk music and evolved as a folk music.  Most of the other music that started as folk music, especially the music in the European tradition, started as folk music, stayed folk music, but became an influence on composers — so the composer became the filter.  For which you heard various… “Hungarian Dance #3,” and all the stuff Bartok ripped off from them gypsies.  Well, I won’t say “ripped off.”  But their music was a predominant influence.  But in America, jazz remains a folk music that evolved as a folk music.  And even though you might hear Charlie Parker with Strings, if you were to take that recording and bleep out Charlie Parker, what do you have?  You have some whole note-half note violin players sawing away, and a Mitch Miller solo on oboe.

But for the most part… One of the things that has not yet become a staple is the quintet.  When I say a staple, what I mean is as a course of study, as a recognized ensemble.  For example, if you study classical music, there are several ensembles. String quartet is one.  The symphony orchestra is another.  Then there are various others, brass quintets, brass quartets… Invariably, there are combinations that are not necessarily that standard. But in jazz, it’s the quintet, the tenor saxophone, the trumpet and the rhythm section.  There’s more recordings made with that combination that have yet to really be studied in that context, where you look at it and say, “Okay, this is an ensemble that’s representative of a jazz ensemble of this period.”  Whereas if you go earlier to traditional jazz, especially when it’s New Orleans, what you get is the sextet, with the trombone, cornet and clarinet.  Which was a big influence on Duke.  On “Mood Indigo” that Duke Ellington did, he flipped everything upside-down.  He took the trombone and made the trombone higher, then he took the clarinet and put the clarinet on the bottom, and the trumpet was playing the melody with a mute.

I hear some younger kids today, some kids who play with Jason, and as young as Jason is, he even recognizes that some of these don’t have really any idea about their instrument — about the tenor saxophone.  At one time, there used to be this person who was a tenor saxophone player, and he was recognized as a tenor saxophone player.  Nowadays, some of these guys play the tenor, and there’s no particular reference to that instrument in any particular fashion in terms of what they play.  That is, when you listen to them, you don’t get the feeling, “Well, man, I think he may have listened to Ben Webster” or he might have listened to Gene Ammons or Sonny Rollins or Chu Berry — some of the more well-known tenor saxophone players.

TP:    So that link to the broader narrative thread that runs through the music ceases to exist.

MARSALIS:  Well, it’s like writers.  You read a writer and think, “Has he ever read Hemingway?  Has he ever read Faulkner?  Has he ever read Mark Twain?”  I think what is beginning to happen… I clipped an article out of the paper by a local writer who was talking about two people who were at a university in the State of Louisiana in education, and the chairman of the department used to like to take them on junkets to different places — South America, China — talking about education techniques.  As soon as they get a couple of miles away from the university, they were minority kids in dire need of (?) an education techniques, and there was no observation of that at all.  So eventually, this guy and his wife… This guy got to be dean of the school, of the education department, and he and his wife took a year and they went to the furthest corner of Louisiana, near the Arkansas line, and for a year they taught in an elementary school in a rural parish which is extremely poor, and they wrote a book… I don’t know if they did it together or he did.  He taught fourth grade and his wife taught the third graders.  In this book, they talked about the instance that LETA(?), which is what they call the standardized tests in Louisiana… They actually said that it was fraudulent.  I’d never seen anybody say so strongly that this is fraudulent.  I mean, I’ve always thought that.
But when you think in terms of young musicians and jazz musicians, you realize… Like the guitar student I had.  They don’t really know that there is something to know about what it is that they’re doing.  I was working once with a student on “Summertime,” and I said, “Have you ever heard the original rendition of ‘Summertime’?”  He said, “Yeah, man, I got that recording by Miles.”  And I had to explain to him about this aria in an opera called “Porgy and Bess” that was written by George Gershwin.

This is one of the dilemmas that we have.  And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that this is a very young country.  I often think of America the way that I would about a 10-year-old kid whose folks died and left him this candy store, and he had nobody to guide him or nothing.  So he just goes into this candy store and, like, proceeds to be a 10-year-old kid.  And ultimately, he has to learn every time he gets a bellyache, if he’s not unfortunate enough to get diabetes and die before then, that there’s something to know when you got this place.  It’s not just, “Oh, great, this is mine.”

I think that invariably, the sources of information, as they descend, becomes filtered to a point where there’s very little meaningful information that gets through in terms of any discipline.  And unless it’s popular enough, it doesn’t get through at all.  Just to hear some young guys come up to me in school and say, “Hey, man, what do you think of Hip-Hop and Jazz?”  I cannot think of more of an oxymoron than Hip-Hop and Jazz.  And there are people who defend that.

* * * *

Ellis Marsalis (#3):

TP:    As I understand it, it would sound like your two cornerstones were Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson.

MARSALIS:  Actually, not Bud so much. I got to Bud later.  But Oscar Peterson was the first major influence on piano.  See, the thing about it is, I was primarily a band piano player.  I didn’t study piano the way Oscar and Bud studied piano, so I came into it playing piano in a jazz group and sort of filling in the blanks.  So I didn’t really develop that pianistic philosophy that people develop when the study the instrument, like a Keith Jarrett did, he had all these recitals… You learn to play the piano with the objectives that go along with the history of that instrument.

TP:    With you, it had more to do with the function of playing in bands and combos.  Did you play piano in rhythm-and-blues bands also, or is that something you did more as a tenor player?

MARSALIS:  It was more as a tenor player.  By the time I got out of college, looking back at it, the scene here was changing a lot.  This was in the mid-’50s, and I started practicing and working on learning some pieces… At that time, Clifford and Max was a great influence on us.  Because I was then playing with Edward Blackwell and either Peter Badie or Richard Payne on bass, and Nathaniel Perrilat.  But we never really succeeded in getting a trumpet player to round out the group.  So a lot of times we would play those pieces just quartet-wise.  But it was still essentially like a band thing, because that’s where I was concentrating my energies.

TP:    When did that band with Ed Blackwell begin?

MARSALIS:  It’s really hard to say.  Because it evolved more than it began.  Edward was a cat who always was interested in playing.  He might call me up and say, “Why don’t you come over?”  There was a tenor player named Clarence Thomas, who later became known as Luqman.  He would go over to Edward’s house, and then I’d go over, when I first started trying to put the piano together, and we’d play things and work on stuff.  We didn’t have a bass player.  Eventually, Harold Battiste started writing some original pieces, and we just would get whatever bass player we could find and started playing some of that material.

TP:    This is while you’re at Dillard.

MARSALIS:  And after.

TP:    So it begins around ’52-’53, like that.

MARSALIS:  Right.  ’52-’53 was sort of the beginning of the end when it came to the rhythm-and-blues thing with me.  When I look back at it, I realize that the whole rhythm-and-blues concept was changing entirely, and I was not a part of the people who were doing it.  In the earlier years, in the 1940s, see, the rhythm-and-blues catered primarily not only to the singer, but there was a lot of blues being played.  Big Joe Turner was singing blues, Louis Jordan was singing blues, Wynonie Harris… There was a lot of blues singing going on.  So if you were playing in one of those bands, essentially your function was to deal with that in playing blues.  You’d learn a lot of shuffles if you were a piano player or guitar player or drummer in the rhythm section.  There’d be a lot of shuffles going on, and you had to learn that.  If you were a saxophone player, usually that’s who would play the solos.  And if you played the backgrounds, they were usually riffs… It was a rather simplistic kind of thing.  Everything about it was primarily functional.  It wasn’t a band thing, like a string quartet gets together.

TP:    Or a bebop combo.

MARSALIS:  Well, even with those.  The bebop combos got together pretty much the same way.  You had to go out and find somebody who could play the music.  You see, there was no training ground officially where you could learn to play the instrument that emanated from a specific tradition, and that there were formal instructions involved — which is the reason why I mentioned the string quartet.  So this is basically how that whole thing went.  And if you were playing rhythm-and-blues, you were playing rhythm-and-blues because you had a gig.  Pure and simple.  Otherwise than that…

TP:    There would be no reason to play it.

MARSALIS:  Right.  And there was virtually no real opportunity for you to learn it, unless you were actually playing.  The other performance-oriented situation was in the church, and sometimes in the earlier years, if you were playing in the church, it was advisable to conceal the fact that you might be playing elsewhere.  I didn’t have that problem, because I didn’t play in the church.  But for the most part, a study of that period of time in terms of jazz, is a lot more about the communal aspect of the way the musicians lived than it is about any formal study.

TP:    Are you saying that as a general principle, or are you saying that about New Orleans?

MARSALIS:  I’m saying it about New Orleans because I’m from here, and when I talk to other people, essentially it was the same thing where they were.  In other words, there were lots and lots of people who studied music, but there were very little opportunities to really study jazz music.

TP:    Unless you were in New York or Chicago…

MARSALIS:  Even if you were in New York or Chicago.  I mean, you didn’t do that.  I mean, if you were Herbie Hancock, you were playing classical music.  Herbie played with the Chicago Symphony when he was 11 years old.  Or if you could study with Walter Dyett or Major Clark Smith before then.  But if you talk to, for example, Benny Goodman and Milt Hinton, they both went to the same classical music teacher.  Because the Judge was a violinist.  He switched to bass because he couldn’t get no work.

* * *

Ellis Marsalis (WKCR–Out To Lunch) – (8-5-95):

[MUSIC: Ellis/Branford/Tain/Hurst, “L’il Boy Man” (1994); E. Marsalis/R. Brown/B. Higgins, “Swinging At The Haven” (1992)]

TP:    I’d like to start from the beginnings, your musical background.  I gather your family had a place in New Orleans which was a gathering place for musicians, where musicians played, or is this incorrect?

EM:    No.  It makes for wonderful mythology, but it’s really not true!  My father was in business.  He had a motel.  And I succeeded in convincing him (this was after I had gotten out of the Service; I had spent a couple of years in the Marines) to allow me to take the house that we had been living in, and turn it into a club.  Because I had fantasized that operating a club wasn’t really that difficult.  You know, so that I could have the band and play.  Well, I found out that none of that was true, that either you’re going to play music or you’re going to operate a club.  You’re not really going to do both of those and do either of those well.  So I was in business about six months.

TP:    Ooh!

EM:    [LAUGHS] And from that came the last selection, “Swinging At The Haven.”  The Music Haven was the name of the club.  Harold Battiste, who is currently one of my colleagues at the University of New Orleans, had been instrumental in developing AFO Records.  One of their initial jazz projects was to record some of the local musicians, of which I was one, doing some of our own music, and playing jazz as opposed to some of the other things that the label was recording.  They had had a very big success with a recording of Barbara George singing “I Know,” and there were a few other R&B type things that they were doing.  So Harold thought for posterity we should really record these people.  And that boxed set from 1956 to 1966 is the result of Harold Battiste.  Now Harold is slowly reissuing a lot of things on CD.  But it’s still the same old shoestring operation, so he’s got to piecemeal it here and there.  But it’s coming along.

TP:    Did you start playing the piano very young?  And how did you go about it?  Was it lessons, or through the family?  What was your path into the music?

EM:    Well, I started playing the clarinet when I was about 11.  In fact, it was around the same time that I met Alvin.  We were in elementary school.  I started to play tenor saxophone in high school, somewhere around a sophomore, I think, in high school, because the tenor saxophone was the rage instrument for reed players in rhythm-and-blues, and we were playing a lot of rhythm-and-blues in those days.

TP:    What years are we talking about?

EM:    1948, 1949, around that time.  But I was always interested in jazz.  I had had the chance to hear the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band in 1949 in the spring, the one where he was doing “Things To Come” and “That’s Earl, Brother” and “52nd Street Theme,” I mean, that screaming, brand-new Bebop that was coming on the scene.  And man, that whole experience really just took me out.

TP:    They came through New Orleans.

EM:    Yeah, they came through New Orleans.  And it was really… I can’t really describe it.  I had a chance to talk with Diz about that.  But it was really a tremendous experience.  Because I knew when I heard that band that this was really what I wanted to do.  Man, that was it, what those guys were doing on that stage.  I was about 14 or 15 then.  I had started piano lessons, but I was not that serious about it.  I just liked to play.  But I was mostly concentrating on tenor saxophone.  So when I got out of high school and decided to go to college, I decided to be a music major.

I had been studying with a really great piano teacher.  Of course, studying piano at that time either meant that you were learning from a mentor in the church that you went to or you were learning from someone who was either in your family, or a friend of the family that would teach you the tradition of the music according to earlier styles, Stride or what have — or you just studied with a piano teacher, and the piano teachers was basically just teaching European music, formal approaches to European music.  The other two I didn’t have.  I wasn’t playing in the church, which is to my regret, and I didn’t know anybody who was really playing piano from a traditional jazz point of view.  So I gravitated towards the two areas that were closest to me, Rhythm-and-Blues, tenor saxophone playing, and Jazz.

There was not as much of a line drawn… Well, what I mean is, the difference between Jazz and Rhythm-and-Blues was extremely narrow at that time, because most of the same people that was playing, Sonny Stitt… Charlie Parker had been with Jay McShann’s band.  I don’t know, but I think Monk somehow avoided all of that.  I don’t know if there’s any record of Monk ever playing in that idiom.  Maybe so.

TP:    I think he traveled with some traveling preachers in the Carolinas in his teens, but after that I don’t think so.

EM:    Yeah.  But for the most part, that’s what I gravitated towards.  And the solos at that time were basically influenced by religious music and secular music, which were sort of like opposite sides of the same coin.  I was living in what was then a racially segregated society, so it became inclusive.  The experience was all-inclusive in terms of economics, in terms of social interaction, in terms of education.  All of that was basically within the American-African community.  So we would play music that was reflected… We sort of bounced off of each other.

And the newer recordings of… Well, the recordings of the new music, which would be called Bebop, was coming out at least on a monthly basis, and they were all like 78 records.  So you would go the record store, and there was sort of like a phone chain.  There was a lady in the record store, I can’t think of her name, but anyway, she would call a couple of people; you know, I’ve got a new record in by Charlie Parker or Miles or whoever it was.  And we would, in turn, call people and say, “Hey, there’s some new stuff in,” and we’d go down to the record shop.  It was a place called the Bop Shop, and we would go down and listen to it and buy it, and then start working on the solos.

That was an integral part of the learning process.  It was not within the context of the system.  The schools were not amenable to that at all.  So…

TP:    Was there any jazz in your high school band at all, or was it all marching band and brass orchestra type music?

EM:    It was mostly marching band, John Philip Souza marches, (?)Ed Bagley(?) marches.  And there was a group in one high school that I went to that was what you call a swing band.  Now, the swing band played those stock arrangements.  There was stock arrangements, like “9:20 Special” and Harry James’ “Back-Beat Boogie” and most of that.  But there was nowhere to really get at the whole idea of soloing.  Because unless you could figure it out for yourself, there was nobody there to do it.  And even the swing bands were sort of tolerated.  It wasn’t something that the music teachers looked upon with great favor.

However, New Orleans was a little different (I have to say a little different, because I don’t know about the rest of the country) in that there were several music teachers who were jazz players in previous generations.  Some of the older guys were teachers.  So if you happened to be fortunate to get one of those… It reminds me of what Eddie Harris used to tell me about Walter Dyett, and a lot of people talked about him in Chicago.  And there was another band teacher in Chicago that Milt Hinton used to talk about…

TP:    Clark Smith, Major Smith, who had the Chicago Defender band.

EM:    Yes.  So as time went on, we began to get less and less of the kinds of fundamentals that produced the level of musicianship that was being produced at that time, especially within the context of a jazz idiom.  Invariably what would happen, you would begin to get people who would study the more formal approaches to European music, and then try and figure out how to make those application, people like Phineas Newborn — and Charles Lloyd, too.  When I met Charles Lloyd, Charles was at USC.  I think he was a freshman at USC, and I was in the Marine Corps.

But that was basically what I had done, was to kind of piecemeal some things, and become a music major at Dillard University.  Which was very standard.

TP:    Describe the music scene in New Orleans when you were a teenager, and going into college.  Were you doing little gigs when you were playing the saxophone and clarinet in high school, for instance?  And what kind of gigs would they be?

EM:    Oh, yeah, we were still playing some dances.  The YWCA was one of the places that we would play dances.  And different schools.  We would go to a lot of different high schools and just play dances with the local R&B pieces, “Blues For The Red Bar,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” Roy Brown’s piece, Joe Liggins’ stuff, all of the people who was doing the dance music of the day.  What Jazz there was going on, I didn’t know anything about at all.  Especially the Trad, especially traditional jazz, I didn’t know anything about that.

TP:    You weren’t involved in the Second Line in any way as a kid?

EM:    Not as a kid, no.  I didn’t know anything about that.  So eventually, what I would start to do in the high school was play those rhythm-and-blues solos.  Because I could hear those.  Also it was an interesting thing, if you could play the dance music of the day, then you could get the attention of some girls, you see!  Because I was too small for football, too slow for track, too slow for basketball — and there was no future in that in those days anyway.  So when I realized that I could learn these solos, then I said, “Oh, okay, this will work!”  So I started concentrating on some of that.  Eventually, I would get real serious about jazz, and then found out that nobody wanted to hear that!  But by then, you’re stuck, like a habit.

TP:    Who were the pianists whose solos you were emulating once you started getting more serious about Jazz and more advanced?

EM:    Actually, you know, it’s funny.  I never did transcribe any solos at all.  I listened to Oscar Peterson a lot.  But for some reason, I never did really try to play those.  I’m not sure what it was.  I mean, I would always try and play whatever I heard.  But the transcription was not something that I was doing on piano.

Now, when I first started trying to play the solos on saxophone, I remember there was a recording of Charlie Parker, “Parker’s Mood,” and I tried to play all the solos on there on tenor saxophone, John Lewis’s solo on piano and Charlie Parker’s solo — but there was a lot of Charlie Parker’s solo that I couldn’t get!  All of those recordings were really short then.  You know, this was long before Trane started making those LP’s.  In fact, they didn’t even have LP’s at the time!

So I started essentially like that.  Eventually, when I was old enough to go to the local nightclubs…

TP:    Who was playing in the nightclubs then?

EM:    Well, most of the local musicians.

TP:    Name some names.

EM:    There was one club called the Dew Drop Inn which was sort of the anchor club, if you will, in the American-African community.  Lee Allen would play there; he would eventually make all of those recordings with Fats Domino.  A lot of times that scene was more a matter of a show.  That is, the club-owner would put together a band.  He’d get a bass player, then a piano player and a drummer, and maybe get a singer.  There was one female named Bea Booker who used to sing there, and there were some other singers, but I never did work with them at the time.  I think Anna Laurie and Paul Gayton, and I think Dave Bartholomew used to play (he was a trumpet player).

But by the time I came on the scene, some of those people were no longer working in that establishment.  And then a lot of us started to work there.  When I say “us,” I mean a lot of younger guys who would comprise the sidemen in the band, being the piano player or what have you.  We would play behind the strip dancers, local singers.  Every now and then somebody may come from out of town.  But a lot of times when they did, they would get the better players — of which I was not one!

TP:    Who were considered to be the better players?

EM:    Wow, let me think.  There was a drummer there named Earl Palmer, who is now on the West Coast.

TP:    He played with Ray Charles for many years.

EM:    Who, Earl?

TP:    Oh, I’m incorrect.  Excuse me.

EM:    No, not Ray.  The drummer from New Orleans who did play with Ray Charles… Edward Blackwell did for a very brief period of time.  But Wilbur Hogan played with Ray Charles’ band.  In fact, that was the very first time that I ever heard Ray Charles, was at the club, the Dew Drop Inn.  They had a jam session, and I was playing saxophone at the time, and a local trumpet player named Raynell(?) Richards, who was in his band… Ray was playing piano, and I mean, this guy was burnin’!  And I knew just about all of the piano players who could play.  I knew who they were.  And I asked the trumpet player, “Who is that?”  He said, “Oh, that’s this guy, Ray Charles.”  I said, “Where is he from?”  “Oh, he’s out of Florida.”

But basically, it would be a matter of choice among some of the singers as to who they liked.  There were some piano players who were better suited for some songs, and they would also make a lot of gigs with some of those people.  And I wasn’t really making a lot of gigs, because I was still in school.  I remember there was a group in New Orleans that was called the Johnson Brothers, which was Raymond Johnson and Plas Johnson.  Plas left to go to California, and Raymond asked me to join the band — and my father said no!  So that opportunity passed me by.  And by me being in school over an extended period of time, I was always maybe just playing on the weekends or whenever I could.

TP:    Two of the musicians you’re best known for having worked with regularly in those early years are Alvin Batiste and Edward Blackwell, and according to the books, Ornette Coleman came through New Orleans for a while and you were going through musical adventures with him.  Can you talk about that?

EM:    I didn’t know Ornette in New Orleans.  I didn’t know that at all.  Melvin Lastie I think knew Ornette.  I didn’t meet Ornette until 1956, when I went out to California and Harold Battiste.  The three of us went out there.  I had just graduated, and was really not doing much of anything.  Actually, it was the summer of 1955, really.  So I decided, “Well, I’m going out to California.”  Basically, that was when I met Ornette, because Ornette had sent for Blackwell to come back out and start trying to do some work with him.

TP:    Tell me about the young Ed Blackwell.  Were you involved with him in any way as a youngster, or did that start a little later, too?

EM:    Well, no, he was a little older than I was.  I met Ed Blackwell basically the same way I was telling you about the other situation.  Whenever he couldn’t get the better piano players, he’d call me up!  I remember the first time I went over to his house, he was living Uptown in New Orleans on Danille(?) Street.  He was living with his sister I think.  And he had his drum set out.  And it was the most melodic set of drums I’d ever heard, but then at that time I hadn’t heard that much anyway.  He was the first drummer that I ever heard play a drum solo on a ballad, and it made perfect sense!

There was a saxophone player, I think his name was Clarence Thomas.  He was up in New York; I think he was going by the name of Luqman.  But anyway, the three of us was at Edward’s house one day, and we were playing.  It was the first time that I had ever been over there.  And it was a captivating moment for me, because we started to play with some degree of consistency… I have to say some degree of consistency, because there was not that much employment around for what we were trying to do.  So we would play whenever we could.

There were two guys in the city of New Orleans named Al Smith and Clarence Davis.  They used to rent the spaces, and then hire jazz groups.  And they’d hire us, too, to play.  Clarence Davis had been a drummer with Dave Bartholomew’s band, and Al Smith was really trying to play the drums.  So they had something like Al and Beau Productions, I guess you would call it, and they would rent spaces on holidays, you know, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, which was one way of hedging your bet.  And we would go out and play, and people would come out.  That was some of the few times that we really had a job as a whole quintet.

TP:    Let’s hear the reconfigured American Jazz Quintet at the Ed Blackwell Festival in Atlanta, Georgia, which was hooked up by Rob Gibson from Jazz at Lincoln Center.  The proceedings were documented on Black Saint Records, FroM Bad To Badder.  We’ll hear a trio track on that featuring Ellis Marsalis, Richard Payne and Ed Blackwell, a composition called “Nostalgia Suite.”  Any comments?

EM:    Actually, I’m not sure what that is right now.  When we did it, I think “Nostalgia Suite” was a fancy name for what we used to call medleys!

[MUSIC: “Nostalgia Suite” (1987); AJQ, “Chatterbox” (1956); EM/Branford/Wynton/J. Black, “Nostalgic Impressions” (1982)]

TP:    Was the bassist on “Chatterbox” William Swanson or Richard Payne?  I don’t have it right before me.

EM:    I’m not altogether sure.  Swanson came in town with the Billy Williams band, and we started just jamming.  Because he liked to play with us.  It was just about that time… When I say “that time,” I mean, it was somewhere close to December.  Because we went into the studio and did this just before I went in the Service, and Swanson was still in town at the time, and Harold used him on a couple of selections.  But I’m not sure exactly which ones right now.

TP:    Blackwell was the drummer, though, and we can hear, just from the evidence in that, that his sound was all there back in 1956.

EM:    Oh, yeah.


TP:    On our last conversational segment, we took you out to the West Coast.  What was your Army experience like?  Was it a time when you were able to do a lot of playing?  Were you in the Army as a musician or were you in the line?

EM:    Well, I was in the Marine Corps, which first of all meant that I had to do the basic training.  It was between conflicts, that is, I went in just after Korea had ceased, and it was before Vietnam.  So I wasn’t involved in combat.  Most of the time that I spent on the West Coast was really due to the fact that I was in the Marines at the time.  I did go out earlier at the time that I went out with Harold and Edward, but I only stayed a couple of months, and then I came back home.  Because at that time, the military was still conscripting and I had gotten the notification to report to the draft board.  In fact, I’ve often thought about how it was a lot like Caesar said, everybody should go home to be taxed.  Well, you had to go home to be drafted into the Service!

I volunteered for the draft, which is what that was called, and they sent me back to California.  So I ended up doing basic training at MRCD in San Diego, and was sent to the air base at El Toro, which is in Santa Ana.  So I was able to drive into Los Angeles quite frequently.

TP:    Moving up in a totally disjointed way here, we heard James Black, and I’d like you to talk about some of the musicians you worked with after returning from the Service in the early Sixties in New Orleans, like James Black and Nat Perillat.

EM:    Well, when I got out of the Service, I went back to New Orleans, and Edward Blackwell was playing a trio gig at a place called the Jazz Room in the French Quarter.  I went to hear him play one night, and the piano player… On the night that I went, the piano player got into a dispute of some sort with the owner, and he came back to the bandstand after the break was over and started the song, played his solo, and got up when the bass player started playing a solo — and left!  And the bass player and Edward Blackwell were playing, and it took a minute before they realized that he wasn’t coming back!  So to make a long story short, the owner asked me did I want a gig.  I had just got out the Service, and I said, “Yeah, definitely.”  So that was how I got on that gig.  I stayed on it for about six months, and  it ended up going the way that the other piano player went, except I got fired instead! [LAUGHS]

But for the most part, that first band was with a bass player named Otis Duvirgney(?) and Edward Blackwell.  Durvirgney(?) was an interesting bass player.  He was sort of like a self-taught bass player.  I mean, he had the strongest groove — swing you to death.  But it was difficult to record, because his technique…the notes weren’t really true, and the microphones would pick up a lot of that.  But it was a great feeling to play with Otis.  Eventually I think he left and moved over to the Coast, around Biloxi, and we started working with another bass player named Peter Beatty, Chuck Beatty, who had played some time with Lionel Hampton’s band and different groups.

We tried to get Nat Perillat on the gig so we’d have a quartet, and we succeeded in doing that for the most part.  It was always hard to get club-owners to go beyond a trio, because with the trio being a complete band, they couldn’t see justifying the expense.  So we were able to get Nat on the gig for the most part… In fact, now that I remember it, I think Nat outlasted me on that job.

TP:    Talk a little bit about his sound and style and approach to music.

EM:    Nat didn’t have a big tenor sound.  It wasn’t thin either.  But he wasn’t a tenor player in the tradition of what has become known as the Texas tenor, like Arnett Cobb and a lot of those saxophone players that came out of Texas.  But Nat was a diligent musician that practiced for extensive periods of time.  His facility was flawless.  In fact, one of the best examples of Nat Perillat is on that album that we made in 1963 (which is on From 1956 to 1966) where he played on “Yesterdays.”  I mean, he played a solo on “Yesterdays” that sounded as good as anything anybody’s playing now.  He and Alvin were both practice practitioners extraordinaire.  I mean, it was nothing for them to practice seven-eight-nine hours a day, every day.

I was never that kind of a practicer.  I mean, I could practice long enough to get some things that I needed together.  But my discipline wasn’t substantial to practice that amount of hours!

TP:    You were creating a lot of original music at that time as well, and the music was quite substantial, as evidenced by the recent release Whistle Stop where you recapitulate a lot of compositions from thirty years ago that sound totally fresh and contemporary.

EM:    Well, a lot of that was James Black, too.  Because James…!  He had a genius about music that didn’t pervade his whole life; but musically James had a concept which was unique, to say the least.  I’m really sorry that he didn’t pull a lot of other things together which would have permitted him to have document his music, and wrote and recorded even more.

TP:    Talk a little bit about the particulars of his sound that made him so distinctive.

EM:    Well, James was also a guy who could sit down and play a paradiddle for a solid hour on a snare drum to get his technique flawless.  And his cymbal sound… He had a clean attack, the definition of his cymbal.  See, when we talk about definition, a lot of times you hear guys going, DING-TING-A-DING, TING-A-DING.  Well, if the definition isn’t there, you usually get that TINKATENGADDDDD…you just get a hint at that whole thing.  Because each stroke, each attack and release on that cymbal has not been developed with the particular technique that is needed for it to be clear.  And James was a master at all facets of playing each one of the drums, whether it’s floor tom, mounted tom, bass drum, ride cymbals, sock cymbals.  He had studied it to that extent, and was meticulous about it.

Edward Blackwell, for example, was more of a Max Roach drummer.  And when I say a Max Roach drummer, his major influence was Max in terms of the way he set up his phrases, his early ideas.  Eventually, Edward would evolve into being his own person, playing some of the music of Ornette Coleman and also studying some music of West Africa, which came as a result of some jobs that he played with Randy Weston — because he played with Randy, I think, a lot, and had been over in Rabat in Morocco.  So he had a lot of those influences.  And he was a true percussionist in the absolute sense of the word.

Whereas James Black, he had played solo trumpet in the concert band in the university, he played guitar, he could play piano, he could write — I mean, he was a more comprehensive musician.  But drums was… I remember Harold Battiste made a statement which was appropriate about James Black.  He said whenever he thought about James Black, he never thought of him as a drummer; he just thought that drums was one other thing that James could do.  It was, for the most part, his instrument of choice.  He had the best time sense of anybody that I ever played with.

TP:    Did you mutually influence each other’s ideas and writing?

EM:    Oh, I’m sure that occurred.  I know he used to tell me about various… In fact, this tune “After” was influenced by at least one chord I got from him.  Because he used to tell me about things that he got from me playing piano.  But it’s very hard to talk about your influence on somebody else, because that has to come from them.  I mean, sometimes you can listen to it and you can say “Oh yeah.”  But then you’d have to be really aware of where you are, because your things also came from being influenced by somebody else, so you can’t always be sure if that person is influenced by you or by the person who influenced you!  It never comes at you, usually, in an absolute way.  It usually comes somewhat almost like a point of view.  So that when you hear it, if they don’t say, “Well, you know, I took this right here that I got from you and then I did this with it,” sometimes you won’t even notice it.

[MUSIC: EM w/Branford… “A Moment Alone” (1994); Marsalis/ Black/Perillat, “Monkey Puzzle” (1963)]

TP:    While “A Moment Alone” was playing, you said you liked the way your son played on that particular track, and indeed, on this recording he plays all of the music with great subtlety, nuance, swing and a great sound as well.

EM:    Branford has an unusual gift, that is, to be able to play in any idiom.  I mean, it doesn’t matter what it is.  I have a tape of him doing I think it was the Jacques Ibert(?) with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra!  And he plays, as you know, the latest Funk licks and Hip-Hop, and he’s got two or three albums that I hope will be released where he did a live concert with he and Jeff Watts and Bob Hurst as a trio, Jazz recordings that is really out there!  So it doesn’t really make much difference to him what the music situation is.

And the most difficult thing I think there is in any kind of music is to really be able to play slow.  That is… I mean, a lot of people are impressed with virtuosity and speed and agility.  But believe me, to be lyrical and play slow is very difficult.  And to some extent, I think that there are people for whom that’s a gift.  Even if it’s a gift, you still have to work about it.

TP:    Well, I don’t think we can allow you to speak about one of your sons without mentioning the other three that I know of that play music.  So I’m sorry to do this, but a few words about the qualities of each of your very strong and individual sons.

EM:    Well, the thing of it is that all four of them are really great musicians.  They bring different things in their personalities to the music.

Wynton is likewise comfortable in any idiom.  He chooses not to be involved in some Pop idioms, which doesn’t mean that he couldn’t do it — it just means that that’s what he chooses not to do.  His contributions to the history of the trumpet, as far as European music is concerned, is already documented.  There’s any number of recordings that you could get to hear that.

Delfeayo is kind of a late bloomer performance-wise, because he spent a lot of time with production.  And he’s been playing with Elvin Jones lately, which means that the more that he begins to play in a setting like that, the better he will get at it.  And he’s a real good writer.  His album Pontius Pilate’s Decision was very well crafted and well constructed in terms of arranging.

Jason is probably the most amazing.  I think Jason probably has more natural talent than all of us combined.  It’s going to be enjoyable to watch him develop, because he chose the most unlikely instrument for his ability; his ability to hear pitch as accurately as he hears it.  And then to choose the drums… Of course, that is the instrument of choice now.  I have no way of knowing what he will do at some future time, see.  But he has a very strong interest in percussion, and he says that he wants to write for percussion.  He’s got a stack of original songs that he’s written for his own band even now.  But he’s one of those kinds of people that will not be confined to the arbitrary lines of music that are drawn up.

See, we’re moving more and more towards a real concept of what is called world music.  World music can mean a lot of different things.  But I think that with technology being what it is today and what it promises to be in the future, being exposed to as many different kinds of instruments, instrument concepts, performers, cultures and all of that, we can begin to find these other influences being a standard part of various composers.  There are some composers that I have had an opportunity to hear… I can’t even remember the name of it.  There was a clarinet conference at the Virginia Commonwealth University.  I was on the faculty there for three years.  And the last year that I was there, there was a clarinet conference in which some new music, that is, music say since 1980, was being performed for various combinations — piano trio, piano-clarinet-violin.  And some of the composers’ techniques for clarinet were right out of the jazz book, but they were all written in the context of the piece itself, and all of the players were totally European-trained and European performers…I mean, the music was European.  So it wasn’t a case of getting a jazz player to come to do it.  And it’s coming to be more and more a part of the compositional techniques of various composers.  I’m not sure if it would even be limited to American composers, even though it’s largely American music that they’re drawing from.

TP:    We’ve been speaking with Ellis Marsalis, and he has to meet his car, so we have to say so long.  There are many other things we could discuss.  His teaching activities in New Orleans over the last twenty-five years, and the many musicians who highlight today’s stages around the world who began under his tutelage.  We could talk about his ideas about the distinctive New Orleanian quality of music, but he’s grimacing, so I’m glad we didn’t time to ask him that.  And many, many other things, but he has to catch his car.  We’ll send Mr. Marsalis off with a selection from the most release, Joe Cool’s Blues, which seems to have been co-marketed with the producers of Peanuts.

EM:    You know, it’s difficult to talk about this project because it didn’t all come under one roof.  I was in New Orleans, and I think Delfeayo produced it, and Delfeayo asked me to come into the studio and record some of the Peanuts music.  I worked on it, and we recorded it.  A pianist who works with Delfeayo, Victor Atkins, was asked to do some arrangements. and one of the arrangements that he did was on “Little Birdie.”  Well, we had laid a track down for “Little Birdie” from which the arrangements by way of Victor, and the vocalist, Germaine Bazile, came in later and sang that.  Eventually, when I did hear the whole thing, Wynton’s group, the things that they were playing, I heard later on.  Some of it came from the show that the Peanuts characters did on the Wright Brothers!  It was such a potpourri of things until it didn’t seem like a project to me.  Because I was sort of like one of the chessmen in the game!  So I never really got a whole feeling of this… For example, when I did the recording with Wynton on Standards, Volume 3, The Resolution of Romance, that was a complete project that went from beginning to fruition with everybody that was involved.  But this was piecemealed in such a way that I didn’t get a real holistic feel of it.

TP:    Nonetheless, I don’t think the listeners will really be able to tell that…

EM:    Nor do they care!

TP:    We also haven’t had a chance to talk about your brief career as a football coach.

EM:    Where did you hear about that?

TP:    Your son told us about that about a year-and-a-half ago.  He said they almost won the game also.

EM:    [LAUGHS] Believe me, it would definitely take some time to go into that.

* * *

Ellis & Jason Marsalis (WKCR, 1-16-97):

TP:    Ellis Marsalis, have you performed in New York with Bill Huntington before?

EM:    I performed with him, but it wasn’t in a club scene.  It was in a university.  I can’t remember exactly what the event was.  I can’t remember what university even.

TP:    You’ve been playing with him for a long time, though.

EM:    Well, I usually think of it in terms of, I’ve been playing with Bill for as long as the State of Louisiana’s laws would permit me to do so — since 1964.

TP:    So it must be very nice to come here and play with someone who breathes alongside you, as it were.

EM:    Yeah, it is.  It’s quite interesting, because the latest musical endeavors have always been with younger people.  I think there’s a positive side to that, but there’s a difference in terms of… I remember I was listening to Frank Morgan play, and at the end of his performance I said to him, “Man, I had almost forgotten what that sounded like.”  Because most of the guys that I had been playing with were youngsters.  And it doesn’t take anything away from them.  It’s just that there’s something about age… I guess in a way it’s sort of like vintage wine.  There’s something about the age and the seasoning of a player that’s just different from the talent and the exuberance of a younger player.

TP:    In a certain way perhaps, the frequency with which you play with younger players has to do with your considerable reputation as a teacher of the music and someone who communicates its fundamentals to young musicians.  I’m sure this must have been the case with you, Jason, coming up.  I recollect seeing you play in the Jazz Heritage Festival when you were 12 years old; I don’t remember exactly which year.  How old were you when the drums became your overriding interest.

JM:    Well, it depends.  When you say overriding, I guess age 13 was about when that happened.  But the first instrument I played was not the drums, but the violin.  How exactly did I get started on that?  Was that your idea?

EM:    Well, it was a Saturday afternoon program at a public school about six or seven blocks away from the house.  This was part of the Suzuki program.  They had 35 violins, and the first 35 people could get a violin for their kid for the cost of the insurance, which was 10 bucks a year.  I said, “Wow, I can’t beat that deal!”  So I made sure I was one of the first 35 people.  Jason probably was 6, 5, somewhere around that age, which is sort of typical of when younger players start in that Suzuki program.  He stayed with the violin until we went to Richmond, Virginia, for three years — I was on the faculty at the Virginia Commonwealth.  When we came back in 1989, that was the end of the violin.

EM:    Richmond was the reason for that, though.

TP:    You couldn’t find a good teacher there?

JM:    Oh, no-no.  There were good teachers in Richmond, Virginia.  That was not the problem.  What happened was, is I had always played in student orchestras in New Orleans for a long time, and when I got to Richmond, Virginia, it was the same kind of thing except in Richmond they called it the Sinfonietta, the Junior Youth Orchestra, the Youth Orchestra or whatever.  Well, in sixth grade, I believe it was… I was in sixth grade in school, about 12 years old, and I was in the Junior Youth Orchestra at this point, and this was the first orchestra I played with that had a percussion section.  It had a percussion section with a timpani and snare drum.  I had never played with an orchestra that had a section like that.  When I first got there, I was upset.  I was like, “They have a percussion section?  Why am I over there?  This isn’t fair!” [LAUGHS] Then a year later, when I got back to New Orleans I said, “No, I want to pursue percussion a little bit further.  Violin is nice, but that’s not really what I want to do.”

TP:    How long had the drums been part of what you were doing?  I gather you’d been playing drums all along.

JM:    Yes.  I had started drums at age 6, a year after the violin.  I used to sit in on gigs with my father, played just off and on.  It wasn’t really an everyday sort of thing.  That didn’t really start until I was 12 or 12, when I became more serious about the drums and it became a more ongoing thing.

TP:    Was it something you were just picking up by yourself?  What kind of instruction did you have when you were 6-7-8 years old?

JM:    The first drum lessons I had were from James Black.  I was about 7 years old.  I was a kid.

TP:    That’s quite a teacher.

JM:    Oh, definitely.  I was fortunate enough to study under him.

TP:    The last time I interviewed your father he made an interesting comparison between two of the drummers he was involved with, James Black and Ed Blackwell.  Encapsulate the style of James Black and what made him so special as a drummer.

JM:    Well, the thing about James Black is that he was more than a drummer.  He was a musician.  To my knowledge, he played trumpet and guitar besides drums.  Also he was a great composer.  He had written a lot of great, challenging music.  I mean, he had written music that involves odd meters, which is something a lot of drummers do.  I notice drummers always write tunes in 5/4 meters, 7/4 meters, and he was a drummer that did that.  James Black also I guess you could say always was looking forward.  He had a knowledge of the history of the music, but he was always one to look forward from what was happening in the music at the time.  Whether it was happening in the ’60s or ’70s, he was always looking forward.

TP:    There was a real flow to his music also.

JM:    Oh yes.

TP:    It would be in an odd meter, but you wouldn’t necessarily hear that first off.

JM:    Oh, no. [LAUGHS] Not the way it was being played.

TP:    Ellis, what was your first contact with James Black as far back as you can recollect, and what were the circumstances when you began playing together?

EM:    James was a few years younger than I was.  I had really been introduced to drum concepts in a small group setting by Edward Blackwell, who was really a Max Roach style drummer.  It was through Edward that I first began to hear drums.  By “hear drums” what I mean is that Edward would play solos very musically.  See, you can play drum solos that are rudimental, which is almost like marches, and you just have a little signal at the end of your rudimental playing, and everybody comes back in.  But Blackwell, following the path of Max Roach, would play in the form of the songs and play phrases that were like horns.  So I had to learn to hear those kind of phrases.  Blackwell was the very first person that I heard do that.

In 1960 Blackwell moved to New York, and we didn’t have anybody who was going to step in the shoes of Edward Blackwell!  There were a few drummers at home.  Nathaniel Perillat, the saxophonist, and I tried a couple of guys, and they were okay.  Then Nat Perillat told me about this kid, James Black, who was at the time I think a student at Southern University in Baton Rouge.  Nat had been going up there playing jobs, and he said, “Man, we ought to try this guy.”  So we tried James.  At first it was that typical energy kind of thing. but as James began to settle in with the group, especially whenever we got a chance to play quartet, the whole jazz scenario became like his world.  Because all he really needed was an avenue to express the abilities that he had.  So he was able to write, because he knew whatever it was he wrote, there were some musicians who could play it.

We had different assorted engagements.  Because there was really not a scene, so to speak, in New Orleans for Modern Jazz.  We did a stint at the Playboy Club for a while, and we lost that job because… See, we were hired to accompany all of the Black artists, singers that were coming into the Playboy Club, and because of segregation, when they stopped coming we didn’t have a job.  That lasted about three months.  Then we would play wherever we could, a club here, a club there, about two or three months here, a couple of jobs there.  Finally, we sort of went in different directions.  Because the ’60s were a little different.  James left I think to go with Lionel Hampton.  He came to New York and played, I think, with Horace Silver for a while, joined Lionel Hampton, he recorded with Yusef Lateef.

TP:    Live at Pep’s, I think.

EM:    Yes, and there’s also an album called Psychomosis, Psycho-something that I think he’s on.  In fact, Yusef recorded the “Magnolia Triangle.”

Eventually James came back to New Orleans, and we started to play again wherever we could.  We played off and on together I guess until just about the time I left to go to Richmond.

TP:    Jason, when did you begin studying individual drummers in terms of styles and the different approaches they took, the different voices of trap drummers — and who were they?

JM:    Very good question.  That didn’t start until I’d just moved back to New Orleans, like Eighth or Ninth Grade.  That’s when I started looking at individual drummers.  I had always heard drummers.  I’d heard Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey, but I hadn’t really studied them.  Around this time I started studying them, and the first drummer I started studying was Jeff “Tain” Watts.  His style with all the polyrhythms he’d be playing and just his powerful sort of style attracted me.  He was the first drummer that I really emulated, copy solos and so on.  A lot of my earlier playing was really influenced by him.

Then after a while I wanted to branch out and deal with the history, like Max Roach, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, like I mentioned earlier.  I decided that I wanted to investigate what these drummers were playing, and I did that for a while.

Then after a while I started investigating drummers like Ed Blackwell.  My Dad would drop me off to school and whatever, and on the way we’d listen to the jazz radio.  There would be some mornings when Ed Blackwell’s drumming would be on the radio, and I’d think, “Man, this is interesting; I’ve never really checked him out; I’m going to have to investigate his playing.”  But the unfortunate thing is, a month later, the next thing I know, he was dead.

TP:    What were the qualities of Blackwell’s style that were so appealing to you and struck you so singularly?

JM:    Well, the first recordings that I started really getting into that he wason was the music of Ornette Coleman.  What I thought was so interesting was his sound.  It was a really clear sound.  Also it had an African quality to it that’s kind of hard to explain.  That’s one of the things that my older brother Wynton was always telling me about.  He said, “Man, check Ed Blackwell out.  He has that African sound in him.”

TP:    Let’s explore that a bit.  How would you define that aspect of his sound?

JM:    Well, Ed Blackwell, from what I know, was really into African music and the African drums.  Pretty recently I’ve been listening to some African percussion, a percussion group from New Guinea.  The rhythms of that music are interesting enough, but there’s a quality about the sound, a very pure, very natural kind of sound, and that’s sort of how Blackwell sounded — it was very pure, very natural, very deep.  I think the way that he would play syncopations was a little different, too, the way he would play on the downbeat.  But that natural, pure sound in his playing was what was really interesting.

TP:    Who are some of the other drummers you’ve gone into and analyzed in depth?

JM:    Another drummer, also by the recommendation of Wynton Marsalis, was a drummer who played with Thelonious Monk by the name of Frankie Dunlop.  When I started getting into him, one of the first things that attracted me was his getting into the beat, so to speak.  Most drummers usually have a set way that they play, a routine way of playing.  But Frankie Dunlop’s playing was not like that.  He was always playing around with the beats.  You’re almost not really sure where the beat is almost.  It’s like someone who plays a trick on, so to speak, like someone who’s joking with you.  You’re not really totally sure where the beat would be.  His drumming has that playful quality to it.

TP:    I’d like to take Ellis Marsalis back a bit, and talk about pianists who had an impact on you back in the 1950s when you were starting to formulate your sense of how your piano style should be, and the ensemble sound as well.

EM:    Well, there was Oscar Peterson, Oscar Peterson and Oscar Peterson.

TP:    That was it.

EM:    Actually, around 1950, Peterson had been in America for I think a year.  He was touring with Jazz at the Philharmonic, and they came to New Orleans.  At that time he was functioning in a duo format with Ray Brown.  I went to hear them, and it fractured me, so to speak.  I had a recording called Stratford Up On Avon with the Oscar Peterson Trio, a vinyl recording, and I just wore it out.  First of all, I had never heard anybody play with that type of agility, in that format.  I had heard Art Tatum play, but Art Tatum was a wizard.  I mean, everybody understood where Art Tatum was coming from who listened.  But Oscar Peterson was a trio player who utilized that medium.  First of all, I never heard anybody play as fast as that in that format.  I just loved it.  In fact, I was so enthralled with Pete, it was years before I went back to listening to Bud Powell and really trying to get to that!

There were lots of influences.  In a way, in the Jazz arena, a pianist sometimes is not always a pianist.  It just depends.  Oscar was definitely a pianist of the first magnitude.  But when I always thought of Thelonious Monk, for instance, as the piano being a vehicle for his music, and his writing was equally as important if not more important than his piano playing.  I mean, it’s as though his piano playing existed to play his music.  Monk apparently could do a lot of different things.  I’ve heard him play Stride, but when he plays Stride it doesn’t sound like Willie the Lion and James P. — it sounds like Monk playing Stride.  And Duke Ellington, who was a wonderful pianist, but somehow it didn’t matter, because what Duke was about was so much bigger than whether he was a piano player.  John Lewis was the same situation.  I love John’s playing, its subtleties, but with him also what he did as a composer was bigger than just the fact that he was a good piano player.

Also, there were the band players.  When I say “band players,” what I mean is there were the players like Richie Powell with the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet, the different piano players that Miles Davis’s band had, the different piano players in Art Blakey’s ensembles.  There are a lot of recordings of musicians that at the time I thought were bands, but they weren’t; they were just recordings where somebody was a leader, and would go out and find some gigs from that recording.  There were a lot of piano players like that.  Wynton Kelly was one, and Red Garland was another one.

Tommy Flanagan was one of the better of those.  But see, Tommy was also bigger than that.  Tommy spent a lot of years with Ella Fitzgerald, and accompanying a vocalist is a very special thing.  Accompaniment is the most difficult thing to teach.  I’ve been teaching for better than twenty years, and I’ve devised methods lately of dealing with the concept of accompaniment.  Usually my piano students, when they get to a certain level, they have to bring a singer into their lesson, and we work on pieces where they are accompanying the singer.  That’s the only way to really do that.  In a setting where a lesson is occurring, we could talk about it all day.  There are a few things about accompaniment everybody should know.  First of all, you should definitely show that you know the song in and out.  If you’re accompanying the vocalist, you’d better know the words.  Also, you’d better be prepared to learn how to breathe with that instrument.  Even though it’s not a wind instrument, the concept of playing is directly connected to the concept of breathing, and you have to understand that each singer… It’s also true for instrumentalists, but I dwell a little bit more on singers from the accompaniment side, because singers are working with something that’s a little different.  The interplay with a soloist is not quite the same.  A singer is trying to deliver a message through the sound-word.  So the enhancement of that is what is expected from the pianist.  I would say, get a recording by Hank Jones, who by the way I think is the consummate concept of a pianist, I mean, a total pianist… Believe me, this doesn’t take anything away from anybody else.  But from an academician who is trying to create Jazz programs, I’d say Hank Jones would be my model of the consummate pianist.  Hank Jones recorded a duo album with Abbey Lincoln recently.  Every student of recording and accompaniment, that recording should be under your pillow, on your CD, wherever you go.  And there are others.

TP:    Could you comment on the piano trio concept of Ahmad Jamal?  Did that have an impact on you in the 1950’s.  I know that Jason also works with the Marcus Roberts Trio, and the first person I thought of when I heard you play (not many people can make me think of this) is Vernell Fournier, a fellow New Orleanian.  Jason is deferring to his father, so Ellis Marsalis first.

EM:    I don’t know if that’s correct, because you addressed it in terms of drumming…

TP:    Well, drumming and the piano trio concept.

EM:    I’ve gotten to know Ahmad, but I’ve never been able to sit down with him and talk about it.  But based upon what I have heard… Ahmad influenced me in ways which I would not consider very complimentary to me or Ahmad.  When he did “Poinciana,” it was one of those songs that we all had to play as a trio.  So what happened is that I listened to “Poinciana” and learned it (in the wrong key, I might add, which is neither here nor there for the listening audience), and it was sort of like emulating Ahmad Jamal, not appreciating the real subtleties of what he was doing.  How many different kinds of grooves he was playing.  How he would use those vamps in ways… A vamp is a consistent pattern that’s played which allows you to play something over that, kind of a static groove, if you will.  It would be years before I would really listen to Ahmad in ways that one needs to listen in order to get the real message.  Without having spoken to him about it, I think maybe that hit he had probably threw a lot of us off.

Now, Miles thought so much of Ahmad Jamal that Miles recorded a lot of Ahmad Jamal’s solos, just played them right out.  I think some of the younger drummers and piano players are now beginning to discover Ahmad.  “We ain’t never heard about that!”  They are now beginning to discover Ahmad.

TP:    One thing about “Poinciana” is that the beat Vernell Fournier is from a vernacular New Orleans rhythm which is now known as the “Poinciana Beat.”

JM:    Well, it’s really some second-line.

TP:    There you go.

JM:    When I first heard that beat, I didn’t know Vernell was from New Orleans, and I was kind of suspicious.  I said, “Man, this sounds like some Second Line.”  But then when I found out he was from New Orleans, I said, “Oh, okay, that solves everything.”  But that’s really the influence of the New Orleans music, the traditional music of New Orleans, be it brass band music or whatever.  That’s really where that beat comes from.

Now, as far as Ahmad Jamal’s trio, it’s interesting, because I’m working with Marcus, and that’s someone Marcus listens to a lot.  When you listen to the Gershwin For Lovers record, you can really hear a lot of the influence of Ahmad Jamal.  One thing Miles Davis said about him was that he liked the fact Ahmad would let the music breathe.  Ahmad used a lot of space in his playing, and that’s one of the things I found interesting about his music as well.  He didn’t necessarily have to razzle-dazzle and play all kinds of fancy stuff.  He would let the music breathe.

Not only that, but my Dad mentioned students… Down in the New Orleans area, every young musician was into Ahmad Jamal!  I don’t know of any young musicians who are not into Ahmad Jamal.  All of them just loved Ahmad Jamal records.  It was really a big thing.  But I think a lot of young pianists and drummers these days are especially influenced by Ahmad Jamal.

TP:    And extrapolating, Vernell Fournier.

JM:    Right.

TP:    One thing about Vernell Fournier and Idris Muhammad, who credited Ellis with bringing him to a Jazz concert for the first time… Idris said he got his unique concept of the bass drum his assimilation of Second Line rhythms.  But both are masters of drum timbres and the sounds of the different components of the trap set in combination.

JM:    That’s a kind of complex thing there!  Well, there’s something about the bass drum that New Orleans drummers have always played differently than drummers from anywhere else. Whether it’s Funk drums, a drummer like Zigaboo Modaliste from the Meters, or whether it’s the traditional Jazz drummers, there’s always something about the bass drum, the way the bass drum grooves that’s always different.  I think one thing is the emphasis that the drummers put on the beat-four.  That’s one of the things I’d say that’s different.

But as far as different timbres, so to speak, there are so many nuances to that, especially listening to a drummer like Vernell Fournier.  One of the things I like about his playing is his brush sound, which was subtle as well as powerful.  Even playing sticks it was sort of the same thing.

TP:    Have you had a second line experience for yourself, in one form or another?

JM:    I’ve had a few.

TP:    Talk about that a bit.

JM:    I’ve done a few performances, Second Line gigs I guess you would say, playing with brass bands.  I’ve played snare drum a few times with some brass bands, and I marched in the Mardi Gras parade once playing snare drums.  So I have played snare drum in a brass band on a few occasions.  There’s also one interesting experience in New Orleans, which can only happen in New Orleans, that a brass band will be just playing in your neighborhood down the street, you’re in your house, then you hear this band playing, and there’s all these people just following them around, and marching in second line along with them.  That’s something that happens, like, whenever.

EM:    That’s an    African tradition.  If a group, especially those who live in the bush, go through a village in a ceremony, the people from the village, some of them will just join right in and follow the ceremony.  That’s the common pleasure that exists today.  There are what they call social and pleasure clubs, and every now and then what they will do is get a brass band and stage a parade.  Which doesn’t specifically have anything to do with Mardi Gras.  They will just stage a parade, and they will march in the area where their club functions.  They just get permits, and they march down the street, and people in the various neighborhoods just jump right out in the street and start what they call the Second Line.

For people who don’t really understand what that means:  See, the Second Line goes all the way back to the days when people who passed away was interred in a grave-site that was always within walking distance of the community that they lived in.  So they would get a band to go out and play some religious music, “Flee As A Bird,” “Just A Little While To Stay Here”…

JM:    “A Closer Walk With Thee.”

EM:    Yeah, “A Closer Walk With Thee.”  After the body is interred, at what is considered to be, as they would say, a respectable distance from the grave-site, you would hear a trumpet player.  He would say DO-DIT-DAH-DIT, like that, which was sort of a signal to the other musicians that they were going to start.  Then usually what would happen, they would start to play something like “Didn’t He Ramble.”  Now, without going off into religion and philosophy, the Christian concept of rejoicing when one passes on, that’s part of that.  The person has lived a life and is now passed on, and the celebration belongs to the people who are alive.  So they would start to play something like “Didn’t He Ramble.”  What would happen, the members of the bereaved’s family would be right behind the band.  The Second Line would be those who had no real kinship, but just came out and joined the celebration, following behind the family, which would be considered the First Line.

Now the tradition, in a somewhat modified sense, is still going pretty strong in New Orleans, except that now grave-sites are not within walking distance, and you may find a band playing and you may not.  But in other kinds of ceremony, you will find… There’s a lot of brass bands.  Whoever is going to New Orleans for the Super Bowl, when you get off that airplane, there will be a brass band at that airport to meet you.

TP:     Speaking of brass bands, Jason, have you been studying and analyzing the older New Orleans drummers such as Baby Dodds?

JM:    Oh, yes.

TP:    Talk about that, and the importance of that concept of playing to a contemporary drummer performing contemporary music.

JM:    It’s good you should mention Baby Dodds, because he’s someone I’ve just started to investigate.  Baby Dodds’ playing is much different than playing now.  One thing that’s different is, for example, he didn’t play like drummers play on brushes, time on brushes and time on the ride cymbal.  He didn’t play like that at all.  I have a recording that Dr. Michael White gave me to record where he’s playing an early form of the drum set, like snare drum, bass drum, two toms, and he’d have woodblocks and cowbells and so forth; the basis of his set was the snare drum and the bass drum, while the other drums were used for decoration.  In the brass bands, the basic setup of the drums was you’d have a snare drummer and a bass drummer — two different drummers.  In his setup, the snare and the bass drum was the main thing happening; the other drums and stuff was just decoration.  That was just some stuff he’d use for fill-ins and so forth.  So how he used his setup is one of the things that’s different about him.

TP:    How do you incorporate that concept, if you do, into what you do in the here and now.

JM:    A very good question.  Well, there are certain things that Baby Dodds played that can be used in the music today. But the music played back then is so much different than the music being played now.  It just was a different time, a different era back then.

TP:    Ellis Marsalis, you said in an earlier interview that you weren’t particularly involved in Second Line experiences, but you were playing saxophone and playing a lot of Rhythm-and-Blues type of saxophone?  Do you think your experience as a saxophonist had a substantial impact on the way you approach the piano?

EM:    Definitely!  In fact, Edward Blackwell told me once that I was not a piano player; I was a transposed saxophonist to piano.  It took me a while to figure out what he meant.  See, I had studied piano, but I had not really approached the piano like Phineas Newborn, Oscar and people like that.  And when I started to play in bands, especially with Blackwell and Nat, and we would do things from Clifford Brown and Max Roach and Miles, the pianistic approach for me was sort of like patchwork.  For one thing, I also realized later on that the concept of accompaniment, or comping as it’s called, was still in a state of evolution.  When you listen to what Bud Powell was doing in earlier years, that kind of accompaniment was nothing close to what was occurring when Miles had Tony, Ron and Herbie.  That rhythm section defined a peak in terms of accompaniment, solos, every aspect of it.

TP:    People are still dealing with the implications of that rhythm section.

EM:    Oh, they’re going to be dealing with that for a long time.  I mean, that was a major breakthrough.  It was like Isaac Newton’s theory.  That was something that was a major breakthrough, and it’s around, and it will be around.  Physicists come and go.  Newton’s concept stays!  That rhythm section virtually defined the small group approach to rhythm section playing and accompaniment.  It was a similar kind of thing that was beginning to evolve.  Wynton Kelly was playing with Miles, and his approach was a lot more closely associated with Paul Chambers and what Jimmy Cobb or Philly Joe Jones was doing.

The historical significance of the Jazz musicians, the contributions have come to us in patchwork, because we’ve never had an institution, a Jazz institution that was a part of the culture.  If you go to Brazil, you’ve got a Samba Club, lots of Samba Clubs.  In Trinidad, there are steel pan bands, lots of them.  It’s in the fabric of the culture.  Jazz has never been in the fabric of American culture.  So everything that came about, came about as a result of so much patchwork.  That’s why people from New Orleans were unique to that.  That was a lot closer to the Caribbean experience.  You talk to some of the guys from Detroit.  I mean, there’s a lot of musicians!  P.C. came from there, Doug Watkins, Ron Carter, Bob Hurst… [END OF SIDE A]

…of the dance, you see, and the dance came about by way of what the American-African brought to that whole experience.  If you were to come to New Orleans tomorrow and there was a brass band down the street, and you would see guys in the Second Line, what you would see is guys doing a strut.  Now, it’s not a military band.  In fact, if you ever go to see what we call SWAC (Southwest Athletic Conference), the Universities of Texas Southern, Jackson State, Southern University, Florida A&M, all those historical Black colleges, you’ll see those marching bands at halftime — they don’t march like soldiers.

TP:    The most advanced trap drummers can be conceived of as analogous to African dancers because in African dance the interdependence of motion of each limb in conjunction with each other is the principle of the dance, and I guess a trap drummer is trying to make the rhythm from each limb, the extension of himself or herself, their own personal dance.

EM:    Well, in the African dance, the difference is going to be in the age.  There are some dances which are primarily for males, older people.  And there’s also some dances and music and rhythms that are primarily for females.  Mainly today we talk about those things which are traditionally done in the bush country.  You get into Lagos and those cities, then you’re looking at skyscrapers and cars and traffic jams, all the things that happen everywhere.

TP:    [ETC. ON MUSIC] A few words about “Cochise.”

EM:    That’s a piece Alvin wrote based on the chord structure of “Cherokee.”  We made a recording of this as youngsters.  I don’t know if it will ever be released.  It was so fast, it was ridiculous.  Talk about youthful energy and arrogance borderlining on stupidity to play like that!  Anyway, it’s a very difficult piece because it reflects the highest level of virtuosity.  Alvin wrote that, and we used to play it, because in those times were going through that young period when you’re feeling your oats.  Like, everything was about how fast can play — that kind of thing.  Forget about the music.  How fast can you play? [LAUGHS] I think “Cochise” was one of the pieces we used in that manner.

[MUSIC:  B/E/J Marsalis & B. Hurst, “Cochise” (1994); E. Marsalis-E. Harris, “Homecoming” (1985); E. Marsalis/ Perillat/J. Black, “Swinging at the Haven” (1962)]

TP:    A few words about the project with Eddie Harris, the great saxophonist and musical thinker who died last year.

EM:    Eddie was an enigma.  It’s very hard to really put him into a category.  As a musician he was extremely well prepared for practically anything.  He evidently had some rather inventive qualities, too.  I remember hearing Eddie play with a machine that had a tape loop, and he would play a Blues, he’d play a chorus, and he would put a solo on it, then it would play back, then he would record another one against that, those two would play back and he would record another one.  I’ve heard him go up to six different tracks on that machine.  And there came a time when he didn’t travel on that machine very much.  I’ve heard him play trumpet by putting a saxophone mouthpiece on the end of the trumpet in the place of a conventional trumpet mouthpiece, and play that. [LAUGHS] And done of these were gimmicky.  It was not a gimmick.  He actually figured out how to make this work.

TP:    He was someone who was tremendously concerned with the permutations of sounds in motion, in many ways.

EM:    Well, Eddie Harris covered a lot of bases.  He had a unique approach to playing jazz, especially those wide intervals that he played, and he was very comfortable in the Pop idiom where there was quality music being played there.  He and Les McCann did several wonderful projects together.

TP:    What was the genesis of your duo recording?  Had you known him for a number of years?  Was it something that just got set up by circumstance?

EM:    It was a combination of both things.  Eddie used to book himself a lot.  He happened to call a club called Tyler’s in New Orleans, which is no longer there.  I happened to be working there that night, and during the break the owner says, “Hey, man, I’ve got Eddie Harris on the phone.  How about a duo with you and Eddie?”  I said, “Yeah, sure.”  I think I’d played with Eddie before at another club in New Orleans, so I knew him.  Anyway, he came in, and we did the duo at this particular club, Tyler’s.

As I remember, maybe David Torkanowsky set the session up.  We went in to Dallas, Texas, to do it.  I’m not sure of all the particulars, but I think David’s the one who set it up.  Now, “Homecoming” was a piece I was surprised was even on the album, let alone the title.  I’d written the piece, and as I was walking out the door to catch the plane, it was laying on my desk, so I said, “Well, I’m not going to do this, but I’ll just take it with me and get Eddie to look at it.”  So I almost didn’t take it to the studio, and we ended up recording it!

But it was always fun to record or work with Eddie, because Eddie was a funny, funny cat.  He had a wonderful sense of humor.  I remember once he told the audience, “I have decided to make a career change, and I am going to be a Rock-and-Roll singer.  I have all of the qualifications necessary — no voice and nerve.”  He was always making witticisms like that.

TP:    Jason Marsalis, what is it that makes your father an educator who is able to produce musicians of the quality of those who’ve come from under his tutelage?

JM:    Bright students perhaps! [LAUGHS] That’s a very good question.  Hmm.  I don’t know…

TP:    Not to put you on the spot or anything.

JM:    It’s interesting, because a lot of people ask me what has my father taught me.  Now, I’ve learned from him in different ways, but not necessarily in the concept of teacher-student.  It’s moreso father-and-son than teacher-and-student.  As far as teacher goes, he’s always found good teachers for me when it comes to studying percussion, whether it was classical percussion or studying drums or whatever.  He’s always found good teachers for me in that aspect.  But as far as his qualities as a teacher, it’s hard to tell.

I think one of the things with him teaching at the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts in New Orleans at that particular time… One good way of explaining it is maybe it was one of those things that was the right place at the right time, the way the whole school jelled.  It was a great faculty… Just the people who came together at that time.  The students that were there.. There was just something about that particular time.  I mean, I was a baby then!

As far as him being a teacher, one thing is that teaching wasn’t what he was set out to do at first.  Playing was really the first thing.  In fact, me and my older brother Delfayo had a debate about that, whether my father was a teacher or a player.  Delfeayo was, “He’s a player!” and I was, “No, he’s a teacher!”

TP:    There are some strong personalities in the family, in case people out there don’t know it.

JM:    There sure are.

EM:    This is probably very difficult for Jason to answer, because he was the only musician who went to that school that I didn’t teach, because I wasn’t there at that time.  But the thing about it was that… A lot of what he said, too, was correct.  First of all, the time in America was such that the magnet school concept was prevalent.  A lady named Shirley Trusty, who is now Shirley Trusty Corey(?), was very instrumental in getting a grant that ultimately helped to create the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.  As a result, we were able… When I say “we,” I mean the whole faculty, because there were four disciplines… Let’s see, it was five disciplines eventually.  I started out with music, dance, theater and visual arts, and then creative writing was added later.

When we started out, our mission was to give students the opportunity to explore the creative area so that they could make career decisions relating to the arts.  It wasn’t the objective to crank out a bunch of Jazz musicians or Classical musicians or anything!  It was really to try to help students to understand what this was all about and make decisions in high school.  Those who needed to go further, went further, and left and attended Juilliard… Branford left and went to Southern University and eventually to Berklee.  Donald Harrison went to Berklee.  Later on, Harry Connick, Jr., went to Loyola University for a semester, and later attended Manhattan School of Music.  And there were any number of people who went into Classical music and conservatories.

What we tried to do, and had the opportunity to do mainly because this was a magnet school, the students who came to the school could use their electives to choose which discipline to be in.  So we had a model school.  We had 100 percent opportunities to present what we wanted to present the way we wanted to present it.  We had virtually no support from the Board of Education.  There was no budgeting for anything like what we were doing.  The Federal Government was fast disappearing from those concepts.  But for the most part, we were able to get students at a young enough age… We had a grant, which was very important to our program.  It was only $8 an hour.  That was it!  But most of the guys in the Symphony Orchestra would agree to teach for the grant and a couple of dollars above that.  That meant that the students got very good instrumental instruction from people in the orchestra.  And it didn’t matter… See, we didn’t really deal as much with the concept of Jazz and Classical music as a separate thing.  If a person wanted to concentrate on Classical music, obviously that’s what they did, and they spent as much time as it took for them to get into a major institution.  If the student said, “Well, I want to be a Jazz player,” he got the fundamentals from studying what would be Classical music –but major scales and triads are not necessarily Classical music; they’re just the fundamentals.

TP:    That word “fundamentals” is perhaps the key to your gift as a teacher, that you seem to have the ability to break down almost any body of work into its fundamentals and are able to communicate them in a very practical way to students, and I think the proof is in the pudding.


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Filed under Alvin Batiste, Branford Marsalis, Ellis Marsalis, Jason Marsalis, Jazz Education, New Orleans, Ornette Coleman, Piano, Wynton Marsalis

On Hugh Masekela’s Birthday, An Uncut Blindfold Test from 2009

In celebration of the 74th birthday of South African trumpeter, flugelhorn, and cornet master (and singer) Hugh Masekela, I’m offering the uncut transcript of a DownBeat Blindfold Test I had the privilege of conducting with him in 2009.

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1. Max Roach-Booker Little, “Tears for Johannesburg” (from WE INSIST: FREEDOM NOW SUITE, Candid, 1960) (Roach, drums, composer; Booker Little, trumpet; Julian Priester, trombone; Walter Benton, tenor saxophone; Abbey Lincoln, voice; James Schenk, bass)

I really liked that. I have no idea who it could be. But it reminds me a lot of the kind of things that Max Roach was doing in the late ‘60s, and it sounded… He had a group with Booker Little. But he did some things where he got guys like Chief Bey to come and play. I think it was Max’s era, when he was really into African activism. Yeah. But I loved it, man. I don’t know who it is. It could have been Charles Tolliver on trumpet, or Booker Little, or Cecil Bridgewater. But I’m not good at guessing. 5 stars. I really loved it. [AFTER] I went to school with Booker Little, you know, at Manhattan School of Music. I was very close to Max and Abbey. I’m very happy that I guess it right. The last time I did this test was with Leonard Feather in 1967, and I got everything wrong. This is the first time I passed anything in this test!

2. Mongezi Feza, “Diamond Express” (from Dudu Pukwana, DIAMOND EXPRESS, Arista, 1975) (Mongezi Feza, trumpet; Dudu Pukwana, alto saxophone; Frank Roberts, keyboards;  Lucky Ranko, guitar; Ernest Othole, electric bass; Louis Moholo, drums)

I’m going to guess here. I don’t know when it would have been, but it sounds very much like Dudu Pukwana on saxophone, and it could be either when they were with Chris McGregor and then when they were the Blue Notes, or maybe later on the Brotherhood of Breath. The guitar player sounded like Lucky Ranko, and it sounded like those guys when they were in London. I don’t know whether Johnny Dyani was on bass, and Mongezi Feza on trumpet probably. But that definitely was Dudu Pukwana. I was a great friend of Dudu’s, and we did a great album together that’s still a collector’s item called Home Is Where the Music Is. I loved Dudu. He was one of the most beautiful players. I was really heartbroken when he went away. But that’s a wonderful South African groove. I wish that the South African musicians could be listening to stuff like this. It definitely starts to bring back… But it’s beautiful. 5 stars. [AFTER] They came over to England… This was the second group after we formed the Jazz Epistles with Abdullah Ibrahim (who was Dollar Brand then), and Johnny Gertze (bass), and Makhaya Ntshoko on drums, and Jonas Gwangwa on trombone, and Kippie Moeketsi on saxophone. We were a group called the Jazz Epistles, and we did the first long-playing record by an African group in South Africa in 1959. It’s still a collector’s item. Then I left, and Jonas went to… Well, we broke up because after the Sharpeville massacre, gatherings of more than ten people were not allowed, and we were just about to go… We had just broken out, we were about to go on a national tour of South Africa, and we would have been the first instrumental group to be able to do that, and we had to break up. But then a year or two later, the Blue Notes, formed by Chris McGregor and Dudu Pukwana, came out of South Africa, and they came out to, like, Switzerland, and they did extremely well. They really took Europe by storm. Louis Moholo was on drums, and he’s the only one alive of them. All of them died. Dudu died. Mongezi Feza, the trumpet player, died. Johnny Dyani on bass died. Chris McGregor also passed away. Whenever I see Louis Moholo, he goes, “One man standing!” [LAUGHS] But I loved those guys. They were fantastic musicians. I’m crazy about that album. I’m going to get that album for myself, if I can find it.

3. Wynton Marsalis, “Place Congo” (from CONGO SQUARE, JALC, 2008) (Marsalis, composer; Soloists: Andre Haywood, trombone; James Zollar, trumpet; Sherman Irby, alto saxophone; Yacub Addy, master drum)

Wow, that’s beautiful. I really enjoyed that. You have to make me a copy of all these records! That sounded like something from the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. Max Roach started this whole interest in African music, and at the same time, it sounded very much like something…if Duke Ellington wanted to write an African suite, he would have done an arrangement like that. So I suspected at one time that it was him. But I really have no idea who it was. I keep hearing people like Chief Bey playing in the drum section. But it was really a beautiful African kind of suite, a la Duke Ellington. I don’t know if somebody was trying to imitate him. Five stars. It’s really beautiful. I really don’t know who it was. I thought I heard Eric Dolphy or somebody somewhere there. [AFTER] Wynton Marsalis! Really. He didn’t play a solo.  I think that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard that he’s done. It’s a great collaboration. It’s definitely Duke Ellington-esque. Something that, like I said, Duke would have done—the voicings, the solos, and some of the contemporary stuff. It’s very beautiful.  Five stars.

4. Jerry Gonzalez, “To Wisdom The Prize” (from MOLIENDO CAFÉ, Sunnyside, 1991) (Jerry Gonzalez, flugelhorn, congas; Carter Jefferson, tenor saxophone; Joe Ford, alto saxophone; Larry Willis, composer, piano; Andy Gonzalez, bass; Steve Berrios, percussion)

I have no idea who that might be. For a time there, the piano player sounded like Larry Willis, who I started playing with… My first group was with Larry Willis. It sounded maybe like it could be one of Larry’s records. I’m not sure. The piano solos and the voicings and all that; Larry did pretty nice stuff like that. If the guy isn’t Larry Willis, then he tries to play like him—or he influenced Larry Willis, one of the two. The trumpet player with the beautiful fat tone, I don’t know who it might be. Maybe Eddie Henderson. I have no idea. But I liked that very much. Four stars. I have no idea who it was. [AFTER] Who’s playing trumpet? Jerry? Fantastic. I liked it very much.

5. Amir El-Saffar, “Flood” (from TWO RIVERS, Pi, 2007) (Amir ElSaffar: trumpet, arranger; Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Zaafer Tawil: violin, oud, dumbek; Tareq Abboushi: buzuq, frame drum; Carlo DeRosa: bass; Nasheet Waits: drums)

I got very thirsty on that one. It was very sort of Middle Eastern jazz or Arabic jazz, or maybe Saharan jazz. I had pictures of camels and a lot of sand and sandstorms, and I was dying for an oasis. I have no idea who it is. But thematically, I enjoyed it very much, because obviously it had a Saharan-Middle Eastern thing.  I don’t know who it is. I’m not a critic of people who play. But I would give it three stars. [AFTER] Well, I wasn’t too off when I said it was Arabic-Saharan jazz.

6. Charles Tolliver, “Chedlike” (from EMPEROR MARCH, Half Note, 2009) (Tolliver, trumpet s solo, composer, arranger; Cameron Johnson, Michael Williams, Keyon Harrold, David Weiss, trumpets; Mike Dease, Jason Jackson, Stafford Hunter, Ernest Stewart, Aaron Johnson,  trombones; Bill Saxton, Bruce Williams, Todd Bashore, Billy Harper, Marcus Strickland, Jason Marshall, saxophones, woodwinds; Anthony Wonsey. piano; Reginald Workman, bass; Gene Jackson, drums)

I loved it. It sounded like somebody trying to imitate Gil Evans. If it wasn’t the Gil Evans band, then it was somebody who is a big fan of Gil Evans. The drummer reminded me a lot of Elvin Jones. I don’t know anybody else who played like that. If it’s not Elvin Jones, it’s a great fan of Elvin Jones. I was crazy about both of them. The first night I came to New York, in 1960, I saw Elvin Jones with John Coltrane, Reggie Workman and McCoy Tyner, and I’d never seen a drummer play like that. This reminded me of that night in September 1960. All the work Gil Evans did with Miles Davis was just phenomenal. I have all his stuff. I loved that very much. I don’t know who the trumpet player was. It could have been Johnny Coles. I’m not sure. Johnny Coles played much more mellow. So I’ll give it four stars. [AFTER] So Charles must have been a great fan of Gil Evans. Or Gil Evans must have been a great fan of Charles Tolliver. I don’t know who came first. The arrangement was very Gil Evansish. I know Charles a long time.

7. Brecker Brothers, “Wakaria (What’s Up?)” (from RETURN OF THE BRECKER BROTHERS, GRP, 1992) (Randy Brecker, trumpet and flugelhorn; Michael Brecker, tenor saxophone, composer, arranger; Armand Sabal-Lecco, bass, piccolo bass, drums, percussion, vocals, arranger; Max Risenhoover, snare programming & ride cymbal; George Whitty, keyboards; Dennis Chambers, drums

Very nice. I don’t know who that is. I have no idea who that is. But I loved the arrangement. It sounded like a recent recording (I might be wrong). I really enjoyed it. 4½ stars. I have no idea who it is. I really loved it. The trumpet sounded like it was played through some kind of electronic… I’ll tell you something. To a great extent, after the ‘60s, after Miles and Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro and Dizzy, all those guys from that time, and of course Louis before that…you could always tell who was playing. But later on, it became very technical, and people became very technically proficient. You couldn’t really tell who they were. They were technically unbelievable, but you just couldn’t say there is so-and-so. I guess also having been away from the States for over 18 years, I haven’t followed any of the new developments. But it was technically very, very proficient. I loved the arrangement. In fact, I’m still remembering the melody. It’s a very nice children’s song kind of thing. I don’t know     it was. [AFTER] The Breckers. I didn’t know their work very well. I loved Michael’s playing a lot. Again, for me, even though they’re techincally proficient, I could never say that’s Michael… After Coltrane, after the guys from the ‘50s and ‘60s, everybody else seemed to imitate them in one way or the other, and I never could put my finger on them and say it’s so-and-so. Because it seemed like after that, there was nowhere to go. Fusion came in, and all kinds of things. {How did you deal with that yourself?] Well, I came here as a bebopper, and my story is that I had hoped to play with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, because that was like the college of everybody. But everybody said, “Form your own group. You come from Africa. Let’s see what… You should be teaching us stuff. You shouldn’t be imitating us. As a result, I reverted back to the township dance bands that I came from, and my thing became sort of a hybrid between that and jazz. I went back to the township. I think that’s what makes me stand out, not to sound like other people.

8. Dizzy Gillespie, “Africana” (from GILLESPIANA, Verve, 1961) (Soloists: Gillespie, trumpet; Leo Wright, flute; Lalo Schifrin, piano, composer; Art Davis, bass; Chuck Lampkin, drums)

That sounded like somebody trying to imitate Dizzy Gillespie—or Dizzy himself. The flute a little bit sounded like it might have been James Moody. I don’t know how long ago it was done. If it wasn’t Dizzy, it could have been Jon Faddis. But it felt to me like Dizzy Gillespie. I loved the piece. It sounded like something Dizzy would have done. It’s very Dizzy-esque. I don’t know who might have arranged it or when it was done. I remember a time when he was doing a lot of work with Quincy Jones, but that sounds like something maybe much later. But I loved it very much. 5 stars. [AFTER] Beautiful. Well, Dizzy was the Svengali and god of the trumpet. So many people came from him. Harmonically, he was so amazing. He could do soft things. He did beautiful things on the Harmon mute. He played Harmon mute on that. He and Miles were like the… When they played the Harmon mute, I threw mine away. I stopped playing the mute when I heard Dizzy and Miles play. Dizzy used to play it on “Con Alma,” on… but he was a god.

Dizzy was also the most beautiful person I ever met. For me, he was like a foster dad. He bought me my first winter coat when I came to the States. He sent me records in South Africa long before I came. I met him through Miriam, who he really loved and looked after. She introduced me to him by letter. We didn’t have phones at that time. The first night I came to New York, Dizzy was playing at the Jazz Gallery, opposite Monk, and he had insisted that as soon as I land I have to call him and come see him wherever he was—and he happened to be at the Jazz Gallery. He introduced me to Monk when he came off the set. He had that band. He had Leo Wright and Chris White and Rudy Collins and Lalo Schiffrin on piano. They’d just come back from South America, and he was playing “Desafinado” and “Con Alma” and all those Brazilian songs. Then he introduced me to Monk and said, “Thel, Thel, this is that little trumpet player I was telling you about who was coming from Africa,” and Monk stuck out his hand, a limp hand, and he went, ‘NEIGHHH…,” heh-heh-heh, and walked away. Dizzy’s like, “Oh, Thel, you was born dead.” Then he said, “Listen, Max wants to meet you.” Max was playing around the corner with Booker Little and Eric Dolphy was on saxophone, opposite the Mingus band. He took me there and introduced me to Max. At the time Max was with Abbey, and really into the anti-apartheid movement. Members, Don’t Be Weary, right? I had just come off the plane from England. When I came back to the Jazz Gallery, he said, “Where are you going?” I said, “I have to go and sleep, man—I’m going home.” He said, “No-no-no, you can’t sleep; you can’t go home. I told Coltrane that you were coming to see him. He’s waiting for you. You’ve got to go to the Half Note. So I went to the Half Note, and I stayed there til 4 in the morning. When I got out of the Half Note, I got out of the cab, and I Coltrane and McCoy Tyner and Reggie Workman were waiting on the sidewalk for me. Dizzy had told them, “This guy is coming.” So Dizzy introduced me to everybody. In one night, I saw him, I saw Monk, I saw Max, I saw Charlie Mingus, and I saw Trane. And I left the Half Note at 4 in the morning. 5½ stars for Dizzy. 7 stars!

9.  Jon Hassell, “Northline” (#9) (from LAST NIGHT THE MOON CAME DROPPING ITS CLOTHES IN THE STREET, ECM, 2009) (Hassell, trumpet; Peter Freeman, bass; Jan Bang, live sampling; Elvind Aarset, guitar; Helge Norbakken, drums)

I don’t know who it is. But I think only Miles was able to play in those dark, sleepy moods, and still keep you up. This one was too foggy and misty for me. 2 stars. It sounded like a soundtrack, an effect for something. It could have been a soundtrack. I don’t knock anybody. A fantastic lower register technique, a beautiful tone, but it didn’t go anywhere, didn’t take me anywhere. [AFTER] I wasn’t too far off. It was a mood compositional kind of thing. It sounded like something for a movie where the murder is hiding in the fog.

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A 2006 DownBeat Feature On Wynton Marsalis, Who Turned 50 Yesterday

I couldn’t attend Wynton Marsalis’s four 50th birthday concerts in which he presented repertoire from his 30+ years in the music business. All accounts state — no doubt accurately — that to witness them was an extraordinary experience.

I’ve admired Marsalis since 1981, when I heard him playing with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams at the Chicago Jazz Festival. The feeling was reinforced not long thereafter, an extraordinary concert at New York’s Public Theater with Alvin Batiste, Ed Blackwell, his father, Ellis Marsalis, his brother Branford, and bassist Mark Helias. A decade before, I’d conducted two extended interviews with Wynton, resulting in this article, which has been on the Internet for a while.

In 2005, DownBeat gave me an opportunity to write an extended feature on Wynton. Unfortunately, for space reasons, they had to cut my final draft — here’s the “directors’ cut,” so to speak.

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That Wynton Marsalis does not think small was evident last November 14th, when Jazz at Lincoln Center threw a thousand-dollar-a-ticket fundraiser to celebrate its Artistic Director’s quarter century in the spotlight.

When the Rose Theater’s lights dimmed, television journalist Ed Bradley, the evening’s host, brought Marsalis on stage to a standing ovation from a crowd  primarily of donors from New York’s finance, real estate and media industries, intelligentsia, and eminent entertainers, all attired in black ties, cummerbunds, and designer gowns. Themselves tuxedoed, Bradley and Marsalis turned to a projection of 1979 high school yearbook photo of an Afroed, grinning Marsalis, trumpet in hand. “Pet peeve: Sucking valves,” read the salutation. “Biggest weakness: Bach Stradivarius trumpets.”

Another slide popped up. “Always saying: ‘Be cool, white boy,’” read the top inscription. The crowd laughed uneasily. Marsalis shook his head with a rueful smile, and Bradley joked about youthful indiscretion. The line below stated: “Ambition: ‘Transcend the f****g music being played today.’”

Interrupted by testimonials from various JALC dignitaries,  Marsalis spent the next 90 minutes demonstrating how assiduously he had applied himself to the latter aspiration. He played standards with flair—a burnished, elegant “Embraceable You” in duo with Hank Jones; signifying with the mute behind Diana Krall on “East Of The Sun”; stretching out with old piano partner Marcus Roberts on “Cherokee”—but he also prepared a tasting menu of ambitious compositions from the ’90s that reflect his omnivorous interests. The material was decidedly not about conceptualism, nor juxtaposing materials, nor conveying philosophical notions at the expense of human feeling. Rather, Marsalis pursued an aesthetic propagated by his intellectual mentor, Albert Murray, and actualized by painter-collagist Romare Bearden, who expressed a modernist sensibility through deploying an iconography of American vernacular archetypes.

For example, on “Many Gone,” a spiritual from At The Octoroon Balls, the Kronos Quartet conveyed Stravinsky-like harmonies with timbre and attack drawn from American fiddle music. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra displayed its mastery of Ellingtonian erotica behind two Alvin Ailey dancers on “Home: Beyond This Rage,” a vignette from Sweet Release. Gospel diva Kim Burrell raised the roof on “Oh, What A Friend We Have In Jesus/God Don’t Like Ugly,” from Blood On The Fields, Marsalis’ 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz oratorio.

With Joe Lovano standing in for Branford Marsalis and Jason Marsalis for Jeff Watts, Marsalis played “Hesitation” from his eponymous 1982 debut, engaging Lovano in extended, abstract counterpoint. Herlin Riley displayed his assimilation of New Orleans drum vocabulary on “Uptown Ruler,” a Coltrane-esque blues in 5/4 from the late-’80s Soul Gestures In Southern Blue series that marked Marsalis’ embrace of an across-the-timeline aesthetic. To conclude the evening, LCJO played “The Caboose,” the kaleidoscopic end car of Marsalis’ complex, Ellington-inspired 1998 suite, Big Train, replete with intricate ensemble dialogues, highwire brass unisons, instrumental onomatopoeia, a shouted question from Wycliffe Gordon (“somebody, somebody, somebody, please tell me; I want to know just how the big train goes”), and an inclusive choral response from the band in a hymnal subtone (“big train from the east, big train from the west”).

The lyric is emblematic of the scope of Marsalis’ ambition and accomplishment. At 44, he’s perhaps the most visible jazz artist on the planet—he’s filled clubs and concert halls since he formed his first band at 20, and became a bona fide mainstream celebrity at 23, when he won his first Classical Grammy. But he feels, with some justification, that the impact of his corpus on the sound of jazz today is less than it might be.

“I know people haven’t listened to the music, because they tell me so,” Marsalis said on the first press day of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 2005-06 season. “Musicians who come into the band always say, ‘I didn’t realize it was that hard,’ or ‘I never heard it.’”

“I think his major contribution was on the political side, raising the visibility of jazz, but I don’t hear anything within his music that I see as a big contribution to the SOUND of today,” says trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, voicing a sentiment expressed off the record by a cross-generational sampling of musicians. “Now, he has influenced a ton of trumpet players, though not really me. He’s very akin to Clark Terry in his phrasing, the way he ghosts the notes. I saw Wynton on a PBS special with Kathleen Battle when I was starting out. I was very classical music oriented then, and it excited me, partly because it was a black person playing the shit out of the trumpet. So I decided to check out The Majesty of the Blues. I returned it right away. With his band, it feels like he wants to educate you. That’s great, but after a while, you feel like you’re  in a seminar or clinic.”

But what a clinic!  “To be to able to hear things the way he hears them is pretty amazing,” said pianist Eric Reed in 1997, after six years in Marsalis’ employ. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, dude, what’s going on in your head?’  To be able to commit that to paper is even more amazing, and getting a group of individuals to play that compounds the amazement. Wynton has unlimited resources, and he’s able to commit to a musical vision, which is unique in the jazz world.”

“Wynton developed in a fishbowl,” says David Berger. “He’s a big risk-taker, and any mistakes he’s made, the whole world watched, whereas most of us did that] while we were in school.”

“You haven’t heard me talk about other people’s music since I became a man,” Marsalis says, referring to the famously irascible statements of his youth, but he remains anything but shy in conveying strongly held ideas about what jazz is and is not, and hews to this pedagogy in selecting repertoire. In response, disaffected jazzfolk have attacked his motives with almost prosecutorial suspicion, disparaged his talent, critiqued his taste, and caricatured him as a musical analog to Reagan-Bush Republicanism. More often than not, the nay-saying has a tabloidish and assumptive connotation, eschewing concrete musical issues and presenting personal tastes and resentments as objective declarations of fact.  Now it’s hard to find an article about JALC in the mainstream press that does not include the C-word.

“It’s our house,” Marsalis likes to say about Jazz at Lincoln Center, showing thick skin in public. But he hears the catcalls.

The trope that the musical community is more attuned to the external trappings that frame Marsalis’ career than to the actual particulars of his production dates to his early years in the spotlight. “The unfortunate circumstance of Wynton being Wynton prevented any real acceptance of the importance of what they were doing,” said trombone playing brother Delfeayo Marsalis on the response of his mid-’80s peer group at Berklee School of Music to Wynton’s first quintet. “They were paying attention to Branford and Wynton—moreso Wynton—as a commodity.”

“I agree with that,” Wynton said. “Because so much of the response was anti, it cheated a lot of musicians out of the chance to figure out how to get to the next step in their evolution. They ended up just imitating stuff from the ’60s or ’50s, erroneously thinking that’s what we were doing. But that’s not what we do.

“My conception is holistic. Instead of being relegated to our time period, we can be in time. We had Afros in the ‘70s. Everybody used suss chords then. Now we can use suss chords and triads and New Orleans grooves, and do the 1960 jazz imitation of what the avant-garde musicians played in Germany in 1912—the chaos element. All the music that’s in one consciousness is the same. We are free to utilize all that we know, because we don’t have to appeal to a tradition, and we can create a truly modern music that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard, but is also traditional. It’s revolutionary in its implications. All of it exists at one time.”


Two days before Christmas, Marsalis spoke about  ‘All Rise,’ his 90-minute, 12-movement, millennial opus for symphony orchestra, big band and vocal choir, in which he weaves together the various genres, styles and forms that he explored during the ‘90s and incorporates a global array of rhythms, melodies and scales.  “I thought about it way back in high school,” he said at his Upper West Side highrise. “I was always dreaming, and I thought, ‘What if you could put all of the music together and everybody played at one time, but they were all playing stuff that was hard for them to play?’”

An edition of Yeats’ poems lay open on the table in front of his living room couch, and a floor compartment beneath it contained a washboard, the recent Fagels translation of The Iliad, W.C. Sebold’s Austerlitz, Walter van de Leur’s biography of Billy Strayhorn, and Runaway Slave Advertisements.. On a coffee table across the room stood side-by-side sculpted chess sets with matches in progress. Occupying the southwest corner is a piano, piled with books (the Joyce Carol Yates-edited “Best American Essays of the Century,” Eileen Southern’s “History of Afro-American Artists”), scores (among them a folio of Bartok’s String Quartets), and tools of the composer’s trade, such as tuning forks and a slide rule with chords.

Marsalis wrote “All Rise” on commission from ’90s New York Philharmonic head Kurt Masur, and premiered it in 1999. “He brought the idea of using a lot of different traditions and of it being a full evening, which was a risk for him,” Delfeayo said. “He wanted to continue that strain in Gershwin and Bernstein of dealing with Afro-American music and music from the European tradition.”

During a well-received October 2005 U.K. tour of “All Rise” that received reviews with such words as “herculean” and “brilliant,” Masur told a journalist that Marsalis’ understanding of his “basic idea—to reflect how jazz began,” was “absolutely philosophical.”

“In classical music that’s a plus,” Marsalis responded to Masur’s comment. “In jazz, it’s a minus, like something is wrong with you. People who are intellectuals in this music, like John Lewis or Dizzy or Duke Ellington, their music is not dealt with for what it is. People kept crying for Ellington’s music between 1938 and 1942, that it was his best period. All of his music has such depth and complexity. From a philosophic standpoint, what he actually put together begs to be treated on a serious level.”

If he wrote a book about Ellington, what points would he emphasize?

“First would be what in his philosophy allowed him to have such an unbelievably long, sustained development,” Marsalis said. “In the ‘New Orleans Suite’ from 1970 and ‘Black And Tan Fantasy,’ which he wrote in the ’20s, he deals with the same thing—blues, call-and-response, the antiphonal relationship between brass and woodwinds, mood pieces, shuffles. What does his development teach us in terms of his sustained seriousness of his art?

“I could pull out hundreds of  technical things that he invented. How he uses the blues inside of voicings and in the progressions he wrote, how he used the sound of the blues to modulate, how he used metric modulations in ‘Harlem.’ Why he liked that real straight vocal music. How he appropriated New Orleans counterpoint. What he looked for in vernacular music to put in his style. More than the technical things, why did he want to do that? The majority of his songs were not what his audience wanted. Nobody was clamoring to hear ‘Such Sweet Thunder.’”

What drove Ellington to do it?

“He wanted to be great,” Marsalis exclaimed with a long, it-ought-to-be-obvious laugh. “That’s why he searched around to figure out what in all this experience would lead him to the deepest regions of his musicianship and help him to develop his greatness.”

It’s impossible to interpret Marsalis’ assessment of Ellington as anything but a self-descriptive aesthetic manifesto. “Wynton does not want to equal anybody,” said multireedist Victor Goines, who first met Marsalis in kindergarten. Hanging out with Marsalis when both were 14, Goines heard him play Coltrane’s “Countdown” solo and decided that jazz was what he wanted to do. He joined the Marsalis Septet in 1993, allowing Marsalis to add the clarinet to his tonal palette.

“He has to surpass,” Goines said. “The only yardstick that is an accurate length for him is Duke Ellington.”

Stanley Crouch and Murray introduced Marsalis to Ellington during the ’80s. Gunther Schuller and then David Berger schooled him on Ellington’s scores. By 1985, when Branford and Kenny Kirkland jumped ship to join Sting on the cusp of the release of Black Codes From The Underground, the groundwork was set for Marsalis to realign.

“I heard that Albert Murray told him something along the lines of, ‘You will be more able to achieve your goals and vision whenever you start to do more things with musicians who are not your peers, and will more readily focus on what you’re trying to do,’” Watts recalled.

“The first band broke up too soon,” Marsalis acknowledges. “We had some impact, but it could have been greater if we’d stayed together longer. It seemed like everybody picked up on Black Codes From The Underground and liked it. It was high-energy playing. Tain’s combination of fusion and jazz; Kenny Kirkland’s rhythmic propulsion and sophistication; my interplay with Branford on ‘Hesitation,’ which comes from the New Orleans way of playing and the vocabulary of modern jazz. We put a New Orleans Two-Way-Pocky-Way groove and extended rhythms—stuff I’d heard from James Black and my father, using six-bar phrases or 3/4 bars—in the middle of Black Codes. Modulating into different keys within a song, like on ‘Delfeayo’s Dilemma,’ where I play in one key, Branford in another, and Kenny Kirkland in another key. On ‘Twilight,’ we improvised counterpoint at the same time. We phrased our melodies with a funky New Orleans flavor, but still in modern jazz.”

“The early band will have to go down historically as one of the more important small ensembles, but the way things have developed, you almost have to pretend that period didn’t exist, because you can’t find the individuals to re-create it,” Delfeayo Marsalis said. “These guys were going for a high level of intellectual expression. The compositional structure was well-conceived and different, but also it was a great improvising band. Those guys came together, and that hardcore jazz was the right thing for the right time. It was fortunate and unfortunate that it broke up. The level of intellectual challenge that he personally has received after early 1987 is limited. But he will always figure out a way to work the situation, and he became a great sculptor of greater works of music.”

“That’s the type of commentary you always get from people who don’t know what they’re talking about,” Marsalis says. “I think that at a certain moment Delfeayo liked that particular band.”

In Marsalis’ view, the period to which his younger brother refers was a time of philosophical solidification. “First I had to put the history of jazz together in my mind,” he says. “When Albert Murray’s book, Good Morning Blues came out, I played at a party at the Village Gate with Rudy Rutherford, Freddie Green, Buck Clayton, and other older cats who’d played with Basie. I’d played with the bebop musicians, like Max Roach and Art Blakey and Philly Joe, and I knew Miles and Dizzy and Art Farmer. I’d played with Herbie and Tony and Ron Carter. I’d played with Lester Bowie. But I’d never played with musicians from that generation. That was my missing link.

“To sit with all of them and check out their way of playing, the life in their music—it’s like what I knew my whole life. I could fit in easily with the essence of what they were playing. I thought I was going to play modern music—some scales, D over G, all the chords, playing in 5/4. That wasn’t something they could play on. They started just playing riffs. I’m from New Orleans, and grew up hearing riffs. Now, they weren’t men who were going to patronize you. They were like, ‘Damn, that’s a hip-ass riff. Shit, youngster, you might be for real.’ That night I went home and said, ‘Now I understand something.’

“In 1985 Sweets Edison told me something that had a profound effect. He said, ‘Don’t wait for nobody to validate you. You’re from New Orleans. You grew up a certain way. I knew you when you was a boy. You ain’t all this shit that they’re sayin’. You’re not from the North. You’re already yourself. All you got to do is be what you are.’”

Edison’s reference was to Marsalis’ upbringing in the hothouse musical culture of ‘70s New Orleans, where, as Marsalis put it, “musicians work—the gigs don’t pay that much, but you play. I always had a job. I would come home at 1 or 2 in the morning and go to school at 7. I played as much as I could possibly play.”

From 13 to 16, Wynton and Branford earned up to $100 a night with a funk band called the Creators, playing covers of ‘70s R&B hits at outdoor dances, receptions, weddings and the like, subverting the surroundings, Branford recalls, with segues from, say, a Parliament line into a tune by Deodato. Wynton played show tunes with a community band comprised of band directors, marched on parades, played classical music with his high school peer group in the New Orleans Youth Orchestra, with adult amateurs in the New Orleans Civic Orchestra, with symphony brass quartets and quintets. Himself no churchgoer, he played the black church circuit with pianist Kermit Campbell, internalizing the ritual of the service. He played Chick Corea tunes and “‘70s things on the cusp of fusion” with an adult band at Tyler’s Beer Gardens in the French Quarter. And he practiced four or five hours a day, an hour before school, an hour at lunch, an hour before dinner, an hour after the evening’s gig.

“In jazz, the thought always was you play whatever you feel,” Marsalis said. “But to achieve something and be successful in classical music, it was a given that you had to know the history.” Branford Marsalis recalls Wynton coming home from his trumpet lesson “with this big-assed book on Austria. He said, ‘Mr. Janson said that I will never be able to play Mozart unless I understand the people and the times that created him.’” Towards that end, Wynton bought natural trumpets, and systematically taught himself the instrument’s history and literature. Afternoons from 1 to 5, he attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where his father had established the jazz curriculum. There he learned theory from “my great teacher” Bert Braud, whose theme-and-variation class subsumed Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Bach.

Perhaps most importantly, Marsalis rejected the generation gap. “They were so much hipper than us,” he laughs, referring to Ellis Marsalis and such family friends as Clark Terry, Blue Mitchell and Sweets Edison. “We had our lifestyle. But compared to Blue Mitchell? Shit! Jazz musicians don’t get dated. You’re not going to rebel against them. My Dad’s vibe was always, ‘If you really want to rebel against me, come up with something that I don’t understand. Don’t come to me with some bullshit.’ Or ‘the greatest rebellion is self-financed; you’re not really serious about rebelling.” He was serious when he told you that. He was ready for you to be gone! ‘Man, I don’t need you to tell me what to do. Leave! Get your own crib. It’s hard out here with all these kids. I don’t have time to be up babysitting you while you’re trying to live out the American Dream with no money.’”

Stories of prodigies who didn’t fulfill their promise are commonplace in the arts. But Marsalis—who was getting local press by 15 and enjoying the attention of women who found intriguing the sight of the studious, bespectacled young trumpeter doing his homework between sets while “everyone was getting drunk or high”  (“The older ones would say, ‘Are you doin’ your homework, baby?’ ‘Yeah, can you help me with this?’)—did not allow approbation from neighborhood down-homes or local gentry to turn his head.

“I wasn’t impressionable,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to fit in with anyone. My Daddy’s friends were too much older, and I wasn’t trying to fit in with guys in my neighborhood. There’s a certain allure of being in the street and ignorant, but once I determined I wasn’t going to act like them, I didn’t care what they thought. I could play ball, and I would fight. Even to this day, I don’t like to be fucked with. If you want to find out, we can go ahead and do that. I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about it, though. Even when I had to kind of integrate a school and deal with being just one black person being picked on, I always said, ‘If you call me a nigger, we’re gonna fight.’”


Three years after that party with the Basieites at the Village Gate, Marsalis—with New Orleanians Reginald Veal and Herlin Riley in the bass and drum chairs—began to change his sound. “Wynton is good at adjusting direction based on the talent of the individuals he has around him,” said Marcus Roberts, who replaced Kenny Kirkland in 1985. “It became more of a blues-based, groove-oriented way of playing. He explored different colors, and his concept of blues on the trumpet evolved. He matured in his ability to merge older trumpet styles into a more modern abstract vocabulary that he himself was codifying.”

Goines adds that the effect of a stable personnel is that “Wynton started to write for the individual personalities, like Duke did, as opposed to the saxophone chair.” The primary personalities were Wess Anderson, Wycliffe Gordon, Eric Reed and Goines, and Marsalis used the first iteration of Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra—including such ex-Ellingtonians as Jimmy Hamilton, Norris Turney, Britt Woodman, Willie Cook, and Joe Temperley—as a template for incorporating their sounds as he built the repertoire for the Wynton Marsalis Septet and the next edition of LCJO.

“I always tell this story,” Marsalis said of his stylistic volte face. “A girl came to a concert we gave with the quintet at Blues Alley, and in five minutes she gave me the best critique of what we played that I ever got. She said, ‘I came to hear you all play, and I don’t like jazz, but I took my boyfriend, because I read an article on you all in Ebony and I wanted to see what it was. The first song, you all played together, and then everybody played individually. I thought that’s a great way to introduce the band, but you all played that way on every song.’ So at first it was a critique of the basic form of playing. Then she said, ‘Everybody plays for a very long time; you can follow it, but why do you all play so long?’ So the solos are too long. Then she told us that we played so loud she couldn’t hear all that was going on, and then she said, ‘I liked when you played the slow song, but then you started to play fast, and you played fast longer than you played slow.’ I followed what she said almost to the letter.”

It is interesting to compare Marsalis’ evolution to that experienced by his ‘70s outcat and funkster targets, who shaped their own predispositions in an age when the idiomatic tradition was in the air. His focus on self-determination through institution-building, educational outreach, and constructing an idiosyncratic body of work from a panoply of styles, is not so different from the tenets propounded in ‘60s Chicago by the AACM, comprised of musicians who are generational contemporaries of his father and such other independent-minded ‘70s New Orleans modernist improviser-educators as Alvin Batiste and Kidd Jordan.

“The word ‘conserve’ means to keep what’s good of what we have, like conserving trees,” says Berger. “But we also want to grow new trees. In some ways Duke Ellington was conservative, but he was also avant-garde. That’s what Wynton is. He throws down the gauntlet and says you’ve got to master the past before you can move into the future with any kind of success. How can you say that ‘Blood on the Fields’ is a retro piece? Yes, he uses a lot of Ellington’s conventions, but there’s so much modern stuff that was never heard before, and concepts from all over.”

“I think Wynton decided that whatever was going on in jazz was wrong, and he was going to go back and do it the way it had been done 55 or 60 years ago,” said Branford Marsalis. “I don’t necessarily disagree. Today’s musicians are far more versatile in the things they can do but have light, small, compact sounds and massive limitations in terms of swing. The emphasis of the songs becomes harmony and odd-meter forms. It’s more of a race toward scholarship. Wynton’s band was the absolute antithesis of that. He decided not to use monitors on the stage, not to have a bunch of musicians playing with their bells attached to the microphones or using pickups, which changes the nature of how a band sounds. Neither the song forms nor the meters were complex, but based on either the 6/8 Spanish tinge or straight 4/4 swing. It sounds simple until you get your ass on the stage and try to do it.

“On the standard jazz song, everyone is in the same key when the song starts and plays over the same set of themes. Wynton would have a guy solo on a blues in one key, then have an interlude which leads the next player to solo in a completely different key. It forces the musicians out of their comfort zone. It’s what Duke Ellington used to do. It’s what Jelly Roll Morton used to do. There was an easier and more difficult way of playing back then, and we gave it up for a more difficult, easier way of playing now.”

“You have to be as complete as possible in your knowledge of the history of the music,” says Ali Jackson, 29, who assumed the LCJO drum chair in fall 2005. “To be able to fit the styles of Jelly Roll Morton or Wayne Shorter. To play like Big Sid Catlett or Baby Dodds, or then like Buddy Rich, or Elvin Jones, or Tony Williams, but do it by playing what you know. Wynton is interested in musicians have a vested interest in all of the music. I believe in a style of jazz that runs all the way up to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and we’re similar conceptually.  His perspective is to encompass it all and find the divine paradox, that strain that runs through everything, that ties it all together.”

Jackson adds that because Marsalis writes what he hears, irrespective of instrumental limitation, that perspective also involves a high degree of difficulty.

“The demands of his book on the clarinet are extraordinary,” says Victor Goines. “But Wynton has a certain vision to be able to anticipate someone’s learning curve. I used to make a point of saying, ‘Look, my learning curve has not peaked yet. Whatever you want to write, you should write it. Don’t pigeonhole me.’”

“I like for the music to be hard,” Marsalis said. “As a trumpet player, why do I want to play the Brandenberg Concerto? Because it’s hard. I want to play the pieces that challenge me the most. I don’t just mean velocity. Some music is emotionally complex, too. But a degree of complexity, balanced with a certain spiritual substance and emotional weight, ensures that your music will remain.”


My first conversation with Marsalis occurred two days after Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the turf he had traveled as a youngster. His parents and brother Mbaya were safe in Baton Rouge, and their house suffered minor damage in comparison to some. Still, friends of Marsalis reported that the trumpeter, whose life and career reflect a fundamental, inexorable optimism, was shaken, suffused with the sense that everything could end.

“It’s not going to end,” Marsalis countered the day after New Year’s, concluding our final conversation. “We’re still going to be out here.” He did not elaborate. Two weeks later, the Cultural Committee of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, which Marsalis co-chairs, requested $600 million in Federal funds to build a jazz museum, expand the city’s arts distract, and implement a jobs program for artists. A week after that, President Bush reneged on his earlier promise to provide sufficient funds to rebuild the Crescent City.

Perhaps such concerns diminished whatever pleasure Marsalis took in celebrating his astonishing quarter century. “It doesn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “It seems like a short time, in any case. I have a good friend who says, ‘I forgive everybody; we’re only out here for 80 years.’”

It’s a good bet that Marsalis will sustain his pace for much of that timeframe. In January, he completed the score for Ken Burns’ forthcoming opus on World War Two, and in April he’ll film a piece on Congo Square that will include African percussionist Yakob Addy. Also forthcoming is a small group piece with singing called “From The Plantation To the Penitentiary,” while on the grand scale he’s preparing an opera on the Civil War and, at Masur’s instigation, a mass.

It might take Marsalis 180 years to absolve his antagonists, though. “They call me conservative and all this bullshit, because I’m not of the Rock ethos,” he said heatedly. “Nothing in my experience as a musician would make me look up to that. Jazz was revealed to me from too young an age. In this era we have 50 Cent and these rappers playing over a machine, playing a beat, talking about ‘nigger,’ and ‘I don’t care what my parents like,’ and the use of all these equations to construct something philosophically. But I’m not using a philosophical equation. I’m using what I know, which is music.”

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Filed under DownBeat, New Orleans, Wynton Marsalis

Herlin Riley: New Orleans Drummer, 1999 Interview

Following up on yesterday’s post of a 1986 interview with Edward Blackwell, rich in cultural implication, here’s a dialogue with drummer Herlin Riley, the nephew of Melvin Lastie, Blackwell’s close friend. Riley’s c.v. includes a five-year run with Ahmad Jamal, and 17 years (1988-2005) with Wynton Marsalis in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (as it was then named) and the Wynton Marsalis Septet. The conversations transpired as background for the liner notes that I wrote for Riley’s two excellent Criss-Cross recordings,Watch What You’re Doing (1999) and Cream of the Crescent (2005), the latter recorded just after Riley left his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra sinecure to pursue his own projects. I’ve combined the interviews below.

A griotic improviser who lived the tradition from the inside out in his formative years in New Orleans, Riley —in the manner of such New Orleans antecedents as Baby Dodds, Freddie Kohlman, Paul Barbarin, Smokey Jackson, Vernell Fournier,  Blackwell, and Idris Muhammad—is a drum scientist, one who has investigated all the sounds he can extract from the components of the drumkit and from vernacular percussion, and conjured fresh grooves, combinations, and modes of expression from a vocabulary that draws on second line, Meters-like funk, Afro-Cuban and Samba styles, Mardi Gras Indian chants, the odd-metered swing of James Black, 4/4 swing, the sanctified backbeat, and the blues.

* * * *

What is it about the culture of New Orleans that makes its drum styles and rhythmic signatures so distinctive?

RILEY:  Well, one thing, I think, during the time when jazz was being developed, New Orleans was a melting pot for different cultures.  There was the French culture, the African culture, the Spanish, some Portuguese, some Italian.  So with that, I think, and the stuff that was played in Congo Square, which was the only place where Africans could play their drums during slavery… I think what came out of those rhythms was a lot of bottom, which is the bass drum.  Even today, when we have second-lines and we have marching parades and that kind of thing, the bass drum is very prevalent in the music.  When you hear guys who come from New Orleans… I think a lot of that influence is the fact that there’s a dialogue with the bass drum and also the snare drum throughout the music…

A polyrhythmic dialogue?

RILEY:  Yeah, because they have a conversation.  It’s not necessarily the bass drum answers the snare drum with the same phrase.  It’s like it has a conversation.  The bass drum may have a question, and the snare drum will answer it. You extrapolate that to the trapset.  And even though it may be different styles of music, even if it’s swing or whatever, you can pretty much hear that undercurrent of dialogue between the snare drum and bass drum that’s happening all the time.

You come from a family that contained several generations of musicians and drummers.  Let’s talk first about the passing-down of information, and then tell me a bit about your family lineage in music.

RILEY:  Well, information is pretty much passed down as…it’s like a griot, you know.  Those guys who come and tell you stories about different music and different guys who played the music, but they also teach you about the styles.  For myself, the style was passed on to me pretty much by my grandfather, who was a drummer.  He played the drums, and he played in the homes with Louis Armstrong, like 1913; the boys who were locked up together in the homes.  His name was Frank Lastie.  I was raised pretty much by my grandparents, my grandmother and my grandfather.  My grandfather would sit me down at the table in the mornings with two butter knives or something, and he would beat out rhythms on the table, and he would challenge me to try to do them, and I would try to do the rhythms behind him.  Sometimes I would succeed and most times I would fail, and he would just laugh at me.  But the fact that I was being exposed to a particular style… Still til today, I go back and check out the influence he’s had on me, and it’s still prevalent in my playing.

Was he a working drummer, a working musician when he was raising you?

RILEY:  Well, he wasn’t a working musician.  He didn’t play the drums professionally.  He played pretty much in church.  I learned to play pretty much just in church.  And when he would get up from the drums in church, I would sit down and play behind him.  But his sons were also musicians — Melvin Lastie, David Lastie and Walter Lastie.  Now, Walter Lastie was a drummer; they called him Poppy(?).  He’s the one that actually turned me on to styles of bebop and more modern styles of playing.  How to hold a stick and how to use the rebound in a stick for speed and that kind of thing.  So he kind of taught me about the technique of playing and about the more modern styles.  You were also talking about some second-line stuff, but that came from my grandfather.  Then as I got older, I started checking out other drummers around New Orleans, like James Black or Paul Barbarin.

Say something specific about Paul Barbarin first, and then James Black, their style and relating it to New Orleans tradition.

RILEY:  Well, Paul Barbarin played pretty much the traditional New Orleans style; he plays a lot of snare drums and a lot of rolls, and he played some woodblock and choke cymbal kind of things, which is more the traditional New Orleans style playing.  He played with people like Louis Armstrong…

Well, he played with Luis Russell, who was an early big band, which would seem to relate to you in a certain way.  Applying that to a big band might be an interesting connection here.

RILEY:  Well, the big band thing is a whole nother… I didn’t look to Paul Barbarin for my influences in playing big band styles.  I listened to people like Sam Woodyard and Sonny Payne for that style of playing.  But going back to New Orleans, that’s pretty much the traditional influence.

But I listened to James Black also for the more modern influence.  James played in odd meters, like in 5/4, in 7/4 and that kind of stuff, and he played all these polyrhythmic things, like back in the ’60s…

Like the “Monkey Puzzle” record.

RILEY:  Yes, those kinds of things.  So I listened to James for the modern kind of influence.  But I wasn’t listening to him to be influenced by him.  I would go see him play and just be in awe of his playing.  I watched him for many years.  Once I was playing a gig when I… I used to play the trumpet as well, and I was a teenager and I was playing in the park where we would play and do these talent shows.  James Black happened to be in the neighborhood that particular day…

He played trumpet, too, didn’t he?

RILEY:  He played trumpet, too, yes.  But this story is so ironic.  I’d heard about James, but this is before I saw him play.  I’d heard all these stories about him and what a phenomenal drummer he was and so forth.  Then one day we were playing at this talent show, and he comes on stage.  This guy’s playing the piano, and he’s playing all these bad changes and stuff, playing the blues and playing some of his own tunes.  I asked somebody, “Who is this guy playing the piano?”  They said, ‘Man, that’s James Black.  You don’t know who that is?  That’s James Black.”  I was flabbergasted, because I never expected him to play the piano as well as he did.  I guess the point I’m making is that he was a wonderful composer as well as being a great drummer.  James wrote some fine tunes.  So as I got older, I began to appreciate his talents more and more.

The Lasties were close to Blackwell, too, no?

RILEY:  Yes, they were close to Blackwell.  My uncle Melvin especially was good friends with Blackwell.  They hung out around New Orleans, and also when they got to New York they did gigs with Willie Bobo and Ornette Coleman, and they hung out with Don Cherry and did some stuff with him as well.  New Orleans is a very small place, so all the players, all the guys, all the musicians know each other.  It’s a good thing, because they have jam sessions, and there’s also an exchange of ideas and influences.  You don’t hardly find any kind of animosity or jealousy among the players down here.  People are always willing to exchange information.  I think that’s a healthy thing for music in general.

Let’s get some facts and figures.  You were born when?

RILEY:  I was born in New Orleans, February 15, 1957.

Your grandfather was giving you the butter knives when you were 3-4-5?

RILEY:  Yes, I was 3 years old.  Actually there was always drums in the house.  It was just there for me to play, and I learned to play because they were there.  I heard my uncles rehearsing in the house.  They had different bands that would come to my grandparents’ house and rehearse.  They would kind of roll my crib into the rehearsal room and let me check out the music, and it would keep me quiet.  So as I got old enough to walk and to handle things, they put sticks in my hands, and I was able to play.  I just innately learned how to play.

Did you have any formal teachers when you were young, apart from your uncle and…

RILEY:  I never had any formal training on the drum set.  I played the trumpet in high school.  What I would do… When I got to high school…by then I could play the drums.  I mean, I could handle myself a little bit.

On the trap drums.

RILEY:  On the trap drums.  When I got to high school and I played the trumpet, I would watch other drummers.  Every time we would take a break or something, I could go over to the other drummers about what they were doing, and they would show me stuff, like 5-stroke rolls, what a flam was, various paradiddles and so forth.  They would show me those things, and challenge me to do them with them.  Sometimes I could do it, sometimes I couldn’t.  But I was gathering information about the technical aspects of playing.

Were you playing functionally at that time?

RILEY:  I was playing in church all the time.

Trap drums and tambourine…

RILEY:  Not a lot of tambourine, but mostly trap drums.  From the time I was 5 years old on up, I was always playing… I went to church regularly.  I went to church like 2 or 3 times a week.  So I got a chance to play… Every time my grandfather would get up, I would sit down and play, and then as time went on, I got to play more and more, because I was growing and I was able to keep better time and that kind of thing.  So I could always play the drums.  But when I went to high school, I was playing trumpet in school, and drums was something I did that nobody in the school knew about.  They didn’t really know about that, until they saw me messing around with the other drummers or something.

Were you playing drums in brass bands, or were you a parade drummer?

RILEY:  No, I wasn’t doing that.  Well, I got a chance to do that when I was 14, and Danny Barker, who was a banjo player, had come back to New Orleans from New York, and he formed a band of younger musicians, of kids, playing traditional second-lines and New Orleans style music.  So I was fortunate enough to get a shot to play in a band.  I played in that band…

That was the Fairview Baptist Church band.

RILEY:  The Fairview Baptist Church Band.  Yes, it was.

Tell me about that experience, of meeting Danny Barker and meeting him.  Did he have a big impact on you?

RILEY:  Absolutely.  Well, Danny Barker had played with Lady Day, and Cab Calloway.  So I knew the legend of Danny Barker; it stuck out.  My uncle Melvin knew Danny Barker real well, and he came back to New Orleans and formed this band, he told Danny Barker that he had a nephew who played the trumpet, and Danny said, “Yeah, just bring him over here.”  He gave him an address where to bring me, I went over to where they were rehearsing, and I got a chance to play.  That was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life, because Danny always taught us how to… Even though we were playing music, he said, “Man, you play music, but you’ve got to play to people.  Because you’re not playing for yourself; you’ve got play music for the people.”  There were some other guys in the band, like Leroy Jones, who plays with Harry Connick, Lucien Barbarin, who’s also with Harry Connick, Wynton came through the band… At the time it was a good thing, because nobody else was doing that kind of thing.  All the music that was being played was pretty much being played by adults, and Danny’s coming down and organizing kids to participate in playing the music I thought was a good thing.

You’re talking about being trained in all this traditional music, but you’re much more than a traditional drummer.  You cover a history, a spectrum.  When did you start playing modern jazz?

RILEY:  Well, it was always there.  Just being in New Orleans, I got a chance to play with a lot of different type of musicians.  I got a chance to play with traditional guys, I got a chance to play with guys who were trying to stretch a little bit more.  I remember playing with guys like Ramsey McLean, who’s now a lyricist, but he was a bass player back then.  Harry Connick was also part of a band called Lifers, with Charmaine Neville.  I played in that group, and we had a chance to play… Well, Sam Rivers came down once and played with us, and it was like some free-form kind of stuff.  So I got a chance to play with him.  Then in ’75 I played with a Russian cat named Vladimir who had a Latin band.  I played in funk bands with some of the Neville guys.  So just because of being in New Orleans and New Orleans being a small city, I had a chance to play with all the guys who were playing different types of music.  Because there’s only a handful of drummers and a handful of bass players and so forth, so a handful of drummers and bass players covered a lot of different gigs.

Were you exposed at all to, say, Kidd Jordan or Alvin Fielder or Alvin Batiste?

RILEY:  Yes.  I went to school at Southern University in 1975, and Kidd was the director there at the time, and I played in that band.  Also, when I was in Carver High School, Alvin Batiste came from Southern University to do a Jazz Artist in Residence program.  The band was under the directorship of Miss Yvonne Bush.  One thing I can say about Miss Bush, she would always allow us to do other things.  If musicians wanted to play other instruments, she would always encourage you to do that.  If you wanted to write, she would always encourage you to do that as well.  But Alvin would come down, like, twice a week, and turn us on to things about jazz, how the rhythms in jazz work, and the blues scale, and let us improvise, and that kind of thing.  So I was definitely touched by Alvin Batiste as well as Kidd Jordan.  I also had a chance to play with Ellis Marsalis, even before I knew Wynton, in the Heritage Hall Jazz Band, which played trad style, but also leaned toward more kind of bebop styles, too.  So it would play trad styles, but would put modern harmonies on it and that kind of thing.

I heard a record by them with Freddie Kohlman on drums.

RILEY:  Yes, as a matter of fact, I replaced Freddie Kohlman in the band.  I came after he did.

So your experience is sort of perfectly suited for what you’re doing now.  The past is very vivid for you.  It’s not like some exotic artifact.  It’s a living entity.

RILEY:  Yes, it is.  It is a living entity, because I’m playing all these different things even now; all these different styles that I learned growing up, I’m having a chance to apply all of that stuff now in my playing.

When did you learn how to read music?  Was that in high school?

RILEY:  Yeah, I learned how to read from playing the trumpet, learning scales and so on.

Let’s talk about the course of your career, then.  From Southern University to Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

RILEY:  All right.  When I graduated out of high school, I played trumpet in a group that my uncle Walter (Papi) had put together.  I was 18 or so.  My uncle was playing the drums.  We did a gig somewhere in Florida with a 1950’s style Rock-and-Roll group called Vince Vance and the Valiants.  The drummer was leaving the group to go to law school or something, and they had a couple more gigs to do.  He asked my uncle if he would do the gig.  My uncle had family and couldn’t do it, so he recommended me to do them.  I went on the road and I played this gig with these guys, which was like 1950’s Rock-and-Roll, shuffles, and Duke of Earl, all that kind of stuff.  That was a real good experience for me at that time.  I wasn’t sure myself if I could play the drums on a gig.  I’d been playing in church and kind of practicing around, but I wasn’t sure myself if I could do it on a gig.  So I did it, I made the gig, the gig did well.

Right after that, I started getting calls to do more of these ’50s kind of gigs.  So I did a couple more of those in New Orleans, and I was still playing trumpet also.  One night, my Uncle David called and asked me if I could do a gig in a burlesque club on Bourbon Street.  He was at the street at Stratus(?) Club with Frogman Henry, and the 500 Club across the street was owned by the same people.  The 500 Club was a club that had strippers and novelty acts.

So you got to do the dinks for the strippers.

RILEY:  Yes.  Crash cymbal for kicking their leg, and when they’re shaking their butt you hit the tom-toms, and that kind of stuff.

You get into the dynamics of the kit.

RILEY:  Yes.  That’s very true.  It did get me into the dynamics of the kit, and to know how to use each part of the kit for certain effects.  I was playing trumpet on one night, subbing for a guy, and I would play drums on another night.  The gig ran seven nights a week, and the only way musicians could get off is if they had a sub.  So I was subbing for both guys on different nights.  Ironically, the trombone player and the drummer, who I was subbing for, both quit at the same time, so then they hired me as the permanent drummer because I knew the show.  I knew when the kicks were coming and I knew when they were going to shake their behind or whatever.  So I knew the show, and so they just hired another horn player to come in.  That’s when I began to play the drums really on a professional level, because I was doing it every night.  Time went on, and I did that for about two years…

You were going to school at the time?

RILEY:  Yes, I was going to Southern-New Orleans during the day and I would do that gig at night.

Were you a music major?

RILEY:  Yes, I was a music major.  That was kind of rough for me.  I was doing the gig, I was married with a daughter, trying to make a living…

And they stay open late in New Orleans.

RILEY:  Yes, they do.  I was working from 9 to until 2:45 in the morning, and I had to make sure I was out of there to catch the bus at 3 a.m., because if I missed the 3 o’clock bus I had to wait until the 4 o’clock bus came around.  So at quarter to 3, I was making sure I packed up and got my stuff out of there.  One thing about the show, it ran clockwork.  It was on time, to the second almost.  It was a drag to have to play that way every night, but come 2:45 I was glad it was.

And I guess later on that’s discipline that serves you well in some sense or another.

RILEY:  Absolutely.  Because after I left that show, I did a trio gig in a hotel lounge with Johnny Bashman, who played piano, but also was a tap dancer around Las Vegas and in New York.  He replaced Sammy Davis in a show called “Mr. Wonderful” and that kind of stuff, but he also played a lot of piano, boogie-woogie style.  So I played in a trio setting with him.  I learned a lot from that gig, because he taught me about tempos.  He would play real fast tempos, and he would play for long stretches of time. I learned a lot of things about texture with him, because he sang ballads, he sang show tunes like “Send In The Clowns.”  So I learned textures, and how to play soft, ballady kind of things behind a singer, in a trio… Because it’s a lounge; it’s a quiet kind of setting.  I also learned to play fast and soft playing with his group.

Now you’re how old?  Still in school?

RILEY:  No, I had left school by then. This is ’79-’80.  I didn’t get a degree; I left school.  So this is 1980, I leave Johnny Bashman’s group, and I leave and go play with Al Hirt’s group.  That was interesting.  Al was a phenomenal trumpet player.  Sometimes he would be great, but other times he would drink, and I don’t want to spew any venom on the cat, but then other sides of him would come out.  So that was a nice experience to do his gig, too.  He was legendary around New Orleans, and it was a good gig for me at the time.

It must have been the best-paying gig you’d had.

RILEY:  It was.  I mean, in New Orleans it was the best paying gig.  To be at home, and I was getting paid good with him at home.  So that was good at the time, and I appreciate that opportunity.  I did that for about a year, until about ’81.

Did that challenge you or stretch your concept in any way, or was it just what you knew?

RILEY:  No, it didn’t really… It was just a gig, pretty much.  But then I left his gig, and I played with a show called “One Mo’ Time.”

Directed by Vernell Bagneris.  I think I saw that show in New York.  Were you in it?

RILEY:  No, I didn’t do the Village Gate.  I didn’t do New York.  But I did New Orleans, and then they went to London in 1981, and I went with the show and stayed for six months just playing the show.  That was another great, great experience, because at the time I did that, I was playing 1920’s kind of music, which was nothing but snare drum, bass drum, floor tom and a crash cymbal, a choke cymbal thing.  It was good to do that, and also it was a show.  The show was a more upscale kind of show, with dialogue, and it was actually acting and that kind of thing…

It was theater.

RILEY:  It was theater.  Exactly.  It wasn’t burlesque.  It was theater.  So that was another kind of discipline to do that show, the discipline of playing that style of music, the discipline of being on stage and being somewhat in character.  I did that show for a couple of years.  In fact, that’s when I met Wynton.  In 1981, while I was doing that show…

He’s emerged.

RILEY:  He has emerged by then.  There’s a club in London called Ronnie Scott’s, and I was there for six months, so after the show, every night… My show would end at 10:30, and I could go to Ronnie Scott’s and catch the 11 o’clock show with guys coming in.  I got a chance…

So London was very nice experience for you.  Because you got to experience the world-class jazz music there.

RILEY:  Right.  I got to experience world-class jazz music, being in another part of the world, a whole nother culture.  And going to Ronnie Scott’s every night, I saw Betty Carter, I saw Art Blakey, I saw Dexter Gordon, I saw Panama Francis — just a host of different world-class musicians.

Who you had not had a chance to see in New Orleans.

RILEY:  Right, never had a chance to see in New Orleans, and I hadn’t been coming to New York enough to see these guys either.  So that was a good experience for me to be in London for that period of time.

How did Art Blakey impress you?

RILEY:  He was a MONSTER on the drums. That’s when I saw Wynton.  I was going to see Art Blakey… I knew Wynton was in the band, and when I met Wynton, he knew who I was, I knew who he was.  He knew who I was because I had played with his father and by my reputation a little bit in New Orleans.  And I knew who he was, because of course, everybody knows.  So from that time we met, man, he was just like a brother to me.  He took me in the back, he hugged me, he said, “Hey, this is my homie, man!”  We weren’t very close, but he embraced me that way, and he took me in the back and introduced me to Art Blakey and the rest of the guys in the band.  He looked out for me.  Then the next night, Branford came to the show and saw the show.  So that’s the birth of my relationship with Wynton.  So that was London for me.

Did you play with any of the English jazz musicians while you were over there, or was it exclusively “One mo’ Time”?

RILEY:  No, I got a chance to play with some English musicians.  I can’t remember their names.

Was it a trad thing, or more modernist?

RILEY:  I played some trad stuff.  But also, I was in London with Walter Payton, Nicholas Payton’s father, who was playing tuba in “One Mo’ Time.’  Now, he also played upright bass, which is what he really enjoys playing.

I hear he has an incredible instrument, too.

RILEY:  Yes, he does.  But Walter and I would go out trying to find out where cats were swinging and playing more modern styles.  There was this club called Tutty’s in London, and we would go there on Sunday afternoons when they had a 2 o’clock matinee, and we’d swing with those guys… At other times we’d try to find out where guys were playing.  If we had a chance… That was a regular spot for us to play.  They were playing more modern styles there.  But we’d also go into other places to try to play and hear other people.

So that’s London.  After I left London, I came back and I was in New Orleans, and I got a call from a guy in New Orleans about Ahmad Jamal.  This was ’82 or ’83.  Ahmad Jamal had come to town on a gig, and his drummer left the gig like in the middle of the week or something; his wife was having a baby, so he left the gig real abruptly.  So a friend of ours, Emery Thompson, a trumpet player called me, and asked me if I could make the gig with him.  They threw somebody else in to make the rest of the week, and he didn’t like him.  Ahmad was going the next week to Phoenix, Arizona, and he asked Emery Thompson, “Who’s a guy in town who can perhaps do my gig?”  He said, “I’ve got the perfect guy for you.”  So he recommended me.

Ahmad called me at about 7 in the morning… First Emery calls me and says that Ahmad Jamal wants me.  “Ahmad Jamal needs you, man.” I said, ‘Man, are you serious?  It’s 7 in the morning.  Don’t play any jokes on me, man.”  “No, I’m serious.  He really wants you to play in his band.  I’ll have him call you.”  So sure enough, about 10 minutes later, Ahmad Jamal calls me and says, “I’d really like to have you come out and play with me.”

He hadn’t heard you; this is just on the recommendation.

RILEY:  Just on the recommendation.  Emery Thompson is known as Omar Sharif.  He’s also a Muslim; that was the connection between he and Ahmad.  So he says, “Can you fly to Phoenix today?”  I said, “Today?  I don’t know.  I have some gigs; I have to get some subs.”  So to make a long story short, I got subs for all my gigs, and I was packed, and I was on the plane by 1 in the afternoon that same day.  I flew to Phoenix, met him — I didn’t know what he looked like.  I checked in the hotel.  Then we had to do a soundcheck, which was 30 minutes after I got there.

That was the rehearsal.

RILEY:  That was the rehearsal.  But it was so easy to do a soundcheck; it was so easy to work with Ahmad Jamal.  He sat down at the piano, and he didn’t say very much to me; just sat down, started playing, and just continued to play.  He would play, and then he would point at the bass player, the bass player would come in, then he’d point at the conga player, the conga player came in… In the meantime, he’s playing the cycle of the song around and around, three or four or five times.  Then he finally points to me and brings me in.  He didn’t tell them what to play.  I just listened to them play it.  And I found my pocket.  I tried to find my own little pocket…

Was his style something very easy for a New Orleans drummer to find a pocket?  Do you think he was influenced by a New Orleans conception of drumming?

RILEY:  Yes, absolutely I think so, because his number-one-selling hit was basically a New Orleans groove which was laid down by Vernell Fournier — “Poinciana.”

Which is now known as the Poinciana beat.  Where does it come from?

RILEY:  It comes from Second Line.  DING-DUM-DING, DINK-DE-DOOM, DINK-DE-DUH-DOOM.  DING.  DING.  DING.  DING.  DINK-DE-DUH-DOOM. That’s nothing but just a second line groove; that’s all it is.  So I would definitely say yes to that, because that’s the tune that pretty much put Ahmad on the map.  But the point is, I think it doesn’t matter if you’re from New Orleans or Timbuktu or wherever.  I think Ahmad Jamal has such a feeling and command of his instrument, and the spirit that he brings to the music, that if you just listen to what he’s playing, you can find a spot, man, because he leaves a lot of room for other people to play in.

Lately he’s been working a lot with Idris.

RILEY:  Yes.  So I definitely think he has an affection for New Orleans drummers.  He’s even mentioned it to me before.  He said that he’s worked with New Orleans drummers, and he’s enjoyed the experience of working with each one of us.

So you were with Jamal for about five years.

RILEY:  Yeah, five years with Ahmad Jamal.  I would say Ahmad Jamal is like a matador on the bandstand.  He’s very calm, and he has command of everything around him on the bandstand.  He has a presence about himself.  When he hits the bandstand, the musicians, the audience, everybody just tunes in to what he has to say.  And he definitely has a lot to say on the piano.  It was very easy for me to go in and do that audition with him.  And after I did that audition, that very first time, he was like, “You’re hired.”  Well, we did the gig that night.  After the gig that night he came to me and asked, “Would you like to work in the group?”  I said “Sure, man.”  So he hired me on the spot.  But it was so easy to come in and play with him, because he has command of everything.  He gives signals for his music, and he’ll let you know when it’s time to go to the top of the tune, when it’s time to go to the bridge, or when it’s time to play the interlude or whatever.  So therefore, he can arrange his music on the spot each and every time, and it’s in a way that it can turn on a dime.  When he commands it, it can just shift and go to another thing.  So the music is very loose but also, because of him and his way, it’s very disciplined, too.

And for you, it must have been the total validation that you’re ready to play with anybody, any time, any place, anywhere.

RILEY:  Well, definitely working with Ahmad Jamal gave me a shot of confidence.  Because his music was challenging.  There was stuff in his music that I had never played, rhythms I’d never really faced before or dealt with before.  So that was definitely an educational experience, and working with him gave me a certain amount of confidence.

Were you aware of Vernell Fournier beforehand?

RILEY:  I was not really aware of him.  I had heard “Poinciana” before.  I sort of took him for granted.  Because that groove wasn’t foreign to me at all, aside from hearing the tune on jukeboxes and so forth.  Now, I knew who Ahmad Jamal was, but I knew him mostly by his more contemporary recordings.  But less the stuff he did in the ’50s.

Blackwell did a very specific study of African rhythms at a certain point, and he said it was very congruent with what he came up with in the culture of New Orleans.  Did you at any point do specific studies of African or Afro-Cuban rhythms, or were they just sort of inherent in the rhythms you learned coming up in New Orleans?

RILEY:  No, I didn’t study those types of rhythms that extensively.  The experience I had playing with the Latin band, the New Aquarians, in New Orleans, kind of helped me to identify some of those styles.  But I pretty much listened… I try to evoke the spirit of the rhythms as opposed to just playing specifically the exact rhythm or something that’s played.  I try to just capture the feeling of what it feels like in a particular space or place musically.

So you leave Jamal in ’87, and is that when you hook up with Wynton?

RILEY:  Shortly thereafter.  I did a small stint with a show called “Satchmo: America’s Musical Legend.”  Byron Stripling played Satchmo.  Anyway, I did that show for six or seven months.  I did a little acting in it as well, which was nice.  But then right after that, in ’88, I joined Wynton’s band, then a quintet with myself, Wynton, Reginald Veal, Marcus Roberts and Todd Williams.  Marcus had been with the band a year or two.  It was ironic, because I think it was my 31st birthday when he called me.  I always say it was the best birthday present I could have gotten, just a call from him to come play in his band.  Wynton had seen me play with Ahmad Jamal once, and I was surprised that he’d call me.  We talked about it later, and I think what influenced him to call me most was the fact that maybe a year before that I’d played at the Jazz & Heritage Festival with Ellis on a trio gig with Reginald Veal.  Wynton happened to be in town with his band, and he came and sat in with us, and he liked the feeling of myself and Reginald playing together.Then a year or two later, that’s when he called me, and he said it was from that experience… He’d kept it in mind; it just felt good for him.

So while you were with Jamal, you continued to play around New Orleans in a variety of situations.

RILEY:  Yeah.  When I would come off the road with Jamal, people would call me to do different types of gigs.  Ellis Marsalis would call me.  Teddy Riley would call me on gigs [no relation].  I would occasionally get a chance to do stuff with Danny Barker.  I would do stuff with Charmaine Neville.  I would play in my uncles’ R&B bands.

That wasn’t just the normal R&B band, was it.  They were kind of stretching forms, no?

RILEY:  They were stretching the forms in little ways.  But they still were playing blues, and they were playing like shuffles and slow kind of blues and that kind of stuff.  I would also get a chance occasionally to play with some Latin cats, like Hector Barrero, and some guys who play strictly Latin music…

Where the trapset has a strictly defined function within the percussion.

RILEY:  Exactly.  But I would still slide a little New Orleans inside it anyway, a little bass drum.

So what you’re doing is perfect for the concept Wynton was looking for with the septet, or first the quintet.  He’d been sort of stretching out on Modernism in the early part of the ’80s, and in this it seemed he wanted to put together a global way of looking at music historically.

RILEY:  Well, it wasn’t that.  It turned into that, because it just happened that Wynton… When I first joined his band, his music was like pushing and on the cutting edge of trying to expand the horizons of the music.  He wasn’t interested really in going back and capturing the history.  Well, I don’t think he was really interested in that at that particular time.  But he says to me that when myself and Reginald came into the band, he could suddenly hear it.  His music became clearer to him.  The music opened up in a certain way and became clearer.  When I first joined the band I’d heard all those records that Jeff Tain Watts had played on.  He plays with a lot of energy and a lot of rhythm and a lot of dialogue in his playing with the instruments, and I came into the band with that concept in mind as to how to approach Wynton’s music.  I thought about Tain going in, because that’s who I followed.  So I tried to apply that kind of influence and that kind of approach to playing.  It was okay, but it really wasn’t working, and finally, after about a year I began to find my own voice, and Wynton started really listening to my voice inside of the music.  Then the music took on another shape, he had different ideas about what to do with the music, and then the range of what he could do expanded.

Talk about what you think your voice was, and what it is that you think Wynton saw that he could do from hearing you.

RILEY:  When I came into the band, I didn’t play a lot of drums inside of the swing.  Tain played a lot of polyrhythms and stuff, and I didn’t play that way.  I tried to play that way at first, and it was okay, but it wasn’t me.  Then I started to play in a way that the solos was able to just speak out, and I would be more of a supportive…like a cushion under the soloist — with some interaction as well.  But I think they were able to hear more.  Then the fact that I was from New Orleans and I played second line stuff, he could hear… It was a different feeling.  I think I brought a different feeling to the band, a feeling of more groove and dance-oriented kind of rhythms.

So you became more and more comfortable with each other, because he works all the time, and you’re working all the time together, and I guess you just get that hand-in-pocket thing.

RILEY:  Yeah.  I mean, as you work and time goes on, things begin to develop and things begin to gel.  Everybody in the band… One thing we always stress in the band is that to be a jazz musician you have to have some humility and also some ego.  But those things have to balance.  I would say in working with Wynton, as many things as he’s accomplished, he still has a lot of humility.  I think humility allows you to grasp information and to hear other people.  So we’re always able to come together and hear each other, and in hearing each other we develop a specific sound.

As the septet evolved, it sort of dovetailed with the activities of the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra.  He’d bring in the information he was getting from that into the Septet, so Jelly Roll Morton arranging techniques come in, or the Monk things, Ellington things come in… It became a real global concept.  I really loved that septet.  You’re also playing at Jazz At Lincoln Center where you’re dealing with the whole history of the music from the inside-out.  Now, presuming that what I’m saying is basically correct within your framework… I’d like you to talk about how playing with the Jazz At Lincoln Center Big Band has affected your concept of the drums, or just you personally.

RILEY:  When I first got a chance to play with the Jazz At Lincoln Center Big Band, I got a chance to play with some of the older guys who actually played in Duke’s band.  I played with Norris Turney, Britt Woodman, Sir Roland Hanna was in the band, Joe Temperley (who is still in the band now), Marcus Belgrave, Joe Wilder, Jerry Dodgion.  All these guys were around, and some of them had actually played with Duke.  So when I got a chance to play in the band with these guys, it gave me a sense of… I really wanted to play the concept and I wanted to play it right, because I have all these guys who know what’s happening, and how it should feel and what the music should state.  So I approached the music with a certain amount of pride about learning…

The idiomatic…

RILEY:  That’s a good word, idiomatic.  I was really trying to understand what the guys had played in that style before me.  So I listened to Sam Woodyard, I listened to Sonny Greer; I would listen to those records, and I would try to capture the essence of that feeling of the music.  And every time I thought about them, and playing certain pieces, I would think about how people danced to the style, and try to evoke the mood of a particular piece.  That was with Duke’s stuff.  I think I approach all the musics like that.  We did a program on Monk.  We did a program on Louis Armstrong.  And with each artist that we’ve done, I’ve tried to go back and listen to their records, and understand the feeling and spirit of what their music is about.  That’s pretty much how I’ve approached it.

New Orleans seems to be the only place where a musician your age or younger could capture the experience that the musicians from previous generations had, because it was part of the culture.  You wouldn’t get that coming up in New York.  You wouldn’t get it coming up in Chicago.  You wouldn’t get it coming up in San Francisco particularly or Los Angeles or Detroit.  New Orleans because Bourbon Street and the Second Line and Modern jazz…the whole history is available to the young musician as a functional experience.

RILEY:  That’s very true, and I think a lot of it has to do with seeing guys in everyday kind of situations as opposed to just on the bandstand.  When you see a guy who plays the drums at night, and then you see him in the daytime, who’s maybe working on the car or something, or he’s maybe at a restaurant or somewhere just hanging out and having some red beans and rice or something, or shooting the breeze at a barber shop, this kind of stuff… When you see guys in a living kind of situation, then you can understand really about the feeling of why they play what they play, and kind of understand some of the influences.  So all those things are a part of it; it’s a part of why you play the way you play.  I remember seeing guys like Smokey Johnson at a supper or something… They would have like Saturday night fish fries or something, and you’d be in the back, man, and the guys would be eating some potato salad and some fried fish, and they’d be playing cards, and kind of just talking trash across the table to people…maybe not even musicians.  The whole picture of being there, and seeing all these kinds of things, the music that’s playing in the background, the smell of the fish that’s in the air, the smell of gumbo or something that’s in the air… All this stuff is a part of what makes me who I am, and having that experience.

Did you play with any of the piano players, like Booker or Professor Longhair or Tuts Washington?

RILEY:  Yeah.  I got a chance to play with Tuts Washington when I played in the burlesque club.  Also I’d play some gigs with him sometimes on the side, where it would just be like piano and drums.  I’d play just brushes and he’d play the piano.  I got a chance to play with him at that club.  I got a chance to play with Dave “Fatman” Williams at the same burlesque club.  Professor Longhair was good friends with my grandmother and grandfather, and he would come to my grandmother’s house.  There’s still a gash inside of the piano where he would play the piano and kick his foot to keep time.  He would play like this [KICKING RIGHT FOOT SIDEWAYS] all the time.  It would be the same spot.  There’s a spot on my grandmother’s piano where he would kick holes in it!  I also worked…even sometimes now I work with Dr. John.  I’ve recorded a couple of things with him.  So the New Orleans piano thing is very much part of… I’ve had a chance to do that, too.  I’ve had a chance to do a lot of different things, a lot of different styles of playing.

[In 2005, when we had our second conversation, Riley had just completed his final tour with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.]

RILEY:  Basically, it was time to leave. I need to let my own voice be spoken a little bit more. I want to play with other people and do some other things musically. It was a great experience. It was a great time. I got to play a lot of music. I got to learn about a lot of different aspects of playing music, and I got to experience some wonderful things, too. Just playing with the orchestra and being associated with the orchestra, my ability to teach and to do workshops and that kind of thing has grown. My playing has grown from that. But playing inside of a big band kept my playing very structured. Now I’m looking forward to doing other things, and playing in smaller groups, and being freer in my expression.

What are some things you feel weren’t being expressed within LCJO?

RILEY:   I was very expressive when I was playing. But from a personal standpoint, being locked inside of a big band structure  makes you stay inside a certain box, for lack of a better word. It keeps you confined to a certain style of play, whereas playing inside of smaller groups there’s much more freedom and flexibility and elasticity inside the  structure. That’s what I want to get to. I want more elasticity and flexibility and openness to my playing.

Now, the LCJO experience has definitely enhanced the musicianship of each and every one of us who played in it. The sheer experiences that we’ve shared. Being onstage with the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Phil, and going to London and playing with the London Orchestra, doing pieces like “All Rise” in those types of environments, and then turning around and playing with some Brazilian or some Cuban cats or some African cats, where you’re playing their music, the music of that culture. All those experiences have definitely enhanced our musicianship. Not only that, but just playing the book of the LCJO, which has about 200 pieces.

Didn’t you innovate a beat where you integrate the tambourine within the flow of the drumset?   Wynton used that a lot in the septet, like on the piece, “Sunflowers.

RILEY:   Exactly. Yes, I guess I did kind of innovate that. I grew up playing the drums in church, and watching people play in church—and I played the drums all the time. When I was in church and wasn’t playing the drums, if there was a tambourine sitting around that nobody was  playing, I would pick it up and start playing it. As I grew up, I started trying to find things I could do that would enhance the music, whatever it was. For instance, I also played washboard. I played washboard in the show One Mo’ Time, and I played bones, like two bones together…

Wynton had you doing those things in Blood On The Fields and other things, too.

RILEY:   One thing I loved about Wynton is that whatever you brought to the table, it was great, because it was all about the spirit of the music. I think that was a good thing. He said, “Man, whatever you got, whatever you bring that’s part of your set, we’ll use it.” So eventually we did. Even playing cowbells and that kind of stuff, man. I brought cowbells, I brought gongs, I brought all kinds of stuff on the bandstand. But the tambourine was one of those things I was able to incorporate and play grooves on inside the drumset…to play grooves with the bass drum and the hi-hat. I always use a tambourine that has a head on it, so that you can snap the head and get a more percussive sound, like the drum or something.

I think you’re a real scientist of the drums. You seem to have investigated all the sounds on all the different drums, and how to combine them, and in a very practical way.  I think the spirit of exploration is part of how you approach even the most mundane gigs. As you described the strip club gig, learning the dynamics of the trapset by doing that.  It seems to me to be a characteristic among  New Orleans drummers.

RILEY:   Another thing I think we all have in common is that we don’t hear the music in separate entities. It’s all one thing, and it’s all one groove. It’s just another type of groove. When you hear different music, I still incorporate it; I still say, “Well, it’s just another groove.” What you do is, you go in and find the nuances of that particular style or that particular groove, and you play inside of that nuance. So it’s not anything that’s really mystifying.

It’s not mystifying, but it seems very much to descend from the culture of the city and what you do as a working musician in New Orleans. Those opportunities present themselves naturally in the culture of New Orleans.

RILEY:   It’s very true. The culture here is very strong, and the drums are such a big part of the culture here. So it’s very natural for a drummer to be influenced in the way… It’s undeniable. It can’t be denied because the influence is so strong.

Are you the last generation of drummers who picked that stuff up? Do the younger drummers approach things like you, or were their early influences more the broader world? I don’t mean that you weren’t influenced by the broader world, but you came up watching people like Freddie Kohlman and Smokey Jackson, these people with deep roots in the culture? Is the next generation of drummers doing that, or have things changed?

RILEY:   A few of them. But no, I don’t think a lot of them do The ones who are serious, like Jason Marsalis or Adonis Rose, have gone and checked people out who played before them. I guess in a lot of ways they look at… I’m 48 years old. These guys are still around 30, so they look at people like myself or Johnny Vidacovich or Herman Ernest…now we have become the mentors.  So a lot of the guys aren’t as in tune to the history as perhaps I was, or some of the older guys or guys my age. But the history was still living at the time.

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Filed under Drummer, Interview, New Orleans

Mark Turner Blindfold Test, Uncut

It’s New York’s gain, if the world’s loss, that Paul Motian doesn’t like to leave the island of Manhattan. Fortunately, he doesn’t need to. In the latest iteration of his ongoing residence at the Village Vanguard, Motian will perform the sideman function in a new quartet led by the immensely influential tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, with pianist David Virelles and bassist Ben Street.  For a report on what Turner’s up to lately, read this recent interview with A-list altoist Jaleel Shaw. Then scan the uncut version of the Blindold Test that I conducted with him for DownBeat about five years ago.

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1.   George Coleman-Ron Blake, “Speak Low”(from Joey DeFrancesco, ORGANIC VIBES, Concord, 2006) (Coleman, Blake, tenor saxophone; DeFrancesco, organ; Byron Landham, drums)

I have an inkling of who it is, but I’m not exactly sure. But it’s very proficient playing.  I was  trying to see if I could recognize the drummer, and I wasn’t sure. It could be a few people. I’d like to hear what it is afterwards. I thought I’d figure that one out, but I’m stumped as to who it is. It’s an extremely hard tempo to play well on. But it’s well played. The rhythm section in particular was very proficient, very solid, forward-driving. That’s about it. [Anything about the lines or sound? Do you think it’s a younger player or older player?] It sounds like one of the saxophone players is older and one is younger. The first saxophone player I gathered was older (I’m not sure who it was) and the second one who soloed being younger. I’m don’t know whose record it is. Concept of sound is the first way I can tell, and the types of lines in general – without being too specific about it. Maybe to the point of the phrases, and when a given person decides to play a given phrase – and where. That was my general feeling. I don’t know whose record it is. I couldn’t quite tell. I was assuming maybe it was the organ player’s record. That was my first impression. Maybe the organ player wanted to get young and old together, or something like that, with maybe his rhythm section. Is it Joey DeFrancesco? I’m surprised I got it! But I don’t know who either saxophone player is. I think I could tell at a slower tempo, but at that tempo I can’t tell. 3 stars. [AFTER] I got it!! Well, I had an idea. As a whole, not their most individual playing.

2.   Joe Henderson, “Foresight and Afterthought” (from BLACK NARCISSUS, Milestone, 1968/1994) (Henderson, tenor saxophone; Ron Carter, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)

Oh, you gave me an easy one. Joe Henderson, “Foresight and Afterthought,” with Jack DeJohnette and Ron Carter. This is one of my favorite Joe records. I have it on a compilation and also on the actual record. But I used to listen to this record every day for two or three years, I was so into it, and others by Joe Henderson around that period. That was around 1989-90-91. It’s just so incredible! I think of Joe as someone who brought together quite a bit of what happened before, so he brought together, say, a certain amount of free playing, a certain amount of saxophone tradition, like bebop playing and swing before that, and players of his generation and before. Also, from a saxophone player’s standpoint, he started a certain type of tune. For example, some tunes that have free playing, and a lot of tunes that have been written since, that are kind of like some through-composed, some not, with sort of compact, condensed areas of changes. That type of tune…he’s the one who started all that, basically. In this period it’s great, because his sound is maybe somewhat lighter than earlier records. It’s incredible, because he gets a feeling of playing live in the studio, which is extremely difficult to do. It sounds like other records that are live records from around the same period. He sort of wrapped together everything that he did before and sort of looking to what’s going to happen in the future, and it’s all done in the studio in one period. It’s incredible. Also, that recording and others around that period, it’s an excellent example for him of mystery and logic and rational playing brought together. He’s the master of that of the saxophone players I’m aware of. 5 stars.

3.  Jimmy Greene, “Take Advantage”(from TRUE LIFE-STORIES, Criss-Cross, 2005) (Greene, tenor saxophone; Xavier Davis, piano; Reuben Rogers, bass; Eric Harland, drums; Harry Connick, composer)

Nice tune. Nice form. It flows very nicely, it’s very melodic, nice motion between the sections. Very well played, very swinging and very well done. Very professional-sounding. Before I heard the solos, I thought it was John Ellis as a sideman on someone else’s record.  I don’t know who else it could be. I thought maybe Jimmy Greene because of some aspects of the size of his sound in the middle register, but the lines and phrasing didn’t quite sound like what I knew to be him from when I played with him and hearing him on other people’s records. I’m less familiar with his playing recently. Maybe Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums. It’s a nice performance that rests on its own terms. It didn’t sound like a standard, or if it was, it was a pretty complex and obscure one. It didn’t sound like a normal standard. I thought it was an original written in a certain style. 4 stars.

4.   David Murray, “Steps” (from 4TET & STRINGS, Justin Time, 2006) (Murray, tenor saxophone, composer; Lafayette Gilchrist, piano)

I thought it was Sam Rivers for the first few  seconds because of the sound and vibrato, but as soon as I listened a little more, I knew it wasn’t. I don’t know who it is. I especially liked the section during the piano player’s solo. Wow, that was beautiful. I really loved that. I liked especially certain sections of the arrangement with the strings. I liked the tenor player. To a certain extent I like that kind of playing over let’s say a string section or something where there’s some clear harmony written, but I’d say the soloist isn’t necessarily addressing tonality in a specific sense, maybe more like sounds and certain colors than addressing tonality. I enjoy that, because there’s a certain amount of mystery that it adds to music. I personally prefer also having that and really addressing the harmony in a specific way as well. I enjoy that even more. But I really like the mystery added, again, by that type of playing. Of course, part of the reason why I enjoyed the piano player’s solo more is because both of those elements were both in play, maybe because of the instruments played. 4 stars.

5.   Chris Byars, “The Lion of Yerevan” (from Ari Roland, SKETCHES FROM A BASSIST’S ALBUM, Smalls 2006) (Byars, tenor saxophone; Sacha Perry, piano; Ari Roland, bass; Danny Rosenfeld, drums)

I’m not sure who the saxophone player is. It sounds like Lucky Thompson, the saxophone player who did the record “Tricotism.”  There’s a tune of his that I play, too. I’m not sure if it’s him, but it sounds like he’s coming out of that tradition. I don’t think it’s him, but it sounds somewhere in that area. Otherwise, I can’t think of who it would be off the top of my head. It’s fantastic. I don’t know this recording. It sounds like it could be from the late ‘50s or early ‘60s; for example, a bass player from the late ‘30s or early ‘40s recording a record later, like maybe in the ‘50s. It’s the harmonic language and the sound of the recording. It sounds like something recorded in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. That’s my guess. 4½ stars. [AFTER] I’m not surprised. I’ve heard those guys a fair amount of times. It sounded like someone from that period who had their own original material that I didn’t know of. It’s totally fresh. It sounds like they’re completely in it, and it sounds like that music is alive and they’re in that language, as if they were living then and playing it now. It’s amazing. It’s great.

6.   James Carter, “Blue Hawaiian” (from GOLD SOUNDS, Brown Brothers, 2005) (Carter, tenor saxophone; Cyrus Chestnut, keyboards; Reginald Veal, bass; Ali Jackson, drums)

It sounds like James Carter. Why did it take me so long? I’m not that familiar with his playing, and in the very beginning he didn’t play that much, he was introducing the melody, and it sounded like it could be some other people from, say, the Chicago school of saxophone players, if you want to call it that – the avant-garde, more or less, to some extent. I haven’t listened to them a lot; I’m aware of them and have listened to them to some extent. I need to check them out more, but I’m just aware of it. So at first I was wondering which one, but as it went on I was aware of James, one, because it sounded like a new recording, and two, because of the amount that he was playing – as in playing a lot and not leaving any space for anyone else, really. On a good note, as far as the amount of effects and facility on the instrument, it’s amazing. There are some things he was doing with sound that were incredible, very difficult to do. There’s one thing in particular, somewhere on the horn, maybe A-flat to B-flat, something like that, back and forth, and there were some kind of harmonics with something else going on. Sound-wise, it was kind of amazing. Really interesting. That ability is fantastic, and I enjoy that part. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, there’s the prowess on the instrument, and the sound that the rhythm section was getting together. Even though it was a vamp, the relationship between the bass and keyboard – it was nice, what they had going. There was one little interlude between the solos, right after the tenor solos, that was really nice. My reservation is sometimes a little too much playing. If there was less, it would have been more pleasurable to listen to. I liked the song. It was a vamp more or less with some little interludes to break it up. 3stars.

7.   Greg Tardy, “As the World Rejoices” (from Greg Tardy, THE TRUTH, Steeplechase, 2005) (Tardy, tenor saxophone; Helen Sung, piano; Sean Conly, bass; Jaimeo Brown, drums)

That sounds like  Greg Tardy playing saxophone. I didn’t know if this was his record, because I haven’t heard any of his records or heard him write tunes like this. But I thought it was fantastic. It sounds really beautiful. It was an excellent composition, especially the relationship between bass and melody. It’s nice, because it’s the type of tune where you can hear the harmony just with bass and melody alone. That says a lot about the composer’s understanding of harmony. Also fantastic is the way that even though it was somewhat rubato in some sections, it still had a nice rhythmic tension, which is sometimes hard to get. It was very well done. The sound was great. I think Greg is playing a Radio-Improved that he’s shown me. Totally beautiful. 4½ stars. The only reason I don’t say 5 is just because I reserve 5 for established classics.

8.   Michael Brecker, “Prince Lasha” (from Odean Pope Saxophone Choir, LOCKED & LOADED: LIVE AT THE BLUE NOTE, Half-Note, 2006) (Brecker, tenor saxophone; Craig McIver, drums)

I don’t know what to say about that. I can’t say I liked it very much. Wow. I think I’ve heard the piece before, but I’m not sure. But on that performance the band was…wow. I mean “wow” in the negative sense. The band performance was a bit atrocious, I have to say. The time wasn’t quite happening. I don’t know what was going on. At first I thought the tenor player was Brecker, but it’s not what I’m used to. Maybe it’s other things…I don’t know what happened. It sounds like maybe someone else who sounds like him. There are certain lines that he was playing that I’m not used to hearing him play. Also, part of it is execution. I’m used to hearing even more immaculate execution and time. But on the other hand, if he’s dealing with the drummer, whoever it was, it would be hard to deal with that maybe even for him. So I don’t know. It could be someone else who sounds a lot like him, would be my guess. I was going to say maybe Tommy Smith or… I don’t know that many people. It could be Bob Mintzer, but I’m used to hearing him sound different. Or Bob Berg, But not quite. 1 star. One thing that made me think it was Brecker was sound, and there were other things he executed that were so him, that I haven’t heard anyone else do. Even for him, dealing with that, I can see why he was – for him – not as immaculate on phrases or time or whatever as he normally would be. It sounds like he’s trying to keep everyone together.

I love Michael Brecker. I think he’s fantastic. He’s an incredible saxophone player, musician, person. Musician in an ideal sense, in terms of work ethic, reason for playing, the feeling of emotion that he puts out and gives people. It’s sad for me to hear him in that situation, because it’s pulling him way down, way below what he can do. To me, he’s just keeping them together, baby-sitting them. That’s what I think. I’ll be flat-honest about it.

In terms of recordings, there are so many great ones, but one of my favorites is Brecker with strings, a Claus Ogermann date. Man, it’s super-bad. It’s an immaculate record. [Has he influenced you?] Yeah. He’s probably influenced everybody. Maybe some people would not like to admit it. But of course. Definitely. Absolutely. Yes, in many ways. Should I say how? I don’t know how to put it… Well, specifically, like many saxophone players, when I was in early college and high school, I spent a lot of time trying to sound like him. Actually, in certain ways… I did certain transcriptions, and had books with transcriptions where he kind of, among others, taught me how to play the saxophone, and certain things he could do with it… I mean, there are certain things that he’s done with the saxophone and taking, say, the language of Coltrane and people like that, and done certain things that are characteristically him. He’s not just let’s say a disciple of Trane or whatever. Not to me. He’s really added to the canon. Anyway, so he’s influenced me and maybe others in the sense that he’s kind of stretching certain ways of playing the saxophone very specifically, certain things that he can do on the saxophone. There are certain things that I didn’t realize you could do with it until I heard him play. They’re just technical things that are also musical. It’s hard to explain it. But certain things that are very difficult to do. Certain scalar things, certain patterns very, very fast to play within a range of 2½ to 3 octaves, using the upper register is a big one. The way he plays and improvises certain lines. Also the way he uses false fingerings, certain things he did that are very difficult to do, that are his. It’s his vocabulary. Out of a certain tradition, like all of us, but it’s his thing. And when he’s in an environment not like this one, it’s incredible. [Did you keep abreast of his later records?] Yeah, somewhat. Totally incredible. In fact, another thing that’s great about him is that he’s one of those people that I would like to be like, just continuing to blossom. Just better and better. It’s just incredible. Now it’s like he has all the technique and sound, deeper and more open. It seems on his last records, he’s had more opportunity to show various things he can do and changed his own playing even more. Still evolving.

9.   Ned Goold, “In The Still Of The Night” (from THE FLOWS, Smalls, 1999/2004) (Goold, tenor saxophone; Ben Wolfe, bass; Ron Steen, drums)

It’s Ned Goold. I don’t know the tune; I haven’t played it. I don’t know who’s in the rhythm section. He’s a great saxophone player. I could tell because his lines are very intervallic, but still in the ‘40s-‘50s vernacular. So that’s how I recognized him. It’s very interesting playing. It’s difficult to do that and still play the changes well. 3½ stars.

10. Chris Potter, “Morning Bell” (from UNDERGROUND, Sunnyside, 2006) (Potter, tenor saxophone; Wayne Krantz, guitar; Craig Taborn, fender rhodes; Nate Smith, drums; Thom Yorke, composer)

It sounds like Chris Potter. I’m not familiar with this tune, but it’s a great composition. I really enjoyed that. It sounds like a Radiohead tune or influenced by it. It’s the form and the harmony. There are certain basslines or certain parts of the harmony, certain things in minor thirds that make it sound like that. I don’t remember exactly, but some other spots that are like that. [Can you take a brief tangent and discuss what about Radiohead’s make them appealing to musicians in this period?] I don’t know actually. But there are a lot who are into it, including myself. Maybe because at least a fair amount of musicians are listening to other music besides jazz, and are into various popular musics, whatever they are, and then those that are of that genre, let’s say rock-influenced or whatever. I think that because the sound on their records is so great, and also they’re pretty meticulous about sounds – getting the sounds right, the sound of the record. Plus the tunes. The songs are great. It’s really good songwriting. I think a big part of it is that. Even if you just play the song without really soloing that much, like this one, they’re just nice forms to hear, and there seems to be something close about maybe what some of us are doing and what they’re doing that may be influencing us. Maybe it’s because a fair amount of us are willing to address popular music from our generation. That includes anything from something we listened in high school on – anything from the ‘80s and ‘90s. And Radiohead, among others, seems to be a good example of that. I thought that performance was fantastic, beautiful. I can’t say anything bad about it! It’s all great, fantastic. I wish I could play that well. He’s totally incredible. 4½ stars.

11.   Donny McCaslin, “Soar” (from SOAR, Sunnyside, 2006) (McCaslin, tenor saxophone; Ben Monder, guitar; Scott Colley, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums; Pernell Saturnino, percussion; Shane Endsley, trumpet; Luis Bonilla, trombone)

It’s pretty bold to start that long with percussion. It’s interesting. I like that. I’m not sure who this is, but it sounds like an Avishai Cohen tune, or something in that scene – an active section of the tune, sort of syncopated in a scalar sense. It sounds like an Israeli vibe, or sounds influenced by it. I don’t know who it is, though. It’s a great song. I can’t quite place the guitar player. Tenor player sounds fantastic. Whoo! Killing. Sounds like some people I know, but I’m not sure if it’s them. Maybe younger people who sound like them. It sounds Latin-influenced, some type of Caribbean-Latin thing. This is a nice interlude section. It’s a great tune, a great composition. It’s really well-done. Beautiful. [FINAL SECTION] This last section is really nice! Wow. What a great arrangement. Great ending, too. Just falls right off. A little arrangement of whatever those revolving changes were. 4 stars. [AFTER] I thought it was Donny, but there was something about his sound that sounded different, so to be honest, I thought it was someone who was sounding like Donny, or checked him out.

12.   Branford Marsalis, “Laughin’ and Talkin’ with Higg” (from ROMARE BEARDEN REVEALED, Rounder, 2004) (Branford Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Eric Revis, bass; Jeff Watts, drums)

Sounds like Wynton and Branford. I don’t know whose record this is, and I’m not sure if I’ve heard this record. Oh, I figured it would be Branford. I’m not sure if it’s recent or not. It’s Jeff Watts, and I would imagine Eric Revis or Reginald Veal depending on how recent it is. It’s incredible playing, understanding of swing rhythm and all those things – just the obvious things. But not only a great understanding of the swing tradition, but it’s their own language they’ve created. I’ve been influenced by it. Many people have. The way that they play that maybe objectively speaking or maybe, according to some who may be against them or not like what they’re doing, who think they’re too conservative or something… It seems like they have so much control, especially over this, that it sounds like they’re playing really free. They have a lot of creative ability. They’re  really connected, and really complementary to each other, not necessarily a thing where someone will play a certain phrase and someone else will play the same thing, but actually complementing – two different melodies that work together type of thing. They do it very well. And it’s improvised. That’s another thing that’s great, is they’re really improvising, really making up lines, but still in the whole vocabulary and vernacular of the tradition. Rhythmically it’s great, Jeff Watts’ innovations and the innovations of that group of people, whether it’s Branford’s bands or Wynton’s bands, especially Wynton’s band in the ‘80s, like ‘85, like J-Mood and Black Codes From The Underground. This was right before I went to college, so everybody was listening. Not everybody, but those that wanted to play mainstream jazz were into that, and so was I.  So yes, it’s totally incredible. 4½ stars.

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