Wynton Marsalis grew up in a family that is considered to be New Orleans royalty (Pianist Ellis Marsalis is his father; sax player Branford Marsalis is his brother.). He has recorded over 40 albums; made trumpeting cool again, revived acoustic jazz and is one of the loudest advocates for traditional jazz.
Myers: In an interview about your book, “Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life,” you said, “Jazz allows people to find their creativity and focus it.” Would you expand on that?
Marsalis: If we all have a thing that defines us; we have preferences and likes, tastes, and the art form of jazz celebrates individuality. So, when you hear our band play, each musician has a different sound and a different approach to music. We have four trumpeters and all four of us play in a different way and there’s no one correct way to play. There’s many ways to play and each of us has an individual imprint and the music teaches us to be proud of our unique characteristics. It doesn’t push us in a direction of sameness. To focus it means that you can put your creativity in a context. It’s a lot like when you put your ideas down on paper. You don’t have to be a musician. When you listen to people play, it focuses your attention. Listening is one of the most undervalued activities in our culture right now. To just sit down and listen to someone else play allows you to focus your own thoughts and ideas around how they expose their material. It works for families also.
Myers: How so?
Marsalis: Well, a family can sit down and just take time and listen to something. It’s an activity–just sit and be with each other and listen to something and be silent and then after it’s over to discuss what you heard. That’s a great family activity.
Myers: Years ago when I was in college, you came and spoke at a lecture hall. You said that jazz was interactive, and you advised us to just listen to the music the first time an instrument is introduced in a song. The next time that instrument comes around, think of what it played the first time–keep that in your mind–because the soloist is about to change it and do something different to complement what he did the first time. Do I have that right?
Marsalis: Right; that’s exactly right. Like following a conversation.
Myers: That really opened the door to jazz for me once I realized that I could take part in it.
Marsalis: Right. It’s very interactive listening and it develops your attention span.
Myers: Even with your dad’s amazing piano playing in the house growing up, you didn’t like jazz until you were 12. You said that it was noisy and the players played too long. But something happened though, and that changed it for you. Would you share that revelation with readers?
Marsalis: The summer that I was 12, I started to actually listen to the music. Before that time I didn’t really listen to it. I was always around it, so I took it for granted. I didn’t take the time to actually listen and try to understand it. That summer I started listening to John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and it just began to speak to me. I began to understand it.
Myers: What can people get from jazz that they may not be able to get in other aspects of life?
Marsalis: Resilience, because the jazz musicians have always survived through their art and they’ve never really experienced the type of success that less artistic music has. So they’ve always made a choice to embrace quality. Resilient music is not easy solution music. It’s the music of “food for the soul” we call it.
Myers: In an interview you said, “jazz is incorruptible.” What did you mean by that?
Marsalis: In spite of whatever the trends were they [jazz musicians] decided to play that kind of music, and many times that was a decision that separated you from the choices of your generation or the larger culture; and they accepted that.
Myers: With the election of Barack Obama it seems like there’s a new sense of hope and people are engaged in a way that they have not been in a long time. The country seems optimistic. It seems like we’re really looking to heal from the mistakes of the last administration. What kind of role can jazz play in this?
Marsalis: Well, jazz is our cultural art form. We invented it. The time for cultural consciousness still has not come to our country. It will come. I haven’t seen it reflected in this time, but when we begin to understand what it is to bring the generations of people together, the music will be here for the people. First of all, the best of music is recorded so it’s always available, and there’s so many jazz bands all over the country. It’s just a matter of time that the nation will need to reach for our art form to remind us of who we are, and the music will be here.
Myers: But, people are not reaching for jazz yet?
Marsalis: No, not yet–we’re not looking to any culture for a solution. We still think that there’s a monetary solution to our problems. When those things start to fail, then you go into the soul.
Myers: Let’s talk about your upcoming release, “He and She.” It’s an album that’s built around a poem?
Marsalis: Yes, and the poem is about a man and a woman, a love poem about what happened between them. How they look at stuff; relationships… what it means to not have romantic relationships; what it means to have them. What happens when a woman leaves you? It covers a lot of ground through a poetic kind of symbolism… And it deals with the number three, because three is kind of a mystical number of people coming together. When two people get together the make up is three: there’s me – there’s you and the person you become together. It’s everything and nothing and the space that it contains.
Myers: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost?
Marsalis: Yeah, it’s all threes. Also, waltz tempo.
Myers: Who wrote the poem?
Marsalis: I wrote the poem. The poem was harder to write than the music.
Myers: Do you typically write poetry?
Marsalis: Yeah, I love poetry. My favorite poet is William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet. I always travel with a book of Complete Poems by William Butler Yeats.