Let's Talk About Wynton Marsalis
Let's Talk About Wynton Marsalis
By Eugene S. Robinson
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because at the heart of a people, you'll find the art of the people.
By Eugene S. Robinson
It’s one thing to be competing with yourself. Wanting to do something, anything, a little bit better the next time out. Maybe it’s a habit of semi-successful people. But what about when the finish line is constantly being moved by everyone you’re connected to — super successful parents, siblings, past versions of yourself — and of this you’re keenly aware? Welcome to a day in the life of Wynton, just one of the famous Marsalis musicians, and dig on him dropping into this episode of The Carlos Watson Show. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.
The Swing Is the Thing
Carlos Watson: Hey, how much are you playing these days?
Wynton Marsalis: Oh, yeah, I play. I play all the time. I mean, we don’t have gigs, we can’t get in front of people, but I’m still playing.
Watson: Oh, man, I love that. Did you get all that from your dad? Or who taught you? Who actually taught you how to play?
Marsalis: Yeah, I had a lot of teachers. My daddy was a teacher too, so of course I just learned from seeing him, but he was real serious about music. So, I more learned to be serious about it, because I like to joke around a lot with my daddy. I was always playing with him. But, he was serious. So, I learned about music like it was an art. Not just to be played with. And he struggled a lot for the music, so yeah, I learned just watching him.
Watson: And why did you break out in the end? It’s interesting, so many people have parents who are in a certain space, and so they probably take some of that from them, but not everybody breaks out in the way that you did.
Marsalis: Man, I don’t know, it’s a mystery to me, really. It’s more spiritual, because I wasn’t playing nothing popular, really. I never thought about it. I’m not like an economist type of person. I mean, I played in a funk band in the ’70s, I had a good time. But that was never my thing, just kind of following everybody and trying to recruit people on going along or whatever, was the fad. I don’t know, I think I talked a lot in interviews when I was young, and I took what I was saying seriously.
And, some of it was controversial, I didn’t know it was controversial, to be honest. So, it became more that than the music, and then, along the way, I was developing my musicianship. I was always serious about it, but it’s hard to be really serious about something if there’s not a lot of other people with you. And, if it’s something that’s as isolated as jazz is and was. It could be isolating. I was lucky, because I had been around people so much and had such a good time, bullshitting and playing ball and being with my friends and playing in a funk band.
So, I wasn’t necessarily looking to be … I had a social life already when I was in high school. It was so expansive that once it came time for me to be serious and accept a certain type of isolation, I didn’t want to accept it, but it was tenable. But a lot of musicians I’ve known throughout the years, it’s at a certain point when they realize that they’re not going to have the type of fan base they want if they’re real serious. It’s just too much. So, I mean, I’m not judging them; I’m just saying it’s a reality. And, I understand it.
Watson: Why did you think that, mentally, you were tough enough to deal with that?
Marsalis: Man, I just seen my father and them struggling all that time. I grew up going to clubs in the South, with five or six people in them. And, people struggling man, people having a hard time. No money, it’s not fancy clubs. It was just Southern life, and my daddy’s trying to play jazz, nobody really want to hear that. Everything is segregated. But, he could play and he kept playing. So, I guess from my early childhood, just seeing him and the way he was, he’s very cool and always very … he was humble. He didn’t complain about not having people, and he wasn’t bitter about it.
Watson: I saw that you were writing a little bit on Black Lives Matter on Twitter. How are you thinking about the moment we’re in right now? I also heard you in the past say that, “There’s rarely honest conversation … we go out of our way as a country not to talk about race.” You feel like we’re going to turn a corner?
Marsalis: Man, the future can’t be known. That’s the beauty of it, we don’t know the future. So, I think if you grew up in the ’70s, it makes you naturally cynical because of what happened in the ’80s. If you remember those early ’70s, there was a lot of consciousness in that time.
And, if you’re from a community of Black people, man, everybody’s looking at each other, dapping everybody. When I first came to New York in 1979, I had to learn how to not look at people. Man, in New Orleans, and I was everywhere in New Orleans, I wasn’t in no one place. I played in every area, didn’t matter, my mama’s from the projects, my grandma lived there. I went everywhere. Everyone was, “What’s happening, bro? Look out. What’s happening, little daddy?” You know, you’d look at everybody. Remember, Marvin Gaye’s music and Stevie, it was like a consciousness time in those early ’70s. And all of a sudden, when you start to roll around to those late ’70s, the air’s starting to get a little tight.
Then the ’80s, the country backed away from the support that it had been giving in the ’70s. Then we started to regress. I always tell people, if you told anybody from the 1970s,who played in a funk band, who played love songs all night, the Commodores, the Ohio Players, you take your pick, the Isley Brothers, Earth, Wind & Fire, the reasons that we feel — that’s all we did, was play them gigs — that there’s going to be a time that people are going to be calling women “bitches” and it’s going to be normal? Man, we’d a slapped your great-grandma and said, “No way in the world that’s going to happen.” It’s no way. Nobody saw that.
Watson: So why do you think it happened?
Marsalis: Man, it’s a lot of pressure. It’s always a lot of pressure to return to the minstrel show, man. Nations are like people; we all have some type of flaw, we all have something wrong with us. And, each thing that we have is about us. Me, you, it don’t matter who it is. Some of us do better jobs of covering it up. And, with some of the more obvious ones, it might be substance abuse. Another person, it might be lying. Nobody knows what another person’s thing is. Unless you’re really close with that person, and for some reason, you return to that.
Like, I think of myself, the dumb stuff that I’ve done. Man, I’ll return to that stupidity over and over again. And, I don’t know why. Why do I do it? I don’t know. So, what can I say about our nation? Why do we turn to it? It’s what we do. But, that said, every time I return to it, I say to myself, the next time, I’m not returning to it. So, you can’t give up, you’ve got to keep trying to deal with improvement and betterment. It’s what we do for ourselves.
When Greatness Calls. Literally
Watson: Did you get to talk to Miles Davis and any of those guys when you were younger?
Marsalis: Yeah, I talked to everybody who was alive when I was younger. I talked to everybody. Me and him didn’t have a good relationship so much, but he talked to me. Some of the things he told me would be funny, they’d be good advice.
And, Dizzy, all of them. I would go to cats’ houses, man, and talk to them. If I saw them I talked to them. Anytime, I could be around the giants, I got around them, and I was always asking questions. Some were really like parents to me, because they knew my father. You know the world of jazz, that generation of people was very familiar.
So, yeah, when I was 15, 16, 18, I was always around the giants. And, I knew they weren’t like other people that you knew.
You know Clark Terry, Sweets Edison, Dizzy, Miles, the list goes on and on … Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan. … They would tell you, a lot of times, it would be spiritual. I mean, I could … so many stories I could tell you about them.
Like Dizzy called me one night in Los Angeles, Playboy Jazz Festival, 3 o’clock in the morning. “Man, you up?” “Yeah, man, yeah, I’m up.” Of course, I’m not up, “Yeah, I’m up, you know I don’t go to sleep, Dizzy.”
So he told me he went to the ophthalmologist, and the ophthalmologist said, “If you play low notes, look down, if you play middle register notes, look in the middle, if you play high notes, look up to the sky.” He said, “It was something.” He said, “It reminded me of a conversation I had with Louis Armstrong. I asked Louis Armstrong, ‘Pops … Pops, Pops, why are you always looking up when you’re playing? What are you looking for?’ And, he said, Pops told him, ‘I don’t know, brother Diz, but I always find it.'”
And, he told me he moved around the corner to Pop’s house, after he was. … He was, Dizzy, at that time, he was established and a star. I said, “Man, you’re the great Dizzy Gillespie and you move around the corner from, Louis Armstrong.” He said, “Man, Louis Armstrong was so soulful. I knew something like that would never happen again.” He said, “I just wanted to be around what that feeling was.”
He said he went to Louis Armstrong’s house for Pop’s birthday to say happy birthday, and Pops met him at the door and gave him a shoebox full of weed. He said, “Man, it’s your birthday.” Pops said, “To give is to receive.” So, it’s all the color man. You know Gerry Mulligan?
Marsalis: I was talking to him, all racial, I was telling him about all the racial white and Black [stuff], what happened around the Birth of the Cool with Miles … wasn’t up to him. It’s the white boys. I’m going into my thing. I’m 22, 23. … I don’t know, I was deep into my thing. White folks, you all did this and that and this.
He listened to me. He was looking at me, like, with amazement: I was just telling him straight out. I told him what Miles was doing and what they was doing. And, he was a part of the Birth of the Cool, so when I finished telling him that, he said, “Well, did you know that Miles and Max got into a fight, and he couldn’t get another drummer?”
He said, “Did you know Gil Evans’ old lady wouldn’t let us continue to work, to practice in their house?” So, he named five things … I had no idea. He said, “Hmmm. I’m surprised they didn’t teach you that in your sociology class.”