JazzTimes.com Exclusive: A Conversation with Terence Blanchard and Branford Marsalis
The New Orleans masters in an improvised chat about everything
At a party in Istanbul late in April, during the International Jazz Week celebrations, JazzTimes found New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard and saxophonist Branford Marsalis hanging out together in one of the many rooms of the host’s home. We asked them if they’d mind giving us a two-minute quote on the significance of the event and they did. And then they kept on talking—for another half hour. We had our handy digital recorder with us and let them go on, our reporter tossing in the occasional question but mostly just letting them riff. What follows is a verbatim transcript of their sometimes rambling, often hilarious, always astute conversation.
Why is International Jazz Day important?
Terence Blanchard: First of all, it’s amazing that there is such a thing as International Jazz Day. It means that, politically, the music has come a long way.
How do you feel about the event being held in a city such as Istanbul, which is not particularly known for its jazz?
Branford Marsalis: The whole thing about it is outreach. If you’re going to do this sort of thing, you bring it to places that have potential. Putting it in New York was kind of like, what’s the big whoop? But a place like Beijing would be a great place to put it, simply because you have large amounts of capital and that’s important. You have a large, productive workforce, and an expanding, productive workforce. It’s a good place to set up the infrastructure to make jazz education possible. Places like Istanbul, Beijing, Delhi—these are the places where this should be going.
TB: The thing that’s great about it being in Istanbul is you’re dealing with a country where, musically, they have had their own traditions that have withstood the test of time. Creatively there’s a lot of similarities between Turkish music and jazz in terms of improvisation, emphasis on the rhythmic culture and the historical.
Do you think we’ll start to see more great jazz coming out of places like Istanbul and Beijing?
TB: It’s already happening. There are some great young musicians here. Look, jazz has become like the NBA. You’re starting to see jazz musicians come from all over the place. They’re coming to America and doing a lot of great things.
BM: The word jazz has multiple meanings in different places. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is not a jazz festival anymore. It is gone. There’s room for other things; it’s that it’s become that first and everything else second. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival should really be the New Orleans Music Festival. The heritage part is completely gone.
You can say that about many jazz festivals today though. Montreux isn’t all jazz either.
BM: Absolutely. I haven’t played Montreux since 1988. I said, “What’s the point?” But I don’t even want a pure jazz festival. For example, Cape Town has a jazz festival and there’s not a single jazz act there but they call it the Cape Town Jazz Festival. There are a lot of people, in America, who think that the definition of jazz is music where people ain’t singing lyrics. So instrumental pop music is now called jazz. When I was a kid Grover Washington Jr. was on the pop charts. Now they have a chart for guys playing Grover tunes not as good as Grover did.
TB: But you know what the interesting dilemma is for me? You have festivals called jazz festivals that have a wide array of music but in your profession [speaking to interviewer] there is still a burning desire to define the word, and define it in very narrow terms.
So what do you think about this controversy over changing the name of jazz to Black American Music, or BAM?
BM: Nothing. I don’t think anything of it.
TB: Oh, man.
BM: I have a narrow definition of jazz culturally. I don’t have a narrow definition of jazz musically. One of the things that I learned from playing classical music is they like classical music that sounds classical. The guy who’s running the New York Metropolitan Opera now, he tried to pull a jazz thing. His whole thing was, well, Andrew Lloyd Webber can be called classical. It’s the same logic. The thing is, how do we expand the base? Do we expand the base by exposing more people to what it is, or do we expand the base by watering it down and making it more palatable? At first [Metropolitan Opera General Manager] Peter Gelb’s thing was, “We’re gonna start getting these Broadway guys to write operas.” But the pushback was so great that he had to back up. The difference in jazz is there’s never any pushback. Everybody gets to say what jazz is. But if you can’t play a blues, seriously, how you gonna call it jazz? You got people in New York, from America, sitting there playing jazz, who can’t even play in 4/4. Everything is in odd meters, with an ostinato bass line.
TB: This is the reason I think there’s no pushback in jazz: because jazz has evolved at such a rapid pace compared to classical music that we don’t have that kind of track record. We do, physically, but in terms of the public having connection to that, think about classical music. When you go to Hungary, you can still relate to that music because it’s based on folklore. That shit is coming from hundreds of years of history. We don’t have that in jazz right now. When was Bird alive? ’40s? ’50s? That’s not that long ago.
BM: Yeah, but I’m saying you gotta think about it in a different way because you have music that is allowed to be defined by people who are not skilled at playing.
TB: OK, but here’s my point though. It doesn’t happen in classical music because there’s been such a wealth of music and such a track record.
BM: It’s something else. America is a culturally strange place. For instance, my father [pianist Ellis Marsalis] used to bring up this thing. It sounds unrelated but it’s not. He was in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1960-whatever. He says, “Innsbruck is interesting.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because there are places in Innsbruck where only Austrians can buy.” I said, “Is that a good thing?” He said, “As an American, on the face of it I’d say no. But in hindsight I think it is because there are things that are unique to a particular place, and giving it off to the highest bidder, I don’t know if that really is a good thing.” Then 1980 shows up, and everything in America is for sale. The Empire State Building! That’s the thing about our country—everything is for sale! If I wanted to study Turkish music, I don’t think someone would say, “No, you can’t study Turkish music.” But they’re damned sure not gonna let me come in here and half-learn it and then start adding bebop sprinkles in and say, “This is Turkish music.” No, it’s not.
OK, but classical music still relies on repertoire that was largely composed centuries ago. That’s what most people still pay to hear when they go to see an orchestra. If that happens to jazz, if people will only come to a show to hear music that was written by Bird or Monk or Trane or Miles—or music that could have been written by them—then it’s dead. Jazz can’t thrive on nostalgia and standards alone.
TB: It’s not about being nostalgic though.
BM: This is something I can tell you from my personal experience. I remember when I was playing with Art Blakey and I didn’t know any jazz, and I remember when I was playing with Wynton’s band, and none of us really knew any jazz, it was a very uninformed sound. Everybody thought it was fresh, but all it was, was uninformed. Learning jazz didn’t make me a worse player. It made me a better player. Wynton has chosen to play traditional music so everybody can kind of write him off and say, “Well, look at what happened to Wynton, he’s a dinosaur.” Well, we’re not fuckin’ dinosaurs. My band with [pianist] Joey Calderazzo and [drummer] Justin Faulkner, that’s not a dinosaur band. When Justin joined the band, that’s why it took us two years to record, because he didn’t know any music. I’d say, “Here’s your listening, son. Go learn how to play it. Then we’ll make a record.”
TB: But you see, the thing he’s talking about is what I find very problematic in jazz. There’s a big misconception between learning the history of the music and regurgitating it. It’s two different things. That’s what I always try to tell my students: Just because I tell you to go listen to something and learn it doesn’t mean that you’re gonna become that. You’re only gonna become that if you don’t have any ideas on your own.
BM: Think of all the dudes in the ’70s who tried to play like Coltrane and essentially failed.
TB: But there’s a lot of guys who play Coltrane licks and are still trying to find something of their own to play. So they’re still failing at playing Coltrane but they’re not making any headway doing anything on their own.
BM: I don’t think you can find anything on your own. I don’t think that’s how it works.
TB: OK, but you know what I’m saying. I’m gonna give you an example. I go off to hear Illinois Jacquet play with his big band. The night before I’m listening to McCoy Tyner with Cedar Walton—on the same bill. I love both bands. Two piano players, very different styles, I love both shows. The next night I’m opening up for Illinois Jacquet. Illinois gets up and plays, and every time he plays, his shit was just awesome. I was loving it. Every time everybody else in the band played, I didn’t dig it, and I realized it was because they were not trying to be themselves, they were trying to be Illinois. So even when you try to copy somebody, you’re not gonna be that. That’s why you have to at least be honest about what it is you want to say.
There are still ghost bands out there playing the music of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. It’s like the jazz equivalent of those rock bands that go and play Led Zeppelin music or Pink Floyd, note for note. And my feeling about that has always been, if you are skilled enough to play that music, then take that talent and apply it to your own thing.
TB: Here’s the thing about that. One of the reasons that happens is because people are afraid of themselves. We always have this dilemma about being who we want to be versus who we are. The thing that he’s talking about, being who you are, doesn’t negate the fact that you should learn history. You still need to learn the history to help inform what it is you want to say, and help refine the statement.
BM: Most guys I know learn two seconds of the history.
Do jazz departments in colleges address this? Aren’t they teaching students the history?
BM: No, they’re learning scales, they’re learning theory. I don’t care what kind of music you learn—the Turkish scale is eight or nine notes longer than the Western scale, and if you honestly think you’re gonna buy a book and make that work, there’s no chance of that. It’s something ingrained in the culture, and if you’re not willing to embrace the culture and spend some time down here figuring out what that is, you’re never gonna get it.
TB: The other side of that I think is very important. There’s a man in this room tonight—Wayne Shorter. I want to be the Wayne Shorter of the trumpet. I loved Wayne Shorter when I was coming up. I used to listen to all of Wayne’s stuff. I was, like, “Man, I want to play like Wayne.” Then I met Wayne and I go, “That shit is never gonna happen,” because I saw how the personality is connected to the music. But the thing is, we get that confused with his musical acumen.
BM: This is what Wayne did in L.A. We were at the Hollywood Bowl and all of the saxophone players went running up to Wayne, and Wayne did his Wayne thing. We said, “What advice you have?” He said, “Notes are like people. And you have to go up the steps and greet every one of them.” [Blanchard laughs] So then one of the guys comes up, knowing that Wayne was gonna be there, and shows him a transcription of his solo. Wayne says, “I don’t want to see that crap, man. Just go up the steps and greet each note.” The kid said, “Wayne, I don’t understand. What do you mean, go up the steps and greet each note?” So Wayne says, “Y’all know rhythm changes? This is how Pres [Lester Young] did it,” and he played like Pres. “This is how Bird did it, and this is how Trane did it. Now, this is how Wayne does it. Go up the steps and greet each note.” I ran my ass back to New York, buying records and copying everything. Suddenly, I had an actual blueprint. Blakey would talk around it: “Y’all don’t know history, you need to learn it.” But he’d never explain why.
TB: Wayne got Wynton like that. Wynton told a story where they were at a gig some place and he said all of a sudden Wayne started talking about, “Bird played this,” and he started playing it and it wasn’t something you would automatically associate.
BM: This is why we fall in love with the illusion of innovation.
TB: We always talk about this. People will go and hear Wayne and they’ll hear him play now, and they don’t understand the amount of history and effort that he put into being able to play one phrase that is distinctively Wayne Shorter.
Another factor in that is age though. No musician is the same person at age 80 that they were at age 40 or 25. So they can’t be expected to play music the same way.
BM: Technically, yeah, but maybe not ideologically. I don’t think Wayne is any different now than he was when he showed up dropping bombs with Miles’ band. But when you hear cats talking now, everything is about innovation and doing what no one else has done. First of all, man, there are 12 notes. There’s been 12 notes for a thousand years. It’s all been covered. You’re not gonna come up with new stuff. This is actually funny. I was learning a Trane solo and Bu [Art Blakey] walks by and goes, “What the fuck are you doing?” I said, “I’m learning this Trane solo.” He says, “For what?” I said, “I’m trying to learn how to play like Coltrane.” He says, “You’re not gonna learn to play like Trane playing that.” I said, “Oh, so I’m not gonna learn to play like Trane by playing Trane solos?” He says, “Let me ask you a question, man. When Coltrane was 15 years old, what the fuck do you think he was listening to, tapes of himself in the future?” [Everyone laughs] Then he walked off and I was just sitting there. So I went up to him and I said, “So what was he listening to?” He said, “How the fuck should I know? Go ask Benny Golson.” And Benny says, “Well, you won’t believe it. Johnny Hodges.” Now, I didn’t want to hear no fucking Johnny Hodges. So I was like, “OK, I gotta go buy some Duke Ellington.” I put it on and in a couple of months I’m in love with this shit. But when I was talking to Benny, he says, “I learned Coleman Hawkins and Bird stuff, and for a long time it sounded like those two guys. Then a little bit of you creeps in.” He says, “So don’t worry about that. Everybody talks about finding your voice. Do your homework and your voice will find you.”
TB: Kenny Barron said he was listening to the radio one time and he said, “That’s some Tommy Flanagan shit but I don’t know that.” Then he said, “Wait a minute, that’s me!” [Everyone laughs] He had all of Tommy’s recordings but the thing about it is you have to have a base and you have to start from someplace. When you listen to Miles Davis, you hear Roy Eldridge, you hear Pops, you hear Fats Navarro. In Clifford Brown you hear Fats Navarro verbatim. So everybody has to start from something, but the thing is, is that the shit is not etched in stone. That’s the mistake people make. I hear people say, “Bird played this tune at this tempo,” and you can say, “OK, yeah he did, but if he was living right now he might play that tune in a whole other key.”
When in your own life did you know that you had made that transition from playing like guys you admire to playing your own way?
TB: The thing is, we always had great teachers: His [Branford’s] dad, [New Orleans educator] Roger Dickerson. [Branford’s] dad used to make us do an exercise in school. He’d say, “I want you to improvise within an octave.” Do you know what your brain goes through when you only have an octave to improvise through? So that means you cannot play any of the shit you practiced. You have to actually think about what it is you want to say. First of all, you gotta think about all the theoretical shit. But then you have to put it in the context of what you want to say musically. Then we’d do an exercise where you play “Giant Steps” as a ballad. You ever try to play “Giant Steps” as a ballad?
BM: It’s actually brilliant. That’s how I learned how to play it.
TB: But the thing about our teachers is they were always challenging our thinking. That’s one of the things I love about all of the people that taught us, they challenged our thinking. Roger Dickerson used to have me in a private lesson and he would ask me questions as a 15-year-old kid and it would make me think, along with making me do the rote shit of practicing.
BM: Roger is my godfather, who’s a composer by trade.
TB: He was my composition teacher. He’s the reason I know how to write for film. So, those guys were the type of people who were in the community who were thinkers. They would allow you to have an opinion as long as you could substantiate that shit. But the thing is, in New Orleans—and this is probably why we are the way we are now—you are not allowed to say some bullshit without being able to back it up. They’re not mean—they just ask a simple question. And you’d go, “Uhhh,” and there is the dilemma. So when you talk to a guy like Roger Dickerson, he can sit down and talk to you about composition. I’m having this career in writing for film, right? Most people would be excited about that. No, he didn’t say that. You know what he told me? He said, “That’s great that you’re getting that experience writing for orchestra. You have a knack for understanding jazz articulations and phrasing. Now take that experience you have from writing for film and use it to write something else for orchestra that nobody else is going to do because of who you are.” When you have teachers like that, who still talk to you like that to this day, then you’re thinking and your experiences change. They’re a little different.”
You’ve both done work outside of jazz. Do you ever feel like you’re two different people, the guy who plays jazz and that other guy doing that other stuff?
BM: To go back to your other question, I still imitate other musicians. I just did this gig at Lincoln Center and Wynton gave me weird instructions. He said, “I want you to dig on the history of the jazz saxophone.” But he wanted me to write songs based on these guys. Instead, what I did was, we played “Body and Soul” like Coleman Hawkins. We played “(Back Home Again In) Indiana” like Lester Young. We played “My Favorite Things” like Trane. We played “Dexterity” like Bird. I dug it because when do you get a chance to do that? So then Wynton said, “Hey, man, that’s not really what I wanted you to do.” I said, “That’s all right. I had such a great time, this is what I’m doing tomorrow night too!” But then there was another cat, a piano player, who came up and said, “That was interesting but I came here to hear your band. Why would you guys do that? Why wouldn’t you just do your own thing?” I said, “Two reasons. First of all, I wasn’t asked to do my own thing. Second, I never met a cat who would actually do this shit that finds a problem with doing it.”
TB: You know what’s funny about that? I did this concert three times, the music of Miles Davis and Gil Evans. We were doing Porgy and Bess. The first time we did it was at the Hollywood Bowl and Darlene Chan, the producer, comes up to me and says, “Thank you for doing this.” I said, “Darlene, you’ve given me the green light to be Miles Davis for a day. I’ve listened to all these records for my entire life and you’ve given me the green light to go back and deal with all this shit I learned from this man.” I’ve done it three times and every time I do it, it’s very cathartic in a way because one of the things you do is you start to relate yourself to his musical choices, why you play a note and that shit resonates with the orchestra that’s playing behind you. You say, “Wow, I can see why he chose that note!” His note adds a certain type of color to everything else. There’s a wealth of knowledge that’s gained from doing that shit, whereas if we had done it on our own, someone would have said, “He’s trying to be fucking Miles Davis.”
And the only way you would ever know if you could pull that off is to go ahead and try it.
BM: My father’s thing is, people are always saying something. People are always talking. But it’s about the shit that comes out of the horn. Everybody’s always talking: “Well, I think such and such.” My father said, “Any time a guy comes up to you and tells you something, like Bird is not the cat, that the cat is this guy, I bet you a thousand dollars that that’s the cat he plays like. Ignore that shit!” [Blanchard laughs] So it didn’t take long for me to be in New York and someone said, “You know, man, [saxophonist] Paul Quinichette is really the cat.” And I went, “Oh!” And he is—Paul’s great—but he sounded so much like Lester that they called him the Vice President. So when the guy told me, “Paul Quinichette is the cat,” I’m like, “Duly noted, got it.”
TB: Along the same lines, there’s a thing we used to call interview music. You know what interview music is? That’s the music that sounds better when motherfuckers are talking about it than when they’re playing it. [Both laugh]
BM: I call that think tank music.
TB: When you hear them talk about it, you go, “God damn, I can’t wait to hear that shit. But then…”
BM: It’s like the whole neo-con thing in the Bush administration. They’re parallels. The one thing that people learned from that is that things that originate in think tanks do not need to be brought into the real world. Things that originate in jazz camps, at universities, shouldn’t be brought into the real world. Because the shit really does not work. The people at the universities say, “This is the future.” Well, the audience is dwindling so apparently it’s part of the past.
With that, the conversation ended as the musicians were asked to meet with their ride back to their hotel. For more from Terence Blanchard, see the October 2013 issue of JazzTimes. For more on Branford Marsalis, go here.