Wynton Marsalis: Wynton Throws Down the Gauntlet

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Wynton Marsalis
By Joanne Savio

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Like Howard Beale in Network, Wynton Marsalis is mad as hell and he’s not gonna take it anymore. Of course, the 45-year-old trumpeter-bandleader and celebrated jazz ambassador has always been riled and outraged, ever since he was an audacious, outspoken kid back in New Orleans. And over the course of the past 20 years, he has always spoken his mind in interviews or in casual conversation. Like his equally unguarded brother Branford, you know where Wynton stands. He pulls no punches, never attempts to obfuscate. Like him or not, he’s painfully direct, unwavering in his convictions.

On Marsalis’ latest Blue Note recording, the provocatively titled From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, he puts forth his agenda in no uncertain terms, commenting on troubling aspects of American culture and socio-political realities in the context of some swinging grooves alongside his current working quintet of saxophonist Walter Blanding Jr., pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson. Voicing Wynton’s pointed lyrics on this potent collection is the soulful singer and Marsalis discovery, 20-year-old Jennifer Sanon.

On “Find Me,” a meditation on the plight of the homeless, Sanon sings of “shattered people roaming the streets night and day” before asking rhetorically, “Oh say, can you see?” On “Love and Broken Hearts,” where Wynton takes rappers (and the entertainment industry at large) to task for their misogynistic lyrics, she snarls, “I ain’t your bitch and I ain’t your ho” before pleading, “It’s time for the return of romance/It’s time for you and me to slow dance.” In the frantic “Supercapitalism,” about America’s obsession with materialism, she yelps in nervous, edgy tones, “Gimme this, gimme that. I got to have. There’s never enough.” Wynton himself gets into the act with a rare rap on the second-line-fueled “Where Y’all At?,” an indictment of ’60s radicals and revolutionaries who have abandoned their idealistic causes.

JazzTimes caught up with Wynton in his backstage dressing room at the Jazz at Lincoln Center headquarters.

JT: Let’s talk about this new project. It’s a very provocative statement. I’m sure these are thoughts that you’ve had swirling around for a long time.

Every decade I try to do at least one piece that has that kind of social consciousness. In the ’80s I did Black Codes From the Underground and in the ’90s I did Blood on the Fields. And now there’s this one. The philosophical perspective, of course, is not that different from what I’ve been saying for years.

JT: Is there any particular reason for why now is the time to voice it on record?

I don’t know, because for me I work on so much different music at one time. In this past year we did “Congo Square,” we did this album, we did the “Vitoria Suite,” we put out a Mingus record, we worked on a film score to a Buddy Bolden project. We’re doing a lot of different arrangements of stuff all the time. Only one or two things come out as records but that’s not how if feels, in terms of the actual working of it. So now’s as good a time as any for this particular record.

JT: What are some of the things fueling the ideas behind these tunes on From the Plantation to the Penitentiary?

My senior thesis in high school was on slavery, so it’s not like a subject that I just became interested in. As far as the social perspectives—the ways that our government deals or cultural things about our country—I’ve been vocal about it my whole time out here. Now I’m older so maybe it’s a little more refined than it was when I was 18 or 19...or 14, but it represents different takes on kind of the same questions: What does it mean to be American? What are we doing? How do we come to grips with our history? How do we utilize our energy in this time to live in a more harmonious and successful way based on the best of what we have...the best of what comes from our ancestors? How are we looking at the future? How do we retain our optimism? It’s all kind of the same themes I deal with over and over again and my thesis is always the same. And it’s always in the frame of affirmation. For example, In This House, On This Morning was an affirmation and a prayer. All Rise was our Lord has given us something that refuses to die. Blood on the Fields; in the end they get away. You know, it’s always kind of the same subject.

JT: Your tune “Love and Broken Hearts” is an indictment on the one hand of some attitudes that are being espoused now in popular culture, but then it resolves to this beautiful affirmation, this vision of romance.

Right, but also my thing is always for some reason I identify with the female frame of reference. Like with Blood on the Fields, the woman is the one who carries the information. In All Rise, it’s the woman who sings it. On this project, it’s the voice of a lady, in this case a very young lady. It’s from her perspective...not Jennifer’s perspective but the perspective of a younger girl. She’s saying, “Damn! This is what I am? This is OK with y’all? I have my own memories.” See, I always like my female characters to be strong because that’s what I knew. Growing up I think I could really identify with a lot of my mother’s frustration at how the culture was and what happened. And I don’t plan it; I don’t plot it. It’s just how it comes to me.

JT: So you have some real powers of empathy.

I like the female character to be strong and carry information. Like in one of my pieces, “In This House,” Marion Williams sang the prayer. I don’t say no, don’t use a man. That’s just how it comes out. And that piece...I guess everything is pretty clear. Musically, the grooves may shift around, even within the same tune, but the message is always very plain and simple. What she’s saying is not complicated.

JT: Is some of this fueled from a sense of outrage about things going on now?

I’ve always been outraged about it. I was outraged when I was 9 so it’s not about it goin’ on now. I was always like that. It hasn’t changed.

JT: But nowadays, all one needs to do is turn on the TV to see what kind of messages are being put across by rappers, whether it’s 50 Cent or Missy Elliott.

Yeah, but I’ve been saying that for years. It goes before Missy Elliott and all them. I perceived it from the age of 15 or 16. In terms of culture, once you start to go down, you’ll keep going down. It takes a lot of effort to go up. Nowadays, if you want to be young you’re into the whole thing of, “Yeah, bitch” and “Where my niggers at?” Now, what is the next degeneration of that? And I’ve been saying this about rap music since 1985 or ’86. I was one of the first. And one of the things I was most proud of in myself [is that] it didn’t make a difference to me so much what people thought about what I said. That’s what I felt about it.

JT: So you’re not just making these statements because you’re a parent now?

No, I made ’em back then. I would make ’em interviews. I always said this, so it’s not a new statement for me. I’ve been to so many schools and talked to so many kids and was so vocal and outspoken about my viewpoints and was so vilified for so many years for believing in this kind of standard. And I talked a lot in interviews, even though they received a lot of critique and a lot of times my words would be distorted or whatever. You know what happens when you try to voice an opinion that’s not status quo. So in the case of me and my relationship to the material, I don’t feel like this is any different from anything I’ve ever said. I’ve been against rap in the rap magazines. I’ve been in black schools, white schools...it didn’t make a difference where it would be. My overriding point always was, “No, I can’t endorse this.” And this goes back 20 years, so it’s not like something I discovered when my kids became 15. Before I had kids, I felt that way.

JT: Bill Cosby has been outspoken in recent years about our culture and our kids, and he’s been vilified for speaking his mind.

I was speaking out about it long before Bill Cosby. I was saying it when I was 23, 24, 25. I wasn’t that much older than what I was talking about. I thought it when I was on the bandstand when I was 15 and 16. Of course, I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t in a forum to say anything then. But when I first started doing interviews when I was 18 or 19, I was saying it then. And I never wavered away from it. I developed, of course, in my understanding of it. But I’ve always been concerned about our culture and our kids from the beginning. There’s never been a period where I was ever asked a question about it and didn’t answer it.

JT: Back then you were perceived as a brash young man. Now that you’re an older, more respected figure, your words carry more authority.

It depends on who’s hearing it, you know what I mean? Back then a lot of people heard what I was saying and they said, “Yeah!” A lot of the older musicians wouldn’t endorse me in public because they didn’t want to get attacked, but privately they would say, “Yeah, man. That’s right!” So I haven’t wavered at all about it, to be honest. Whatever the criticism that’s happened all these years, it didn’t make a bit of difference. Because I also had a lot of support. It wasn’t like I was out here alone. I got a lot of support for years from the parents of kids I had taught. I had tremendous support across America. I’m talkin’ about small towns, man. People would come out to my concerts in the 1980s and early ’90s and I’d be wondering why would 1,500 people in Brighton, Ill. come out on a Tuesday night and stand here with their kids for this type of music we’re playing? Why would the people of San Angelo, in the middle of Texas, come out with their kids for this music on a Thursday night? It’s because people always want more for their kids and more for our culture, but that side of the culture is never represented in the mass media.

JT: And given a choice between watching TV or playing on the computer and dealing with a culturally enriching experience, parents are going to choose reality every time.

That’s what I’m saying. And I’ve had the opportunity to be supported by many people over many years...a tremendous groundswell of grassroots support from those years of touring constantly. So I felt like I was always more in tune with the people than what most critics actually were thinking. Remember, we’re going back 15 or 20 years. Then I was 24 or 25 and I was speaking out against rap then, and there was a coterie of people my age that were saying, “Yeah, we agree with that.”

JT: That kind of grassroots feedback must’ve sustained you over the years.

A great deal. And that’s the bulk of what I encountered. People would cook food for me, kids would be sending me stuff from the schools that I went to. The people coming to the concerts were supporting the music we were playing. And it was constant, it never flagged. I’ve been very fortunate in the steady support that I’ve received over the last 20 years, not just from people, but from the presenters as well. There are a lot of presenters of concerts around the country and they work very hard to keep the arts alive in their area. And over time you develop personal relationships with them. You only see them once a year or maybe once every two years. But these are people I saw for two days once a year for about 22 years, so it had an impact on me.

JT: And all these people that you’ve had these interactions with over the past 20 or so years will not be surprised by the content of this new record.

Nobody who knows me will be surprised by it, really. And my musicians too. I’ve been knowing them since they were kids and they know where I’m at.

JT: I think some people may be surprised by the rap track, “Where Y’all At?”

Yeah, well, when I grew up I was always good at rippin’ people. You know, the dozens...making up rhymes, just teasin’, pickin’ on people, rippin’. In general, smaller guys are good at that. Because you’re put under tremendous physical pressure, so you gotta think quick.

JT: So Spike Lee must be good at it.

Yeah, he has a great sense of that. He has a great sense of romantic humor too. But that kind of rhymin’...that’s a thing that we do in New Orleans all the time. We mainly do it on “Jock-A-Mo”: “My grandma and your grandma standing by the bayou, my grandma told your grandma gonna set your ass on fire. Hey now, hey now, iko iko ah nay. Jock-a-mo feena ah na hey, jock-a-mo feena nay. See that woman standing by the truck, she can’t drive but she sure can fuck.” Whatever. Just make up nasty shit to go with it. Or it might be something about the person you’re messin’ with. I do that messin’ with my sons too. We always listen to rap and I always analyze the music. We’re always having a dialogue about what something is. We’re always talking about where the beat is and where the time is and the whole concept of syncopation. And I tell ’em, “They’re rapping straight in the time.” So at some point I told them, “I’m gonna come up with a rap that goes all across the time. You’ll see. And I’m not just gonna be rapping eighth notes and quarter-note triplets.” And a lot of that comes from my 16-year-old son. He’ll take the nastiest raps he can find and tell me, “Man, you gotta hear this one.” Or, “You gotta come and see what we do with these dances.”

JT: Like that new dance craze, the Chicken Noodle Soup.

Aw yeah, I’ve been seeing that. Guys on his basketball team are always doing the Chicken Noodle Soup. That’s like a new version of what we used to call the Freak, that’s all.

JT: Nothin’ new under the sun.

No, man. Nothing new.

JT: You’ve always conveyed a sense of playfulness with words in your between-songs banter onstage and in your interviews. So it makes perfect sense that you’d be adept at slinging some words as you do on “Where Y’all At?”

I mean, I clown around all the time...making up names for people, making ’em into songs. I’ll clown all the time with my kids or with kids in general. Because life is like that. It’s serious but it’s funny too.

JT: Your lyrics are clever but it’s also like you’re throwing down the gauntlet on these tunes.

Yeah, and it’s not for the younger people. You’ll notice I’m never addressing 18- or 15-year-olds in these songs. It’s about the 45- and the 50-year-olds...where y’all at? That’s what the question is. The kids, they go where you lead them; they don’t lead you anywhere. That was the first true misreading of something about culture. A kid ain’t gonna lead you nowhere, man. They’re not coming up with one philosophical direction. So this song is about the movements we used to have in this country that seemed to have ceased or that just sunk down into hollow sloganeering. And in our generation now, what do we stand for? Tell me, because I’ve been trying to figure it out.

JT: Talk about the incendiary title track and what ideas fueled it.

“From the Plantation to the Penitentiary”...that’s your odyssey. Like if you were 400 years old and you lived through 250 years of slavery, that first 250...that’s like your childhood. Then you’ve got another 100 of segregation, then you’ve got 50 where the segregation was kind of over. Then you’re in jail because “I was trying to save you from gettin’ high. Man, let me save you from this dope by putting you in jail for 35 or 40 years. This really is not good for you.” You see the irony of how it works? So it’s the whole thing of, as the song says: “From the plantation to the penitentiary/From the yassuh boss to the ghetto minstrelsy.” Like you was Tomin’ and Jessin’ in a minstrel show, now you callin’ yourself a nigger for some money, calling your woman a bitch, shufflin’. You got the gold grill and you’re just Uncle Tomin’, basically. And the culture loves it because they’re used to that. From Stepin’ Fetchit to Flavor Flav. It’s the same. From Zip Coon to the guy from the ghetto who’s going to threaten you. It’s like safari seekers: “Wow, that was a real lion we saw on safari.” You know, it’s like, “Let’s go in the ghetto and see what the natives are doing.” It’s like one ad I saw for a minstrel show...I forgot the guy’s name but he was the first really popular black minstrel. The ad read: “Real Coons From the Real Plantation.”

JT: Daddy Rice?

No, Daddy Rice was a white guy. This is a black guy I’m talkin’ about. The first minstrels were all white. After the Civil War there was a group of black minstrels...I can’t remember the guy’s name, man...but that was his slogan. [Ed. Note: Marsalis is referring to William Henry Lane, who used the stage name “Master Juba.”] That’s why he said “Real Coons” because before it was white people imitating them. But now you got the real item...directly from the plantation. That’s like what makes somebody real today...they can show you they shot some brothers.

JT: Or as the slogan goes, “Keeping it real.”

Yeah, that’s it. We’re real by having pathology. We’ve killed some brothers. Any rapper that’s been shot 20 times and survived says, “I’m for real.” There’s a line in the song that goes, “From the no book rules to the ragged public schools.” You couldn’t get books in slavery times. Education was not a thing. Now you have to worry about it. Try and get some good information into these schools, man. We did a whole curriculum at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Try to get that curriculum in a black school. Good luck. You got so many obstacles to doing something for these kids. I mean, you got to want to do it. Like in the early days when I would go to the schools in 1982-83 the principal would say, “We don’t want that.” And I was like, “Look, we’re musicians. We do a presentation. You don’t have to pay us.” You gotta realize we gotta go through a lot to just get in front of them.

JT: It’s outrageous that a certain segment of the rap culture disdains education as being a sell-out, where you’re keeping it real by ignoring education.

That’s the minstrel show.

JT: I can only wonder what Langston Hughes would’ve made of all this?

Any of us! People alive right now are thinking, “What the hell?” But they don’t know how to get away from that because they don’t want to appear to be old. For me, I’m not worried about that because when I was young I was saying it was some bullshit and I don’t care if you think I’m old. If being young is doing what you’re doing, I didn’t want to do that when I was actually young. So you know, the song says, “From the coon and shine to the unemployment line.” You couldn’t get a job anyway, now you still can’t get one. There’s never been a concerted effort to make sure you do get a job. There’s no recognition of that 350 years. If you go to get therapy the first thing they’re gonna start talking about is, “What happened to you when you were a child?” Because they realize that that foundation is very important.

JT: There’s another line in the title track that goes, “From the stock in slaves to the booming prison trade.”

See, a slave was also a stock, and it was a stock that yielded great dividends. It was like a Microsoft stock...something that if you put some money into it you was gonna make some money. Now, man, the prison business is huge. That’s a good stock too. There’s a lot of jobs in that. We’re building prisons all through the middle of the country.

JT: The new plantations.

Aw man, that’s it. Prison. And how do you get on it? Just have some dope in your pocket. It’s like, “I’m gonna save you from yourself by putting you in jail.”

JT: It’s the new growth industry.

That’s right. So it’s “From the stock in slaves to the booming prison trade/In the heart of freedom in chains/In the heart of freedom insane/In the cause of freedom and game.” Like a certain element of it is just gamesmanship. It’s a joke. Like guys would be running around the plantation with names like Charlemagne or Charles IV or Octavian. It’s part of the game.

JT: And it’s very telling that there’s a popular rapper today named the Game.

The Game, Ol’ Dirty Bastard...it’s all the same thing. It’s game, it’s humor. In slavery times the humor was, “I’m gonna name this slave after one of the greatest noble kings: Julius Caesar. Come on up here and do a buck dance for us, boy. Where’s my nigger Julius Caesar?” You know? Nowadays they take a guy and give him the most ig’nant name you can find for him, and the names are too numerous to mention. That’s the same relationship, just turn it around.

JT: What can you say about “Supercapitalism”?

It’s like a system that eats on itself.

JT: Where did you come up with that idea?

I was reading a bill one day and noticed they were charging me for the charge and then added a charge on top of it. In the end, the charges were almost more than the item itself. That’s supercapitalism. You put money in the bank? The bank makes money off your money and they charge you to take the money out. Well, I recognize that the machines have to be kept up and every few months the fee goes up...first it’s 50 cents, then 75 cents, then $1.25, then $1.75. Soon it’ll be five dollars. That’s supercapitalism. Another thing that really inspired that song was the Big Dig in Boston. Everybody got paid but they didn’t finish the damn tunnel. Back in the day of Boss Tweed, you knew he was gonna steal all your money, but at least he would build something. You would have a courthouse or you would have a light system. Now the thing is deconstruction. Blow something up and then take forever to fix it. And then the public absorbs the cost but doesn’t have anything to show for it.

JT: That sounds like New Orleans.

We can take our pick. It’s our way.

JT: Speaking of New Orleans, were you outraged that Bush mentioned nothing about it in his [Jan. 23] State of the Union Address, as if Katrina never happened?

No. Why would he mention it? If you’re not gonna do anything about it, why would you mention it? I’m upset with the whole way that stuff has been done, but we stand for it, though. So it’s hard for me to get that outraged with him because we let it go on. We have recourses in our country. We did vote against that party. But it doesn’t really make a difference what party is in control. Like I said, “It don’t make a difference if it’s the left or the right/They’ll both get together and make your pocket light.” Who do you want to rob you? So it’s not like there’s been a big cry from the Democrats to get New Orleans right. The only cry to make it work comes from the people, but once we let the government run amok, where government officials say, “I take full responsibility for this” but nothing has repercussions. Well, what does that mean? To say you take responsibility doesn’t mean anything if there’s no repercussions to it. So I’m not so much outraged by the Union Address in particular. It’s just the same ol’ shit.

JT: But when you see for yourself the circumstances in New Orleans, you must be outraged.

I’m outraged by all of what the government systems have done. It’s embarrassing. They wasted a lot of my time and good will and effort, and at the end of the day the people that you want to help, you can’t help. And it’s not just me. All the people who are killing themselves to work on New Orleans are all frustrated because we can’t get anything done. We all worked very hard and in good faith to create a better situation for our citizens, but no one cares about the people. And if you’re not in a position of real authority to create and make change, you’re outside of the ability to make things happen. All you can do is protest and talk about shit, but you can’t make things happen. So it’s been very, very frustrating for me.

JT: What’s the solution?

We have to remove these officials, then work on helping the people. It’s a sad situation because it doesn’t reflect the will of the American public. The American public wants to help New Orleans but the systems in place won’t allow it. Somebody who’s not gonna do the job, if you keep sending them down there...nothing ever gets done. So it’s very frustrating. We went so far, writing up all these papers, doing all this research, hiring all kinda people, driving all around the country, getting all the social aid and pleasure clubs and Mardi Gras Indian tribes, spending night after night, month after month in meetings, making all these plans, trying to get all this infrastructure in place, applying all this intelligence to solving the problems...then to be told, “How are you going to implement it?” That’s insulting. You wanna say, “Give me your job and I’ll implement it.”

Originally published in April 2007

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