Like It Is: The Branford Marsalis Interview

Bill Milkowski's extended conversation from the October issue

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Branford Marsalis
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Branford Marsalis Quartet: l. to r.: Joey Calderazzo, Marsalis, Justin Faulkner, Eric Revis
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Branford Marsalis, 1987
By Guido Harari

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To say that Branford Marsalis is forthcoming is an understatement. In an age when athletes, politicians and public figures have all been schooled in the art of saying nothing but innocuous platitudes intended to offend no one and reveal nothing, the three-time Grammy winner unapologetically speaks his mind. A veritable quote machine, he spews pointed statements like a verbal Gatling gun.

Being approachable, talkative and extremely opinionated makes Marsalis an ideal interview subject. Essentially, all you have to do is press the “record” button, toss in an occasional query, stand back and let him roll. And he never disappoints. Ask him anything and the ideas—grounded in logic, full of intelligence and wit and brimming with a daredevil disregard for the run-of-the-mill—come cascading off his tongue without hesitation, like his much-vaunted tenor and soprano sax playing.

On the day of this phone interview, the eldest of the five Marsalis brothers was at his home in Durham, N.C., preparing for a classical recital at the Beethoven Festival in Winona, Minn. His new quartet outing, the wryly titled Four MFs Playin’ Tunes (Marsalis), had just come out. His 23rd outing as a leader, it’s the first to feature young drumming sensation Justin Faulkner, who replaced Marsalis’ longtime drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts in 2009. It also comes on the heels of 2011’s Songs of Mirth and Melancholy (Marsalis), Branford’s intimate ballads album with pianist Joey Calderazzo, who replaced the late Kenny Kirkland in the Branford Marsalis Quartet in 1998.

“We’ve gone through what we needed to, as people and as musicians, to be at the top of our game,” says the 2011 NEA Jazz Master of his quartet’s current offering. “So now we can just play good tunes.”

JAZZTIMES: You mentioned that you were about to go into shedding mode for a classical recital?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: I’m already in it. It’s my first recital, at the age of 51. I’m preparing pieces that most people have never heard of, unless you’re a saxophone player. I’m doing “Sonata for Alto Saxophone” by Paul Creston, “Concerto for Alto Saxophone” by Ingolf Dahl and “Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano” by Robert Muczynski. I’m also doing “Sonata for Soprano Saxophone and Piano” by Lawson Lunde, and then there are a bunch of songs by Beethoven and Samuel Barber that I’m going to perform. That’s for the Beethoven Festival in Winona, Minn. The week following that, I’m doing two performances at the World Saxophone Congress in Scotland. For that one, I’m playing one piece on soprano and tenor and the other piece on soprano.

JT: Has listening to all this classical music so intensely affected how you hear and play jazz?

Marsalis: Definitely. When you play music that is outside of your comfort zone and you’re forced to actually deal with it, then your comfort zone expands. So then in your soloing, you become less likely to rely on a handful of devices that you have, which some people choose to mark as their identifiable sound. I’ve never been really obsessed with an identifiable sound because I just believe either you have one or you don’t have one. The idea of inventing one by playing five things over and over again was just low on my list. If I were going to do that, I would’ve stayed in pop music. So dealing with classical music expands your comfort zone, so then you have more control over the instrument. And it allows you to play in a more dramatic fashion on ballads. With the band, we all listen to varying degrees of classical music, and we play with a lot more dynamic range because of that than we did in the ’80s. Way more dynamic range, in fact. Historically, because jazz was a nightclub music, it was just loud or louder. Everything was just played at the same volume. But then, much like classical music, when it started to become a listening music and not a dancing music, the composers started to make subtle changes to the music because it was a listening music now. So to keep interest, you had to make adjustments.

You know, music is different when people are laughing and talking, but you have to find a way to sustain their interest when they’re sitting in a seat and not talking. And unlike classical musicians, most jazz musicians never really made that transition. They play the music just like the cats did in the ’30s and the ’40s but with less swing. Every song is at the same volume, whatever their volume is. Musicians today clearly don’t play as loud as the guys did in the ’60s, but they kind of play at the same volume the whole time. And for people who aren’t trained in music, there are only a handful of things that you can do that they would recognize as change. One of those things is dynamics, another of the things is tempo. Other than that, soloing just sounds like a bunch of notes to them—or a bunch of noise. So there are things that you have to do—if your goal is to play for somebody other than your peers—to sustain intensity. Because you have people sitting in a chair and literally every song sounds exactly the same to them, which is one of the common complaints I get from friends of mine who are lay people who listen to jazz. They say that every song sounds the same, because the things that make the songs different are imperceptible to them.

JT: Do you think that listening to classical music affected how you played on your 2004 album Eternal, where the band interacted at a lower dynamic on a lot of ballads?

Marsalis: Oh yeah, but it’s even better than that now. Joey and I were just talking about that yesterday. As good as Eternal is, the way we do the shit now is even way better. It’s probably 100 percent better than the way we did it in 2004. If you just do an A/B comparison to the way that Joey and I played on Eternal and the way we play ballads on this newer record that he and I did as a duo, there’s no real comparison.

JT: Isn’t that just about chemistry forged over time?

Marsalis: No, it’s about putting in the work. I just talked to Sonny Rollins a few days ago, and he was talking about his need to expand and to push and to learn. And then he said, “On the other side of that, I have colleagues of mine who have established their careers basically doing the same thing over and over again. And they do that very well, and I applaud that. But it’s not for me.” You know, if you’re listening critically, you could put on records from musicians four, five records deep that have played together for a long time and they haven’t really changed what they play. But listening to certain styles of classical music, particularly the earlier stuff—Baroque music, Romantic music, the classical period—it changes the way you hear the music. And then, subsequently, it changes the way we hear our own music.

JT: I read somewhere how you felt that you had a better appreciation for melody after listening to so much classical music.

Marsalis: Classic music and early jazz. The early jazz musicians were great melody players. That’s what allowed Coleman Hawkins to have a hit record playing “Body and Soul” and never playing the straight melody, only just hinting at it. Because everything he played had such a strong melodic base that regular people could relate to it. But from listening to certain types of classical music—when you listen to the modern shit, the really good composers like Hindemith, Stravinsky, Hovhaness, there’s a melody throughout. These are ultramodern classical pieces where the melody is really prevalent. There’s another guy I kind of bumped into recently named Zimmermann (German 20th-century composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann). He wrote a really gorgeous piece that’s super-modern and it feels atonal, but when you listen to it there’s a melody there; it’s perceptible. But in modern classical music, the composers who have great skills go to Hollywood and make a lot of money and I don’t blame them. But the vacuum is filled by people who are far less skilled with melody. They don’t really hear melody, so everything is kind of soundscapey, where it’s all about the sound, not the melody.

JT: So you’re a sucker for melody. That’s apparent from listening to your new record.

Marsalis: Oh yeah, we’re all in on it.

JT: I remember talking to Joey before he did his solo piano album on Marsalis Music (2007’s Amanecer), and he said he was completely immersing himself in the Chopin nocturnes. He mentioned how much that was affecting his hearing and playing, and it’s really affected his writing as well. He’s got some really beautiful melodic gems on your new quartet record.

Marsalis: That’s true. That’s the benefit of it.

JT: I think back to when Joey first came out, playing in Michael Brecker’s band as an excitable 22-year-old in 1987. He was more about chops and McCoy Tyner-ish virtuosity then. He definitely didn’t have what he’s got now, in terms of dynamics and the ability to really relax and play melodies.

Marsalis: Well, that’s what everybody was doing back then in the ’80s. You become a product of your environment. I was out there playing with Wynton’s band: I’m an R&B saxophone player, I have no fuckin’ idea how to play jazz. Before that, I’m at Berklee and I’m listening to all of these guys playing all this fast stuff, and the question I had was, “If all of this shit is so good, then how come it doesn’t sound as good as the stuff from 30 years before?”

And since I couldn’t have that discussion with anyone, then I had to figure it out on my own, just asking questions, talking to Art Blakey, talking to Benny Golson, talking to Dizzy Gillespie. I would just say, “What did y’all listen to when you were growing up?” And one of the constants was, “Church music and rhythm and blues.” But the modern jazz guys of my generation basically did neither, with few exceptions. In Dizzy’s day, you had 15-year-old kids playing in church bands or playing in rhythm-and-blues bands or swing-based dance bands, which were groove bands. But in modern times you got 15-year-old kids learning “Giant Steps” at jazz camp. So I basically had to catch up to all of this stuff and learn. And it took a while.

I was trying to play like Coltrane in Blakey’s band, and one day Blakey walks by and says, “What the fuck are you doing?” I said, “I’m trying to play like Coltrane,” and he said, “No, you’re not!” And so I sarcastically said back to him, “Oh, so the best way to learn how to play like Coltrane is to not listen to Coltrane, right?” And he says, “Well, let me ask you this: When Coltrane was your age, what the fuck do you think he was listening to, tapes of himself in the future? You dumb motherfucker!” And he walked off. And he left me with it. And that’s the thing that was great about him. Whether it was because he was emotionally detached or because he just instinctively knew, who knows?

But the thing is, he understood—although he wouldn’t have said it this way—that regardless of the kind of profession you’re in, whether it’s sports or music or whether you make typewriters, it don’t matter. The two things that you have to develop on your own are cognition and intuition. Teachers have basically supplied the students with cognition. But in the manner in which they do it, intuition doesn’t bloom. So when Art Blakey dropped that turd on my head, he walked away and left me to sort that shit out. So an hour later I walked up to him and I said, “So when Coltrane was a kid, what was he listening to?” And he says, “Ah, that’s the question! Ask Benny Golson.” So I called Benny and Benny says, “Oh, yes, young man, you might find this very interesting. Who do you think was Coltrane’s first major influence?” And I said Charlie Parker. And he says, “That wasn’t it. It was Johnny Hodges.” I mean, who can put that together?

So then I had to hold my nose and start listening to Duke Ellington. Because, you know, I didn’t come here for his shit. But if these old fuckers say that this is what it is, then alright, I’ll have to endure this. So then, after about two or three weeks of listening to Duke records, suddenly you realize, “Man, these cats are amazing!” Because it reminded me of what I learned how to do on R&B gigs. There were a couple of club owners in New Orleans who said, “Man, you cats play too many fuckin’ notes. And if y’all won’t learn how to play this music the right way, we just won’t hire you.” That gets it home. Note to self: less notes! And once you start getting into the idea of what R&B really is, then it’s beautiful. But if your appreciation of music is always on the periphery of it, which means that your entire study of the music is totally based on harmonic analysis, then funk is a zero. You know, F7th for four minutes and 25 seconds is nothing, if your study of music is totally based on harmonic analysis. But if you can suspend that part of your brain and hear what they’re doing and what makes it effective, then James Brown is suddenly the genius that he is.

And the beauty of discipline, of getting an entire band to play the exact same part for six or seven minutes at a time without deviating from that part, which is how it’s related to African music, then you’ve got something beautiful. When an African guy named Nashange came to our school in North Carolina, he was going to teach us how to play an African traditional rhythm. Of course, us being Americans, as soon as he gives us the rhythm, what do we start doing? Changing the fucking rhythm! Because, of course, we always have something that’s better than the thing that’s there. And when we did that, he stopped and said, “No, play it this way.” And one of the students said, “Well, you know, man, I can’t get to my thing if I do it that way.” And he said, “It’s not about your thing, it’s about our thing. This is a very complicated thing and we all have a role to play. And when everyone plays their role, it sounds beautiful. When guys start changing their roles without understanding the role, it’s chaos.” Well, I didn’t truly grasp that when I was 15, but then suddenly when I started listening to swing music, it became clear to me that the strength of this shit was the discipline to play with simplicity. And because I wasn’t really a technically advanced player, it made it even easier for me to embrace it.

JT: This addresses the whole argument of virtuosity versus simplicity. And the question remains: Is jazz self-indulgent?

Marsalis: That’s a rhetorical question, right? Fuck yeah, it’s self-indulgent. But all this kind of music is self-indulgent. Classical music can be self-indulgent. But then there’s good self-indulgence and there’s crap. Jazz, unfortunately, falls on the crap side of self-indulgence. Because one of the things that Darius Milhaud said in a book called Meet the Composers that Knopf published in 1954 was, one of the hardest things to do in music is to write a piece with a melody that is so strong that the everyman wants to put it in his pocket and take it home with him. He said anybody can develop a good technique; all that requires is practice. But the melody is the thing.

So when playing a ballad, for instance, it’s unbelievable how many young students will refer to Coltrane’s playing on “I Want to Talk About You” toward the end of his life as the role model for playing ballads, yet they will ignore the Ballads album. And they’ll ignore the record with Johnny Hartman. Because Trane did both. Bird did both. My dad often talked about how musicians had fallen in love with jazz but it almost had nothing to do with the music, it had more to do with what it represented. They all wanted to be young iconoclastic kids, so they listened to bebop. Which would explain why you had so many kids at the Royal Roost checking the shit out. So when Charlie Parker made Charlie Parker With Strings, they were all pissed and they viewed him as a sell-out. And yet for many, many years, that was by far my favorite Charlie Parker record. But to a lot of people, Bird was a sell-out because he did that record. Go figure.

JT: Doesn’t it take a certain amount of maturity, doesn’t one have to live a full life, to get to the point where they can play a ballad like how you’re playing “My Ideal” on this new quartet album? It’s completely soulful and full of feeling. You probably couldn’t have played that way 20 years ago.

Marsalis: I couldn’t have played that way 20 years ago because I didn’t know shit. This is the point. Fuck, I’m 51 years old now. Charlie Parker didn’t even live to 34 and he was playing like that. The difference is, Charlie Parker didn’t have to go to high school—he went right into the workforce. That’s good stuff for a Hollywood movie from back in the day, but today, if you join a jazz band at 15, they’d throw your parents in jail. So you have to go through this whole false process. You have to go to high school, and a lot of people would even say you have to go to college. There are things that I learned in high school, definitely, that I’m glad I went to high school for. My love of reading books, my love of history all stemmed from seventh grade on. My love of the English language, I would have never achieved that if I’d just gone straight into the workforce.

But on the other hand, it stunts your growth. Because you have hundreds of thousands of potential musicians right now reading every Omnibook they can find, learning every chord scale, learning every phrase, learning every lick, and you have people saying stuff about how musicians don’t have personality anymore, when in fact they don’t listen to music that has personality. You have a lot of musicians and all they talk about is shredding, playing fast. I just did this thing on YouTube where there’s a guy from Germany talking to me, and I said I went to one of Michael Brecker’s shows and he got seven standing ovations on 11 tunes. And I wondered after the concert how many times Coltrane’s band would’ve gotten a standing ovation. My suspicion is, none. And, of course, the people who commented on the thing made it out as though it was a referendum on Mike, when it was more a referendum on the people sitting in the audience.

I’m not really a music fan; I’m a music student, not a music fan. So whenever things are presented to me that are counter to my way of thinking, I don’t have to discredit it. Like when Stanley Crouch told me to listen to [Ornette Coleman’s] The Shape of Jazz to Come, I put it on and for four months I thought it was the biggest pile of shit I had ever heard in my life. And then that fourth month came along and it was like I was hearing it for the first time. Now, I didn’t have to make any excuses because I don’t embrace an ideology. So I didn’t have to say to myself, “Well, the reason I didn’t like it is because … ” No, the reason I didn’t like it is ’cause I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. I didn’t get it; I didn’t understand the music; I didn’t understand the pedagogy; I didn’t understand the music from the bottom up. And then you had all these people saying, “Ornette’s ‘out,’ man!” So that just becomes your mantra. You just start saying shit because other people say it. So I would say, “Ornette is ‘out,’” having never heard the record.

And suddenly it dawned on me that The Shape of Jazz to Come was as in as anything. Subsequent Ornette records were truly fucking out. But that one was in. And it was just great to discover suddenly that this was something that I could add to my philosophy to make me better. This was the first time I ever heard a saxophone player who played jazz without being stuck in the concept of playing four- and eight-bar phrases, including Charlie Parker. Ornette had figured out how to do it, on standard song forms, on blues and “Rhythm” changes. I’m like, “Damn, I gotta get me some of that.” So I was lucky.

*****

JT: McCoy once told me in an interview that he remembers seeing Trane playing in a band in Philly where he was walking the bar.

Marsalis: Yeah, Benny Golson told me that great story about Trane, that he had decided that he didn’t have enough rhythm-and-blues in his playing, so he took a gig walking the bar but didn’t tell his boys because he didn’t want them to see him. And they found out. Somebody came and said, “Trane’s walkin’ the bar!” at whatever the club was. They all ran there and then Trane got to the edge of the bar and saw them and said, “Aw, shit!” It’s a great story the way Benny tells it.

JT: Speaking of great stories, I had lunch the other day with Michael Carvin. That cat is the all-time Texas storyteller.

Marsalis: Aw, that’s my man. He’s out of his mind. I love Carvin.

JT: That was great that you did that record on him a few years back (2006) as part of the Marsalis Music Honors series.

Marsalis: Yeah, I like guys with strong opinions, and you don’t have as many of them in jazz as they used to have. Carvin doesn’t write songs but he leads a band in such a way that the band is a reflection of his personality. I remember watching him talk to the young musicians on that session. He’d say, “We do two things in this group. We play fast tunes and we play slow tunes. Ready? One, two, three …” A couple of the guys were scuffling because they were young kids. And he stops the music and says to them, “Y’all better figure it out and catch up. I ain’t got no time to hold your hand.” And so you’d just go. So we’d do a song, and he never says my name right through the whole session. He always calls me Bradford, and I never corrected him. So he says, “OK, this is the song we’re going to play, this is how we’re going to play it. Y’all got it?” They’d run it through one time and he’d say, “OK, Bradford, roll the tape.” And one of the kids would say, “I’m a little foggy on it,” and he’d say, “Too bad! You’ll learn it. Catch it!” I was laughing my ass off during that session. It was like that old Blue Note shit: one rehearsal, do it. Basically, I allowed two days for the recording. Seven of the eight songs were done in the first day, in like five hours. And Carvin says, “I think we gonna call it,” and I ask him why and he says, “Well, it’s a two-day session and I don’t feel like finishing it today.” And I thought, “Well, that’s more money out of my pocket.” But then I said, “Fuck it! You’re right! OK, we’ll try it again tomorrow at 11.” So the first session went from 11 to 5 p.m. and the next session went from 11 to 2 and it was done. I’m like, “Go ahead, Carvin.”

JT: That is some old-school shit right there.

Marsalis: Love it! Not any fucking overdubs on the solos. Hit it and quit it.

JT: Randy Brecker played a gig at the Blue Note recently where he had Kenny Werner “reimagining” a lot of the pop tunes that Randy had played on as a session musician during the ’70s. And he told stories about each session in between songs. He mentioned that he played on this one Steely Dan album that took like two years to make while the Todd Rundgren hit song from 1972, “Hello It’s Me,” was completed in a single day.

Marsalis: That’s the way all the shit was done back then. To me, that’s what musicians do. That’s what the Beatles did, that’s what Hendrix did. You go in and play the shit and you go home.

JT: Yeah, I think that whole Steely Dan aesthetic of punching in individual notes to correct a solo or fix a passage was the beginning of the end of all that.

Marsalis: It’s truly some self-indulgent shit. That’s the peak of self-indulgence, when music is a product that can be manufactured and controlled. And it’s interesting how many musicians really buy into that, that notion that they don’t want to leave anything to chance.

JT: The perfectionist aesthetic.

Marsalis: Well, a certain kind of perfection. They decided that musical perfection should take a backseat to technical perfection. And that’s essentially what happens, because every note is right but there is no feeling because it’s all organized and clinical. That’s one of those things where you make records like that and they receive great critical praise, but the normal lay people aren’t really privy to our world. We live in the little tiny dot in the bull’s-eye, and the people on the edge of the bull’s-eye, they don’t even know we exist. So we use all of the machinations that occur inside of this dot as a representation of the larger world, and it’s not.

I have actually seen musicians express frustration at the fact of, “Well, we get all these awards and we get all these reviews, but how come nobody’s here at the gig?” Like, really, bro? If you were a student of jazz, you’d know, you’d have that answer. It’s just the idea that there are people who believe that music should be a vehicle that they use to participate in their own greatness. It’s more amusing to me than anything. When I was in my younger years, I thought it was upsetting and I thought that you could persuade them through arguing. After a while, you just kind of figure it out. What do you say about people who spend half of their time avoiding the tradition of the thing that they claim to like? That ultimately, by example, they don’t really like? They like it for what it can do for them, but they don’t really like “it.”

JT: That’s why, when I hear you play on this tune “My Ideal,” hear your solo and your relaxed attitude, it’s clear that you are connected to the origins of this music: Don Byas, Ben Webster, Illinois Jacquet.

Marsalis: Hell yeah! I love all those motherfuckers, and I learned a lot of their stuff. And I steal from them perpetually. I was talking to Sonny, and I never believed it, I just wanted to hear him say it: The popular word on the street is that Sonny played on “The Serpent’s Tooth” with Bird on tenor [from the 1953 Miles Davis Sextet recordings included on 1956’s Collectors’ Items]. And supposedly Bird said, “Yeah, man, that’s real flattering. Now go out and find your own sound.” Now, when I hear that record it’s clear that Sonny’s been listening to Bird, but he still sounds like Sonny. In one way, you can’t tell them apart. But then there are certain things that Sonny has always done, and it’s clearly Sonny. So I just asked him, “Is this a true story? Did Bird really say that to you?” And he laughed and said, “It’s not true. Some cats brought me to the session so that Bird could hear me, and as soon as he heard me play he said, ‘Hey, man, that’s me!’ And then he laughed.” But then Sonny said, “I never tried to mimic Charlie Parker. I know guys who mimic him.” And I told him, “Well, it is organic when you do it. You sound like Bird but you still sound like you.” That’s the ultimate.

But you know, there are a lot of guys who deliberately won’t listen to other musicians under the illusion that it will ruin their individuality. Now, imagine a lot of the contemporary guys who are considered the forward-thinkers of jazz go in the Wayback Machine and are suddenly transported on the stage with Billie Holiday and she calls “Night and Day.” Bam! That’s trouble in paradise. And the funny thing about innovation is that only in jazz is innovation a value. Well, jazz and pop music. It’s amazing how much jazz has become like pop music. Pop music is a music that exists and is perpetuated and where the people who are the top-notch performers are almost completely ignorant of the music that came before them. And the audience is transient and continually supports it. You know, every two or three years there’s a new great giant of it, and it just kind of devours itself in perpetuating this myth of newness. And this is kind of what jazz has become.

JT: What was the expression you used? The illusion of innovation?

Marsalis: That’s right. It’s the myth of innovation. I was talking to one guy, a writer. He was talking about the things that he finds innovative, and I asked him if he had ever read this book by Nicolas Slonimsky called the Lexicon of Musical Invective. It’s a whole book of critics saying Beethoven ain’t shit, Mahler’s a joke. And it’s really not about the negative reviews, it’s more about the notion that if the music is really innovative, the first thing that people do is hate it. And gradually over time, they come to like it.

But this writer I was talking to, what he was saying goes against the history of innovation: Like, he knows that it is and he’s going to declare that it’s the most innovative thing. Hey, man, that’s really presumptuous, because when it really shows up, even the first time, even the musicians hate it. I mean, just listen to what Benny Carter said about Ornette Coleman. John Lewis knew, but that’s why John Lewis was who he was. John Lewis signed Ornette. But for every one guy like John Lewis, there were people saying, “Oh man, this is fucking garbage!” You know? Garbage! But then it was only a handful of years after that that Sonny Rollins was suddenly playing piano-less, and Miles had Herbie strolling on tunes, and Trane went piano-less. And then when he wasn’t piano-less, on long chunks of it, McCoy strolled. So what Ornette brought to the table was eventually validated as the right choice for certain sounds in music. But at the time that he was doing it they were like, “Man, this shit is nonsense.”

JT: There’s a counterpart in the art world, too—painters who weren’t appreciated in their own time.

Marsalis: Oh, Jesus, Van Gogh! Van Gogh couldn’t sell his paintings for four dollars and now his paintings are selling for four hundred million. I mean, this is what we’ve chosen, this is what the shit is. Attitudes, in the art world and in jazz, have changed. I didn’t play a lot of jazz growing up, but I was around it. My dad played, I used to go hear trad guys playing, Wynton was playing. I did gigs with Wynton where I played the one pentatonic scale that I knew through every tune. But I never heard guys come off the stage and say, “What did you think about my solo on the third song?” But when I got to New York a guy said it, and I was confused by it because I didn’t even know what that meant. And then I started to realize, as I got older, oh, I get it: There are guys who actually separate themselves from the larger context, and their idea of a good song or a good performance is completely based on how they felt about their solo. That’s deep, man. And it was foreign to me. That shit is anti-music.

This guy on the NPR blog just wrote this article about why jazz is unpopular, and I’m amazed that they never blame the musicians. They blame everything but the musicians.

JT: What were some of the reasons he brought up?

Marsalis: You know, same shit my dad used to say when we were younger: education, lack of exposure on the radio and TV. What can we do to expand the base? That’s not even the question. Expand the base? That’s some pop thinking. How do we convince people to listen to this? I never really bought into the whole idea of education as an answer. First of all, this music is not easy to listen to. Most of my regular friends, when they would talk about music, they would recite the lyrics. So they’re not even listening to the music. So how are you going to get a person like that to make a leap from that into pure instrumental music? How are you going to get people to make a leap from pop [music], which is an interactive music, to what jazz has become, which is kind of a passive listening experience? That’s too much of a leap for these people.

Like, if you go to a pop concert, which I’ve done for the sake of my students, ’cause I’ve had to, most of what you hear at a concert is talking, and none of the talking is about the shit going on onstage. Dudes are trying to get some ass; some people are high as a kite; some people wanna hear the song they wanna hear, so when they’re not hearing that they’re talking about what goes on at work. And then you hear them say shit like, “Dude, isn’t this awesome? Woooo!” And then the song comes on: “Oh, that’s my jam!” So what do they do? They sing along with it.

Now, you know, I like opera. When I go to the Met, what would happen to me if I started singing along with the tenor? They’d throw me the fuck out the building. So in opera you have the situation where we pay large sums of money to hear some of the best people in the world sing, as opposed to the pop world, where most of my friends pay large sums of money to sing along with the people who are the best at what they do. The idea that you’re going to get these people through education to stop being the way that they’re going to be is ridiculous. It’s absolutely absurd.

JT: So you think that NPR piece neglected putting some of the blame on the musicians?

Marsalis: Man, the blame lies solely on the musicians.

JT: For being obsessed with virtuosity, for being too self-indulgent?

Marsalis: No, man, it’s not about obsession with virtuosity. Trane was obsessed with virtuosity but he also understood that melody was important. Trane had hits, man. I mean, with all his virtuosity, he played “My Favorite Things.” I mean, you have science guys, like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, who take subjects that are really, really complex and distill them down to a pithy good discussion that everybody can understand. Jazz musicians do the exact opposite. They take the simplest shit and make it so complex. My joke is, all you need now is the secret handshake and the decoder ring and you too can be in the club.

So they’ll say things like, “We’re gonna play ‘Yesterdays’,” but it’s in 11/4. I mean, really? Why do that to “Yesterdays”? Or it’s like what happened to me with Blakey one time, which was great. Blakey told me I had to play a ballad and I couldn’t play ballads at the time. So I started changing all the chords in the ballad, and he said, “What the fuck are you doing?” And I said to him, “I’m trying to make this shit hip, man. You making me play it, I’m gonna do what I can do to make it hip.” And he said, “Let me explain something to you, motherfucker. George Gershwin does not need your sorry ass to make him hip. He’s already hip. The only thing you’re doing is masking the fact that you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing. So you’re gonna play the song the way it’s written.” And that was a valuable lesson.

I’ve heard stories about students at the Juilliard School who, when confronted with that reality by teachers, start whining to the professors, saying they can’t thrive in that kind of hostile environment. And when I hear that, I thank God every day that Art Blakey put me in that hostile environment. He made me into a musician by forcing me to confront my weaknesses. Art was dead before I could thank him for the shit that he did for me. But when I turned 29, 30, 31, suddenly it was clear to me that the stuff that I was espousing was the stuff that Blakey kind of just rammed down my throat.

I started to hear melody and I realized there was power to it. And suddenly one day somebody came up to me, a woman, and she said, “You guys played that ballad and I had tears in my eyes.” And I started thinking, “Fuck, when has that ever happened to me?” Never, never. That’s when I started understanding the power of melody, and that’s one of the things that Joey learned. After he joined the band he started listening to a lot of music and paying attention to melody—and now he writes these beautiful songs and women and babies are fucking crying when we play these songs. Now, there are other musicians who hear those songs and come up to me and say, “Man, what’s wrong with Joey? Is he going through some kind of depression?” They think these songs are a sign of weakness because they don’t even play gigs for regular people, so they don’t even get the power of this shit. They don’t get it. But it doesn’t matter that they don’t get it, because I get it.

JT: You and Joey have developed such a nice rapport. Your duets album (Songs of Mirth and Melancholy) is a perfect example of that.

Marsalis: Yeah, that’s my man. We really have a great musical relationship, and there’s so much trust there. When Joey first joined the band, he wanted to rehearse everything because that’s what they did in Mike Brecker’s band: Everything was rehearsed; nothing was left to chance. But when Joey joined my band, I did my Art Blakey thing. I started calling tunes that he didn’t know. I’d say, “Let’s do ‘Cheek to Cheek,’ and he’d say, ‘I don’t know it,’ and I’d tell him, ‘You’ll find it.’” After we did that the first time and he said to me afterwards, “You know, man, I don’t really appreciate you pulling some shit like that on me onstage.” And I said, “Who noticed, man?” And I told him, “I’ll give you a hundred dollars for every person you bump into who says, ‘Wow, man, you didn’t even know that song.’ Anyone who wasn’t a musician, that is. Because musicians don’t buy tickets, so they don’t fuckin’ count. And I said, “Hey man, do you have talent or do you not? Do you believe that you are talented? Because if you’re talented, you can do this shit. If you’re a technocrat, then you can’t. And I believe you have talent. What’s more, I believe that you have talent that is so fuckin’ untapped that we’re just gonna go out here and do this shit.” And by the end of the first year, I called a tune and he said, “Go ahead, play it. I’ll catch it.” ’Cause these songs are not that hard, man. There’s only a handful of them that are hard. They’re just not that hard. And at the end of the day, the ultimate irony is you got guys playing complex mathematical algorithms on songs that were designed as simple pop tunes. They’re pop tunes! That’s what they are. But Joey got it and he just ran with it. He did the work.

JT: And you’ve seen him evolve from that point to this point. He’s grown a lot.

Marsalis: Fuck, so have I. We all have. I’ll tell you, this is literally a conversation we had yesterday. Joey and I were playing golf, and we were talking about one of the tunes on the duo record, and I said, “Man, you know what’s really funny is that Eternal is a pretty good record, but when you listen to the way we play ballads now, it’s really sad in comparison to what we’re doing now.” And he said, “You know, you’re right.” Yeah growth! Hooray!

JT: Talk a bit about the new quartet record. First of all, the title is hilarious. You always seem to have titles that are a goof on something or some clever play on words. You’ve done that over the years with albums like The Dark Keys or Contemporary Jazz.

Marsalis: Yeah, well, the funny thing about this one is just that a guy was doing an interview with me and he said, “What is the conception of the record?” And I said, “There’s no such thing as record concepts. That’s some pop music shit.” Like, you never read anything about Charlie Parker and record concepts. Trane had one record concept, it was A Love Supreme. The rest of it was just tunes in the studio. And we attach all this mystic shit to it after the fact. Crescent was the name of the album, but that title came after the fact. They’d just go in the studio and play tunes; there was no concept. The albums’ titles would come later.

So I told this interviewer, “Recordings are a validation of a concept or a repudiation of that concept, or an acknowledgment of a continuing growth. But you cannot develop a new concept every year. You can’t.” But he just kept pressing. “Well, that’s what I think. Records can have concepts.” And so finally I said, “OK, the concept is four motherfuckers playin’ tunes.” And he goes, “Whoa, what is that?” And I said, “Hey, man, that’s what we do. We try to figure out what is the most important thing that we can do—what we can do to make the song sound as good as it can possibly sound. We do not use these songs as vehicles to glorify ourselves.”

Every year when it’s time for a new record to come out, I don’t have a title. My management company calls me and says, “I need a title by tomorrow.” So the next day I give them some stupid-ass title and they say, “That’s the stupidest thing we’ve ever heard. We’re not using that.” When I told them my record was going to be called The Darkies, they were like, “What? You can’t do that!” And then I told them, “Well, not really; it’s called The Dark Keys,” and they went for that.

This time I said, “The name of the record is Four Motherfuckers Playin’ Tunes,” and they guffawed on the phone: “We think it’s great.” And I said, “Wait a minute, I’m just fuckin’ around.” And they were like, “No, no, we think this is going to be really cool.” And I’m like, “I think this is a bad idea, guys.” So it’s really funny how, in 1990, I was the subversive one. And now in 2012, they’re the ones pushing for the subversive title. “Yeah, we’re gonna do it! We’ll call it MFs and it’s gonna be great.” And I’m like, “Wait a minute, guys, can we talk about this?” So I was not sold on the idea of the title. I’m still not sold on it. But they were so enthusiastic about it I said, “What the hell, fuck it, just do it.”

JT: This album, like the last one, was recorded at Hayti Heritage Center near your home in North Carolina?

Marsalis: Yeah, it’s an old church that’s become a community center.

JT: And you all play live in the room together.

Marsalis: Yeah, just like the old guys did.

JT: It seems that throughout your discography you have preferred playing in a large space: the RCA studios for the first bunch of recordings on Columbia; Bearsville [Studios was] a big place; Tarrytown Music Hall is a big space. You like that kind of bigger environment for recording.

Marsalis: Right. It’s just that acoustic music doesn’t thrive in small rooms. If you listen to recordings done in small rooms, they have a really thin, flat sound to them. And when you put reverb on acoustic instruments inside of a small room, the bigger the reverb the more distant the actual signal becomes. They sound like they’re in a cave somewhere. There are a couple of records that Tain did in smaller rooms, and his drum sound is totally different because you don’t hear the actual sound of the instrument. Because to hear the sound of an acoustic instrument you have to have enough distance for the return to come back at a gradual rate. My brother Delfeayo was studying audio engineering and I asked him, “Why do all the new records sound like shit compared to the old records?” I’m not talking about the performance, I’m talking about the sound of it. And he couldn’t figure it out. So finally he consulted a guy named Don Hunstein, who was the staff photographer for Columbia Records back in the day. He had pictures of the Miles sessions, the Monk sessions and the Ellington sessions, and the one thing that they all had in common was they were recorded in big rooms using gobos (an engineers’ term for movable acoustic isolation panels), whereas modern jazz records are done in isolation rooms. So in the old days they would use gobos to redirect the sound. Like, for instance, Kind of Blue was actually done the way that operas are done now. You had all the musicians in this large room on 30th Street. And if you look at pictures of operas being recorded, all the principal singers are all together and they’re behind a piece of Plexiglass that’s about 10 or 11 feet in the air. And they sing behind Plexiglass so you can get leakage into their microphones but not directly, which would take over the voices. So it all sounds like they’re in the same room that way.

For whatever reason, with electronic music when you isolate people you make them sound like they’re in the same room. But it does not work for acoustic music, yet musicians continue to do it. So they put the drums in a booth, and the ceiling above them is about seven feet. The sound has nowhere to go, so the drums invariably have this flat, dead sound. The reason I prefer to play in big rooms is that I’m a sound freak. My dad is not a sound freak, he’s an information freak. And I think a lot musicians are more information freaks than sound freaks, so they listen to the shit guys are playing but they don’t care that much about the sound quality of it. Like onetime I was having a talk with Bob Blumenthal and he said, “I like the sound of the Blue Note records better than those Columbia records that you like with Miles.” And I said, “No, not really. You like the music better, but not the sound.” And he goes, “No, I like the sound better.” So I tell him, “Come over here and play on this piano for five minutes—just bang on the piano for five minutes. Indulge me, please.” And he picks out a couple of notes and plays for like a minute, then says, “Alright, what’s the point?” And I say, “Now that you have the sound of a piano in your head, let’s play a Blue Note record and let’s play a Columbia record and then I ask you, which recording sounds most like an actual piano?” And then he said, “OK, I get your point.” The personality of the musicians shines through great on those Blue Note records, but pianos sound dead compared to the Columbia recordings.

JT: Rudy Van Gelder was recording those classic Blue Note sessions in a much smaller room.

Marsalis: Yeah, it was a smaller room. And then somebody made a point that I haven’t been able to explain. Prestige Records were played in the same room but the sound is totally different than the Blue Note records of the same era. Prestige Records actually sound bigger and, to me, better. But one of the things that he did to mitigate the drum leakage was to stick the microphones in the tone holes of the piano. But if you watch them recording classical albums, most of the sound of the piano is outside the piano—just like any acoustic instrument. So if you take a saxophone player and you put the microphone in the bell, which is what they usually do, that’s just the crud of the sound. Because the saxophone has 13 holes on it and the air comes out of those holes before it ever gets to the bell. So if you want an actual sound, you have to have something that’s in the proximity of the bell but also something on the side to catch the side tones. Because there’s so much sound that comes out of the side of the instrument. So I think that Rudy solved the problem, and it was ingenious the way he solved it. But just for me, as an audiophile, I wanna hear the piano sound like a piano. I wanna hear it sound the same way that piano sounds in classical performances.

JT: The drums have a big presence on this new quartet record. Of course, all of your past quartet records have that quality, by virtue of Tain’s powerful playing.

Marsalis: Yeah, well, [engineer] Rob Hunter changed the technique. What we used to do was kind of leave Tain open and isolate everybody else using gobos. But on this new one, what he decided to do was to use direct signal from the drums but, because he’s not in the booth, the sound comes out and you hear it in the other mics as well. Mixing the other records, Tain’s drum set is so big and he has such a big presence that he swallows up a lot of the midrange. So it was really hard to mix those records, because you have to mix around that reality because I didn’t want to compress him. The whole idea of squeezing the waveform negates the quality of the sound. But Rob was a rock drummer with the metal band Raven and he understands drums. He quit the road and started working at a metal studio in upstate New York, and that’s where I met him. I worked on a project where a friend of mine hired me to produce a couple of tracks for a demo tape up there, and what was amazing to me was I could speak to him in musical terms; most engineers I couldn’t. And finally I said to him, “Man, have you ever done a jazz record?” And he says no. So I sent him 20 jazz CDs and told him, “Listen to these and call me when you’re done.” And we talked about the sound on them and I could tell he actually heard the sound on the records. And I said, “That’s my guy!” So I said, “Hey man, you’re gonna start doing these records with us and you’re gonna learn on the fly, just like we do.”
JT: So you’ve developed this relationship with him over the last few projects and now you’ve developed this great rapport in the studio.

Marsalis: Yeah, well, he knows what he’s doing. In the early years, that required a lot of oversight from me. But he listens to a lot of records, and he has the rock ’n’ roll experience and he knows some of those recording techniques—things like compressing the low end to make the bass sound bigger. There’s just all this stuff that he knows just from working, so he’s like the perfect guy. Because he hears. His whole thing is he’s constantly listening and doing A/B comparisons and he uses recordings as references. So whenever we have a project going he hears the music and says, “That reminds me of this record,” and he refers to it. He’s a great guy and he’s also great at his job and he’s also learning. He’s not gonna say, “Well, I am what I am. I’ve arrived, I’m the guy.” He’s continuing to study and work and question himself, so he’s my kind of guy.

JT: Could you talk a little bit about Justin Faulkner and how he’s evolved since he first came in the band as a teenager. Wasn’t he 17 when he joined?

Marsalis: He was 18. He’s my kind of guy: played in church, played in R&B bands and he listened to jazz. And there’s a lot about jazz that he just didn’t know when he joined the band. He didn’t know how to feather the bass drum, for example—you know, playing the drum real soft behind there. And it’s just kind of funny, because there are a lot of guys that play jazz right now in New York who can’t feather either, but if you try to tell them to do it, they tell you, “Go fuck yourself.” Yeah, so he didn’t know how to feather; he had never really heard any Jo Jones; he had never really heard any avant-garde music. So [Marsalis Quartet bassist Eric] Revis gave him the avant-garde stuff and the Ahmad Jamal Trio stuff.

Joey gave him the Keith Jarrett stuff and some other stuff that he likes. Joey hears music very differently than I hear it. So there are certain things that he wants Justin to do—some light kind of style where you’re playing but the time is less defined and looser. He brings that to him. I just stuck with the traditional stuff. I mean, I assume he’s going to get Coltrane, so I ain’t gotta give him that. But he’s not going to have listened to any Louis Armstrong on his own, he’s not going to listened to Sonny Greer on his own. So that’s kind of what I gave him: Sonny Greer, Louis Armstrong and Ornette Coleman. So he kind of listened to all of that music and just put it together.

JT: He’s pretty prominently featured on that burning tune of yours, “Whiplash.”

Marsalis: Yeah, and he did a good job. It’s an Ornette kind of thing. As a matter of fact, Ornette has a solo on the Ornette on Tenor record, on the song called “EOS.” My first phrase on my solo is the shit that Ornette played on that tune.

JT: I like how Joey comes in halfway through that tune.

Marsalis: Yeah, we’ve done that on other stuff. We had a song back in the ’80s called “Broadway Fools” (from 1988’s Random Abstract) and Kenny didn’t get it. That was hard for Kenny because he was a guy where everything he played in the right hand was related to his left hand. So I really had to make him sit on his left hand to get him to not start using it. But Joey didn’t have that problem. He just said, “Single lines? Great. Let’s do it.” So it does have a piano-less quartet effect but it’s a piano instead of trumpet shadowing the sax.

JT: Your piece “Endymion” sounds very much like the Keith band with Dewey Redman.

Marsalis: That style of music is more than just a Keith thing, because the thing about Dewey and those songs is that Dewey struggled playing those kinds of changes. Which is why when you listen to the songs, Keith would always play the melody behind his solos so Dewey would know where he was. ’Cause Dewey was like an old-style swinger, a Texas bluesman, and his sound was perfect for that band. But when you listen to some of those songs that they did—like in Ornette’s band, when they played on those tunes and then they took the shit out—they played these melodies, they had these chord changes, and then they just took it out. For me, that first song on that Jarrett album Facing You (“In Front”) is like a thing for me—that song has everything in it. But even on that one, Keith didn’t play the changes to the melody, he went to another place and direction. So one of the things we started doing with all of those type of songs was to play those changes. And I’m a lot better at it now than I was in 1980-whatever. It’s real hip but it’s not just random at all. And that’s kind of the whole thing about “Endymion.” When I wrote that song “Lykief” (from 1999’s Requiem), that was the first time I tried to get this idea where the melody was going to dictate what the tempo was. So in order to really be able to play the song with effectiveness, you had to be able to hear the melody in the solos. You had to hear the melodic direction that the solos were going, otherwise you’d be lost the whole time. And it was one of those things where we had to learn how to do that. It’s not something where I just said, “Hey man, let’s do this,” and everybody was like, “Fuck yeah!” I remember the first time I brought it to Tain and them, they looked at me like, “Man, you fuckin’ nuts?” And I said, “No, man, this is the shit!” So it took us a while to really get to that tune.

JT: How did you direct Justin on that tune “Endymion”? What did you tell him to play?

Marsalis: You tell him nothing. If he had listened to the shit that we gave him, he would know what to play. If he didn’t listen to it, he wouldn’t know what to play. I remember when we were doing “In the Crease” (from 2000’s Contemporary Jazz) in the first year he was playing with the band and he kept getting lost. And I was like, “Why are you getting lost on this?” And he said, “Well, this bar tricks me.” And I said, “Sing the melody. When you sing the melody you can’t get lost.” And two weeks later he comes to me and says, “Old man”—’cause he calls me “old man” all the time—“I would love to be coming here and telling you that you’re completely full of shit, but ever since I learned the melody, I no longer get lost.” And I said, “There you go, son.”

JT: That’s like Roy Haynes. He not only knows the melody to every tune, he knows the lyrics, too.

Marsalis: Yeah, I’m not a lyrics guy, but my dad’s one of those guys, too. A lot of old guys are into the lyrics. I don’t think they’re relevant. My argument with my father was, “Well, OK, Beethoven piano concertos have no lyrics. How do they know what to play emotionally?” There’s emotion in sound. You don’t need the lyrics. If you like pop music, yeah, you need the lyrics to tell you what the emotion of the song is. One of the great ironies is that oftentimes, because of the way that these songs are written, the musical emotion is the exact opposite of what the lyrics say, but everyone accepts the lyrics as being the actual determining factor as to what the song is. But that’s a tangent. But yeah, you’re right about those old cats. Those guys were very skilled and schooled. The melodies are the trick.

JT: What about your piece “Treat It Gentle”? Is that a Sidney Bechet reference?

Marsalis: Yeah, I’ve been listening to a lot of Bechet this summer, and it was a song that I wrote in my head. I just heard it in my head and I never wrote it down, ’cause I never thought I’d play it. It was just one of those things. I said, this would be cool because of the types of music that I listen to: You can play these songs that are in the style but don’t have the same form that those songs had. So the stop-time figure starts in a funny place, but the trick of it is that when you have stuff that’s slightly different, you have to put it in a fashion that makes it sound like it’s normal. And when you do that, people don’t notice the trick.

JT: Part of what’s cool about that tune is the way Joey is playing. He almost conjures up some Erroll Garner thing with what he’s doing on piano behind you.

Marsalis: Yeah, well, he’s been listening to a lot of Red Garland and Fats Waller. I remember when we first started playing songs like that, Joey was like, “Why are you playing this shit?” And I was like, “Because you can’t play it.” And now he can play it and his attitude is, “Yeah, man, let’s do it.” And it’s fun. It’s a fun band. Once you get away from this idea of trying to impress whomever you’re trying to impress and you just play music, and try to play everything in the tradition because all of the shit is fun, then it’s easy. Now, I would not want to play like Sidney Bechet for a year, but I would certainly love to do a gig in that style for two weeks. And now I can.

I just did this gig at the Jazz Standard with the Argentine tango musician Pablo Ziegler, and we had a great time. I know the songs and I know the melodies—I have a nice collection of tango music and I know a lot of those traditional tunes—and I told the guys at first at the rehearsal, “Look, man, I’m not gonna take these long-ass solos because these songs don’t require that.”

That was one of the things about playing with Sting that was very helpful for me. Because I used to play these long rambling solos with a lot of space in them and just really didn’t know how to start and finish solos when I was playing in Wynton’s band. And then suddenly I had 90-second solos for a year and a half. And when you have that kind of discipline, where you have to get to it and get out, when I came back to jazz, my solos had a lot more intensity and a lot less overthinking.

JT: Is that one of the things that you convey to your students, that idea about discipline? And also some of the stuff that Blakey laid on you—do you convey those lessons to your students?

Marsalis: I talk to them about it, but most of them aren’t receptive to it because their reasons for doing it are different than my reasons for doing it. I believe in what Blakey did. I believe that they have to figure out this shit for themselves. We can’t really make musicians out of them by telling them what to play in every situation. They gotta sort it out. They gotta figure it out. It’s kind of like what’s going on with Oklahoma City in the playoffs against the Miami Heat. They have to figure that out. To a man, they have to figure it out to make the team better. Same way with a jazz band.

But cognition and intuition are the two hardest things to get. It’s the same way when we played high school football. We didn’t study film back then, but the coaches made you do the same drill over and over and over again. And one day Coach Gruber said to us after practice, “I know y’all don’t like doing these drills, but the reason we do these drills is so y’all think in practice so you don’t have to think on the field. You think here. You play on the field.”

Another version of that is when I was learning how to snap on people—like some funny guy would say some shit about my momma and then I would freeze. But then what I would do is go home and replay the shit in my head and say, “I shoulda said this or I shoulda said that.” And then after you do that for a couple years, then one day somebody says something and it falls right into the wheelhouse that you have already recognized: That’s the cognition part, and then comes intuition. You have the snap. Then there are other people who say they’re going to go buy a book of snaps. That never works, because the book is predicated on the fact that the guy has to say the shit that the book says. And if he doesn’t say that, then what? I mean, that’s the way music is. All of this stuff is relative to me. So I talk to my students and say, “You know, play this shit like you play the dozens.” And they’re like, “What?” And I say, “What are you thinking about when you’re playing the dozens?” And they say, “Nothing.” And I say, “Exactly!” But the thing is, how do you get there? That’s what they have to figure out, and I can’t teach them that. And this is where I run into problems. I’m the opposite of the way most teachers are. They like to say they can teach you that. But they can’t. They can’t teach you that.

JT: I like that Zen-like attitude that Blakey had—laying it on you and then walking away.

Marsalis:Yeah. “Go figure it out. I pointed out the problem to you, now you go solve the problem.” And there’s not a lot of that in jazz, to my ear, right now. A lot of it is guys saying, “Look at me, I’ve solved the problem. So let me play for you this very meticulously prepared solo that I worked on in my basement for six weeks.” Joey has a story about a vibes player at a session, and this guy had this really complicated lick in a certain part of the song. They did three takes of the song, and between the takes he would constantly work on the lick, work on the lick, work on the lick. So on the third take, Joey changes the chord. So the guy instinctively, because he was a good musician, knew that the lick wouldn’t work. But he looked up and gave Joey a dirty look. Is that what jazz is? Motherfuckers working out licks? I don’t buy it.

JT: What’s your take on Nicholas Payton and his whole diatribe on …

Marsalis: There is no topic there. There’s nothing there.

JT: Well, he’s taken a hard stance on the use of the term “jazz,” which he doesn’t appreciate.

Marsalis: But it doesn’t even matter. Suppose you walk up to somebody and you say, “I play Black American Music.” What would they say? Hip-hop or R&B? The idea that you’re going to change the name and people are going to like it is absurd. Nicholas Payton can further his argument just by playing his horn; that’s how he furthers that discussion. If you believe that there are people making decisions about music based on cultural ignorance or arrogance, then there is an argument to be made for that. The whole idea of European jazz is that argument. You have people who say they want to play jazz and at the same time they want to pretend that Black American culture doesn’t even exist and has no part of the discussion.

There’s a friend of mine who went to a music university in Canada, and when the teacher told him, “The diminished chord has been used in jazz since Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano,” he said to the teacher, “Yeah, and by Duke Ellington.” And the teacher responded, “Well, if he used it, it was by accident.” You know? That shit exists. But my whole point is, like anything else, if you really don’t want to play jazz, then fuck, then it all works. If you just wanna find a job as an instrumental musician and you want to self-identify as a jazz musician, then all those falsehoods work. But if you really want to play jazz, then on the face of it it’s so dishonest that it just wouldn’t work anyway.

When I was going to school and they were talking about what jazz is, one of my teachers said Charlie Parker played eighth-note triplets as the swing feel. And I went to him and said, “Naw, that’s not true.” And he said, “Well, how do you know?” And I said, “Because I got the records and that’s not what he’s playing.” Shit, I don’t know what swing is, but it’s not the triplet feel. Because I played in orchestra, I know that feel very well. Swing is not the eighth-note triplet feel. And there’s probably a lot of other kids who, if they put on a Louis Armstrong record, it’s clear what that shit is. And it’s so intimidating to some people that you even hear musicians saying shit like, “Well, Louis Armstrong was good in his day, but we live in modern times and blah, blah, blah.” So: Mozart was good in his day but he’s not valid in a discussion of today? Really? Beethoven was pretty good in his time but he ain’t dealing with the shit that guys are dealing with now? Really?! And that’s the whole point, that the discussion is used to elevate one’s own agenda. And if it’s an earnest discussion, which to me on the face of it, it simply does not seem to be, then that’s not the way you go about it.

If you want to make an argument that jazz criticism spends too much time looking for the next new thing instead of the good thing, well, then you could use that article that Nicholas Payton used about Ben Ratliff talking about these musicians being the up-and-coming jazz stars [“New Pilots at the Keyboard”; the New York Times, Oct. 6, 2011]. You could make an argument by putting on a McCoy Tyner record or a Keith Jarrett record and then putting on one of the up-and-comers’ records and saying, “You kiddin’ me? This is the logical extension of that?” But instead, what Nicholas chose to do was talk about their whiteness, which, to me, really, you know, that kind of shit was funny when Miles Davis was doing interviews in the ’70s, talking about “I can hear a white motherfucker on the record.” You know, that’s amusing. And then they play him a record and he says, “Yeah, that’s definitely a white boy.” “No, it’s not.” “Well, it should be!” I mean, OK, I’m laughing; I’m 17 and I’m laughing. But now it’s like, you know, it’s a discussion about territory. And I don’t differentiate between that or the falsehoods about European jazz or the falsehoods about modern jazz or the uptown scene or the downtown scene or anything that tries to lay itself as the legitimate claim to something that they can’t actually play.

So to me it’s a non-discussion. And I was watching in bemusement that people would even entertain it. It was astounding to me that Nick’s diatribe got as much traction as it did, and it just kind of shows you how even in jazz and supposed serious music people will go for fodder. You can go on a Facebook page and put on some shit—like I put something on my Facebook page. It was Bennie Moten’s band playing a tune that was swinging its ass off with a tuba and a drummer only playing the hi-hat, thus lending itself to the notion that swing has nothing to do with ting-ting-ta-ting, and it’s a feel that’s based on a gospel groove. Not one response. Now let me go in there and say some shit like “Nick Payton was right” or “Fuck Nick Payton,” and the shit’s gonna light up. Because we spend all our time engaged in subterfuge. I’m not interested in that bullshit, at all. I’m not interested in rumors about who’s gay and who’s not. I just don’t give a fuck about none of that stupid shit that guys be talkin’ about. That’s time that I could spend learning how to play or listening to shit that’s going to make me better.

JT: Any response to the criticism surrounding the Marsalis family’s NEA Jazz Master designation?

Marsalis: I’m happy to respond. Since I no longer live in the echo chamber, I have a different view on this. I got a lot of congratulations from my neighbors here in North Carolina, and none of them are jazz fans. When I asked them how they found out about the award, they said they saw it on the ticker on various news channels. When I asked them if they had ever heard of the award before, they said no. So, using the notion “when the water rises, all of the boats in the water rise with it,” I presume the decision was a marketing one and not an artistic one. That the idea wouldn’t even be considered within the [jazz] industry is very telling. In tight economic times, the arts are the first place most municipalities choose to cut. Finding a way to make the award socially relevant could potentially stave off the knife. But there seems to be no understanding of that. Now I’m getting articles discussing whether or not Mose Allison deserves to be a Jazz Master. It seems that living in one of the greatest cities in the world doesn’t help us realize our increasing irrelevance in the national discussion on arts. And that’s worked really well for us, hasn’t it? JT

Originally published in October 2012

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