Wynton Marsalis & Ethan Iverson: A Conversation on Jazz & Race

A freewheeling discussion from the 2018 Jazz Congress in NYC


At the inaugural Jazz Congress, co-produced by Jazz at Lincoln Center and JazzTimes in New York City on Jan. 11-12, among the most anticipated events was a conversation on jazz and race featuring JALC managing and artistic director Wynton Marsalis and Ethan Iverson, a founding member of the Bad Plus, an important jazz blogger and a pianist with a deep reverence for jazz history. Moderated by artist manager/consultant Andre Guess, the hour-long conversation in JALC’s the Appel Room moved swiftly through ideas and anecdotes while never losing its feeling of diplomacy and mutual respect. Here are some highlights.

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ANDRE GUESS: We know historically that, in jazz’s heyday, the country was dealing with race in a much different way than it is right now. So I want you both to respond to [these questions]: When we were a segregated society, how did jazz help to move forward the conversation on race, and then, conversely, in a contemporary setting, what if anything is jazz doing to not advance the agenda?

ETHAN IVERSON: No problem, I got this. [audience laughter] Thank you, Wynton, for inviting me into your house, by the way. A couple of my friends were like, “What are you doing?” [laughter from audience and panel]

To respond to the question, I think jazz was the greatest 20th-century music. I’m actually fairly adept at music that has more of a European framework. I know it pretty well; I’ve played Schumann with Yo-Yo Ma. I’m not at Wynton’s level at dealing with that stuff, but I’ve dealt with it, and I’m a composer. The older I get, the more I think, man, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane—those were the best. It was the best music of the 20th century, and almost always, the best musicians of this greatest music were black. End of story.

WYNTON MARSALIS: I want to start by saying something about “black.” First, “black” is not anthropological; it’s social and it’s political. Once they decoded the genome, it’s clear—that’s the science. So the concept of race itself is not real. And jazz symbolically is a unifier, the result of hybridization of cultures. You cannot separate Irish jigs and forms of European music, theme and variation—those things cannot be taken out of jazz or diminished because it also adds African sounds. Those things came together in our music. For us to try to separate them is like punching water.

So I think that, for our purposes, we’re not talking about whether a musician is black or not. Your chance of playing like Charlie Parker is zero whether you’re white or black. [audience laughter] My father used to make this point to me when we were growing up: “Who somebody is is always more important than what they are.” And you don’t know what they are anyway. So I want us to consider the fact that maybe race might be something that’s only made real by the politicization of it in our country.

GUESS: In Eddie Glaude’s book Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, he coins two phrases. One is “the value gap” and the other one is “racial habits.” The value gap is the fact that in America white people are valued more than non-white people, and racial habits are the things that we all do—white, black, yellow, red or brown—to perpetuate that, knowingly or unknowingly. Wynton, you’ve been on a crusade of dealing with swing as the foundational aspect of jazz, rhythmically. Why is there no consensus that swing is the foundational rhythm of jazz, and is there a value gap or racial argument inside of that as to why that may not be the case?

MARSALIS: It’s always interesting what you get taught in a school. I had the benefit of a lot of really good teachers, but I know that with some teachers it was always “Don’t learn what Louis Armstrong played.” Or the choice of music that we would play—we’d say, “Why don’t we play one of these?” “We don’t need to play that music.” It was always kind of selective along racial lines.

We have not only taken the swing rhythm out of our culture, which was a mistake, but also the ability to dance. In the ’90s, when I went to schools, the schools I went to, which would have to be close to a thousand, were always black or white; every now and then you’d see an integrated school. One thing that I would do with the white kids was ask them, “Can white people dance?” And they would say, “No.” [laughter from audience and panel] And I’d say, “Why? The United States was one of the most dancing countries in the world. Why do y’all think now, 30 or 40 years later, white people can’t dance? Is it a racial thing? Is it cultural?” “Oh, we don’t really know.” “Do y’all think it’s important to be able to dance?” “Well, no. Maybe. Yeah, I guess.” Why are we not teaching them? Speaking specifically of the swing rhythm, I think that there’s something in it that the nation has been against.

IVERSON: You know what? I just left the Bad Plus and I have some more time on my hands. And one thing I said to my wife was, “Finally! Let’s take some swing-dancing classes, ’cause I want to learn how to dance.”

It feels like there’s the personal and then there’s the institutional. I’ve gotten to know some jazz masters: I’ve gotten to talk to Ron Carter, play some gigs with Billy Hart; there was one night here in your house [JALC], at Dizzy’s, that I got to talk to Frank Wess for a bit. If you’re in the presence of someone who actually played this music for real, all the questions sort of vanish. There I’m totally on your side: Race is a construct, it’s just about the language, and this sort of stuff.

But that’s the personal level, and then there’s this institutional level. I think you [Marsalis] must have had some very interesting experiences going into institutions that only dealt with European music, and you’re there having to be like, “OK, guys, you want me to talk about the shuffle?” I don’t know how you have the patience for it, frankly, ’cause every time I’m around some of those cats and jazz comes into the conversation, it’s like a brick wall. It’s probably better now than it was 20 years ago, but still—just getting institutional respect for the most beautiful and esoteric elements of jazz is difficult.

MARSALIS: Well, in my neighborhood, all my friends were the most ignorant group of people about jazz that I ever encountered in my life. So if I go to my real experience, the truth of what we [African-Americans] all know about our music is very thin.

When I went to Juilliard—first, for me, just to be here [in New York] … I mean, New Orleans had one skyscraper at that time, and it wasn’t really a skyscraper; it was like a … scraper. [laughter] And to be at Juilliard, I had come from playing only funk, so it was enlightening for me to be around that many serious students. I didn’t really care whether they knew about jazz. I was used to being in an environment where nobody knew about the music. I’m from New Orleans. What did we know about the music? Nothing. I had less of an excuse ’cause I had a father who would say, “Listen to Louis Armstrong.” Did any of my friends ever listen to Louis Armstrong? We didn’t know; he was just a guy with a handkerchief. It’s like what you said about taking swing-dance classes with your wife. Can I swing dance? Hell no. My brother would laugh at me just for my funk dancing. He’d be like, “Damn, man, you gonna get out there with that?” [laughter] And we had dance rehearsals once a week. So it’s just for us to come to grips with the absoluteness of the ignorance of our form.

For years I would try to beat the students over the head with the swing, which they weren’t going to accept anyway, ’cause they had the kind of attitude about the funk and the pop like we all had. They grew up with it; it’s easy for them to play. So I just went through a roll call of rhythms in the beginning of the class. I said, “If I ask y’all to sing a clave, what would that be?” They were singing it. I said, “New Orleans march.” I said rock, funk, hip-hop, bossa nova—they started playing all these rhythms. Then I said, “OK, what’s the rhythm of jazz?” Once we got to that rhythm, they realized that that rhythm was going to have to be swing. I took the funk and the rock and the hip-hop from them. They enthusiastically sang all those rhythms, and then when they realized swing was the rhythm, this is what they did. [turns head to the side and looks sheepishly at the floor, to much laughter from the panel and audience]

So then I asked them a question.  I said, “If we were in Brazil, and this was a group of Brazilian musicians, and I asked, ‘What is the rhythm of samba?,’ would they drop their heads? If we were in New Orleans and I asked a group of musicians, ‘What’s the rhythm of New Orleans?,’ would they drop their heads? If we were in Cuba and we started talking about their music, would they drop their heads? Why y’all dropping your head?”

IVERSON: I have something to say related to this that I’ve been thinking about lately. This anecdote might already be outdated, ’cause jazz education has come a long way, in no little part thanks to Wynton Marsalis.

MARSALIS: Thanks to a lot of us.

IVERSON: When I was a kid trying to learn about the music in Wisconsin in the ’80s, the one textbook that seemed universally to be the secret text you needed to find was something called The Real Book. Now The Real Book is still around; people still have it. In fact, last night I played a gig and the cat was playing “Turn Out the Stars” from the Real Book chart. It’s fine; the chart’s accurate. But The Real Book sort of came into existence around the same time [the 1970s] as a certain movement in jazz education centered on Berklee in Boston, and some really brilliant musicians too: Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Steve Swallow, Carla Bley. But it’s striking that, if you look at the [original] book, sort of notey, even-eighth, “compositionally advanced” white-people composers are perfect: just like the record, an absolute gateway into understanding something about complexity and writing a thorny piece of modern jazz. And if you look at the charts of Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson, they’re essentially worthless: totally inaccurate, and they’ll give you no help in trying to understand how to play that music.

I think jazz education, the focus of it, people always have their personal fiefdoms. Apparently, when the Lenox Music Inn started in the ’50s, Max Roach said, “We shouldn’t teach anybody this stuff,” because he was worried about it just becoming a vehicle for people to have their fiefdoms and make some money as educators. And Stan Kenton, God bless him, great musician, great band, some very important jazz—there’s a sort of thing that goes into North Texas State [now the University of North Texas] and a certain way of thinking about the music which is … it’s not about swing, not really. They might be trying to do it sometimes, but they’re far more confident with “music of the future” than with the music of New Orleans. And then with Berklee and that Real Book, I think it’s telling about some mistakes that were made in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s: There was too much confidence from people in power [who said], “Yeah, we’ve got this,” rather than being like, “Well, what does Ron Carter actually have to say about this? What does someone who’s a consecrated, confident musician in all sorts of genres, what would they say is important to learn about jazz?”

GUESS: That leads me to a quote by Harold Cruse, from his book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: “Without a cultural identity that adequately defines himself, the Negro cannot even identify with the American nation as a whole. The fact of the matter is that American whites as a whole are just as much in doubt about their nationality, their cultural identity, as are Negroes. Thus the problem of the Negro cultural identity is an unsolved problem within the context of an American nation that is still in the process of formation.” He wrote that 50 years ago. In essence, what he’s saying is nobody knows who they are, this country’s so young, and until you begin to understand that you’re inextricably tied culturally, then we cannot move forward. I want both of you to respond, starting with Ethan: [Tell us] whether you agree with this or not and how you think jazz can bring this problem of identity to a head.

IVERSON: I feel like I need to come out here and say we’ve gotta deal with black music. That’s part of my job, and it’s part of my job as an educator when I’m talking to my white piano students. At the same time, man, it’s the mixture of all the stuff that made this music that I personally think is the greatest 20th-century stuff. … I can love myself as a white Wisconsin boy better, you know what I mean? I can have some pride in where I’m from. … It’s American music.

MARSALIS: I grew up in absolute segregation. I remember we went to some white people’s house. It was a piano player; his name was Chuck Berlin. Now to kind of put you in the South, the level of segregation was so absolute, we had never actually been to any white person’s house. Maybe I was nine years old then, or 10. And I was like, “Why are we going to his house?” My mama said, “That’s your daddy’s friend.” I said, “My daddy got a white friend?” So we went to the man’s house. It was a house. It had toilets [laughter], a TV, you know. It wasn’t like our house necessarily, but it was a house. And then he came to our house, and one of my friends said, “Man, is your daddy in trouble? [laughter] I saw that white man came to y’all house. Is he going to jail?”

Now we’re laughing at it, because it’s funny. But the fact that race is a construct and that it’s not real doesn’t mean that we don’t live in the non-reality of it. There are always stand-ins for reality, and those stand-ins then become what we misconstrue as reality, so it becomes difficult for us to get back to reality. People who can play come from anywhere. But this kind of desire to take the achievements of a few people and make it be a representation of a group—now all these groups are gonna battle.

I’m just gonna tell y’all a couple of stories, funny things that stuck out in my mind. Me and Gerry Mulligan—you know, I always loved him and we would always argue about race. He’d say, “I notice you got all black guys in your band.” I’d say, “I notice you got all white people in your band.” [laughter] He’d say, “Man, why would I get some black guys who can’t play in my band to tell me I can’t play ’cause I’m white?” I’d say, “Why would I get some white dudes that can’t play in my band because they’re white?” He said, “I want you to listen to this recording of Adrian Rollini.” I said, “Adrian Rollini? Psssh.” He said, “You ever heard him play?” I said, “No, but I know he’s white.” [laughter] He said, “Well, can I ask you a question?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Are you a better musician because you don’t know who he is?” Now, that’s a good story, and he was right. I listened to Adrian Rollini, and damn, he could play vibes, he could play bass saxophone. But did I have a white person in my band and did he have a black one? No.

Albert Murray, I would always have stories for him when I was growing up about white people I fought with, racism, teachers that cheated me out of stuff, stuff that I had to go through that I didn’t like. One day he said, “Man, of all the experiences you had that you didn’t like, that I’ve heard you chronicle for the last 15 years ad nauseam, did a white person ever do something that you liked? [laughter] Who was your teacher?” I said, “Oh yeah, George Jansen. I loved him.” He said, “Why is he not ever a part of these stories you’re telling me? Why is the actual totality of your experience never a part of how you’ve decided to construct your view of the universe?” So the question for America is, why is this universe never inclusive of all the things black people contributed to this country?

GUESS: Ethan, have you experienced a value gap for yourself or other white musicians playing this music that is considered to have come from—that does come from—the Afro-American experience and is born out of slaves and the descendants of slaves?

IVERSON: The Bad Plus had this incredible breakthrough in 2003. We got signed to a major label and sold 100,000 copies of our first record. And it was stylistically diverse. There were influences that were non-jazz. And I stand by that music. But once I had a platform that I felt had some light on it, I thought, “I want to make sure that anyone who’s following me knows that other people built this house that I’m living in now.” Which is why I started writing about the music, with an emphasis on people I considered jazz masters and who were often black. I think when you’re young and you’re good, you want to emulate the people you feel like you can be. So I have to turn the question around on you a little bit. I’ve never seen a creative, good white jazz musician questioned about whether they can play or not. In fact, it’s a tragedy to look at a DownBeat from the 1950s and ’60s. I actually wrote a letter one time to DownBeat because I was thinking about doing a story about who’s on the cover and who’s in the advertisements. It’s straight-up racist. Not that they aren’t all worthy musicians, but all you need to know is that [Dave] Brubeck was the first [jazz musician] on the cover of Time [actually the second, after Louis Armstrong].

I’m pretty sure that Wynton and I don’t share the same tastes in this music. There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t sound like jazz to him that I think is great. It’s “improvised music,” whatever. [Marsalis laughs] But I think part of what I’m here to do, in my role as a writer or as an educator, is to be like, “I hear you, I’m glad you’re checking out Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett and this kind of thing, but you should also make sure to check out James P. Johnson and Thelonious Monk and Sonny Clark and Kenny Kirkland. Just because this feels good to you and you feel like, ‘Oh, I can see myself in the image of Brad Mehldau more easily than in the image of Marcus Roberts,’ that doesn’t mean you should just take that and run with it to the exclusion of thinking about the whole parameter of this American music.”

GUESS: I’m not a musician; I’m a lover of the music. But when I hear the blues, when I hear the turnaround, the turnaround to me is the most palpable sense of hope in the blues. And where we find ourselves as a country, with the line of demarcation that’s being drawn for us to make a false binary choice, Obama in 2008 symbolized the turnaround—the aspect of hope for the country in general and for blacks in particular. What do you guys think? Is the turnaround coming? [laughter from panel and audience]

MARSALIS: Let me tell you, I don’t see it. But I believe in it, and sometimes that belief is seeing it.

IVERSON: Well, the blues is strangely optimistic. [And although] there’s this adolescent period when you’re really into sad music—you think Mahler has all the answers or something…

MARSALIS: Mahler? Who’d he play for? [laughter]

GUESS: Bob Mahler, the reggae guy? [laughter]

IVERSON: I do believe in optimistic music. And frankly, most of the music I consume as a fan, I do feel optimism from that. One of the beautiful things about classic jazz is that there’s a lot of complex textures. The blues is a complex texture. A lot of music can be straight-up—it’s just telling you what this is and this is how you’re supposed to feel. But the blues, man, there’s warp and woof in that. And the jazz masters that I’ve gotten to talk to—I’ll say some of the same names again, Ron Carter, Billy Hart, Tootie Heath—whatever they say, it’s complicated. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s the whole thing, in these sort of pronouncements about life. It’s circular.

One of the greatest, perhaps the greatest book on jazz for me is Notes and Tones by Arthur Taylor. It’s really the only time the cats spoke to each other. ’Cause in interviews where some white critic is talking to them, it’s OK, but this is the people that really made this music talking to a great drummer. And maybe I’ll just close my part here with something about the complex emotion of this music, and how there’s optimism in the blues moment. [picks up book and opens it]

This is Don Byas talking, and Don Byas was one of the greats, a key person for harmony. Anyway, Art Taylor says [reading from book], “Have you ever felt any kind of protest in your music?” Byas says, “I’m protesting now. If you will listen, you will notice I’m always trying to make my sound stronger and more brutal than ever. I shake the walls in the joints I play in. I’m always trying to sound brutal without losing the beauty, in order to impress people and wake them up. … My form of protest is to play as hard and strong as I can. In other words, you did this and you did that, so now take this!” [applause]

MARSALIS: That’s great. I always say that, with Gerry Mulligan and Marcus Belgrave and Lew Soloff and all the unbelievable, great musicians I knew like I was a part of the family, people like Elvin Jones and John Lewis … I feel like we want to create the world they were trying to create. They were people of great reality, like what Ethan read of what Don Byas said. They weren’t like, “OK, we had this history in the country, we got messed over, but let’s all smile and have a Coke and it’s gonna work out.” We had eight years of that, hope and change. Now we see what that led to. So we’re not saying non-constructive engagement, we’re saying constructive engagement.

Image: Ethan Iverson, Andre Guess and Wynton Marsalis (from left) at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room in January. Credit: Lawrence Sumulong/Jazz at Lincoln Center

Read Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s keynote address at the 2018 Jazz Congress.