Interview with Wynton Marsalis
'We was black in the '60s, man. Now a [rap star] from Something Housing Project is going to tell me what it is to be black?'
KENNETH WHYTE | November 15, 2007 |
Wynton Marsalis was in Toronto to speak to the Ontario Hospital Association conference, "Inspiring Ideas and Innovation," when he met with Kenneth Whyte.
Q: Do you ever get up in the morning and look at your trumpet and think, "Oh no, not you again"?
A: No, I never look at my trumpet in the morning, first of all, but it's always an honour to play. I love playing. The guys I play with, I started off teaching them, so it's like I get a chance to demonstrate to them every day what I talked about when they were growing up, about how to address your instrument seriously and how to, no matter where you are, be grateful for playing and play like you're hungry to play.
Q: You've been doing a lot of other things besides playing. You're an educator, you're an activist, you run a program at the Lincoln Center in New York, you're an ambassador for New Orleans.
A: But all of that comes from my horn. It starts with playing. I had an operation a year and a half ago, where something was wrong with my lips for two years, and it's almost like I had to go back to scratch. It made me develop an even greater appreciation of playing.
Q: Sort of like Tiger Woods remaking his golf swing.
A: Kind of, but even worse because he chose to change the way he was. I didn't know whether I would be able to play, physically.
Q: What happened?
A: I had an ingrown hair that became calcified, but I could never figure out what was wrong. Finally one doctor I went to, he said, "We'll just do some laser surgery."
Q: Was it on your lip?
A: Yeah, I had like eight, six stitches down the middle . . .
Q: What difference did it make?
A: The architecture of my lips changed. Man, if you even get something in your teeth it affects the way you play. That's how sensitive your embouchure is. And you're making so many little nuanced adjustments to bend notes and to change the character of notes and all the different things that we do, in jazz especially, that that type of major architectural change was like having another embouchure.
Q: But you feel you can get it completely back?
A: Maybe. I don't think I'll ever technically be back like how I was, but I think that I'll play in a different way to compensate for it. It made me definitely be a better teacher. A lot of times I couldn't understand the technical limitations of students. It's not always a matter of practising.
Q: What are the physical gifts that you need, when you distinguish between a good trumpet player and a great trumpet player?
A: Just flexibility, the ability to go up and down easily, tone, the roundness of your sound, attacks, the ability to come in on notes, accuracy.
Q: Physically where's that rooted?
A: It's the ability to adjust the air and to adjust the aperture. It's like jumping and keeping your balance. It's like gymnastics.
Q: Yeah, that's what I was thinking.
A: Like to maintain control, with different levels of tension, double- and triple-tonguing, like things with "drrrh-drrrh-drrrh," having tongue techniques, nuanced ways of playing, like certain types of vibratos, and playing softly and loudly, and breathing, the ability to play fast.
Q: When did you know you had all those things?
A: I practised a lot. I was systematic in my way of practising, so I worked on each thing specifically.
Q: Where's the audience for jazz?
A: The audience is limited because we don't have the proper education to sustain an audience. It's very difficult to have a huge audience when the audience is mainly dedicated to people who are amateurs, or who can't play at all.
Q: But in the beginning jazz didn't have an educated audience.
A: Yes, it did. There was an intelligent listening audience. In the United States the intelligent audience started to decline in the '60s. Up until that time there was a concentrated music education program. So a lot of early jazz musicians, even though their grandparents were slaves, their parents were not slaves, and the early . . . Don Redmond, all those early guys who formed the music, they were very educated, man. Don Redmond went to Oberlin.
Q: Yeah, but it was a popular form of music.
A: It was never a popular form of music. There was a version of it that became popular, like what dance bands played.
Q: What happened in the '60s?
A: The '60s was a social phenomenon in which a generation of kids had the moral high ground on their parents. That had never happened before. The youth were against the Vietnam War, they were for women's rights. There was tremendous illusion that younger people know more than older people. That's not true. So what happened to every generation since that generation? Do I have the moral high ground on my father? Do my kids have that over me? No possible way.