MUSIC: Are they listening? -

MUSIC: Are they listening?


I’ve been listening to Wynton Marsalis’s music for almost as long as I’ve been listening seriously to music. Less so today than I used to — my ears got bigger, I hear more music than I did as a kid — but still. As a teenager I spent hours figuring out the structure of “Hesitation” and “Knozz-Moe-King” off his first two albums. Used to play the little five-note tag from “Hesitation” at the end of everything. It drove Scott, our trombone player, properly crazy. But I haven’t had many conversations with Wynton Marsalis. The one time I did get him on the phone for a couple of hours, probably 15 years ago now, two things were obvious: he just loves to talk about music, and journalists don’t give him a lot of chance to.

You get a taste of that, and much more, in this astonishing suite of interviews and sidebar articles by Ethan Iverson, who plays piano in the band The Bad Plus and is quickly becoming of the most thoughtful writers about jazz today. (It helps that he has almost no competition.) I’m quite sure I haven’t read a more thorough investigation of Marsalis’ music, the music that influenced him, and the music of his peers and contemporaries, in the nearly 30 years Marsalis has been in the public eye. There are thousands of words of interviews, dozens of sound clips so you can hear what they’re talking about, and a dissection of “Knozz-Moe-King” I would have hostaged a relative for when I was 20. If you have a young acquaintance who is trying to learn how to play this music, make sure they read every word of this. Its value is increased by Iverson’s mild skepticism about some of Marsalis’ tenets and assertions; Marsalis has a tendency to surround himself with yes-men that has never served him as well as having to justify his terms does.

Here’s Marsalis in a long excerpt from the first interview, which touches on a stubborn fact — for a guy who gets more ink written about him than any musician of his generation, Marsalis’ music almost never gets addressed as music — and segues into a meditation about the artist’s place in his time and in history:

Over the last 10 or 15 years I’ve lost track of how I’m critiqued. I don’t even know if I get critiqued so much. It’s kind of out there. Like when they said, neo-conservative or plays older jazz — I understood that. That was kind of out there but as I got more serious about music, I don’t think so. Something like Congo Square, I ‘m not really critiqued about it. None of the pieces, really, like All Rise — that’s 8 years ago. I never got a critique of it. Or the music I play with my septet. It was not critiqued.

I always tell a musician you have four avenues of creativity. You’ll fall somewhere in those four. The first is the sound of your era. We all sound like that. All of us who came up in the 1980’s sound like we did. You come with your group of people and you will play like them. People who came up playing in the 1920s sound like they played then. Even the great Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and a little earlier than that — they have a similar sound. So, we all have that. We choose to do different things with it. You don’t think Thelonius Monk is from James P. Johnson’s era. And it’s not all just because of the sound quality. He doesn’t play like those people.

The second is the history of your art. A few of the people will be into that. That means John Lewis: you can’t really tell where he is. Sometimes he sounds like Teddy Wilson. Sometimes it’s like Earl Garner. He didn’t really sound like any of them. He always sounds like John Lewis but he has that echo in his sound.

Later, he’s evocative of the whole history of music, in fact all of the arts, not just music… all the arts and musics from all over the world like tango music, flamenco music, you know, commedia dell’arte — John Lewis was really into that. And that’s another path: all the things that are removed from your kind of sphere but you can kind of… You can take things out of it. Like somebody can take something out of that Japanese music — Noh — and they can find something to hear in the musical space or dramatic moments or…

Then you have your own creativity. That’s the richest of all of them. You just invent. You’re inventing stuff all the time. Like if I would move through this — piece — some things I took from people but a lot of it is just shit I came up with.

It didn’t come from anybody. It’s not like like I thought, “Here’s Duke Ellington or…”

Sure, there would be moments of it where I’d say, “Let me put this in.” When I hear something that IS what somebody else heard, I don’t not do it because they heard it. Because I know that I’m going to hear a pile of shit that I only heard.

And I always felt that EVEN with my trumpet style… EVEN when I was playing stuff that I had heard other trumpet players play, I felt like, “Yeah, but I play so much of my own shit that I don’t not want to bring them with me. I don’t want to be out there alone.”


MUSIC: Are they listening?

  1. My goodness: Iverson’s jazz writing just keeps getting better and better. I remember being knocked out by his essay on how racial segregation influenced the style of Lennie Tristano – and thinking that the racism was all the more absurd because, well, Lennie was blind.

    I think a lot of the controversy around Marsalis is needlessly coloured by aesthetic prejudices a priori (both in favour of and against him); it’s refreshing to get a balanced and thorough analysis for a change that goes in neither demonizing nor “lionizing” him. I’ve seen this come through in a lot of Iverson’s past interviews, too, with divisive figures like Stanley Crouch. In general, jazz musicians should write more about what they do.

  2. If you haven’t read the drummer Art Taylor’s book of interviews it’s worth tracking down. A lot of the musicians react very differently because he’s a colleague. Miles Davis begins in a very serious mood — he clearly can’t believe Art Taylor is trying to interview him — but then shows sides of himself that he rarely revealed elsewhere.

  3. Oops. Miles begins in a silly mood, not serious.

  4. Jazz is best written by those who appreciate the music and when our professional journalist who have a love for jazz write, talk or introduce the music it can be magic. To-days world of this medium called the Internet has opened a new and wonderful avenue to share with friends and has introduced us to new is a free gift of pure joy……..enjoy this for the first time or once again… a great Canadian gal…. who’s love of music found her ear’s open to an all time great Canadian Oscar Peterson….. and the rest is history.

    Merry Christmas …….

  5. Back in the very early ’70s I had a couple of LP’s by the Art Ensemble of Chicago.. you could actually buy stuff like that over the counter at a few places in downtown Halifax in those good days. Those places are long gone.

    I tried very hard to understand it. I’m not a musician. I couldn’t understand it. I tried very hard to enjoy it. That didn’t work either. I only remember thinking at the time that it was all very strident, musically and politically. In tune with the times, but not necessarily in tune.

    Some of the people coming out of that era I’ve enjoyed since then.

    Thanks the posting. Slowly working through it.

  6. Give a listen to Diana and her group on this cut. She is special and this is special for a lot of technical reasons. She is great, period. Of course, you can take some time and “YouTube” Diana to your heart’s content, if you like.

    Quick hint on listening/watching this clip: She turns the main theme, “I Don’t Know Enough about You” inside out when she firsts sits down and then you can see/hear her figuring out where she wants to take the tune as she plays with a touch of left hand rhythms. She decides to stretch the intro into “Jitterbug Waltz” with variations and then launches that into the main theme with stride, walking bass and block chord accompaniment blending fifths and tenths into the right hand melody. You can see the band smiling and waiting for their cue as she plays around with some nifty harmonies. She also delivers some very coy vocalizations at the start with words “news” and “shoes” and “fool” and then just gets plain “rowdy” as she continues to sing and “smoke that piano”.

    The above words are my Big Brothers….. a long time jazz fan and educator… now quietly retired in rural Ontario…. with many many memories or late nights in jazz clubs in the golden horseshoe…. Music in it’s many forms has been the one any only staple in our hearts and soul through thick and thin…. so during our next adventure into the troubled waters of power and politics……. try and find soon quiet times to charge your batteries in the wonderful world of professional music….. played by those few gifted persons who have given so many hours of their time to practice, practice trying to write and play such wonderful music……. for our listening pleasure…… perhaps our creator gave us two ears so we could indeed fill our heats with more than the maddening sounds of world politics…..

  7. Merry Christmas Paul. Thanks for a great year of journalism and blogging.

  8. Thanks Paul for enlightening those of us who knew they liked certain jazz pieces when they heard them, but never paid much attention because they were teeny boppers caught up in rock and roll.

    Here’s wishing you and your family a good Christmas and a very jazzy New Year.

  9. Thanks for this link, it’s really abundant — great Christmas present to your readers, and they kind we can pass on! Esp., as you say, the “Knozz-Moe-King” commentary — very enlightening. Marsalis is a truly great man.

  10. Around 1984 or 85, when I was in grade 11 or 12, Wynton Marsalis was passing through Vancouver on tour, and our band teacher thought he’d try his luck and ask the promoter if Wynton would like to come talk to a band class. It was a lark and our teacher expected the request to go nowhere. But what do you know, Wynton called back and said, “How about I drop by this afternoon?” Our teacher at Carson Graham Secondary — I think his name was Mr. Carr or Kerr, I can’t remember — went through the roof. He summoned all of his students out of their regular end-of-day classes and had us assembled in the band room for a Q&A, a bit of performance, and impromptu lessons. I was the sound tech for the jazz band and didn’t play anything, and this was the first I heard of the guy. But when I saw that Marsalis was a renowned recording artist, I was really impressed that he took the time to come talk to a bunch of high school students. He seemed to really enjoy it and stayed for a couple of hours, then went straight to his concert.