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 somebody.like 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.”