AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
TP: …among black musicians was the notion of having your own sound, above and beyond just about anything else, in many ways.
MARSALIS: Essentially, that was one of the things that contributed to the fact of whether you were going to work or not.
TP: So again, it’s economic.
MARSALIS: Well, that was one of the factors. It wasn’t just the only one. But the thing is, there was no uniformity. You go up to Eastman. They’ve got a great music department at the Eastman Conservatory. Look at the cats in that band. I mean, there’s a conservatory approach to jazz. All the saxophone players got the same sound. And they can all play! And you listen to these guys playing a solo, and you can’t tell which one is what! There is no individuality, man.
And having your own sound has as much to do with… I remember Jug told me, Gene Ammons told me… See, Gene Ammons went to school under Walter Dyett. Gene Ammons said, man, “When I went to study in the band, the first thing the dude did was gave me the mouthpiece, and I had to play that for a month. Then I got to the neck, and I had to play that for another month or so. Then finally, I got the horn.”
TP: Von Freeman told me the same thing.
MARSALIS: Yeah! He said by that time, what you do is develop a sound. In some cases, it’s not so much my sound as much as it is a sound. Because when you start to play jazz especially, you hear differently than what happens when you study classical music. And even with Classical music, there are people who have individual sounds with that, even though you’d have to be really attuned to hear them.
TP: Well, connoisseurs can tell Michelangelo Benedetti from Pollini, or Dinu Lupatti from…
MARSALIS: Michelangelo Benedetti was one of my favorites, especially for French music.
But for the most part, I think that’s one of the things that sometimes people misconstrue when they say “my sound.” Everybody’s got a sound. Because once you learn how to play that instrument, whatever comes out of it is going to be your sound anyway.
TP: I’m trying to circle around to an ending. How, within your pedagogy, did you give students that imperative of developing your own sound? Is that just implicit within what you give them?
MARSALIS: Essentially it is. Because I never had them for that long. That’s the one thing you’ve got to realize about teaching in a high school.
TP: But now I’m talking about college, too.
MARSALIS: Well, college is totally different. See, the thing about college and universities, you get students in clumps. If you’re teaching an improvisation class, you get all of the students that’s taking that at that time. Now, they’re studying their instrument with somebody else. You see? And if you happen to have a combo that you’re teaching, there are some things you can pass on to them in that context. That’s teaching a combo. But that individual approach is not there nearly as much. Because by the time you get to the university, you have to spend a lot of time, hopefully, in dealing with refining what’s there.
TP: But do you use the same principles in dealing with your university students as you did with your students at NOCCA? Is what you did at NOCCA the building block for the Ellis Marsalis way of teaching?
MARSALIS: Yes, definitely.
TP: Let’s say I’m some administrator giving you a grant. How would you boil down your principles for me? The one or two minute synopsis.
MARSALIS: Basically, it’s important to learn the three elements of music — rhythm, harmony and melody, not necessarily in that order. And you apply that to each piece that you play.
TP: Since you only took ten seconds to answer: How are you going to go about giving it to them? Through drill?
TP: It’s all drill.
MARSALIS: Yes. You can really study two songs a semester, and teach everything that you need to teach in that given semester.
TP: What two songs would those be?
MARSALIS: Any two songs that have to do with the form. Like a 32-measure form, AABA… It doesn’t matter. Because all of them are going to have rhythm, harmony and melody. It’s a busy-word(?) concept to give somebody 25 songs to learn. I was telling my colleague that. He said, “Man, they ought to learn 25 songs at a minimum.” I said, “But what are they going to play on those songs?” You take one song and say, “Okay, here is the verse, here is the melody, this is what the harmony is.” Now, the first thing you’ve got to do is learn how to play each of those component parts. And it takes time to do that. Now, you multiply that by ten, and what time do you have? You don’t have no time. You’re scuffling, trying to make some arbitrary deadline.
TP: So you really are like Walter Dyett and Samuel Browne in a lot of ways.
MARSALIS: I hope so. [LAUGHS]
TP: You really are. I’m glad I’m not imposing some rigid thesis on you. One final question. What do you think of the state of things in jazz now? We’re talking about some negatives, like maybe lack of individuality among young musicians, but overall, what’s your sense of the state of things as opposed to 15 years ago, when you started at Virginia Commonwealth, or 28 years ago, when you started at NOCCA?
MARSALIS: Well, those are very short periods of time. I think that jazz ultimately will become a major part of the cornerstone of American music. I just heard a trio… This was a classical group. I think all of them went to Juilliard, and they were playing a piece by one of their contemporaries, who is a violinist, who has been playing with a Rock band, and is now composing music, and has been playing violin with Ornette Coleman. It was piano, cello and either violin or viola. When they started to play his piece, I could hear “Lonely Woman,” man, in the beginning theme of it. That’s the direction that the music is going in. And the people who are going to make the biggest contributions towards it are the same as it was in Europe as composers.
TP: When you say “that’s the direction,” do you mean Ornette Coleman or do you mean the hybrid?
MARSALIS: The hybrid. That’s it. It’s going to be like this violin player, the bluegrass player… He’s written a composition that’s very interesting, too.
TP: A young guy?
MARSALIS: Not too young. He’s younger than me. Top of the list. Top line. The representative of that. Well, anyway, I’ll think of it.
TP: Another aspect of the hybrid is all the musicians internationally who are coming here with substantial idiomatic knowledge of jazz and bringing their own cultural information to the table. I’m thinking particularly of musicians from all over the Caribbean and South America. And it seems to me that the rhythmic template of jazz, things that were maybe esoteric 10-15 years ago, are no longer esoteric. Do you perceive this internationalization of the music, that it’s incorporating more information at this point?
MARSALIS: Of course. That’s the way that is. That’s why we get terms like “globalization.” I don’t think music is the only representation of that. I think whatever you see is happening in terms of economics, in terms of the market, in terms of trade… There was a big thing in the paper here yesterday, they’re trying to make a deal between France and New Orleans to build a super-port. So it’s all-inclusive. That’s what I’m saying. It’s not really a separate thing.
TP: So the world is smaller, people can transcend the particularities of their locale, and you can get anywhere in a day, that sort of thing?
MARSALIS: That’s right.