AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
TP: Some nuts and bolts questions. Are you still teaching, or are you now retired from any institutional affiliation?
MARSALIS: No, I retired August 10th, 2001 from the University of New Orleans.
TP: So you’re retired for a year. Are you still teaching in any capacity?
TP: So your artistic focus is on being a piano player.
MARSALIS: I’m focusing on my retirement.
TP: How are you spending it?
MARSALIS: Well, first getting used to it. I started putting some unfinished portions of things into my computer, which is something that I’ve been slowly learning about doing. Because the program can be very difficult. But I’ve got some gigs. I usually play every Friday night at a local club called Snug Harbor.
TP: That’s the top club in New Orleans, isn’t it?
MARSALIS: Right. And I go out occasionally. This summer we have a couple of grandchildren who are staying with us, going to some summer camps. So I’ll be here doing that; my wife and I will be taking care of that.
TP: When did you begin to teach? How long have you been teaching? What were the circumstances? Was it the NOCCA experience in the mid-’70s?
MARSALIS: Well, not really. When I graduated from Dillard University.
TP: So way before the 1970s, then.
MARSALIS: Yes. I didn’t really want to teach, but eventually I went into the military and got out, and got married, and the gig situation in New Orleans, which was never that great anyway, changed tremendously, and as a result, I figured I might as well try to use the degree I’ve got. So I started to teach in 1963.
TP: In what situation?
MARSALIS: It’s hard to really describe. Because I went in to be like a music teacher, and they never had a band in there at the school. What happened, I ended up with two or three science classes and some general music classes, with one period to develop a band. So I stayed there for a year, and I said, “Well, I know I need the money, but I’m not going to cripple people because I need the money.” And I didn’t know nothin’ about no science! So I left there, and I started teaching in a small Louisiana town, Browbridge. I was band director there for a couple of years.
TP: Is that when you started to develop a pedagogy?
MARSALIS: Yes, I would say. Definitely.
TP: By 1964, you’re an established musician in New Orleans, such as the scene was, and you’d been playing professionally for a little less than 15 years.
MARSALIS: Wait. When are you talking about?
TP: Let me see if my chronology for you is correct. You’re born in ’34. You go to Dillard when, about ’51 to ’55. You go in the Army in either late ’55 or early ’56?
MARSALIS: No, I was in the Marine Corps in ’56.
TP: You spend a lot of that time in California, and it seems that your military service wasn’t so arduous as to prevent you from playing music.
MARSALIS: Well, basically, that became my job.
TP: So you’re another one of the people who got to play music as part of their Service duties.
TP: And you get back to New Orleans around ’58 or ’59, and you start to have your children, and because the economic situation in New Orleans was what it is, you start to teach. And in the mid-’60s, you’re teaching in that high school in Browbridge.
MARSALIS: Right. ’64 to ’66.
TP: In one of my earlier conversations with you, you spoke about how you learned, about your formative process, that you started playing clarinet when you were 11, started playing tenor saxophone in high school, did a lot of rhythm-and-blues gigs, and you were studying the piano, and that when you got out of high school you decided to be a music major, that Dizzy Gillespie turned you on, a bunch of things turned you on. You said: “I had been studying with a really great piano teacher. Of course, studying piano at that time either meant that you were learning from a mentor in the church that you went to, or you were learning from someone who was either in your family or was a friend of the family that would teach you the tradition of the music according to earlier styles, or you studied with a piano teacher who basically was teaching formal approaches to European music.” You said that you weren’t playing in the church, which was to your regret, and you didn’t know anyone who was really playing piano from a traditional jazz point of view, and you gravitated to the two areas that were closest to you, being Rhythm-and-Blues and Jazz, and I guess some European tradition — which you’re not saying here — with that piano teacher.
MARSALIS: I didn’t really study with her long enough to develop a repertoire. I studied with her maybe about a year or so, and then I started at the university. And I couldn’t put it together to continue studying with her. Her name was Jean Coston Maloney. You see, I couldn’t put that together, because if I had thought about it and had figured it out, I could have continued studying with her. But I said, “Well, I can’t study with her and be a music major over here at the same time.” I said, “When I graduate, I’m going to go back and start studying with her.” Of course, by that time she had left town.
TP: Would you say you had a good music curriculum at the high school that you attended?
MARSALIS: No. There was no music curriculum. There was none at all. There was the marching band and the concert band.
TP: What was the level of instruction that you received in that band? How was learning done?
MARSALIS: Well, that school was in transition at the time, and in fact, it closed my sophomore year. And the band director, who had really been great, left the year before I got there, and went off to Southern University to direct bands there. So what we did was sort of limp along. The last part of the year, we didn’t have a band teacher at all. We just did it ourselves. So I didn’t learn much about music at all in high school.
TP: I see. Because I’ve talked to a few of your contemporaries from New Orleans, like Clyde Kerr, and I gather his house was a focal point for a lot of like-minded musicians.
MARSALIS: Yes. That was true with Clyde. Clyde, Sr., was a music teacher also.
TP: Were there any teachers in New Orleans who were equivalent to the great black high school teachers of segregation days — such as Walter Dyett or Samuel Browne or the woman at Cass Tech in Detroit — in inspiring musicians of your generation?
MARSALIS: If I had to pick somebody, it would be Yvonne Bush. There’s a book coming out which is going to be very interesting, and she’s featured in that book. In fact, the guy who wrote the book, Al Kennedy, had in his first printing of it a chronology of all of the people that she influenced. It was one of those pullouts. Now, I don’t know if Scarecrow is going to keep that. I mean, it may make it and it may not. But Yvonne Bush is one of the people that I would tend to think was close to what you’re talking about. She was a trombone player, and I think she had spent some time playing with the Sweethearts of Rhythm during their later days.
Anyway, Clyde Kerr… There was also a younger guy named Alvin Thomas who helped a couple of guys. But he died young. He was younger than me. He was still in high school when I was doing my (?). He was also one of the students of Yvonne Bush.
TP: But in the process of learning the vocabulary of jazz and the tools that you would need to be effective, how did it operate before you went to college? Was it totally informal, like you and Alvin Batiste would get together and take down solos from records? I know a lot of people from your generation were very homegrown, but then, other people had substantial formal instruction. And given the subject of this article, I’m interested in how you accumulated and processed vocabulary.
MARSALIS: In a kind of shotgun approach. Some here, a piece over there, a little bit here, a little bit there. Because once I decided that I was going to be a piano player, one of the things that I didn’t know was the dimensions involved. That is, if you are a tenor saxophone player, you play the tenor saxophone, but you may have studied the chronology of saxophone players who played your instrument, so you get a pretty good understanding of who came before you. But when you’re a piano player, the significance of being a piano player is that you wear several different hats. There’s solo piano, which Art Tatum scared everybody to death with that. Then there’s the trio piano playing, the stuff that Oscar did and various other people who played. Then there’s playing piano in a rhythm section, which is one of the things that you end up learning to do because of working conditions. Usually, all of the piano players at some point end up playing in a rhythm section. And the accompaniment role, in some cases, if you happen to be in a group with a singer. And it’s all different. And there was nobody there to tell me that, so I just learned it as well as I could.
TP: You made a comment in my second radio session with you that accompaniment is the most difficult thing to teach.
MARSALIS: It really is. It shouldn’t be. But the reason why it’s so difficult to teach is because music programs are not structured in a way that the vocalist and the other instrumentalists are taught in a complementary manner. By “complementary” I mean this. If a person says, “Well, I’m interested in playing jazz piano,” unless you have a singer who is interested in singing jazz in accordance with the tradition in the same sense that that piano player understands their role, you don’t have a thing! You see?
Most of the metaphors that I used when I was teaching was through athletics. I would tell the students various things, especially when Jordan was still playing. I would try to get them to focus on learning melodies to a song, make sure you know what that melody is. If there are words to that song, at least learn the first verse to it, so that you see how those words connect with that melody. The harmony is a part of that. Learn that harmony the way that the guy wrote it, so when you hear the alterations from other people, you have a reference point. Know the rhythm so that you understand what category the piece falls in. It may be a Rhumba or a Congo or a Bossa-Nova, or it may be a ballad, or it may be up-tempo. I used to use Michael Jordan. I said, “When you look at him, what you see is somebody who has developed every facet of the game, whether it’s his defensive play, or his ability to shoot around the perimeter, or it’s the various ways in which people develop moving the ball around, the free-throw shooting…” Like, all of the aspects that go into the whole of the person.
Music teachers rarely teach like that. The reason that music teachers rarely teach like that is because you have too many people involved, and they only hired one music teacher, and that music teacher is expected to teach a band well enough to go out on a halftime football show. So it can become very difficult to try to deal with subtleties when it’s just you and 100-and-some students.
TP: How did you deal with that when you were at Browbridge?
MARSALIS: I didn’t deal with that. I had a concert band which I dealt with, and then the football season. I had somebody who could do the little halftime steps and all that, and teach the band that, and go out and do the halftime football show. Basically, that’s it.
TP: At Browbridge.
TP: And at that point, would you say that by the age 30, you had developed pretty much the pedagogy — given, of course, the various refinements and elaborations over time — that you continued to teach? Or did it springboard you into developing that pedagogy?
MARSALIS: See, it’s hard to answer that, because I didn’t pursue teaching sort of like in a straight line. Like someone who wants to be a doctor. You may end up being a surgeon or internal medicine or a podiatrist. But you still go in a straight line. But see, I wasn’t really that interested in teaching, and when I left Browbridge, I came back and started playing in the Playboy Club, and I stayed there until such time as… I mean, the job in and of itself was not really going anywhere. It was a good job, playing six nights a week. But I wasn’t satisfied with it.
TP: Not artistically satisfied.
MARSALIS: Well, not really, man. It was a jazz gig. It wasn’t like you had to play something other than that. But even if you’re playing jazz, if what you are playing isn’t really saying anything… And then, it really wasn’t my group, so to speak. So even though I was playing every night, there was little or no chance to do anything with them or with anybody else. Because the city at that time had just moved away from legal segregation — maybe two years earlier, in 1966. So it was a city in transition, and there were still a lot of older clubs and older musicians playing, and a lot of younger guys coming in who were bringing a different brand of funk to what they were doing. There was virtually no jazz — as we consider it — to speak of. And there wouldn’t really be any straight-ahead stuff until, oh, much later.
TP: Let me step back to Dillard and address the way the curriculum you received there affected the musician you became.
MARSALIS: Well, what about it?
TP: Let me put the question to you this way. Do you feel you received a solid music education at Dillard?
MARSALIS: Not really. It was a small school, a private school, and the emphasis was on the nursing school, which had a very good reputation, and also on education. Because heretofore, teaching and education degrees were areas that college-minded Black students could go into and get a job as a schoolteacher. So the idea of performance was ludicrous. At the time, I didn’t really know that was the way people were thinking who were administering the school! So what we got was really the basis of European music, and in some cases, taught by people in a kind of slapdash way. Not everybody. It just depended on who you got. It was modeled, so to speak, kind of after a poor man’s conservatory — which most of them are.
TP: You mean most of the black colleges during segregation?
MARSALIS: Well, most of them were anyway, even the ones that weren’t Black. The thing is, your primary customer… For example, even at the University of New Orleans today, the primary customer is one who is going to be in music education. So consequently, what you get is all of the rules that are set up in such a way that resemble a mini-conservatory. So many hours on your major instrument, so many hours on the minor instruments, all those kinds of things that they expect band directors to do. And for the most part, courses in theory. In a lot of cases, you have an abundance of theory classes and almost no practical.
TP: Whereas people like Yvonne Busch and Walter Dyett and Samuel Browne were extremely practically-oriented and performance-oriented.
MARSALIS: I imagine so. But it’s kind of hard to tell. I used to talk with Eddie Harris about Walter Dyett, because Eddie studied under him. And I talked a little bit with Joe Williams about the Colonel, from Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago. He went under a guy who had been a Colonel, I think, in the Army.
TP: The guy at Wendell Phillips was Major Clark N. Smith, then Dyett succeeded him, then Dyett went to DuSable when the school was founded in 1935.
MARSALIS: Yes, it must have been the Major.
TP: He had the Chicago Defender Boys Band, which Lionel Hampton came out of. I think he was a no-nonsense Marine, like you!
MARSALIS: Also the school in Detroit, Cass Tech, where Donald Byrd… A lot of those cats went to Cass Tech. See, we didn’t really have schools like that.
TP: Oh, I’d been under the impression that one of the black high schools in New Orleans had a good music program. I guess I was under the wrong impression.
MARSALIS: How long ago?
TP: I was thinking the late ’40s and ’50s, but my memory may be incorrect.
MARSALIS: Well, when people say that so-and-so had a good music program, you don’t ever know what that means! I had a guy that told me he was going into the studio down here, and he was trying to get some musicians, and he heard that St. Augustine High School had these great musicians and this great music program, and he got some of them kids in the studio. I knew what he was trying to do, and I didn’t call him on it, but he was trying to get over cheap. But anyway, he got those kids in there, and they didn’t know jack! They’re not being taught any of that. They’re a marching band, and their reputation is that. But a lot of times, people don’t really know. They look at these situations, and they’re not involved in music, and go, “Oh, this is a great program.”
TP: One thing that occurs to me is that in thinking of people like Dyett and Samuel Browne and these high school music programs through which talented young black musicians emerged and were prepared to become skilled jazz musicians in the period when segregation was operative, there was a certain type of pedagogy and a certain type of attitude and a certain type of world view that was conveyed that helped these musicians function. Looking at you from the outside, I see your work as very much in a continuum of that, granted, of course, that you were doing it in a different time. So I’m fishing here to see if this sort of attitude stuck to you and informed your perspective on your own teaching.
MARSALIS: Well, by the time that I started to teach music in high school at the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts, which was a different school… There was no marching band. There was no band. There was no core curriculum of math or science or any of that. This was an arts high school that students went to, using their elective from the home school. You could not graduate from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts with a diploma that was recognized as anything. In other words, you had to go to the regular certified high school that taught math and science and English and history, and then half-a-day, you would study your discipline. Now, a discipline at NOCCA could be dance, theater, music, visual arts, or creative writing. And we had a faculty of artists. So the curriculum was designed by the artists for young people who would anticipate becoming professional musicians, dancers, singers, whatever. That was the greatest faculty that I was ever on. There was only three of us. That faculty was fantastic. I learned as much as the students did.
TP: Was that you, Alvin Batiste and Kidd Jordan?
MARSALIS: No-no, not at all. Alvin was teaching at Southern.
TP: He wasn’t teaching there at all.
MARSALIS: No. Alvin was the artist-in-residence, I think, for the Orleans Parish School system. So when that school opened, Alvin called me, and told me that they were opening up the school, and that it would probably be good for me. By that time, I had already gone and started taking courses at Loyola Graduate School, and wasn’t interested even in interviewing for the job. Because I had developed a plan, a modus operandi, which took me to graduate school, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to veer away from that plan. But I did go and interview, and eventually they hired me.
So I was able to function on a great faculty. It was Bert Braud, who was also an instrumental music teacher, and also a vocal teacher, Lorraine Alfaro. One of the things that we didn’t really do was to emphasize or make a distinction between European music and jazz. All the students had to study. All the students had private instruction.
TP: I gather you had a grant, and members of the Symphony were teaching for the amount of the grant.
MARSALIS: Well, not always. They would take the grant, and sometimes the students would have to supplement the grant. But it wasn’t a lot of money for the level of instruction. The grant was about 8 bucks, and the symphony people at that time were teaching for $12 for the students. But it was a marvelous opportunity for them.
TP: Would you say, then, that your pedagogy developed through the imperatives of setting up a curriculum for NOCCA?
MARSALIS: That’s right.
TP: So you get your first class or your early classes, and what do you present them with?
MARSALIS: When I first started there, I hadn’t a clue as to how I was going to approach this. But invariably, I just started with teaching students a lot of blues. Then I’m trying to pick standards that I knew related to a particular instrument. For example, I knew that just about all of the trumpet players should be expected to play “I Can’t Get Started With You” and tenor saxophone players would be expected to play “Body and Soul.”
TP: You broke down those tunes and they had to show…
MARSALIS: They had to play them.
TP: Did you give them recordings to listen to, or first principles that they should follow?
MARSALIS: If I had them. Yeah, I would do that if I had them. We eventually hustled up some money and bought some recordings. Also, we bought some old Collins speaker. They might still be in use, man! Clyde Kerr was using the same speakers, and doing…kind of piecemealing what we could do. But I was very big on the practical side of playing.
TP: How do you mean the practical side?
MARSALIS: That’s it. Play.
TP: When did you ascertain that a student was moving in the right direction? Was that through your knowledge as a working jazz musician? I’m thinking about criteria, the right thing and the wrong thing.
MARSALIS: Well, the right thing and the wrong thing is easy. Because one of the things they had to do was be able to play scales. Either you understood and played the right ones, or you didn’t. And if you did, I’d work on the concept of improvisation, which is not something that’s suitable for everybody’s personality. But there are ways in which you can get people to improvise if they are susceptible to that process. When I say susceptible, what I mean is that some people are just not comfortable with the process of improvisation. If it’s not written on a page or instructions that come from on high or whatever, they are just not comfortable improvising.
TP: So when you found someone who you determined had talent… I assume that given the type of students who were coming in, you were able to take very individual approaches with each of them.
MARSALIS: Yeah, but not because of who was coming in. Mostly because of the way it was structured. Because we just got public school students, period. Whoever came to audition. We didn’t know who was talented and who wasn’t.
TP: I did a piece earlier this year on Harry Connick that was a cover story in “Jazziz,” and I talked to Branford about him. He said this: [ETC.] “…if you walk in the room, my father says, ‘okay, why are you here?’ Virtually every other teacher would say, ‘Turn to page 13. Okay, that’s great. Come back next week and give me another $100.’ My father is like, ‘Why are you here?’ ‘I’m here for you to teach me.’ ‘What do you want to learn? I don’t know.’ ‘Come back when you’ve figured it out.’
TP: I said, “What do you think Harry wanted to learn?” He said, “I don’t think Harry knew, and that’s what my father wanted to get to — what is it you want to learn?” He says he doesn’t know what you taught him, he and Wynton would rough him up and go outside, but he assumes you would do studies on the blues because that’s what you made piano players deal with first, blues and rhythm.
It seems that so many people who have studied with you are able to access the maximum of potential from themselves, and I’m interested in your philosophy of dealing with people, particularly at that very sensitive time in their lives, when things can go in so many different directions.
MARSALIS: Well, I don’t know that I had even developed a philosophy. See, the thing that I remembered, that I fell back on, is that when I was in elementary school, in the early elementary school, first through sixth grade, that [things were done by drill] ….[END OF SIDE]…. We had English classes, we had math class, and in all of those classes, one of the key components was drill. So when I started teaching at NOCCA, I began to use that aspect. Because it stuck with me. You just drill on something and you drill on it until they get it. And it wouldn’t matter…
See, this is another thing. It wasn’t so much about whether somebody was into jazz or classical. The drilling aspect had to do with whatever the subject matter was at the point that you were teaching. Because I was also responsible for teaching Classical students, not just what we call jazz students, and I had to develop a sight-singing class which everybody had to take. The biggest part of that that I used was drill — drilling on intervals, drilling on individual notes, drilling in all of that. Basically, you concern yourself a lot with whether or not somebody wants to be a certain thing. Like, I would ask students, “Give me an example of a model or somebody that if you could be like that, if you could sing like that or play like that…who would it be like?” And you would use that sort of as a guide of trying to figure out how they were thinking.
But I think what Branford was talking about was usually private teaching. Because you can’t do that in a school! Now, one of the things that we used to do also was make students responsible. You see, one of the major problems with public school education today is that, from what I can see, students are never responsible for anything. You don’t have to be responsible. I just read in the paper the other day where this woman in a town, she and 12 other people just resigned, plus the principal, because they wanted her to change the grade. The parents were calling up all hours of the night… What it was is that she gave an assignment, and 23 of the students cut-and-pasted their way over the end of that, and turned the papers in, and she could see what they had done. So she gave them all zero, and got in a lot of trouble because of that. Because nobody wants the students to be responsible.
But that was one of the things we had that was in our favor. We had a principal at NOCCA whose discipline was theater. His name was Dr. Tom Tews. The only thing he asked us to do was, “Just tell me what you’re doing,” because he didn’t want to be blind-sided by somebody coming up to him saying that the faculty is doing something he didn’t know nothing about! But we had unlimited opportunities to restructure what we were doing curriculum-wise, and change it around to meet the needs of the students that we had — just to do a lot of things that were flexible. But we would make students responsible, even when the parents would come in hollering and screaming. And I think that’s basically what the problem is right now. They’re not allowed to be responsible. Then they get out in the world, and there it is! But that’s a whole other story.
TP: It would seem that a magnet arts school, where you have motivated students, would be well suited…
MARSALIS: Well, that’s a myth, see. The whole idea of having very motivated students comes either after they get there and discover that there’s something they can develop if the platform is suitable for their individuality. Otherwise, the motivated students usually get turned-off at school. Because schools do not emphasize individuality. And when people become motivated, they become motivated as an individual.
TP: Do you emphasize individuality?
MARSALIS: Oh, we had to. That’s the only way an arts school can work. You cannot herd an art school and have it really work effectively.
TP: Donald Harrison told me that Kidd Jordan would call him at 8 in the morning to make sure he’d done what he was supposed to, that he’d take extra time and so on. Did you take a role with students outside of the school?
MARSALIS: Not a lot. Well, I had a lot of other responsibilities. If it was something that I could help them with and it took some extra time, I’d find that.
TP: Let’s get through NOCCA, and start talking about… You started teaching at the University of New Orleans when?
TP: So the timeline is, you’re at NOCCA from 1974 to what year?
TP: Then you go to Virginia Commonwealth.
TP: That’s where Victor Goines and Clarence Penn and various others come under you, then you get a faculty position at the University of New Orleans.
MARSALIS: Yes, but that’s not really so much true for Victor Goines. See, Victor was a kid that I knew along with my kids when he was still in high school. He didn’t go to NOCCA. For a while, he was at Loyola. Before he graduated from Loyola University, he started to study privately with me. And eventually, I just put him in my band. Because I had a quartet. The band went on a Southeast Asian tour in the month June of 1986, before I left to go to Virginia Commonwealth. Because see, Victor was teaching math at St. Augustine High School. After I left, he decided that he wanted to come up and go to graduate school! That’s what he did. But to tell you the truth, while I was at Virginia Commonwealth, I never had any classes that Victor was in.
TP: So there are three different categories. There’s the New Orleans public schools, the Catholic schools, and there’s private tutelage. So musicians in New Orleans coming up would go through any combination of these routes.
MARSALIS: Yes. There was also the total practicum, like the kids who went to the junior high school and learned some basics, and then put a band together and went out on the street, and opened up their cases, and started playing for the tourists.
TP: Which is something that’s distinct to New Orleans.
MARSALIS: Well, a lot of places, they’ll put you in jail if you play on the street. You can’t just play on the street. But in New Orleans, that’s a different town. They may have some restrictions by now. But man, a lot of people were playing on the street, some who now have careers!
TP: Kidd Jordan disapproved of the effects of that. He said it sort of stifled the urge to learn or expand or explore. In a broader sense, how do you see the impact of the vernacular aspect New Orleans music and the Caribbean tinge of New Orleans culture on the way musicians develop and evolve and think?
MARSALIS: Well, for the most part, I think it’s all economic-driven. I mean, those people who call themselves music teachers in public schools… It’s economically driven. If there were no jobs out there, they would not subject themselves to four and five years of college training to get a degree not to work. And these kids get an early start, especially from some of these junior high schools with these brass bands. Now, I don’t think that it’s anathema to learning at all. I think kids get turned off by adults very early in life. It’s not the music that’s causing them to do that. It’s the mere fact that there’s nothing going on in the schools. If there was something going on in the school, they wouldn’t quit. Or if there was something happening musically, they wouldn’t want to… For example, Terence Blanchard was going to John F. Kennedy High School. A marvelous band instructor over there. I mean, this guy was great — the concert band. Well, he played in that concert band while he was a student at NOCCA, because there was something going on over there.
Branford went to de la Salle, and the music program over there was okay. But Branford was talking at one point about going and being a lawyer or something. Which was all right with me. I didn’t care. But it didn’t appear to me that he was doing what he needed to do to be at the school. So we came to the mutual agreement that he ought to leave that school and go to the one of the public schools, and then just attend NOCCA and study the music for the remainder of his high school time.
TP: So to you, the cultural thing in New Orleans where the younger musicians play and the oral tradition aspect is a very positive thing.
MARSALIS: Of course.
TP: Could you elaborate a little on why it’s a positive thing?
MARSALIS: Well, mostly it’s positive because, first of all, it’s economically driven, and the kids who do it generally need whatever monies they can come up with. It also promotes a certain amount of teamwork, because it means that these kids have to organize themselves into a functioning unit with virtually no adult supervision at all. That’s another thing. And that skill is a very useful skill for anybody or any group of people to learn early enough in life. The next thing is, they begin to understand a friendly relationship with the general public. When you go out there on the street and open up your case, there are things that you can get to learn. You learn what people will put money in the case to hear you play, and probably they don’t want to particularly put their money in… In other words, if you’re out there and you have a group, and your group was playing some Bach chorales with a brass ensemble, the amount of money that you get is going to determine whether you keep playing that. Now, if you keep playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” and people start putting money in the box… I mean, it don’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out! So these kids go out there immediately playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” or some other piece like that. Now, it’s anybody’s guess to assume that at some point they will have wanted to play some chorales of J.S. Bach. We don’t really know. And a lot of people say, “well, if they wouldn’t have been doing that, then they would be learning this over here.” We don’t really know that.
There have been numerous times… There was a wonderful band teacher who passed on, named Donald Richardson. Donald Richardson had a junior high school, and he was totally devoted to his kids, and when they would graduate from that junior high school, if they went to a high school and that high school didn’t have a challenging band, the horns were in the case, the case went under the bed, and they went and did something else. So we can’t make the assumption that kids have this undying need to learn certain kinds of music.
TP: What kinds of music?
MARSALIS: Any kind. Anything that would be considered by the people who make those statements as challenging.
TP: There’s a quote in an article I saw on the Web from Jason Marsalis that instead of telling a musician everything, you tell them just enough so they’ll discover certain things on their own.
MARSALIS: Yes, I think jazz is really about the art of discovery. And I don’t mean discovery in terms of guesswork. What I mean is that give a person a certain amount of information, and you have to make sure that that information is communicated. Then from that point, they have to begin to make decisions about that information. And like I said earlier, not everybody has the personality to improvise.
TP: What sort of personality do you need to improvise?
MARSALIS: All you really need is the spirit of adventure, and it’s applied to what your understanding is of the music that is being presented to you. Because it’s very easy, man. I did a workshop, and I can’t remember where it was, but it was a guy who had a band; there was a whole room-full of students in there, and it was just me and this little raggedy piano. And I developed a way where I could give a kid maybe five notes, and play some little things on piano. If you just play those five notes any way you want to play them, you can’t go wrong — except if you don’t play at all. This one kid was playing vibraphone, and I said, “I want you to try it.” Oh, no. He was real shy. And his fellow students started to encourage him. So finally, he decided that he’d try it, that he’d play, and I backed him up as he played. And about ten minutes, man, we couldn’t shut him up! He wanted to play the rest of the workshop! Now, I don’t know that he had an opportunity to do that before. He didn’t act like he did. But he didn’t even want to try. So you don’t really know.
TP: So half the battle is breaking down the resistance to trying.
MARSALIS: Well, if it’s in the personality. There was a young man who was a trumpet player, and he came into the class. And I could not communicate with him what it took for him to experiment in improvisation. It didn’t appear to be in his personality to want to do that. I mean, he tried and he wanted to do it. He went on eventually, man, to become a principal trumpeter in the symphony orchestra. So the musicality was already there.
TP: Let me get back to what Branford said you do with piano players, and what you said you did initially in NOCCA, which was deal with the blues. Now, there’s no established pedagogy for the blues, certainly not when you were beginning 27 years ago. How did you organize your principles of teaching the blues?
MARSALIS: See, what I had to do… It reminds me of dealing with a kid with Play-Dough. What you do is, you give him the play-dough, and you say, “Here, take this and make something out of it.” I would write out some notes which, when played, would be 12 measures of the blues. So they could do two things. One, get the sound of the notes in their ear; the other is to reposition their fingers in such a way that they would play when they would practice. Their fingers would get used to those positions. I have one exercise where it was just the left hand, another exercise where it was both hands, another exercise where it was the left hand with some different chords. But it was all based on the blues. And there again, it’s just a matter of drill.
TP: A matter of drill and then their personality accepts it or it doesn’t.
MARSALIS: Yeah. Well, with the piano players it could be a little different. Because with the piano players you’ve given them notes which basically outline a whole form. It’s a different thing with a piano player. The piano player still has to do the same thing from an improvisatory standpoint. But what you do is, you give them all of the notes in the beginning.
TP: Would you say that your experience as an improviser informs your teaching and the way you relate to students?
MARSALIS: Yeah, definitely. First of all, it helps me to understand a lot better what it is that I’m trying to get them to do. Because if I can’t improvise myself, there’s no way that I’m going to be able to teach them. But see, what causes one to be able to teach, and somebody else to be a great improviser and maybe not be able to teach, is that they don’t necessarily do respective thinking about what they are doing so that they can convert it and create a language to communicate that. Because all of teaching centers around a language. How could you teach Medicine if you don’t have a name for the principles. It’s the same thing.
And a lot of times, the problem… Well, I don’t know if it’s the problem or not. There is not a codified language for jazz. There are some things, the blues… But “blues” is a general term. It’s not by any means as specific as, say, the heart would be if a doctor studies medicine. That’s very specific! But what I’m saying is that we have to have enough terminology so it can communicate what the essence is in terms of studying jazz improvisation.
TP: In one of these things I saw on the Web, the writer describes you asking a trumpeter if he knows “Caravan,” the student replies that he has the sheet music, and you say that “the sheet is always secondary — always.” Does jazz continue to be an oral music in any manner? And how do you deal with that quality within the prerequisites of teaching within an institution and a curriculum?
MARSALIS: Well, the thing about jazz being an oral music is that if you don’t have the oral component of the music, what you will have done is taken away the natural ingredients of it. It’s sort of like the difference between preserves and fresh fruit. See? Like, if you could walk up to a tree and there are some apples on that tree, you can pick an apple, and you can eat that apple. Now, there are people who learn how to make preserves, and in most cases, they always taste the same. And you can get it whenever you need it. But the apple on the tree is only going to be there for so long. Like the solo. I mean, if somebody plays a great solo, if you’re not there when they do it, then you won’t hear it. If it’s a recording, you hear sort of a replication of it. Which would be like the preserves. Which is why the term “preservation” comes into play.
TP: That’s a very interesting metaphor.
MARSALIS: But that’s basically what it is. And any student has to develop an understanding of what a solo really is. Solos are not unlike a novel — or a short story. You have a beginning, you have a developmental section; you have a point or a peak; and then ultimately you have a climax or an ending. Solos are like that.
TP: To what extent do you give students vocabulary from other players as part of their repertoire? A process a lot of people do, maybe you did this yourself with Oscar Peterson or Bud Powell, is the imitation of solos and an understanding of how master artists organized vocabulary in different periods. Is that important to your curriculum and pedagogy?
MARSALIS: Yes, but I don’t like to academize it. See, students spend so much time with academic descriptions of things, until they begin to try to put everything in that category, and they begin to lose the ability to hear certain subtleties. I mean, it’s bad enough you’re listening to a recording, which can sometimes take the essence away from what was going on. It reminds of something I read that Earl “Fatha” Hines said. Somebody was talking about the recordings of Art Tatum, and Fatha Hines said, “Man, forget the recordings thing; you’ve got to have been there!” That’s a whole other level of experience in that music. Students have to learn, the ones who are really going to pursue it, that the concept of a solo is in the development of it, and the more references that you have to draw from, the better possibilities you have of a solo.
TP: To extrapolate on that Fatha Hines quote, “You have to have been there,” it’s becoming increasingly hard for younger musicians to be there in terms of at least of expressing the older vocabulary as expressed by the people who created that vocabulary. Is there any contradiction in there?
MARSALIS: How could it be a contradiction?
TP: It could be a contradiction, because if someone is dealing with getting the sound of Jelly Roll Morton together, such as Eric Reed, who dealt with it functionally in the LCJO, he wasn’t there to witness it, but he dealt with it in a real-time situation. One thing that’s often noted by younger musicians is at once the increasing options of vocabulary available to them and the increasing distance from the people who created that vocabulary.
MARSALIS: I know what you’re saying. Well, the point is this. There again, I use metaphors in athletics. The same could be said of Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson. Those who were there when Magic was doing what he was doing, got the experience that those who were not there didn’t get. Now, it doesn’t mean that those who were watching Kobe Bryant cannot appreciate the game, the style of play, which essentially was a part of the same thing that Magic was doing. But I think what happens with music is that it becomes so academic. When I say “academic,” it becomes like the analyzation of a solo in which somebody starts talking about the technical parts of it, and the scale, and how he used this scale and that scale and another scale — and that’s not what the person who was doing the solo was thinking about at all. I’ve also used as a metaphor that it would be like if somebody asked a student to do a book report, and when they got ready to do the book report, they’d stand up and say, “Well, the person who wrote the book led off with two prepositions, three nouns, two adjectives, followed by a period,” and go through that whole thing. Now, if you want to analyze the sentence structure, that may be true. But I doubt very seriously if that’s what the person who wrote the story was thinking about. And it’s a similar kind of thing with music.
So when Fatha Hines said that you had to have been there, I mean, that’s one of those things that sort of vibrated sympathy. Obviously, he couldn’t have been where Tatum was, but it expressed something that makes you realize that whatever analysis you apply to this music is inadequate in terms of what actually was going down.
TP: How important is it for students to know about the milieu in which the music was going down?
MARSALIS: It’s important totally. There again, it’s the same thing with athletics. I mean, the average kid, when he comes into the NBA today, he knows about the City Game! They know about the City Game. Kareem knew about the city game. All of them!
TP: Well, Kareem was part of the City Game!
MARSALIS: So what I’m saying essentially is that what a lot of students don’t get, in some cases, is the academic complement. I think if you can get an academic complement, so that the experience becomes total…
TP: But the way I mean the question is: Is it important for a kid who is marching in brass bands and is then going on to further musical education to understand, let’s say, the historical origins of brass bands, how marching bands might relate even to customs in Africa, as you once described on a radio show we did. Is that sort of well-rounded knowledge essential to a contemporary aspiring jazz musician?
MARSALIS: Yeah. I was listening to one of those guys in a brass band doing an interview. And one of the first things he said when a young guy came into the band… He said, “The first thing you’ve got to understand is that this is part of a tradition, but when you come here, you don’t come here with no strange attitude.” And he wasn’t talking about music to him. What he was talking about are those things that are peripheral, those things that put some meaning into that.
I remember Wynton made a statement to me one time, and he was waiting for me to rebut him. He started talking about bebop. He said, “man, bebop brought a negative element into the music.” And I said, “Yeah, you’re right. It did.” And that’s a generation that I was a part of. And the reason why that occurred had as much to do with the recording industry as it did with anything else. Because in the recording industry, technology advanced to a point where people could begin to play longer and longer and longer. When you go back and listen to Charlie Parker…
TP: Three minutes.
MARSALIS: Well, maybe five.
TP: He has the famous quote, “If you can’t say all you have to say in two choruses, you’re practicing.”
MARSALIS: That’s right. So essentially, what happened is that another negative element… Well, actually, I don’t necessarily consider that a negative element. When they started to emphasize the whole drug scene. Well, that has to do with something else. I mean, whoever controls the press decides what’s going to get in it. And if anybody was paying attention, the amount of jazz musicians interested in drugs wouldn’t even register 0.000-whatever. So that element I didn’t consider.
TP: I think in bebop it was a pretty consequential element. I’ve been doing articles on people like Jimmy Heath, who had that experience. I spoke to Frank Wess on Friday for a piece, and he said one reason music today is better than it was then is that the musicians then dissipated themselves in an almost commonplace manner, and today that isn’t the case. I think that’s a fact about at least a lot of the musicians of the time, for better or for worse.
MARSALIS: Well, it’s not so much that that’s not a true statement. But I don’t know that that could be proven. I’ll tell you the reason why I say that. First of all, there are peripheral factors involved. When I say “peripheral,” let’s take, for example, the first fifty years, from 1900 to about 1950-ish. The total economy of the jazz musician was gangsters. There was no other economy. Now, that managed to produce a lot of fantastic players in spite of the fact that that was the situation.
Now, as great as some of the young players are today, the democratic process that goes on with the schools teaching jazz and some clubs coming along, and… Like where I work. It’s a nice club! The situation is conducive now to make jazz a respectable area to function in. In reality, it has lost a lot of its individuality as a result of that. Because when you mainstream something… Everything has a good and bad side.
TP: It’s a dialectic.
MARSALIS: Right. But when you go back and you start listening to all them tenor players, man, from Chu Berry on, and people who were lesser lights, like Eddie Lockjaw Davis, and…
TP: To some, he is not a lesser light.
MARSALIS: Well, when I say “lesser light”…
TP: I know what you mean.
MARSALIS: Believe me, man, Jaws was a personal friend of mine. I loved Jaws and I worked with Jaws. I listened to Jaws play some introductions, man, on his own… [LAUGHS]
TP: I’ve heard people from every sphere of music talk of him, like how did he get those sounds with the fingerings he used?
MARSALIS: The only reason why I said “lesser light” is because Lockjaw Davis never forgot that he was in show business. He could never have been a John Coltrane attitude-wise. He was never that. So that level of dedication was not going to be there. And it was the same thing like a Charlie Parker, who spent an enormous amount of time practicing, trying to figure all of this stuff out. Jaws was a product of the times! He was going to be representative among the players who was there. He was the straw boss of Basie until he couldn’t… He and Basie philosophically fell out. But what I’m saying was by no means saying a lesser light…
But when iet comes down to it, when you listen to these kids, you hear them and you say, “Oh, man…” My youngest son, Jason, is very responsible for some of these younger kids, and he’s almost like a senior to some of them. The reason why is because Jason has learned the importance of researching the older guys, so he can tell a young drummer about Dodds! About Baby Dodds! See, he’s already researched that. He can also tell them about, “Look, when you’re getting ready to present a solo, this is what you do.” He did a session just recently with Curtis Fuller, who was in New Orleans during Jazzfest. When Curtis got ready to play a ballad, the producer was saying, “Look, this is just with piano, bass and trombone.” And Jason immediately knew what the problem was. He didn’t say nothing. So when they started playing, Jason got behind the drums and started sweeping. So this guy said, “Yeah, man, that’s hip. Not too many young guys can even play brushes at all.” But see, he knows that. And he knows about people not knowing the technique of playing brushes. And he also understands when it started, and the whole ball of wax.
So I’m saying all of that to say that it is necessary that young kids understand and learn all of these things, because otherwise it becomes kind of like a guitar player, a kid who came to NOCCA when I was teaching there. He was a senior, and usually we didn’t take seniors, because it was too late. I said, “Look I’ll take you, and whatever I can do for you in a year, I’ll do. Play the electric guitar.” I put some records on to let him hear that. I put George Benson on, and the recording George Benson made of “Paraphernalia” with Miles. When the record was over, I said, “Well, what did you think?” He looked real bewildered. He said, “I don’t know, man. All I ever thought there was to Benson was ‘Breezing.'” So consequently, what you get is a bunch of kids who just don’t know! Because there’s been nobody there to say, “Hey, man, if you’re playing tenor saxophone…”