AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
Ellis Marsalis (7-01-02):
TP: Virginia Commonwealth was your first university position?
TP: What was the situation when you arrived there, and what did you do?
MARSALIS: There’s different layers to that. First of all, there’s the idea of moving to another state at that time in my life, and a lot of pressures that it brought on my wife. That’s one situation. Then not only was it beginning a job, but a university job in a program that was rather young. They had a jazz program when I got there, but it was not totally defined in any strict way. The band director, Doug Richards, was probably the best jazz band director that I had ever seen; he could really get a tremendous amount out of a jazz band. But there wasn’t anybody there who really wanted to actually head a program. In other words, we had a whole lot of soldiers and no real chiefs. The faculty was a very able faculty across the board. There were 44 people on that faculty, most of whom were in classical music, but it was not an antagonistic situation. So there were things I had to get used to.
But it’s one of those things that the more I did it, the more I found out that it wasn’t that much different than teaching at NOCCA. The reason for that is that when you teach in a typical high school, there’s an adversarial situation between the administration, the teachers, and the students which is built in. And the laws of any given state do not permit you to treat the students as really the way they are. They’re really like young adults who have intelligent. But the various state laws don’t permit you to function with them like that.
TP: As young adults.
MARSALIS: Right. So teaching in the average high school, they have virtually no real responsibility that’s allowed. All the classes are like herds. you go in one herd to Class A, and then to the math class, and then to the history class, and then at some point you go home.
Now, at the university, there’s a lot less pressure from that end, because the students decide what they take and what they don’t take. So it creates a different kind of pressure, if you will. Because students who go into high school are going mostly because they either need it as a means to get somewhere else or because it’s mandated by the state after a certain age. At the university, when a student chooses to go to a university, they do so because they think that it’s going to affect their lives in some way. So the way that we taught at NOCCA, it was very much like a college, even though it wasn’t a college, because the students that we would retain were students who had shown a determination towards performance at a professional level.
TP: Did they tend to sort themselves out? How did you ascertain that they were ready for that?
MARSALIS: Well, it isn’t a case of them being ready for it at all. It’s a case of them making a decision based upon what was asked of them, whether or not they wanted to pursue that particular discipline as a career. There were five disciplines at this school. Then what they had to do was to look at it and make that decision. And encouragement for professionalism was always there. At the average high school, band directors would never tell students in the band that they could be professionals, unless that person was a pro himself and would sort of pick somebody and put him in a group with them and say, “Look, if you want to, you could probably do this.” Because in most cases, teachers who teach in high schools… I remember something that the chairman of the music department told me at Virginia Commonwealth, which I really thought was tacky. He said, “Most of the people on this faculty are failures.” I said, “What do you mean, they’re failures?” He said, “Well, they really want to do what you do, but they don’t really have it, so they teach instead.” I said, “Damn, man, that’s a little bit jive.”
TP: I’ve heard a lot of musicians say, for instance, who went to Berklee, that they were taught by someone who couldn’t play, etc.
MARSALIS: Well, a lot of times, people are hired on that basis. The reason for the preponderance of an emphasis on certification by way of academic credentials is that it creates the means by which people can hire someone, and as a result, blame it on somebody else if it doesn’t work out. Because if you have a Ph.D and whatever, that’s the justification to pay you X amount of dollars and give you certain… I think my wife was telling me, or somebody, that the corporations are beginning to look differently at MBAs, saying an MBA is nothing, that hiring people on the basis of that is not the thing to do. The school system here just got rid of the second superintendent in a row, and it’s decided that the procedure they’re going to go through is not to go and look for some superstar somewhere, but to actually go within the university community to see if they can get someone to be the superintendent of the public schools in the city that they function.
TP: So someone who knows New Orleans to deal with the New Orleans schools.
MARSALIS: Well, that could be what their mindset is, but believe me, nothing could be further from the truth. Like I said before, man, there’s a lot of things about the law which nobody really deals with, which just doesn’t permit you to do certain things in the schools. And the kids know the law.
TP: I’m getting away from the college, and I want get back to it. But it seems the subtext to what you’re saying about what you were able to accomplish at NOCCA is that you were able to do it precisely because it was a magnet school.
MARSALIS: Precisely. It was a magnet school, and we had a principal who came from the theater as a background [Tom Tews]. Consequently, his philosophy was, it’s much easier to get forgiveness than permission. So we would do a lot of things that were good for the students, and if necessary, tell the school board people later.
TP: I think I’m restating we talked about last week, but you developed a lot of your ideas about what was good for the students through your experience as a working jazz musician and an improviser.
TP: I had asked you to boil down your educational philosophy as though I were an arts administrator, and you said, “Learn the fundamentals of melody, harmony and rhythm, and do it through drill.” Can you boil down what it was you learned as a professional jazz musician and improviser that gave you the sense of what your students needed to know?
MARSALIS: I think I discovered the relationship between the Blues and the American Canon, the music canon, and how it related to… How can I put this? Learning how to play Blues became like learning arithmetic. Before you can get to algebra, calculus and trigonometry, you must have mastered the fundamentals of arithmetic. The Blues is like arithmetic. It’s the simplest approach to learning improvisation. And that’s one of the things I learned about Blues.
TP: And why is it the simplest approach to learning about improvisation?
MARSALIS: Because you don’t have a lot to deal with. Like, 12 measures is equivalent to one chorus. It’s a repetitive situation, chorus after chorus after chorus. And the students can be given relatively few notes. I would write out 12 measures of chords that would turn out, when played, to be a blues. I was doing two or three different things at the same time. One, I was presenting them with a visible manifestation of the form of blues in one chorus. Two, I was using chord symbols to represent in a vertical manner the sounds that they were going to deal with in a linear manner. See, after a while, this thing gets to be complex. The next thing is getting them to a point where they could deal with music that’s in motion. When you start to play and you count off the Blues, they begin to understand that you have to be at Measure 1-2-3-4, in a certain time frame, so you become sensitized to the flow of the rhythm.
TP: Of the knowledge you had accumulated up to this time, what percentage of it was vernacular and functional, and what percentage of it came from your academic training?
MARSALIS: None of it came from my academic training to speak of. First of all, I did not go to a music school. The university that I went to had an ample music department, which was sort of typical. It was sort of like, “Okay, this is a university, we need to have music, so we’ll just put something there.
TP: Didn’t Dillard have a very good art department in the ’30s and ’40s?
MARSALIS: Well, in the ’30s and the ’40s, there were people there who had the beginnings of what could have evolved into a great music program — or a great anything. See, when you start to talk about the ’30s and the ’40s, you’re talking about a completely different America. What happened after the Second World War had a tremendous amount of effect on shaping what we’re going through right now. I don’t care if you want to talk about Enron and WorldCom and them, or whether you want to talk about those young guys who’s out there playing a million notes a second in the name of Jazz, or the rappers who, when all else fails, curse. It doesn’t matter. What happened at the end of the Second World War set the stage for the American culture that we see today. Now, what was going on before that was the beginning of something that sort of was just left behind.
TP: What sort of things?
MARSALIS: There were things that were common among universities. For example, at one time, university presidents could help shape public policy. Nowadays, university presidents are about fundraising. Then, we’re talking about a predominantly black university, and there were several of those, and they were producing very good students. For example, Tuskegee had George Washington Carver, who was doing miracles with the soil in Alabama and actually created crop rotation. People like Charles (?), who at Howard helped to develop plasma, which saved the lives of a whole lot of guys in the Second World War.
What I’m saying is that the seeds that were planted during those days could have evolved in a lot of different directions. Now, it’s for another generation at another time to go back and begin to ford all of that stuff out. It’s sort of like looking at why the Roman Empire collapsed.
Anyway, in reference to what you were talking about as far as college is concerned, one of the first revelations that I had after I got there… I ended up meeting with the Chairman, and the Chairman said, “I was just looking over the applications that came in for the Fall, and I don’t see any jazz students’ names on these applications. So what are you going to do about that?”
Well, that was a shock to me. Because I had never been in a situation where I was under the gun for the RR — Recruitment and Retention. See, that’s one of the things that you have to face when you’re going into a university — Recruitment and Retention. Then I was forced to begin to say, “Now, who actually is the jazz student?” We would take the big band and go straight up I-95 in Virginia, and go to these different towns and these different high schools, and we’d leave there and go up into Maryland, where the high school similar to NOCCA, the arts high school… Antonio Hart came from one of them. Then we’d leave there, and go on up to Philly, and go into that high school where Chris McBride and Joey DeFrancesco, some of them came from.
But eventually, what I started to realize was that most of the students we ran into, especially the trombone players, the good straight-up musicians, not necessarily people who were well-versed in jazz, but the good musicians — they were all talking engineering. And the ones with the 1400s on the SAT, none of them were talking about going into the music. And it wasn’t that I blamed them! It’s just that I had never really thought about jazz studies. Because in a high school, like at NOCCA, we were there for students to explore the possibilities of a career in one of five disciplines, whereas once you get to college, the students who come to a college are there to make decisions that will affect, if not the rest of their lives, at least a sizable chunk of them. And whether it does or doesn’t, the motivation for going to a university is based on, “Hey, I’m trying to make a decision that’s going to help me to get a job here, doing this or that.” Jazz was not viewed as economically viable in terms of university students, period. Now, there’s always exceptions. But you can’t run a program off of exceptions. That’s one of the things I learned real quick.
TP: Well, Chris McBride and Joey DeFrancesco went right into the fray. They didn’t go to college, or at least not into that sort of program.
MARSALIS: That’s right. Well, those are exceptions. That’s why I said I wasn’t talking about exceptions. There are people who do that now. There are even people, man, who are leaving high school and going into the pros. In fact, they’re not the first ones anyhow. Moses Malone did that. I think essentially, if you can stay, that does… Because even if you go all the way through college, that doesn’t mean you’re going to stay.
TP: That’s right. You can go backwards in college.
MARSALIS: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
TP: So you were faced for the first time with having to recruit a band. It brought your job description to a different plane than it had been before.
MARSALIS: Yeah, I had go to out and try to find some students.
TP: And I guess in competition with other programs, too. You had to be like a coach.
MARSALIS: Well, you’re always in competition with other programs. Everybody is. With the exception of whatever those programs are that just automatically get a huge body of people that they just have to say, “Well, we don’t want any more.” I don’t know if Engineering is like that. It may not be. I was talking to a friend of mine who knows a professor at UCLA who teaches composition. I had one lesson with this guy. I forgot his name, but anyway, he was telling him that at one time, of his composition students at UCLA, he would get maybe 4 or 5 or 6 who were interested in film scoring. See, all of them are now. Every single one of them. And when you think in terms of what has been happening lately, there is much more of a pronounced emphasis on John Williams, on Howard (?), on even one or two of the Newman family, of which there’s been an abundance in the film scoring world! So television and movies play an important role in the decisions that people are making, and I think ultimately, the universities haven’t really figured out some of that. I’m sure some institutions have. But when it comes down to it… I was reading where Harvard University had a course called (?) that they just got rid of, because there wasn’t anybody taking it. One of the things that was an assist when I got to UNO is that there were a lot of courses which had been approved through committee, and there was nobody teaching it. So those numbers were there, and see, a lot of times, man, if you know what they are, you can go and take the number and develop a course without having to go totally through committee. Because going through committee can sometimes be a hassle.
TP: So you’d do an end run.
MARSALIS: It’s kind of like an end run, yeah.
TP: But at VCU, a number of musicians went through who are making an impact now.
MARSALIS: Well, there’s only three that I know. Clarence Penn, Alvester Garnett and Loston Harris.
Victor was teaching math in high school in New Orleans. He’d been in my group. I used to tell him, “Vic, if you really want to teach, I don’t see anything wrong with that, but to me it doesn’t make any sense to be teaching at these schools. You ain’t got no benefits, man. They could fire you tomorrow! And you have no recourse whatsoever. So if you really want to teach, you ought to teach in public school. At least you’ll get some benefits!” And when I left to come to VCU, he told me he’d thought about that, and he said, “Man, look, I don’t want to be sorry one day looking back and saying ‘I should have.'” So he split and came up there to work on his Masters. He really did it in a year, but they wouldn’t let him finish in a year. They made him come back and register for a recital. Eventually, he started to utilize his saxophone skills in different ways. He went up to New York and was doing sub work in some of the Broadway type shows. I think at that time “Ain’t Misbehavin'” was running and a couple of other ones. I remember he told me that when he went up to New York, somebody up there was talking to him at an audition, and the guy said, “Hey, man, do you know how to read?” And he said at first he got insulted! “Man, what is this?” He said after he was around New York for a while, he found out why he was asked that. [LAUGHS] A lot of the musicians up there couldn’t read!
TP: What would you say you brought to the faculty at VCU that hadn’t been there before? Did you bring a new attitude, a new way of teaching?
MARSALIS: I don’t think so. Because I wasn’t there long enough.
TP: Three years, right?
MARSALIS: I was there for three years. And I’m not sure to what extent that would have been a possibility to do. Because I came in without the benefit of the kind of experience… Just to give you an example, there’s a guy at Virginia Commonwealth, a trombone player named Tony Garcia. He edits the “Jazz Educational Journal,” which is the official organ of IAJE. He sent me an email and asked me if I would be able to come up as part of a program that they are doing, and he outlined some of the things that he was able to do. This is over the period of one year. It’s fantastic. Because what this guy was able to do is nothing short of miraculous. Well, for one thing, he was instrumental in getting somebody (I don’t know the guy personally) to give 2 million bucks to the jazz program at VCU. No jazz program has ever gotten that kind of money. Not in a state institution. I was the recipient of a million dollar chair. But when it came down to it, nothing like that. What it takes to be able to do that is the kind of press-the-flesh…
TP: You need to have very solid political skills to pull off something like that.
MARSALIS: That’s right. There’s just an awful lot of things, man, that he was able to hook up.
TP: The question has more to do with philosophy: Looking back, what would you have done that you didn’t?
MARSALIS: One of the first things that I realized about Virginia Commonwealth was that being in Richmond meant… There was no music tradition in Richmond. There was one little small space — I never went to that space — where some of the guys would play. There was another space that was like a restaurant, but it was bigger. And every now and then, they would bring somebody in. But for the most part, the benefits of being in a city that had a history of music, where students who were coming out of high school as well as those who were coming out of the city of Richmond to go to VCU, would have been able either to participate in or just be a spectator of.
When I go to work on Friday nights at Snug Harbor, there’s a live band that’s playing right across the street. On the corner from there, there’s a place Cafe Brazil, with live music. Across the street from Cafe Brazil, there’s live music. Now, we’re not even talking about what might be happening on Bourbon Street. Then there’s all of these other different places in the area. On North Rampart Street, there’s three spaces within two blocks of each other, one called Funky Butt, the other one called Donna’s Bar & Grill, which specializes in brass bands, and then a blues joint which the owner of Funky Butt owns.\
Richmond didn’t have that. So when I looked at that, I started to realize that getting some people to come to Richmond, especially during the ’80s, to study Jazz, was seemingly very difficult. So I decided that if I was going to stay here, I needed to find a niche, something I can, which would really not only justify being here, but make it a positive musical experience for most of the students. So I was thinking of concentrating on developing rhythm sections — the piano, bass and drums. That would mean getting people to come here and trying to specialize in that area.
TP: Thus Clarence Penn and Alvester Garnett.
MARSALIS: Right. Now, Alvester I met while he was still in high school. He came to VCU the following year. So I was there I think a year while he was there.
TP: I want to step back to your comments about what happened after World War II. Is what you’re saying, in one sense, that the focus on core curricular values started to deteriorate at this time and it had a deleterious effect on the culture? You made a very strong statement. The tone of voice is strong. The words are strong. It seems what happened is an important issue to you.
MARSALIS: I need to be more speculative here than direct, because it’s very difficult to be as close to that and be accurate historically. What I’m beginning to realize is that we tend to be judgmental about things which are different from the way we grew up.
Anyway, the thing that happened after World War Two was television, for one thing. And for the first time, here we have an invention which goes right into people’s homes, and within five years, which would put it right around 1950, there were about 10 million sets in the country. Now, what television managed to do was twofold, at least. One was to instantly let you know whatever was going on in almost any other part of the world that the networks chose to broadcast. Unlike, for example, “War Of The Worlds” on the radio with Orson Welles in 1939. I mean, there were people out there in fields in the Midwest with guns waiting to go to war with the Martians. And America, before World War Two, was not that much different, even going back to the past century. I mean, there just was not that much of a difference in terms of the way the country was going on. But as soon as World War Two came in, things like plastics were invented… I wish I knew all of them different inventions. I remember we got our very first refrigerator in 1941. Before that, it was the icebox.
TP: In New Orleans, that was an important thing.
MARSALIS: Well, it was an important thing everywhere. Because what it meant was that you could now keep food one or two days longer than you could otherwise. So many things started to happen.
I think what happened with jazz is that jazz moved closer toward the musical objectives that have been prevalent primarily in European Classical Music. What I mean is this. During the time of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver and Kid Ory, all of these earlier guys, they played music for the sheer entertainment of people. They played dances, and when they played the blues, it was for people to dance to. They had cutting contests, but the cutting contest was music played at the level of the audience themselves. For example, what they would do, they would have these flatbed trucks, and two bands would come. [The ballyhoo.] Whoever won that one, that’s where the people would go to dance. By the time World War Two came (and I’m using World War Two more as a marker than the cause of anything), you had musicians coming out of the Swing Era with the dance bands, like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and various people… The top level of people was one thing, but then there were all of the disciples, if you will, like Sonny Stitt and various other people. So the emphasis started to be placed on the soloist. The elements of the music carried over was related directly to the band.
TP: Max Roach used to say that had something to do with the tax the Federal government started putting on dance…
MARSALIS: I know what you’re talking about. That was in Dizzy’s book. During the war, the government put a war tax of 10% on all venues that had a show. Now, shows could be anything from juggling to dancing girls… For example, the Cotton Club, where Duke played. Now, I don’t think the Cotton Club uptown was going on during the war years, because Owney Madden had gone to jail by then. But anyway, 52nd Street had a lot of these little bitty clubs, and they would put a combo in there. So with the combo, not having a show, the guys, especially the soldiers and sailors passing through… Ultimately, what you begin to get were bands that played for people who were sitting around the bar.
TP: Minton’s wasn’t unlike that either.
MARSALIS: Actually, Minton’s looked like a toilet almost. There wasn’t nothing happening when I went to Minton’s in the ’50s. It was in August and there were some bands there, but it was just a big old space. I think there was a piano in there. But it was like a lot of joints I’d seen in New Orleans.
Anyway, most of those places were like hustles. That’s what I called them. A hustle is when a guy opens up a club, because he either likes people or he’s fortunate to have someone leave him a piece of property, or whatever, and you didn’t really need anything other than connections to get a license and sell some booze. Because at that time, I don’t know if anybody was dealing with food in these places anyway! But Prohibition had gone by the wayside by 1933, when Roosevelt came in, so you’re looking at the development of the urban community on all fronts. At the end of the war, you start to see the suburban community come into effect. They’re building all of these post World War II houses in these little towns, and selling it, and the veterans is coming back, man, $500 to get you a house… [LAUGHS]
All of this played out in terms of signalling exactly what was going to be happening in America, and the music was no different. Monk came out of the dance bands, too. But when Monk started to play Monk, Monk was expressing Monk via his musicality and his intellect.
TP: [rambling question on the way Monk, Bird, Powell were educated vis-a-vis contemporary musicians]
MARSALIS: You’re looking in terms of trying to get an analogy between they learned and the way musicians learn today. For one thing, it’s hard to really nail it down. For example, on the back of a vinyl album, Willie The Lion Smith made the statement that a lot of people don’t understand how important it is to develop the left hand through learning the music of J.S. Bach. James P. Johnson was very good classically; he was accompanist for a soprano at that time named Sister Rita Jones. Fats Waller was one heck of an organist. So there had been all along people studying and learning European music. Except as we get later and later into the century, we begin to find that schools primarily utilize European music as a discipline criteria to reinforce the attitudes, in some cases cultural, in some cases blatantly racist, and exclude anything else than European concert music in terms of teaching — you develop orchestra, choruses, choirs. Everything you do centers around practicing and playing European concert music.
So jazz and any folkish music was on the outside. The bluegrass players were like fiddlers. Some of them used to have a joke that said, “He was a great fiddle player, but he went to college and learned to become a violinist.” So the folk music aspect was kind of forsaken. And jazz really was a folk music. But the difference between jazz and other types of folk music was that jazz became grist for the mill of composers, even Ravel. I think we are now beginning to get some composers looking at bluegrass. Copland did to an extent, but it was all surface with Copland — “Billy The Kid” or “Appalachian Spring” you can hear that influence slightly. But jazz sort of became a more formal statement of Americana through the development of the instrumentalist. And when I say “the development,” what I mean is that the process of improvisation was something that was an intellectual development, and it occurred over a period of time with a considerable amount of musicians honing in on it, and it became separate from dance music. Lester Young came to maturity with a lot of the stuff that he did in the Basie band, which was a dance band. Woody’s band was a dance band. Stan Kenton’s band was a dance band. All of those bands were dance bands. So the soloists had kind of a minor role. In the early days, Billie Holiday used to complain about the fact that she had to go up there and sing just half-a-chorus and go back and sit down. All the rest of those bands, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Bob Eberle…
TP: Jimmie Lunceford.
MARSALIS: Definitely. Lunceford was a straight-up show band. What I’m saying is that basically the bands were really like dance bands. Sometimes in colleges they would refer to them as “swing bands.” When I was in high school they had what they called a swing band. You could go buy arrangements. There would be stuff like “9:20 Special” or you could get the stuff that Harry James was doing. You couldn’t get no Duke Ellington, but you might get an arrangement somebody made for a standard band of something that Duke did. But for the most part, that’s the way it turned out to be.
TP: One thing a lot of people who passed through the bands note is that they themselves were a training school, like a functional conservatory, in terms of standards upheld and information being passed on.
MARSALIS: In some cases you would find that. But for the most part, there were several differences just in terms of who was doing what. For example, jazz had always been a music that you either already had to know how to play, or you had to have a significant skill on the instrument in order to get it, and you just about learned everything on the job, because there wasn’t any place else for you to get it. And there were a lot of kids learning because their daddy was a player or some other relative. I saw that among musicians in New Orleans who were younger than me. Clyde Kerr. The French brothers, Bob French and George French, the sons of Albert French, who played with Papa Celestin. Sammy Alcorn, whose daddy, Alvin Alcorn, was a trumpet player. But invariably, it was always second-class.
TP: Jazz was second-class.
MARSALIS: Yes. It wasn’t like nowadays. When I read the stuff that was done at Lincoln Center, they have status with the other aspects of Lincoln Center now. There’s a big building going up, which they have a part of. We’re speaking about a whole different thing.
TP: It occurs to me when you say that many of the principles you espouse or the way you teach, in terms of how they got filtered through Wynton, are very much responsible for why Lincoln Center is in the position that it’s in, or what Victor Goines is doing at Juilliard. So again, what your first principles are would seem to be very significant in the intellectual history of jazz at this moment because of the way they’ve been transmitted and filtered through other people. Maybe you think I’m wrong or overexaggerating, but I don’t think so. When I hear him speak and hear you speak, I hear a lot of similar thought processes. His own mind, certainly, but similar thought processes, similar metaphors. This piece is about you as an educator, but I’m trying to pinpoint what it is about your first principles, the principles you bring to conveying information and the way you’re able to do it that has stuck. The proof is very much in the pudding here. We have these facts, these institutions. This is a tangible change from 1987. And in 1987, when the Lincoln Center Jazz program started happening, it was a very tangible change from 1974.
MARSALIS: I think that the whole process is somewhat like America as a nation. We’re still in the process of evolution. We’re still evolving. And I think the same thing is the case for the music. I think if you would look at the formal aspects of European music, for example, at some point there was a peak which was reached by way of the composer. And, to some extent, not only by the composer, but the performer. I mean, Beethoven never heard his music on a Hamburg Steinway. He would have no idea what that sounded like! But it didn’t prevent him from writing the kind of music that makes stars out of people who do play on Hamburg Steinways.
So what we’re looking at is a multifaceted kind of thing. The guy who invented the saxophone, his invention was too late for the European Masters, as they called them. And the Rhapsody that Debussy wrote… He didn’t even like the saxophone. Some woman gave him a check for about $500 for a piece, and he delayed as long as he could, and the woman aggravated him to a point to where he finally wrote this rhapsody for saxophone. Now, there were other French composers who probably didn’t feel the same way about the saxophone. Probably Ravel, because he wrote saxophone into “Bolero” which played a rather prominent part. But the thing is, you can’t overlook that also.
So whatever it is that I managed to do didn’t really come by way of a philosophy. Mostly it came by way of a reaction.
TP: The music and the circumstances were telling you what to do at any given moment, and you were responding.
MARSALIS: Yes. And I would begin to do, I imagine, since I haven’t really studied, something similar to what Thomas Edison was doing. I heard a story that his assistant said they had done about 150-200 experiments, and none of the lightbulbs worked. Finally he said, “Man, we ought to give up on this, because this thing ain’t workin’! We ain’t makin’ no progress at all.” And Edison supposedly said, “On the contrary, we know 150 ways that do not work.” We don’t always think in terms of going to what doesn’t work. That was one of the things that I started to learn. For example, I remember one of my colleagues who was teaching instrumental music, he said, “Man, these kids need to learn 25 tunes a semester.” Well, what are they going to play on those 25 tunes? Because his expertise in terms of improvisation was really not that strong. So he didn’t understand that you do practice improvisation, that you do actually do that. But basically, I didn’t have a philosophy per se.
TP: But you had first principles.
MARSALIS: What do you mean?
TP: You had a set of aesthetic values that governed your responses to these situations, and you had a culture and a milieu from which you emerged to face these situations.
MARSALIS: Right. That’s true.
TP: This is all I’m saying, and it’s one reason why I’m so interesting in hearing you address the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, and how you perceive those times vis-a-vis today.
MARSALIS: Essentially, the situation in the ’40s and a large portion of the ’50s was based on the entertainment side of music. So jazz did not enjoy an acceptance in any academic sense. And it’s not that people didn’t study. I think I told you about this book that’s coming out on Yvonne Bush. People went to school, and they studied, and the better teachers you had, probably you were most fortunate to have learned whatever you learned. But when it came down to it, how to apply it was sometimes tied directly to employment opportunity. I remember listening to stories… See, I had a chance to work with Cab Calloway. I also had a chance to work with the Judge, Milt Hinton, and I knew Dizzy also. The Judge would tell me how, during the break between shows somewhere they were playing, Dizzy would say, “Come up on the roof, man,” and he and Dizzy would get together on the stuff Dizzy was working on, and he’d tell him what to play. Cab told me how… This is a little ancillary story. They were doing a live broadcast for NBC Radio, and while they were going through the broadcast, Cab got hit in the back of the head with a spitball…
TP: And it wasn’t Dizzy.
MARSALIS: No, it wasn’t.
TP: It might have been Jonah Jones.
MARSALIS: It was.
TP: Then they had the knife fight…
MARSALIS: Yeah. Then Dizzy stuck him in the rear with the knife. But Cab told me, “Man, the next time I saw Dizzy, Dizzy came through with this arrangement, man, and said, ‘I’m going to try this arrangement; listen to this.'” So they played it, and Cab said, ‘Man, what is that?'” Dizzy said, “Man, this is the new stuff; this is what’s happening.” There were all of these people, like Gil Fuller, who was doing some of the writing, and Tadd Dameron. To some extent, some of these people were also teachers. For example, John Lewis was a teacher at CCNY. I think Ron, too.
See, I have several ideas that I have yet to be able to implement. First of all, I think that the drumset is the most important instrument in the jazz band. That’s the first thing. I’ll tell you an example. I was doing a workshop in North Carolina with the jazz band at a university called Shaw. It was a pretty good sounding band. So after they finished playing, I asked the guys in the band, “Can you guys hear the drummer?” See, a lot of times what happens, nobody takes the time to find out whether or not some of these people in the band can really hear from one end to the next, and unless they’re experienced players, they don’t know to tell the band instructor, “Hey, man, I can’t really hear what this guy is doing over there.” So I asked them, could they hear the drummer, and they said, “Yeah, we can hear.” So I said, “Let me ask you something. When you listen to the drummer, tell me what you hear.” Do you hear [SOFT ARTICULATED BEATS] or do you hear [UNDIFFERENTIATED BUZZ]?” They said, “Yeah, that’s what we hear [LATTER].”
So I knew what was wrong with that. And these were all very serious players. I’ve done some workshops where guys come in with marching band sticks broke in half, no tips, paper on them. They’re not even serious. So I asked the drummer, “Hey, man, what size sticks are you using?” He said, “I’m using 7A.” He said, “Well, 7A, man, is a combo stick. If you’re going to play and kick and a big band, you need at least a 5A, and if you’re going to play with a 5A, when you practice, you need to practice with a 3A, so that you build up to that.” See, these are some things that I found out later on.
TP: Very practical. To help them succeed.
MARSALIS: Oh yeah.
TP: So you take for granted that they are going to have the fundamentals down through drill. It’s as though the process of learning music is like learning a trade or an artisanal skill, and then it becomes art through all the permutations to which those skills are applied.
MARSALIS: Well, you can get into a lot of trouble, man, trying to figure out at what point it becomes art. That becomes a lot more philosophical than it does realistic. I mean, I listen to cats talk about “the art of hip-hop.”
TP: But I’m talking about the art of Charlie Parker.
MARSALIS: Yeah, I know. But, see, that’s where the argument comes from. Who gets the right to use that word?
TP: The word “art.” Do I have the right to use it.
MARSALIS: Well, everybody has the right to use it.
TP: But you know what I’m saying.
MARSALIS: Yeah. But it at some point it may become art, and it may not. See, that’s the thing. We don’t really know to what extent it will or won’t become art.
TP: But you’re not concerned about that when you’re teaching, then.
MARSALIS: No. See, what I’m concerned about is whether these guys can put one foot in front of the other. Because it becomes very difficult to start dealing with philosophy. I think I might have told the story about the guitar player who was doing… When you get students like that, they have not had enough experience dealing with anything of a philosophical nature to start trying to preach “art” in that sense. In most cases, you get to be lucky if they can play their instrument. And if they can play their instrument, we just go from there.
TP: Let me take you to University of New Orleans, so I have the chronology. You stayed at VCU for three years, and then for a variety of reasons, I’m sure, you move back to New Orleans.
MARSALIS: Well, for one reason. The chancellor came and he made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse.
TP: But I guess he didn’t have to hold a gun to your head to get you back to New Orleans.
MARSALIS: Oh, no! I still thought that New Orleans was the best place to develop a jazz program. I think that New Orleans today is still the best learning town in the world!
TP: Why is that?
MARSALIS: Because of the various places that exist to ply your trade, to practice. There are so many different spaces here to play in, so many different kinds of places. You could play a brass band, you can play in trad bands, you can play in a traditional jazz band, you can play Ska. There’s all of this stuff.
TP: You can play in Latin bands now.
MARSALIS: That’s right! The people who come from other places to come to New Orleans, they don’t have to concern themselves nearly as much about property. At one point, guys were going around Soho…well, they weren’t even calling it Soho then…
TP: You could rent a cold water flat cheap.
MARSALIS: Yeah, you could get a loft, man. Now that’s all gone. New York becomes one of those places that if you go there, you’d better have a gig when you go there, and when the gig runs out, you’d better be ready to go back somewhere else.
TP: So you’re saying that in New Orleans you can learn music on a major league level without having to shell out $2000 a month for a railroad flat.
TP: Very practical. What was the program like at UNO when you got there?
MARSALIS: There was no program.
TP: So you actually had to start the program and get it off the ground.
MARSALIS: There was one guy on the faculty named Charles Blancq. In fact, he’s got a son who I think is living in New York now, who was at one time teaching at Queens, named Kevin Blancq. A good little trumpet player and arranger. Anyway, I knew Charles for years, even when he was a music student at LSU, the club that I had, and all the rest of that… Anyway, the Chancellor asked me to come back to New Orleans, we finally came to terms, and I agreed and went back. I did one more year at VCU, for the seniors before they left. So Charles Blancq and I put together a curriculum over the telephone, and that enabled Charles to go to the committee at UNO to get the courses certified for a degree. Because it was a liberal arts degree. They were all basic courses. Because as a freshman going into this university, a good portion of what you took in the first 17 hours was like English, Earth Science, history, just the fundamentals — not music. You got so many hours for playing in a combo. It was maybe three or four years before we really got a big band.
TP: Around ’94 or so?
MARSALIS: I forget the year. Maybe even later. But what I’m saying is that this is where we went to. Ultimately, we had a series of meetings where we tweaked this or changed that, or tweaked that and changed this, or reorganized that… We knocked it down from 132 hours to 128 hours to graduate. All the while, putting a major emphasis on performance. We had to develop ways for evaluation. Like, when we listened to the guys play, what were we listening to? A lot of things that we started out with and ultimately changed were concepts we got from the existing wing of the music department, which was the Classical Department. We eventually got permission to do recital hours with just the jazz students. Also, we were able to get the jury… Most times what you would get would be the faculty for a particular instrument, and the private teacher would come in, and they would talk about the student, and the student would play whatever they were working on. So we had meetings about that. We said, “Man, this doesn’t really make a lot of sense. What we really need to do is go and listen to the students in the context of what they’re playing, hear them in the combo that they play with. Because that’s really where they function.” So we were able to change that.
TP: Is University of New Orleans part of the State University of Louisiana?
MARSALIS: Right. But basically, those are some of the things we were able to do.
TP: You retired last August.
TP: Who are some of the students who came through University of New Orleans?
MARSALIS: There’s a guy in New York right now named David Morgan, a piano player. He was the first graduate from our program. There’s a saxophone player who came at the same time he did named Bryce Winston. There’s a couple piano players — a guy named Josh Paxton, who works down here, and finished in the graduate program. There’s some people who came and didn’t really stay. Nicholas Payton came and stayed a semester. Irvin Mayfield stayed a couple of years.
TP: Was Peter Martin involved?
MARSALIS: No. Peter was teaching, doing adjunct teaching over there.
TP: Why should people go to school to study jazz?
MARSALIS: Well, I don’t necessarily think they should. That’s not a statement that I would make. I think if they really need… Well, let me put it another way. As I mentioned to you earlier about the concept of being in a state of evolution, there may be a time in the future when going to school to study jazz would be maybe the same thing as going to school to study engineering. Maybe. But as it stands right now, jazz as we know it is such a highly individualistic art, until, if you get a good private instructor and you’re around in a situation… I’ll have to say that this excludes pianists.
MARSALIS: Because you can play by yourself. You can do the Keith Jarrett thing. But if you are around people who are well enough versed in the style of music that you’re trying to play, then you really don’t need it. You’ll do better with private instruction and just going out and playing.
TP: Why should people continue to play jazz?
MARSALIS: There’s no real reason why anybody should continue to play jazz. Aside from whatever personal reasons that they bring to it, that the music speaks to you. Now, I think more and more that the study of jazz, across the board, whether it be as a musician or as a lay person, can help you to better understand America and its relationship to the citizenry as a whole.
TP: Why is that?
MARSALIS: Because the music itself reflects the whole of the citizenry, moreso than any other music. In other words, you can listen to and develop an appreciation for the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven, but that don’t have nothin’ to do with America! Neither does any of the other musics developed in that canon. But if you listen to “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong, and really get to appreciate what was going on in there, you begin to understand what was going on in the early part of the century in America, and you begin to connect that to the numerous blues players that were wandering across the country during the time when the Depression was on and nobody had any money. You can connect it in Chicago, where all these blues players were. That’s basically what I’m saying.
TP: But how does that pertain to the here-and-now? It’s an interesting situation. You have all these skilled jazz players of many different generations, and as far as the broader culture is concerned, even with Lincoln Center and the various institutional stronghold in the universities, it’s just a blip on the consciousness of popular culture. As an educator and thinker and the father of four extremely accomplished musicians, what do you think playing jazz offers to young people of today?
MARSALIS: I think in some ways we can look at jazz as a form of glue that keeps American culture centered and provides avenues for research, whether it be formal research or whether it just be chasing down the name of somebody you find and enjoy and seeing what else that person has done. In the kind of world that we live in now, people do not necessarily even have to have a skill to become rich and famous as a pop artist. So consequently, a disciplined approach to anything becomes something that’s very much needed in this country. As I mentioned to you, jazz is the only music that started as a folk music and evolved as a folk music. Most of the other music that started as folk music, especially the music in the European tradition, started as folk music, stayed folk music, but became an influence on composers — so the composer became the filter. For which you heard various… “Hungarian Dance #3,” and all the stuff Bartok ripped off from them gypsies. Well, I won’t say “ripped off.” But their music was a predominant influence. But in America, jazz remains a folk music that evolved as a folk music. And even though you might hear Charlie Parker with Strings, if you were to take that recording and bleep out Charlie Parker, what do you have? You have some whole note-half note violin players sawing away, and a Mitch Miller solo on oboe.
But for the most part… One of the things that has not yet become a staple is the quintet. When I say a staple, what I mean is as a course of study, as a recognized ensemble. For example, if you study classical music, there are several ensembles. String quartet is one. The symphony orchestra is another. Then there are various others, brass quintets, brass quartets… Invariably, there are combinations that are not necessarily that standard. But in jazz, it’s the quintet, the tenor saxophone, the trumpet and the rhythm section. There’s more recordings made with that combination that have yet to really be studied in that context, where you look at it and say, “Okay, this is an ensemble that’s representative of a jazz ensemble of this period.” Whereas if you go earlier to traditional jazz, especially when it’s New Orleans, what you get is the sextet, with the trombone, cornet and clarinet. Which was a big influence on Duke. On “Mood Indigo” that Duke Ellington did, he flipped everything upside-down. He took the trombone and made the trombone higher, then he took the clarinet and put the clarinet on the bottom, and the trumpet was playing the melody with a mute.
I hear some younger kids today, some kids who play with Jason, and as young as Jason is, he even recognizes that some of these don’t have really any idea about their instrument — about the tenor saxophone. At one time, there used to be this person who was a tenor saxophone player, and he was recognized as a tenor saxophone player. Nowadays, some of these guys play the tenor, and there’s no particular reference to that instrument in any particular fashion in terms of what they play. That is, when you listen to them, you don’t get the feeling, “Well, man, I think he may have listened to Ben Webster” or he might have listened to Gene Ammons or Sonny Rollins or Chu Berry — some of the more well-known tenor saxophone players.
TP: So that link to the broader narrative thread that runs through the music ceases to exist.
MARSALIS: Well, it’s like writers. You read a writer and think, “Has he ever read Hemingway? Has he ever read Faulkner? Has he ever read Mark Twain?” I think what is beginning to happen… I clipped an article out of the paper by a local writer who was talking about two people who were at a university in the State of Louisiana in education, and the chairman of the department used to like to take them on junkets to different places — South America, China — talking about education techniques. As soon as they get a couple of miles away from the university, they were minority kids in dire need of (?) an education techniques, and there was no observation of that at all. So eventually, this guy and his wife… This guy got to be dean of the school, of the education department, and he and his wife took a year and they went to the furthest corner of Louisiana, near the Arkansas line, and for a ithey taught in an elementary school in a rural parish which is extremely poor, and they wrote a book… I don’t know if they did it together or he did. He taught fourth grade and his wife taught the third graders. In this book, they talked about the instance that LETA(?), which is what they call the standardized tests in Louisiana… They actually said that it was fraudulent. I’d never seen anybody say so strongly that this is fraudulent. I mean, I’ve always thought that.
But when you think in terms of young musicians and jazz musicians, you realize… Like the guitar student I had. They don’t really know that there is something to know about what it is that they’re doing. I was working once with a student on “Summertime,” and I said, “Have you ever heard the original rendition of ‘Summertime’?” He said, “Yeah, man, I got that recording by Miles.” And I had to explain to him about this aria in an opera called “Porgy and Bess” that was written by George Gershwin.
This is one of the dilemmas that we have. And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that this is a very young country. I often think of America the way that I would about a 10-year-old kid whose folks died and left him this candy store, and he had nobody to guide him or nothing. So he just goes into this candy store and, like, proceeds to be a 10-year-old kid. And ultimately, he has to learn every time he gets a bellyache, if he’s not unfortunate enough to get diabetes and die before then, that there’s something to know when you got this place. It’s not just, “Oh, great, this is mine.”
I think that invariably, the sources of information, as they descend, becomes filtered to a point where there’s very little meaningful information that gets through in terms of any discipline. And unless it’s popular enough, it doesn’t get through at all. Just to hear some young guys come up to me in school and say, “Hey, man, what do you think of Hip-Hop and Jazz?” I cannot think of more of an oxymoron than Hip-Hop and Jazz. And there are people who defend that.
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