Interview with Wynton Marsalis (part 1)
1) Interview with Wynton Marsalis (Part 1): Discussion of Congo Square
2) Interview with Wynton Marsalis (Part 2): Blindfold test, “Knozz-Moe-King,” general discussion
3) The “J" Word introduces side posts:
2. Four Early Wynton Marsalis/Jeff Watts Records
3. Current Perceptions
4. On the AACM
5. Reading the Black Jazz Writers
Ethan Iverson: It seems to me that there is an academy of rhythm in jazz and American music. One thing I’ve felt more and more as I’ve gotten older is that people don’t understand the basic question, “What is jazz rhythm?” Or: “What is this music that comes from the African Diaspora?” Congo Square is a very explicit message about this academy.
Wynton Marsalis: Mm-hmm. Well, it’s all of the musics that have a rhythm that’s a combination of 4 and 3. They are related technically. It all comes from that kind of African mother clave, then our shuffle is added in.
The 3 rhythm is small and the 4 rhythm is big rhythm in the jazz language. Whereas in the African music, the 3 rhythm is the big rhythm that you hear. The 4 rhythm is the background rhythm. (Well, it’s a 6 but you know what I mean.) When they are playing they are hearing both of the times, and they are playing both of the times. But they swing in the lower time.
EI: Barry Harris told me once that he thought Charlie Parker constantly played in 4 and 6 at the same time. That it was in there somewhere…
WM: It’s in everybody’s music. Billie Holiday is the most pronounced one…
EI: Oh, you think so?
WM: Well, that I’ve heard of the jazz musicians. If we put on a Billie Holiday record and we tap quarter note triplets, a lot of her phrasing will line exactly up with those triplets. Put her music on and tap out a quarter note triplet. She’s always in that quarter note time. “Sailboat in the moonlight with you…”
With our music it’s more playing against the ground rhythm. We set the ground rhythm up and we play with the rhythms in the context of the ground rhythm. Monk is a great example of that. Or for today, Marcus Roberts. They both set up the ground rhythm and play a lot of really inventive rhythms that will resolve in the context of the ground rhythm. And this is like African music with the exception of the fact that African musicians are playing in the two times at once. In our music it’s kind of over here in the lower of the 4 time. We’re playing in the upper three – if you got to be technical about it – we’re not hearing it like that of course. But we’re super-imposing all these rhythms and melodies on top of it and trying to resolve them with a certain type of feeling in time.
EI: It’s certainly fascinating to listen to the recorded history of jazz and hear how the beat gets colored a little differently as people learn more information or discover what feels right to them.
WM: Right. The change is a gradual softening of the triplet. But somebody like Monk didn’t do that. It’s interesting – musicians like John Lewis – I find that the really intellectual musicians will make choices about how they will do that. Billy Higgins is another person.
EI: It’s true. He’s known to be quite straight in his ride beat.
WM: Sometimes. But he would change his ride pattern. He told me it was what he called "marking the soloist." If a soloist played a real tight shuffle pattern, he would play that shuffle pattern.
EI: A great place to hear him mix it up is the Clifford Jordan and Cedar Walton version of “Blue Monk” with Sam Jones and Higgins on The Night of the Mark VI. Higgins chooses to play it as a shuffle at first – you know, when they start walking at the start of the tenor solo. He doesn’t go into the straight swing rhythm. He goes into the shuffle. The spacing is more triplety than his normal pattern.
WM: I love when Monk plays in that kind of time because it’s unusual, you know what I mean. But it’s an organic part of the music.
A cornerstone of what I believe is that all of the shuffle music is the same. The rhythm is the same. It’s just about where you put the accent on the triplet. It seemed like there was a big difference to people when they were trying to be current – or not – in the past. But when you remove the pressure of novelty from how you hear, it doesn’t make a difference. It’s kind of like if you read the language of Shakespeare or you read the language we use: the substance of it is not hindered by the way they use the language. You just make an adjustment in your understanding of English. What he’s talking about is not something you have to adjust, it’s the style of it. You know what I mean? Because Louis Armstrong is talking about stuff that we still talk about right now. It’s your style of playing in the twenties or thirties was different.
EI: I think the most exciting rhythm section that I ever heard on a Pops record was that Symphony Hall record with Arvell Shaw and Big Sid Catlett...
WM: A very soft player. [Wynton means the triplet, not the dynamic, although Catlett was famously sensitive. This interview starts on on very technical note, sorry! In a shuffle, a "soft" triplet has more space before each beat, a "tight" one has so little that it could almost be a dotted-quarter and sixteenth.]
EI: You know, the feel on “C Jam Blues” and a couple of other pieces there: It actually sounds like it could almost pass for a 1950’s rhythm section in a certain way.
WM: That’s like how Duke Ellington didn’t really have a problem playing with Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison. Of course, Coltrane didn’t have a problem playing with Sam Woodyard and Aaron Bell, who’s on the same record.
Louis Armstrong, now. In any case, the musician would have to decide to play with him.
It’s like if Tony Williams played with some people… Even modern players, if he decided he did not want to play with you – if he wanted to superimpose rhythms – you would have trouble playing with him. I don’t care who you are.
If he decided he wanted to play with you, he could play his style with anybody. He could’ve played with Lester Young. He could’ve played with Pops. There’s actually a Benny Goodman record from the sixties with Tony Williams (and Herbie Hancock too): a gig at the Rainbow Room. I’m sure he didn’t have problems fitting in – the music is all connected in that way.
EI: Well, it’s true. Tony Williams is actually a great example: he’s someone that we think of as playing the height of modern material on the drums. But his quarter note has this elastic bounce to it that is still very much pure jazz. It’s actually not as connected to rock drumming in a way that some people think (or at least interpret it that way at times). There are plenty of Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones records with Tony and it’s totally comfortable in terms of the agreement on the quarter note.
WM: When jazz musicians come together, the question is only, “Are we going to play together?” When people decide that they will play together, the vocabulary is so much the same. Otherwise… It’s only hard if you want it to be hard. It’s very different from flamenco music. Then you have a problem. Or play latin music. Then…
EI: I saw you play, sit in, with the flamenco guys in Vitoria, Spain… wherever that was, two summers ago.
WM: Uh-huh. Then you have a problem, because it’s not 4/4 swing.
EI: You still sounded good.
WM: I had to find something. They were kind to me. When we were rehearsing, they picked songs I could play. They could have treated me differently!
EI: One of the great moments of my life was watching Joe Temperley clap the bulerías rhythm with the other men in your big JALC Vitoria/flamenco suite. Obviously, no one has a bigger heart than Joe Temperley. All you need to do is hear him play the baritone saxophone and know this is what he is supposed to do with his life. But watching him solemnly clap the bulerías for you, man, that's just too funny.
WM: But he loves that kind of shit. We laugh at him about it. We tease Joe all the time. "Sing it, Joe!" Like whatever part that has singing or something, we give it to Joe. [laughing] When we did this mass at the Abyssinian Church, we gave Joe a part like a preacher. "Oh Lord, My God." [laughing] You know. So, it’s kind of like a joke with us and him.
EI: That’s great.
I’ve got these musical excerpts from Congo Square here. In case it’s not totally clear, I should maybe tell you what we’re doing: I don’t represent an official publication, but a blog. (I interviewed Stanley on it.)
WM: I never get to talk about the music, so I’m happy just to talk to you.
EI: I’m going to post these excerpts on the blog so people can hear what’s going on. Some of these are as short as 10 seconds; I assume you don’t object to my posting them.
WM: I don’t care. It’s not a concern.
This a list of the 23 excerpts we listened to:
EI: Alright, let's begin at the top of the suite.
EI: That's Herlin Riley vocalizing, a musician I think is really important to you; someone who you care about a lot.
WM: I love him – lemme show you a picture of him in this book, Moving to Higher Ground, where we are both in a New Orleans parade in 1970. This is when we both played in Danny Barker's band, he was playing trumpet then too. It's very deep with Herlin and I; we are like family.
I didn't write that, what Herlin does in the beginning: I just said, "Do something in the beginning, Holmes."
He just made it up: "Now the brothers done come from across the way – When we play our drums we say Hu-Na-Nay." I was going to do it myself, but when I started, I said, no wait, let me get Herlin up in here. "The brothers that come from across the way" (talking about them), "when we play our drums" (now you’re talking about all of us) – "…brothers that come from across the way, when we play our drums, we say Hu-Na-Nay. I want you and you and you over there – to know we coming in peace and love from Congo Square."
EI: So, then, immediately we hear this beat, a very special beat. Again, I feel that what you are trying to say as an artist with this record is to celebrate this elusive academy --
WM: No. It's less to do with the rhythm then to say, with all of the music, "We are together." Especially when we play with people whose music is not really like ours. The question is, "How do we find the things we have in common, that we can play together and be challenged by playing it?"
After the part we just listened to, the "Hu-Na-Nay," both ensembles [the JALC and Odadaa!] play together. We are doing a Black Indian New Orleans-style 3-3-2 and they are doing the rhythm that's also in "Kolomashi," the Okpiyii. It's hard not to drag, since we feel the rhythm a little differently. Their eighth-note is more even than our shuffle. So this piece had a tendency to drag, and pull, and sway.
They are also less overtly welcoming than us: Odadaa! is saying, "Colonials get out!" as compared to our "Hu-Na-Nay," which is "welcome." But their piece is not not welcome. I like the fact that it’s two opposites. "You’re welcome, but you’re not welcome to come in and rule us." So in a way it’s saying the same thing.
Our "Hu-Nay-Nay" is supposed to balance with the next track, "Awo," where they celebrate their ancestors.
WM: That's like our church music, when a choir sings "peace" and there's a high descant against it.
EI: It's a fabulous sound.
WM: They hear it that way too: when they hear us harmonize a third up they want to get next to that. We want to get with them and they want to get with us. And that's what Yacub wanted too, from a philosophical standpoint.
EI: He seems like a very special person.
WM: Yes, he is.
The whole piece is kind of about being at home, coming away from home, and coming back together. It's a circle.
EI: In fact, the next piece, "Home," is the longest on the record. I have a few excerpts from it.
One thing I liked, right away, was that it was a great groove in seven – but I didn't realize it was in seven at first, since it felt so natural.
WM: [Pulls out handwritten score] It's supposed to be like the weekday and the weekend. That phase builds up and comes down. [points at difficult stacking horns moment with numbered entrances on single staff] I just write it out for Jonathan Kelly, my brother that copies for me… We’ve been together for a long time so he understands that shorthand.
A lot of the other movements are based on the thematic layout in this piece. [whistles: B F# A# G#]
EI: One tune that recurs I called the "clarinet theme":
WM: Yeah, ragtime. A little bit of bitonality there, too, since it's over a pedal.
EI: So you do call that ragtime?
WM: It’s like ragtime. But the flat 9 on the chord, that’s bitonal. Well, not really: going C# to F# – it’s really a B chord giving in, like a lot of Western harmony.
It starts to spread out. It’s all about up and down. "Home" is all up and down. Then going away from home.
EI: I think this is really important. The fact that you put the ragtime tune in there, that is important to your aesthetic.
WM: All the music, together. I believe this. I've been believing this for years now. I had that concept in about 1983, but I didn't know enough music yet.
Coming from New Orleans, I did know that African music and New Orleans music was related. Also, since I was in New Orleans, I got to play classical music: If I had been in New York, I wouldn't have been good enough to get gigs. But there weren't so many classical trumpet players in New Orleans, so they would call me to play a Mahler symphony or Gabrieli's Canzoni. I also played with the symphony Brass Quintet, at the circus, at the Joffrey Ballet...
My main gigs were funk gigs. And some traditional jazz on the weekends.
So, after I had played all that music, in 1983 or '84 I asked myself, "Why I am I playing much less music now? It's all 'modal music,' and 'complicated'..." Another question was, "Why should we come to the conclusion that European classical music made (where the avant-garde was considered the only current music), and instead accept all the music?"
EI: Sort of like, "Don't throw anything out"?
WM: I also played with Kidd Jordan at SUNO, who played the avant-garde music. We're family: in fact, Kidd's son Kent, who plays flute, is the one who made me start practicing when I was thirteen. I saw Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis this past weekend and I said to them, "Make sure you tell Kidd hello!" (And Marlon – Kidd's other son – is a trumpeter, and I was like a mentor to him when he was young.)
Anyway, so I began to think more in that way: what if all the music that you actually know was together? What if you were actually truly experiencing playing music?
Like, I heard my daddy play ragtime. I heard ragtime my whole life! Maybe not always the best version – although my daddy played it well – but the echo of ragtime.
I played in a marching band, John Phillip Sousa: well, that's ragtime; march forms, and Sousa himself played rags. And I played Bernstein's Overture to Candide in a community orchestra...
So I started to think: what if you were to express everything you truly knew in music?
EI: Maybe this is the right time for me to tell you a story I know that you'll appreciate: I was teaching at a really excellent jazz workshop this past summer, and the pianists there were all playing some really interesting things. One was improvising in twelve-tones, another had these fancy variations on "Donna Lee"...
But then, in my masterclass, I played (not very well) the opening strain of "Carolina Shout" and not one of the ten pianists recognized it.
WM: They didn't know it! Well, that's typical of our music.
EI: Then, when I told them the name of the composer, James P. Johnson, I didn't feel like they had ever even heard the name.
WM: But that kind of ignorance is connected more to our overall culture. The reason we don't know that we are together is that we don't realize that we have been together in many ways. So when you can't build on the achievements of your ancestors, you regress or repeat the same thing over and over again. Sure, they don't know who James P. Johnson is; they don't know any music from the 1920's!
To be fair, why would they know that? I only knew ragtime because my father played it. When I started out, I just wanted to play funk music, or like Freddie Hubbard or something in the 1970's. Something hip! I met Roy Eldridge in the 1970's, and I had no respect for what he played. I couldn't hear it. Harry "Sweets" Edison, too: I knew all those guys when I was in high school, but I could only think, "Man, you guys need to hit on some sus [suspended] chords or something!" I didn't have the knowledge to appreciate them.
EI: Okay, back to Congo Square and this ragtime quote: I'll be honest with you, the first time I heard this phrase, I was taken aback. It was so bold!
We've heard so many other postmodern pastiches from the Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Zorn, and others that it was hard for me to take it seriously. But then, upon relistening, I heard the integrity beneath.
WM: I don't look at it in those terms. I grew up in New Orleans, I didn't need to take out a book to learn what ragtime was.
And this phrase, you know, is three and a half measures in four; so, if I'm in seven, I'm trying to figure out how to turn the phrase around in an elegant way. And that's mainly for Victor Goines: he's from New Orleans, too, and he's going to play it...well, when he first heard it, he started laughing, "Aww – I hear you!"
EI: The more you know, the more you'll understand this record. Of course, that's like anything...
WM: When I first started reading poetry, I didn't like it. Why use all these metaphors? You could just say what you wanted to say. But when I started to understand the point of it was that the metaphor brings in a whole world of other things, not just what it was referring to. It's a way to get a lot more information in a shorter space.
This is a paraphrase, but somewhere Beethoven says, "If you want to write church music, go to the ancient modes themselves, not your memory of church music." I try all the time, in all my music, to put as much music as I can.
When people can't hear my music or where I'm coming from, I don't feel bad about it, because I remember when I was younger and couldn't even hear Roy Eldridge!
Talking about my music with you, this is interesting, because I never talk about my music with someone who isn't one of the cats in the band. I'm 46: I don't think one interview I've ever given before has been about my music. Well, I remember one, where I pulled out my scores and everything, but then that turned out to be a negative piece. He was trying to prove that I had committed fraud by getting a Pulitzer Prize! I had a laugh about that one...
EI: When I interviewed Stanley, I sent the transcription to him for vetting before posting. I'm happy to do that with you, too.
WM: No, it's cool. I’m not worried about that with you. You’re a musician. There’s a different vibe, man. You play music. A lot of time people writing articles will create a vibe between musicians that don’t even know each other because somebody says something in an interview. We all have opinions and we all think things. That’s part of being different people! But whatever we think, we know that we’re each musicians. You sat down at my piano and you started playing progressions. Okay. I know that. We're talking about James P. Johnson. That’s more important to me that whether you liked my songs.
EI: I guess one of the reasons I run the blog is to put more of a musician's perspective out there.
WM: Right. I agree with that. Yeah!
EI: Here's the next excerpt. The trumpets sound like they are in displaced octaves. I never heard quite that sound before.
WM: Yeah. Displaced octaves, that's right. That's sort of like natural trumpets, before valves.
EI: Did you ever play a natural trumpet?
WM: Oh yeah. I was into them in high school; I had a collection. I played them only in my house, though, not on gigs! When I came to New York, I didn't bring them.
EI: Now, what is that break?
WM: Carlos Henriquez showed me that one. If you hear it in 4, it's easy, but if you hear it in 6, it's hard. But in 4 it is square, right on the beat, but maybe we "place" them a little bit. We have to adjust to the 6 Odadaa! is playing, especially since they are in the middle of a phrase. As conductor, I adjust to the bell.
EI: That's a mysterious moment; that's why I like it so much.
WM: The hardest thing is to get us to play with the bell pattern.
EI: The up-and-down of the beat is not American.
WM: No, it's not, it's more like a clave. And like Yacub told me: "In order for us all to play together, y'all will have to play with us." For me, it was a blessing to have Carlos and Ali [Jackson], who spent a lot of time at night working it out; a real labor of love. They would sit up with me and go through rhythm patterns and say, "No, that's not it." Then, eventually, "This is it."
EI: I have one more bit of "Home" here; what do you call this quotation?
WM: New Orleans shuffle.
EI: I love that mean, swinging phrase right afterwards, too.
WM: That's Marcus Roberts. That's the way he phrases. Look at that written out [finds place in score]; that took a long time to notate, all those nested triplets.
The New Orleans shuffle with the trombones happens twice as a transition.
EI: Again, for me to buy those bars [the New Orleans bars] requires the ultimate belief in your sincerity.
WM: Really?! It's interesting, I don't... [long pause]
EI: You don't notice it.
I think if people – including myself – really understood how natural this was for you, the perception of you in the world would be different.
WM: The whole vector of the tune and the harmonies is what I'm thinking about... If you hear something and write it down...I don't know what it means to other people, but I know what it means to me.
It's like Jelly Roll Morton, or really like a blues I play from Hoghead Harris. I play this at parties at my house.
I can't really play the piano, but:
I'd always do that, and sing this song called "I Takes My Time."
Also, that beat signifies the train: "Chug chug chug chug." I write the train all the time. I grew up down the street from the train. I love the train; it's evocative of a lot of stuff for me.
So, look, I don't really know how somebody else hears it.
EI: I'm just telling you that it doesn't --
WM: They might hear it like a cartoon, I don't know.
EI: H'mm. [long pause] Early jazz has sometimes been played – arguably defaced – by a presentation that is sarcastic.
WM: Huh. Well, I didn't always like that kind of music, either. But I learned as I went along...
It's a matter of us codifying our culture. We’re still young. But we will. It will be there. We’re not going to produce another Jelly Roll Morton. We’ll produce whatever we’ll produce but he’s there. It’s like Walt Whitman. He’s there. He’s in that time frame. If you want to deal with American writing and poetry, you’re going to deal with him. You will deal with Mark Twain. You will deal with Faulkner. You will deal with Hemingway. You’re going to deal with those people because they exist in that time.
If you want to write counterpoint, you are going to deal with Bach. If you look around, that’s who’s there. If you want to improvise, you’re going to deal with Louis Armstrong because when you actually start to look at it, he’s who’s there. The consciousness to do that and to want to be great at something in the American Arts is not here right now for a bulk of the people. But it’ll come.
Our job is more to keep it going and to conduct ourselves with integrity and keep all the references and get as much of the music in our music as we can get – so that when there are people who want to check it out, it’s there for them to check it out. It’s a bridge for them to develop it however they want to develop it.
As long as there’s not a bridge for them, then it’s hard.
EI: Speaking of Pops, I think maybe my favorite solo on this record is by a trumpet player.
WM: Marcus Printup: a very expressive player.
Yacub said he wanted to talk about the different aspects of the diaspora of the music and how it spread. Because Congo Square is also Caribbean. Manuel Perez, one of our trumpet players, isn’t from the Caribbean, but he was from Cuba. The early New Orleans musicians, the early French music has a lot of the Caribbean. A lot of that music around the Congo Square time is Caribbean sounding.
Yacub listens to all the music. He loves Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. He’ll listen to them a lot. He listens to Caribbean music.
EI: It sounds so natural for Odadaa! to be playing this.
WM: A lot of that is Carlos too.
EI: That’s for sure. It probably helps that he's there!
WM: It helps a lot, man! I’m not going to lie. I should have made a special dedication to him on this record because he worked a lot over time just to make sure it’s right. "No. No. This not right. This is not right." – or "It don’t feel right." He's very diligent.
EI: I like the sound and the way he hits the notes, too. It’s got a lot of weight.
WM: Yeah. I love him. He’s like my little brother. I knew him when he was young and I was a lot older than him. I love him. It’s more of a familial thing with all of the cats. Ali too. It’s not really so much just the music. We’ll sit up and argue about rhythm until 3 and 4 in the morning. He’s the type of guy that is very serious about stuff being how it’s supposed to be.
EI: Well, that’s where I tried to start with this, but I wasn’t sure how you felt about what I was saying. It's an academy: to understand this music, you have to understand the rhythm. You’re not going to get to first base with it unless you understand that.
WM: That’s the heart of it all – the rhythm and the dance.
EI: Yeah. This next thing is pretty unbelievable. From the same song.
WM: That’s Duke Ellington. "Flaming Sword." I try to keep elements of Duke Ellington’s music in my music all the time.
EI: That couldn’t be more clear!
WM: Duke. You know, Jimmy Mundy. Any of the cats. Benny Carter sometimes in the voicing. So that people will be able to see the continuum. Not "Well, he did that and now let me run from that." I don’t believe in that really. I believe that it’s all one big mainstream, one continuum.
EI: I certainly think there’s no more underrated and misunderstood musician than Duke Ellington.
WM: Yeah, he’s so great that it’s hard to assess him.
EI: Of course, he’s the heart of jazz. But he’s almost outside jazz. His world is so specific. He had that family with him for so long and it always sounds this certain way.
Sometimes I don’t think most other jazz musicians outside the Ellington family know anything about him.
WM: Well, I think we can’t take this present time as an example. We have to think across time. Sometimes you get caught up in thinking about the time of your lifetime and this and that.
Duke Ellington’s music is all available. All those records were made. The Smithsonian has all of his music and people take care of it. You can go there and see it. It’s incredible how much of it is here. Somebody knew it was important. They kept it. Scores and recordings. There will be a time when it will be assessed. (You would hope the time is now.)
As our culture, as we mature, we start to understand all of this. It’s the same with Ellington as with any great American cultural figure. Stuart Davis. People don’t really know who that is. I’m not comparing him to Duke, but… You know what I mean? There are other great figures in our culture that we don’t know.
EI: I want to talk about Duke more in a second when we get to "Bamboula" but since we’re going in the order of the record:
WM: Church music. I put some blues in it. "Momma’s little baby got shortening bread." – I’ll show you. It’s for the tenor saxophone. "Momma’s little baby got shortening bread." You can barely hear it.
EI: I can barely hear it. [this is a very faint line in the horns near the end of the excerpt when all the other instruments are unison] Oh, yeah! Barely in there. Shit, man. You got me.
WM: "Momma’s little baby got shortening bread..."
EI: Great moment. Never heard that.
WM: Got that from the vocal part.
EI: You still put it in the horns.
WM: Yeah, I put it in the horns.
EI: Speaking of Duke, the connection couldn’t be more explicit in the next piece, I would say…
WM: This is a sensual piece. It’s two tenors. It’s not that involved, really. Walter is making up his part I think. Him and Victor trade off.
EI: That’s the Ellington aesthetic too – giving the soloist room to create a melody.
WM: Yeah, room to play. What was I thinking about? Not so much about Duke, just the tune. But it does have that Ellington vibe. That sensualist kind of tenor saxophone sound.
EI: In terms of saxophone sonority, I don’t think you’ve ever had someone who had that post-Coltrane, post-Michael Brecker sort of focused, harder sound.
WM: Yeah, I don’t really like that sound that much.
I’ve had so many tenor players in my band but I don’t know if I’ve recorded with them. James Carter played with me. Don Braden played with me. Craig Handy. You know, it’s not cause I don’t necessarily like that sound...
EI: You know, I won’t use his name in the interview but I was talking to X [tenor player] one time...
WM: Yeah, he played with me.
EI: He told me that there was a lot of pressure not to play the Coltrane type of sound.
WM: Yeah. From me. Yeah. I don’t like that. When somebody plays with me, I don’t like for them to sound like they are imitating. I don’t like to play like everybody else is playing. My feeling always is "Man, why are we playing 1980s jazz clichés? Don’t… Why? What is the gain of that? We’re not gonna…" Once you put it in that context of me talking to him, I can understand. I never really thought of it like I was pressuring cats not to…
But, for me, my whole thing is not the contemporary clichés. That’s my whole thing. Whatever is the thing, contemporary thing, that everybody does – I don’t want you to do that. Try not to do that.
EI: I feel like the culture of the tenor saxophone sound has gone down a little bit from back in the glory days.
WM: Yeah. Because they only play one or two things. "Play a lot of things, man!"
EI: I was watching a Duke Ellington DVD recently and Paul Gonsalves was playing "Happy Reunion." That shit was absolutely in another place sonically.
WM: I was in the Modern Museum and I told my son, "Earn your prejudice. Don't be prejudiced against something you don't know. Look at the man's work. Look at all of this stuff." We were both looking at something that was a big pink rectangle, okay. "If I brought that home, would you say that was...what?" You know, dude, check everything out.
I like the sound of all kinds of music but I feel like when you are too much like the clichés of your era – you can't stand out later. You're liked in that time but later you don't stand out. I would always pressure cats not to play like the clichés of that time. Especially piano players. They're driving me crazy playing like... snare drum parts – tink tink tink. I hate that. Play melodies. Come up with something. Invent your own style.
It's like how Monk was viewed. People misunderstood Monk. They said this shit about Monk but he had his style.
Over the last 10 or 15 years I've lost track of how I'm critiqued. I don't even know if I get critiqued so much. It’s kind of out there. Like when they said, "neo-conservative" or "plays older jazz" – I understood that. That was kind of out there but as I got more serious about music, I don’t think so. Something like Congo Square, I'm not really critiqued about it. None of the pieces, really, like All Rise – that's 8 years ago. I never got a critique of it. Or the music I play with my septet. It was not critiqued.
I always tell a musician you have four avenues of creativity. You'll fall somewhere in those four. The first is the sound of your era. We all sound like that. All of us who came up in the 1980s sound like we did. You come with your group of people and you will play like them. People who came up playing in the 1920s sound like they played then. Even the great Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and a little earlier than that – they have a similar sound. So, we all have that. We choose to do different things with it. You don't think Thelonious Monk is from James P. Johnson's era. And it's not all just because of the sound quality. He doesn't play like those people.
The second is the history of your art. A few of the people will be into that. That means somebody like John Lewis: you can't really tell where he is. Sometimes he sounds like Teddy Wilson. Sometimes it's like Erroll Garner. He didn't really sound like any of them. He always sounds like John Lewis but he has that echo in his sound.
Later, he's evocative of the whole history of music, in fact all of the arts, not just music... all the arts and musics from all over the world like tango music, flamenco music, you know, commedia dell'arte – John Lewis was really into that. And that's another path: all the things that are removed from your kind of sphere but you can kind of... You can take things out of it. Like somebody can take something out of that Japanese music – Noh – and they can find something to hear in the musical space or dramatic moments or...
Then you have your own creativity. That's the richest of all of them. You just invent. You're inventing stuff all the time. Like if I would move through this – piece – some things I took from people but a lot of it is just shit I came up with. It didn't come from anybody. It's not like I thought, "Here's Duke Ellington or..." Sure, there would be moments of it where I'd say, "Let me put this in." When I hear something that IS what somebody else heard, I don't not do it because they heard it. Because I know that I'm going to hear a pile of shit that I only heard.
And I always felt that EVEN with my trumpet style... EVEN when I was playing stuff that I had heard other trumpet players play, I felt like, "Yeah, but I play so much of my own shit that I don't not want to bring them with me. I don't want to be out there alone."
EI: Well, you can certainly hear Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis...
WM: And Freddie Hubbard. You know, Sweets was my man. Sweets. I mean, that's my man that I hung with and learned from. Clark Terry, of course. When I was in high school, I loved him. I listened to him. Don Cherry. That was another cat. I was close with him, knew him. Clifford Brown.
EI: Well, all right. The next thing here is one of my favorite melodies on this record.
WM: That’s an example: I never heard something sound like that.
EI: Me either.
WM: Me and Branford used to do that all the time, play half steps like that.
EI: Well, that’s all over Black Codes, of course.
WM: Yes. We always count our half-steps like that.
EI: I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but this would be really great film music.
WM: I won’t take it the wrong way.
EI: I see an old-fashioned adventure movie unfolding.
WM: I’m so appreciative of you listening to it.
EI: So, I have two excerpts from "Tsotsobi," the first thing on side two. Here's just the beginning of it.
WM: This is a hard one to count. It's hard to come in on this. They were playing it on a balaphone. That’s where I learned it. It’s hard to figure out where "1" is. It’s 3 and 1/2 beats away from where we would normally hear it. [demonstrates]
EI: Oh, no!
WM: It’s the difference of accent. They have a bell pattern they play all the time. I was really shedding so I could hear it. A lot of times in these parts I put that bell pattern inside of our part.
EI: You wrote…
WM: I wrote the clave into our music…
EI: So that there’s a guide for the players?
WM: No, I just use it as a reference. We’re not guiding off of it. (I mean, they’re playing it.) But I’ll play around with their clave all the time in our parts.
EI: Do you know what Kosmigroov is? It’s a style of music. Anyway, this song made me think of it a little bit. It’s just sort of funny – "Wynton Marsalis plays Kosmigroov."
WM: I don’t even know what that is.
EI: Let’s listen to Carlos go off the reservation a little bit here in such a beautiful way. It’s a little Garrisonesque here for a minute.
EI: Some great bass playing.
WM: With the rhythm, yeah.
EI: It’s a nice moment. That's an effect I really like, when the bass starts sort of wandering down there and everything else is solid.
WM: Rhythm on the top. Something John Lewis used to always talk about – getting motion in the bass. Always. He would always say, "You've got to get better bass motion. The bass doesn't have to be tied to the drums all the time."
WM: But it’s hard when you’re writing music. With improvising, it’s easier – if the drummer is playing a soft enough volume. It’s always a balance. Because if the bass goes too far away from the rhythm for a solo, then it starts to sound like another type of style of music. It’s kind of complicated. Like how much "bass vamp," how much "walk" and how much "improvising." I never tell them; I leave the bottom alone. "You all will figure it out how to make the bottom."
EI: The question of the bass is very interesting.
What do I get here:
EI: Yeah. This is bitonal. There’s some shit in here I can’t hear, man, and I’ve got very good harmonic ears. What the fuck is going on here?
WM: I don’t know. I just sing that kind of shit.
EI: It sounds a bit like "Wade in the Water."
WM: That kind of stuff I started doing around when I was doing Blood on the Fields. I would write counterlines that would be kind of disjointed. So that’s like an A… I don’t really know what that is. [hums] I guess that would be an A minor over a C. Not really.
EI: Sort of a C7 chord, yeah, but those B naturals have some other shit (to say the least).
WM: I don’t understand what I was dealing with. I don’t really know.
EI: But that’s great! I have to say, you’ll always have my ear when you’re doing that. Do it more!
WM: That kind of bitonal counterpoint?
EI: Well, just a clear melody that’s colored in an abstract way – or something that’s not immediately obvious. That’s really beautiful. Of course, that’s Monk and Mingus and even Duke sometimes.
WM: Duke wrote more counterpoint than anybody except for Jelly Roll.
EI: Shortly after that part, the ragtime comes back.
WM: Oh. Yeah.
EI: It’s got a Monkish minor second now.
WM: Once I was learning a King Oliver solo and I noticed how much he played on the beat. I said, "Damn, this sounds like he's playing a lot off the beat, but he’s not." So I’ve tried to go with that: here, a lot of it is on the beat.
EI: If you’re paying attention, there is a thematic transformation between hearing it an hour earlier in "Home" and now in "Bamboula Dance."
EI: There’s some journey you’re expressing as a composer.
WM: I didn’t really evolve the theme as the movements went on. They're just themes. It depends. In Blood on the Fields, the themes evolved as I went along. Or on Blue Interludes, every time a theme would come back there was an evolution of the theme. For Congo Square, though, I wasn’t so much trying to evolve the themes. The overall theme is more the journey of us getting to a certain point, fighting with each other, coming together and then coming back home.
EI: However, the next three excerpts are three treatments of the tune from "Logo Talk," which I think are all really happening. I think this section may have a traditional melody on it?
EI: Is this your melody?
WM: Yeah. Had a lot of trouble organizing this one.
EI: Here's the tune again, with another note added:
EI: And then there’s this one, with more new notes and a wild backround.
EI: What are you saying there?
WM: "I’m tired." We’re rushing.
EI: Yeah, that last thing sounds almost like the trumpet isn’t with the rhythm – like it’s hanging on for dear life.
WM: We had to just listen to the bell.
The organization of this piece gave me a lot of problems. I had to try to figure out a way that we would line up with what Odadaa! was playing. That was the hardest thing. Because when they gave the rhythm to me, it was just drums playing, and I put the music around it. They were going all off of cues. So I had to figure out how can we make the music go off of cues. But they were also playing a melody inside of the drums. So I had to make my melodies line up with them. Then when we started playing on the road, they could hear where we were so they would adjust what they were playing to go with us. So that was one of the examples of where we really came together in a way that was very unique. Because they were making a lot of adjustments too.
EI: This track is one of the highlights of the album, for sure. It’s in B; and you said it was in B because of the tuning of the drums?
EI: A lot Congo Square is in B, I guess.
WM: I think it’s all in B, baby! Well, some of it changes key.
EI: The longest piece, "Home" was in B, too.
We were talking about these rhythms that you can hear one way or another. On "War" you can hear a bell pattern that sounds quite different whether soloed next to by the American drummer (Ali Jackson) or the African drummer (Yacub Addy).
EI: I am aware of the "4 versus 6" controversy, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it quite so explicit as in that trading. "Okay, there’s the American guy playing with it . And then there’s Yacub playing with it ."
WM: With a guy like Ali, he knows so much music. His uncle, Oliver Jackson, was a jazz musician. His father played too.
EI: I didn’t know that. The same Oliver Jackson that played with Hank Jones?
WM: Yeah. So he has a lot of respect for the music. Sometimes with the American musicians, they get around musicians from other cultures and they believe so much in the other culture’s music that they don’t play their own music. That’s the thing Yacub is always saying: "Play your music. Play your music, man. Let’s hear your music."
EI: I see you put Herlin Riley back behind the set for this next piece.
WM: Whew! Back in that parade.
EI: I was struck by how it simply seems like a normal blues, but it’s actually got chorus after chorus completely written out, not just riffs and solos.
WM: Yeah, it was a pain in the ass to write it out too!
EI: And of course, after I started counting on my fingers, at a certain point I realized I was going to get to twelve – twelve choruses, of course, just like the twelve bars of the blues.
WM: I didn’t know that! I’m really not bullshitting! I swear!
EI: Oh, come on!
[For me this was the most dramatic moment of the interview. I knew that Wynton was putting a lot of twelves in his music these days (for example, All Rise is in twelve movements). As a result I didn't actually double-check the number of choruses in "Sanctified Blues" to confirm my guess. When he was surprised and opened the score to see, I was sure that I would be wrong and look pretty stupid.]
WM: If you look at this, I don’t know where my choruses are at all. This is the actual sketch of it.
EI: Well, I guess…
WM: Let’s see if I took any of the choruses out. One. Two. Okay.
EI: Is the tuba part written out? No.
WM: The tuba part is not written out. But there’s a rogue trombone part: See, give him the melody and the changes. He has the melody but he makes up stuff.
I got a four note voicing. That’s like a big band voicing but everybody is packed in tight. It’s not a spread voicing. There’s one trombone to be played: that part is a rogue part. I don’t like to write out any extreme parts. I don’t like to write out the top or the bottom part. I think that’s a mistake. It seems like when you write out a top part and a bottom part, then it starts to sound like written-out music.
But when you have the bottom and the top free, something else happens… It’s like the ride pattern and the bass…
EI: It’s a helluva tuba player, man.
WM: Andre Hayward, he’s a trombone player. He don’t even play tuba that much. He’s from Houston too, so he got like that stuff too. – 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, ... Twelve. It damn sure is twelve.
EI: Twelve twelves.
EI: It’s interesting. There are 12 choruses of written-out close voicing with a second-line beat. I hadn’t heard that before.
We’re at the end of the record. The last two excerpts I have are of "Kolomashi" with and without piano and bass accompaniment. I was really struck by your having Dan Nimmer double the bell parts high on the piano which is a very great idea. I’m so glad I don’t have to play them; it strikes me as pretty hard to execute.
WM: He just would choose to do that. I didn’t tell him to do that. I just tell him to get out of the way of the middle register. I don’t like when the piano is always in the mid-register. Because there’s a lot of stuff going on in the drums in a certain register. (The snare and the comping compete.)
EI: That’s a great choice, though, to do that.
WM: He did that. He did that himself.