The myth of Marsalis
Ryan Summerlin June 20, 2007
As one of the most prominent scions of a well-known New Orleans music family and one of the best trumpeters and composers of our age, Wynton Marsalis needs no introduction. But what is the myth, the man and the legend really like? Can you really get to know anyone in the awkward, buzzy confines of a conference-call press junket?
“How you doin’?”With his casual salutation as an introduction, Marsalis has us eating out of the palm of his hand from minute one. He’s charismatic, erudite and can turn the most assinine questions into eloquent dissertations on the nature of art and humanity.”How should my music be considered? Picasso said art can’t be considered in the present – it shouldn’t be considered at all,” Marsalis said. “We play all the music as if it is right now. We play for right now – no jazz musician has come together with African music like this before. My musicians are the best in the world – they’re interested in making something new and redefining our music. We understand that our music is modern because we make it modern. Many artists continue to develop their style; you do your thing, and we’ll do ours.”Marsalis is honest and detailed when it comes to explaining the difficulties of blending his jazz with the African drums of Yacub Addy and Odadaa! to form Congo Square. He takes complex ideas of meter and rhythm and boils them down into terms a child can understand, without condescending to us.”There’s lots of give and take, lots of coming together and pulling apart – we’re at war with each other, we’re at peace with each other,” he said. “It’s very different to perform with a whole other ensemble, especially when we want to create the most festive environment possible. Everything comes from the drums; when they open (the biggest ones) up, everyone has to get out of the way. But the center of the music is the bell pattern: You follow the bells, and you find the soul.”Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra number 15; they combine with nine members of Odadaa! to form the 24-strong core of Congo Square. Marsalis is well aware of the cultural bridge he creates every time he performs as part of the ensemble.
“Yakub and them don’t read any music; they feel it,” he said. “It was one of the challenges of collaborating with people of different cultures. But it’s like any diplomatic adventure: We did it not so we could have a good time, but so we could come together and have a great time.”On the future of jazz, Marsalis is explicit: Reach the young people, but never pander to them.”I think it’s important that you reach young people through education, not as a field to market to,” he said. “People of all ages are people, and there’s nothing worse than appealing (just) to kids: If your success was based on whether or not your kids like it, you would not like that position. It’s up to us to provide a chance to defend themselves from what’s marketed to them.”Marsalis, who has a few teenagers himself, doesn’t particularly enjoy the mainstream songs they listen to, but understands the social aspect of popular music, and he can even relate to pop’s oft-lamented descent into the risque. “A little pornography is great for a child,” he said. “We loved it when I was young. I wasn’t mad at it when I was playing in funk bands. But it degenerates each generation, because (without cultural value) there’s just no where to go.”One interviewer asked if the beach affects his playing; another cut in to ask how his city affects him; a third asked about the mountains. Marsalis lumps them together to explain how the all environments flow through the jazz player.”Everything affects you – you’re playing that evening, on the beachfront, in front of the mountains, or in someone’s house, and that moment will never be the same,” he said. “When people come to something and they have a desire to see you play it influences and affects you. It might not sound better on the tape, but you can feel it when you play.”Even the most high-concept questions fail to throw Marsalis off his game.
“If I had to pick one artist who’s jazzy, it’s Matisse – he allowed me to use ‘Icarus’ for the album ‘Music of the Blues,'” he said. “But as an American jazz musician, the invention of the collage is very important, so it could be Mondrian. I was ignorant of who the man was, but once I learned, I realized his ethic has come the closest.”One interviewer asks if Marsalis only hears his music, or if he can “see” it in shapes, patterns and colors.”I don’t – I live only in sound,” he said. “If anything, it would be more gestural – external manifestations of internal life. I try to get as far into the invisible as possible.”Though it seems outlandish that Marsalis can so easily translate and relate his music to other genres and even mediums, the reasons behind it are obvious: He’s an artistic genius, like Picasso, Einstein or Mozart, and he lives in that rarified plane we can only catch glimpses of when he shares his music with us. He’s the real deal.Arts & Entertainment writer Ted Alvarez can be reached at 748-2939 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado