After my interview request with trumpet player and band leader Wynton Marsalis (1961), I do not expect him to reply immediately. However, a lady from New York is on the phone, saying: “Mister Marsalis will call you back within 15 minutes.” I quickly jot down some questions.
The Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra is mainly focused on historic jazz. Where does your fascination with the past come from?
“I don’t believe in the distinction between old and new music.”
How do you describe the music you make with the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra?
“It doesn’t matter what style you play. What matters is that what you do is good. Too many music critics think that new is the same as good. Moreover, they call the way of improvising new that was already being played in the sixties. In 1910, Picasso started to work on a style that we have come to call Cubism. Lesser gods imitated him and then painted in a cubistic manner too, thinking they were being innovative. In the meantime, Picasso was studying ancient African art. In music, it is no different. Truly great composers like Bach and Stravinsky were inspired by all kinds of music which they incorporated in their compositions. For them, achieving great musical heights was more important than the need to be innovative. Good music is timeless.”
You know how to enthuse children for music in general and jazz in particular. In addition to your many performances and your other activities, do you still have time for music education?
“If we are not careful, our children will be completely at the mercy of commerce. We have an obligation to introduce young people to music that goes beyond the trash that you hear on commercial radio and television stations. Raising interest in music is less difficult than you think. You can see young people beam when you introduce them to really good music. They know perfectly well whether you take them seriously or not. I treat students as if they were my own children. If I had to rank my activities, music education would be number one.”
You have recorded several classical CDs. You won Grammy Awards for your albums with music by Haydn, Mozart, Handel and Purcell. How does classical music relate to jazz in your opinion?
“Jazz music, like that of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, is the classical music of America. One of the aims of my work at Lincoln Center in New York is to give this jazz music official status. I play both composed and improvised music, but I can tell you that playing good jazz music is the hardest thing there is. Classical musicians sometimes think that jazz musicians have a natural sense of timing, or that swing is something that is passed on genetically. If that were true, how come there has only been one Louis Armstrong in history?”
What led you to record religious albums like The Abyssinian Mass and The Spiritual Side of Wynton Marsalis?
“Jazz music originated from gospel and blues. In New Orleans, where I grew up, hand clapping, shaking tambourines and call-and-response singing are inseparable parts of a Sunday church service. That is where my roots are.”
What do you think of European jazz?
“European jazz? What do you mean by that?”
I mean improvised music as made in Scandinavia, the UK and the Netherlands, among others.
“Jazz is American music. The music you mention is at most derived from it.”