Q

Wynton Marsalis on segregation, jazzocracy and activism through instrumental music

The Pulitzer Prize-winning trumpeter talked about how jazz is the perfect metaphor for democracy, the ‘60s segregation in music and who inspired his latest album The Democracy! Suite.

’In our country, the left and the right are both corrupt,’ said the Pulitzer Prize-winning trumpeter

The Pulitzer Prize-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. (Submitted.)

Wynton Marsalis has been at the forefront of jazz since the '80s. In 2009, the multi-Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning trumpeter, composer, band leader and the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center played a private party at the White House in honour of America's then-newly inaugurated President Obama.

Fast forward to last Wednesday — the inauguration of the U.S. President Joe Biden — when Marsalis joined Tom Power on CBC Radio's q to talk about politics, the connection between jazz and social change, and what he meant when he said that "jazz is the perfect metaphor for democracy."

He also talks about the '60s segregation and where he drew the inspiration for his latest album The Democracy! Suite.

WATCH | Wynton Marsalis's full interview with q's Tom Power:

'The constitution held' but... 

Marsalis said he found the most recent presidential election satisfactory, based on the number of people that voted, the debates that took place as well as the acts of citizenship that he saw in various states. 

"The constitution held," noted the virtuoso trumpeter about the recent transition of power, but he added that he is wary of the next steps. 

"Let's see if we can do what we need to do to get on the right track, and then hold those accountable. We'll need to be accountable after we get ourselves together."

Although satisfied, Marsalis explained that he's not celebrating because in America "the left and the right are both corrupt." Lawlessness happens often in these situations and we've seen it play before our eyes, "not just in this present time, but across time," he observed. "You get to a certain point and you go too far." 

"People who had been abusing power went too far."

Jazzocracy explained

Marsalis, 59, has been thinking about democracy and our way of life for decades. "I've been writing pieces [of music] for 40 years that deal with issues of equality and freedom and human experience."

"My first question in my jazz classes is always, 'What does the United States Constitution do?' Because I find that our music is very, very closely aligned with the pursuit of balance and the ideology that is expressed in the constitutional ideals."

From the jazz icon's perspective, the genre is a metaphor for democracy. He explained that all art forms are "metaphors for the ways of life that they come from, because there's nothing else they can be."

Jazz itself is a way to mythologize our way of life and the challenges of it, and also the benefits of it.- Wynton Marsalis

Looking at the musical aspects of improvisation, balance, resilience and progress, Marsalis is able to parallel it with democracy, much like q's previous guest Nick Nurse did when he compared jazz to basketball. 

Marsalis explains that improvisation, for instance, is something that he views as a symbol of personal freedom, but it also has its challenges — "because when everybody starts to improvise, it sounds like noise."

"So then, we have something called swing. Swing is organizing rhythm and it's a principle. It means now it's on you, and you have the responsibility to achieve balance. That means how loud you play, how long you solo, how acute you are about other members of the group — the fact that you have to know the arrangement, you have to know the chord progressions." 

Jazz, on the other hand, he said, can't be played in the same way because it requires finding a balance with people who don't necessarily want to be balanced. "So the desire to swing is the thing that has come most under fire in the last 20 or so years in jazz — even before that, because it requires you to share space." 

And "Blues is a resilience and an optimism that's not naive."

Wynton Marsalis (Photo by Lawrence Sumulong)

"In terms of our understanding of these things (the fundamentals), jazz puts you in contact with the type of decision making that's required. ... It teaches you how to discern the difference between two things that seem the same, but are not the same." 

Much like two alto saxophonists who play the same instruments, he noted, it's not easy to identify the difference between what they are playing. They play the same instrument but "in their playing, they have different objectives." 

"If you look at how we achieve balance, the drums are the loudest instrument. It's supposed to play on every beat with the bass, which is the softest instrument. The cymbal is the highest pitch and is forced on every beat to play with the lowest pitch, which is the bass. 

"The piano is a percussion instrument with melodic properties so it plays in the rhythm section and is also a soloist, it's like the Congress. It plays all of the keys, it can perform all the functions and he can play by itself." 

The bass is like the judiciary, adds Marsalis, because the bottom of the harmony determines the direction of the progression and sets the volume of the band. "You can always tell how civilized the band is by its attention to a bass, if the bass is not amplified."

"Now, the amplifiers made it so that issues of balance sometimes are just on the sound man. So that's a different proposition, a different style of music. That's not good or bad, it's just different, different styles, different objectives."

Behind the instrumental music of social change

Social justice has always been weaved into Marsalis's sonic fabric. This is evident in his 1997 album Black Codes Underground, Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio Blood In The Fields from 1997, 2007's From The Plantation To The Penitentiary and his 2021 release, The Democracy! Suite.

Marsalis's track, Be Present, from his latest album, reflects on the current state of affairs — at a time when democracy has been severely tested in the U.S.

Music of social change is often connected to powerful lyrics that are meant to inspire or influence a mindset change, but The Democracy! Suite is an instrumental album, which begs the question: can it have the same effect?

"Instrumental music actually goes deeper than words because words are removed from the experience," said Marsalis.

Music is the art of the invisible stuff, like thoughts, emotions, memories, aspirations. Music deals with all of that and that's why it's so powerful in that space.- Wynton Marsalis

The ability to hear instrumental music is a skill, he explains, likening it to hearing the sound of a voice — it's not about what you say, but how you sound while saying it that gets response from people.

The inspiration for Marsalis's activism came from his late father and the struggling but politically acute musicians he grew up around, who would talk about Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy or the Civil Rights Act.

"Musicians always have a lot of political consciousness and a lot of social understanding. They were always involved in some type of education." They also lived real lives and struggled with getting by, dying of drug overdoses and had other problems in their personal lives, remembered Marsalis. "All of these things are very real." 

His path was shaped by the environment he grew up in but also the music he was listening to in school: Sonny Rollins' Freedom Suite — similar in name to his The Democracy! Suite — and Coltrane's A Love Supreme.

While the music in the '60s was segregated, "jazz was always integrated," he said. "Jazz was a very different music." 

"My father was one of the only people I know of who knew white people," the musician remembered. In those times, Marsalis's father played with a bass player who was white, but the two still respected and loved each other, which further inspired him, he explained. 

"[I] remember, thinking, 'Damn, look at that.' Like, that's just how powerful that was as a symbol. And that is a symbol of democracy."

"I always feel grateful that I was his son. Just seeing him struggle with life like how he did. [But] he was good to tease too, man. You've never had a better person to tease, to play with... I would mess with him all the time. It can be a very serious thing, I still would joke around. But sometimes he didn't want to laugh about stuff. He'd be like, 'Just ain't the time for that.'" 

Desegregating the arts 

Marsalis joined The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts some 30 years ago and said that the institution was founded on the words: "No segregation, no generation gap, and all of our music is modern."

No segregation

"People love segregation, because there's power in it. … We're in a really heavy period of tribalism now. And that track can be set up anyway. It can be set up by race, it can be set up by agenda, set up by age. So no segregation [means] we want to invite everybody in and make people be comfortable with what we're doing because that was also what I perceived to be the ethos of jazz. 

No generation gap

Marsalis explained that 30 years ago, "they found that the separation of the generations in America is worse than the other segregations." It's because younger generations are being exploited as a market at the early age of 10 which, by their 30s, turns into exploiting their sexuality. "And now, it's just going on unchecked." 

"We always go a step too far," reiterated Marsalis, adding that we need to bring "the old and the younger people" together. 

"We don't have dances that we do together, no rituals of courtship that have [different] generations, no real dialogue between generations. [So] it's very important to have that, kind of, entire cycle of life present. Social things, not just the wedding or a church that you're forced to go to." 

To say that all jazz is modern is a battle, explained the nine-time Grammy winner. "The way [people] separate jazz from itself is by saying "it should be rock and roll," because of its perception as the music of the future, or even European avant-garde. 

"You got rock and roll, which comes from a version of jazz, and you have European avant-garde, which is a philosophical position. It's not really in alignment with jazz."

"You're put in an unwinnable situation, you're put in a situation where for you to be a jazz musician on the cutting edge of something, you have to either try to be like [Arnold] Schoenberg and come to those kind of proto-Germanic solutions — that came around the turn of the 20th century from Europe — or you have to be, you know, pop music and the kind of funk music we played when I was in high school. 

"And that still remains a battle. Because this is something built in our country. It's not so much about jazz, it's more about just the basic racism of what is our way."

The question of jazz's position in American culture concerns the relationship of slavery to the American identity and mythology. So you know, Black Americans today have very little or no knowledge of jazz. It's our greatest achievement [and] we don't know anything about it.- Wynton Marsalis

There's "a systemic investment in the destruction of jazz." And the education system where we should be able to learn about these things, is ensuring that that doesn't happen by remaining ignorant," he said. 

"Now, I don't blame that on white Americans. That's just the reality of the situation. Because there's always white and black people on either side of many issues. So to reduce it to white versus black, is to do it great disservice."

And the pandemic only amplified this situation, Marsalis noted. Artists in general are in a precarious situation but "for jazz, it is a struggle."

He explained that many jazz musicians are trying to figure out how to survive, yet he remains positive saying that things will get back to normal and the music will continue; however, people will need to recognize the importance of reopening venues where jazz can continue to thrive.

"We, all races, have a responsibility in this," said Marsalis, but it all boils down to two things: symbiosis and whether we're willing to come together despite our differences or predatory behaviours where the strong exploit and subjugate the weak.

"These are the things we are always fighting with."


Written by Vanja Mutabdzija Jaksic. Interview produced by Ben Edwards.

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