Steve LeVeille interviews Wynton Marsalis

Text excerpts from a 1994 interview on WBZ Radio

On trumpet players

STEVE: You say – and I can attest to this from having played in the high school band and not having played the trumpet – if there’s ever any trouble in the band, the trumpet player is involved. (laughs)

WYNTON: Definitely. (laughs) Now is that the truth?

STEVE: Yes. (laughs)

WYNTON: That’s how we are. We always are back there counting measures and doing something crazy…picking on somebody, messing with some clarinetist or doing something that we have no business doing. Because trumpet players are belligerent and cocky and, you know, just hard-headed. It’s just a certain characteristic we have. Our instrument makes us that way.

STEVE: You say about reed players – and that was my ah…clarinet and sax – that all we ever do is play with our reed and try to adjust it constantly. (laughs)

WYNTON: Reed players are always licking on reeds, and shaving them, and looking at them. That conditions them to working things out. Because when you see a lot of reed players together – they always get along. They always are talking, “Hey, how you doing?”…”Yeah, I’m going on to Emilio’s and getting my horn fixed. My ‘E’ key is stuck” or “I can’t get my ‘G’ out.” (laughs) Whereas, with trumpet players, we see each other and it’s like we’re getting ready to square off or get into a fight or something.

STEVE: Speaking of squaring off…the second time I saw you perform was in New York at Lincoln Center – this would have been around ’83, ’84, something like that – opening for Maynard Ferguson. Remember that gig?

WYNTON: Right (laughs), I remember that.

STEVE: And for an encore, Maynard was doing his encore, he called you out – eventually Herbie Hancock, who happened to be there but was not on the bill, came out as well – and you and Maynard traded fours and traded solos and the audience went out of its mind! And I think people were like….some of them were rooting for Maynard and some of them were rooting for you like it was a competition. Talking about calling somebody out!…Is that the way trumpet players respond – was there really a competition there or were you guys both just playing great music?

WYNTON: Well, whenever you face a man who’s playing your instrument, there’s a competition. (laughs) But it’s not like a ‘death’ competition, it’s not ‘personal’. It’s fun.. …There’s the tradition in jazz of having the “Battle of the Bands” and you do not want to get your head cut when you’re playing. (laughs) Musicians will tell you, “Oh, I’m just here for the music” and “I believe in love” and all that stuff …and we do. But you do not want to go home with your feelings hurt! (laughs) I remember that night (Ed. note: playing with Ferguson) – now this is over ten years ago – the one strategy that I had was to not play high! (laughter) Because I knew if he got me in the upper register, boy, it was going to be all over. And you know, the same thing is true whenever you have to confront John Fadis. Nobody in the world can play like that. So what you do is: when they go high, you go low. (laughter) Oh, have mercy!

STEVE: You talk about competition among the people in your band. Now, if you’re the boss, I mean…they can’t show you up if you’re the boss. Can they?

WYNTON: They can and do! That’s what they want to do. (laughs) And they enjoy doing it. And I like that kind of dialogue. And boy they’ll talk to you if they get you, “Sounds like you were lost on that one” or “I think I got you on that last one.’ Especially Wes – Wes Anderson is our saxophonist – and he and I have a long-standing competition with each other. I mean, it’s in fun. It’s in fun but it’s serious also.

On live performance

STEVE: You really don’t look at this like a ‘job.’

WYNTON: Oh no. I mean some aspects of it are like a job. I believe in professionalism but playing is not like a job. You have to be grateful to have the opportunity to play. Now when you have to do fifty one-nighters then it’s a grind, it’s like a job. You’re getting up, you’re getting on the bus, you’re going to the next place, you’re doing the master class, you’re doing interviews, you’re doing the gig, you’re signing autographs for the people, you’re ironing your suit, you’re trying to get you some room service…..that’s a job. But my feeling about it – even when it’s like that – is “Thank the good Lord for a job.”

STEVE: And when you get out there on the stage, that’s the end of the job part?

WYNTON: Oh yeah. Then it’s different. Then you’re on the altar, the field of battle. The bandstand is a sacred place. We always say that in the band. Hey, when new cats come in to the band and they’ll be playing…’cause they’re not used to that type of intensity, consistent intensity…so whoever is closest to that person is the one whose job it is to, what we call, put them on a vibe. Generally that conversation will go like, “Hey man, ah.. do you know where you are?” (laughs) They say, “What you mean, man? What you trying to say?” Say, “Look man, this is our bandstand. It’s not a playground. If you don’t want to play get up off the instrument and leave.” Of course, there’s other type of words being used but I can’t use them right now. (laughs) In other words, “We don’t know if you know what we’re doing up here but we’re not doing what you’re doing.” It happens to everybody. It’s part of keeping the intensity up through the entire gig. Keeping your concentration going to play hard all night.

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis

Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center

On the responsibility of the artist

WYNTON: I always think, man, people have taken time out of their day and spent their money to come sit down at a concert. And it’s jazz music – it’s not easy for them to get to it. It’s not like there’s tremendous publicity. It’s not like they see the music on television or they hear a lot of it on the radio. These people have gone out of their way to check this music out. …I’m honored that people will come to see me play. I don’t want them ever to see me and feel that I’m taking their presence lightly, or this music.

On his beginnings as an artist

STEVE: When did you record your first album, when were you first known nationally?

WYNTON: I recorded my first album when I was nineteen, first album under my own name.

STEVE: And you’re the guy who, when that thing first came out…anybody who follows jazz was saying – and I know you’re going to hate this – was saying things like, “There’s a new Miles” or – and I’m not just talking about trumpet players – “There’s a new Coltrane” And they were saying, “This guy is a guy who is THE guy to watch. This guy is going to be THE jazz musician.” Then the next album comes out and people are still talking like that. What did you think about all this when you were first hearing this kind of reaction?

WYNTON: Well, when I was fifteen I went down to a club and sat in with Sonny Stitt. My father was playing with him. And Sonny Stitt told me, “Man, you’re going to be great in this music. I know it. I can see this kind of thing.” Oh, that meant something to me. I thought about that all the time. So I expected that I would be great. And then I saw Sonny Stitt when I was eighteen and I went up to him in a club and said, “I’m Wynton Marsalis” and he didn’t remember me at all. (laughs) But still, those words of encouragement made me think that I had the portential. I figured Sonny Stitt has heard everybody play. And from when I was in high school the word would be on the grapevine that there’s a cat in New Orleans that can play. So when I first came to New York everybody on the scene would treat me like I could play but I couldn’t. So as they started to hear me play they were like, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe he can play but he don’t sound like he can play.” (laughs) By that time – when I released my first album – I had already gone through realizing that I had a long way to go…..I never really had any identity crisis when I was coming up…It was not like in the old days when you had like five jazz trumpet players and somebody would say, “Miles sounds like Fats Navarro. Well, he had to go deal with Fats Navarro. He (Miles Davis) told me once, “Man, you wouldn’t believe how much trumpet Fats Navarro would be playing.” He said when he first came to New York, Fats Navarro would make him stand underneath him…and play all that trumpet in his ear. He said he’d go home ready to cry. Well I never really had that type of situation. I mean the musicians that I respected were much older than me. I expected them to cut my head and they did. I never thought of being in competition with Clark Terry or Sweets Edison or any of the musicians from that other era. And my identity…I never really wondered about it because, unfortunately, I sounded like myself. People be saying I sound like Miles or Clifford Brown. I’d be thinking to myself, “I wish I sounded like them!”

On his “place” in jazz (as of December 1994)

WYNTON: I don’t even feel like I’ve reached the first point of my development where I really can start to contribute something. I feel like this, right now, this next year that’s gonna come up is going to be the first time for me really to assess what I can develop in music. And if I’m willing to study and apply myself with enough fervor and diligence, then I feel that over the next ten or fifteen years I can accomplish something.

STEVE: All right, you have to explain that more for amateurs, right? (laughs) How can Wynton Marsalis say he hasn’t really accomplished anything, hasn’t made it to that first level yet? What does that mean? Tell me a little bit more about that…

WYNTON: Well, I feel that what I really have in my head, my imagination, my understanding of music – I never really get that out – the real expression and feeling I have for music. I’ve had like a long period of time to try to learn the music, to learn about music. Because my generation was very impoverished. And it’s very hard to teach yourself. You have to have a dialogue with people all the time. It’s like trying to play basketball and you’re the only one who really wants to win. You need a team. You need people to push you. You need opponents. In jazz music, for my generation, first it was mislabeled as “instrumental pop music.” Then you had the whole thing with the avant garde music with people squeaking and squawking for hours and saying, “that’s the new music.” And to really take that line of wanting to address Monk’s music and Duke Ellington’s music and the music of Coltrane – the band with McCoy and Elvin and them, or the music of Miles Davis before he started playing rock music…to take that stance and to try to really deal with that difficult music required a certain discipline. And it also required a recognition that I had a long way to go. It’s not the kind of music that you are going to learn to play in three or four years or that you can just get because you have some talent for music.

STEVE: So the band has been the laboratory for you to learn.

WYNTON: Oh yeah, definitely. And now I feel like a lot of the fundamental material, I’ve assimilated. So now the question is: Am I going to really get into my spiritual inheritance of music and really develop my abilities. That’s really a matter of if I can discipline myself. ‘Cause you know, if you get a lot of publicity and you travel around and you get into talking and doing interviews – it’s not like when you were fifteen or sixteen and you be practicing four and five hours a day, and you were just starving and hungry. So I’m always thinking of how I can keep that hunger. That’s why it’s very important for me to really check Duke Ellington out because he’s a phenomena in music. He consistently developed. Fifty years! He just kept going. And it’s very hard to just keep that type of concentration for that long.

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