THE BLOG
01/18/2009 10:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Third Screen: An Interview with Wynton Marsalis

Al Hirt may have given Wynton Marsalis his first trumpet. His dad may have stressed the value of meaningful education. New Orleans may have inspired him and surrounded him with the power of music growing up. His "Blood in the Fields" oratorio may have given him the Pulitzer Prize. And Brooklyn, he tells me, may have been the place where he first put together his world view. But no one village could have raised this child. For one thing, he doesn't stand still. For another -- trust me on this -- if you think he's a virtuoso on the trumpet, wait till you hear the virtuosity of the concert he's doing for Martin Luther King and the Inauguration Monday night at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It has jazz greats. It has dance legends. It has Jessye Norman, Angela Bassett, and Courtney Vance. And it has as its centerpiece a live conversation on jazz and democracy between Marsalis and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor who, according to Marsalis, "is just a country girl at heart who loves Bob Wells and the Texas Playboys." I caught up with Marsalis by phone while he was on the road this weekend, somewhere between New York and Charleston, and we, too, talked jazz and democracy ...

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Third Screen: Tell me about Sandra Day O'Connor and jazz.

Wynton Marsalis: We were sitting at a dinner for the Rockefeller Foundation and we began talking about jazz and the similarities of jazz and the Constitution, and how the different branches of government function like the different functions of jazz. I was shocked that she knew so much about the music. I had brushed up on my Constitution the night before so I wouldn't make any gaffs. It was a fascinating conversation.

Third Screen: Jazz as a model of democracy?

Wynton Marsalis: It's really not a stretch. The checks and balances are the same. The drums are the executive branch. The jazz orchestra is the legislative branch. Logic and reason are like jazz solos. The bass player is the judicial branch. One our greatest ever is Milt Hinton, and his nickname is "The Judge."

Third Screen: How did it wind up at the Kennedy Center Monday night?

Wynton Marsalis: The Rockefeller Foundation agreed to put on a concert to celebrate the relationship of jazz to the Constitution, centered on a dialogue she and I would have. We put it together so that it would tie-in with Obama and Martin Luther King's Birthday. It was totally unexpected. Not anything you could plan.

Third Screen: The mission of Jazz for Lincoln Center, is " Jazz -- we play it, we teach it, we write it, we dance it, we sing it, we present it, we photograph it, we film it, we produce it, we archive it, we record it, we broadcast it, we commission it, we celebrate it, we love it, we share it." And in your latest book, How Jazz Can Change Your Life, you say "jazz is about mutual respect." Is this how you see a thriving democracy then?

Wynton Marsalis: Jazz comes from our way of life, and because it's our national art form, it helps us to understand who we are.

Third Screen: What can the history of jazz teach us?

Wynton Marsalis: The history of jazz lets us know that this period in our history is not the only period we've come through together. If we truly understood the history of our national arts, we'd know that we have mutual aspirations, a shared history, in good times and bad. We have triumphed and failed, but we're always in it together. I travel up and down the country and I've been all around the middle of America for many years. Middle America is not one big mass of people with a proverbial beer in its hand, keeping the country down. That is not my experience of it and I don't labor under that misconception. And we have a long tradition of coming together through music in our country. Benny Goodman's band was integrated before baseball. Even before it was physically integrated, music was integrated. Everyone listened to Armstrong and Ellington. The 20s was called the Jazz Age. It's part of being American.

Third Screen: You won the Pulitzer for "Blood in the Fields," an oratorio on the history of slavery. What was that like?

Wynton Marsalis: Many heroic things happened during slavery. And remember that there was a national movement away from it even at the time. The era of Reconstruction and then the subsequent dismantling of Reconstruction sent us in a tailspin. Then we had the Civil Rights movement. Now we have our first non-white president. We have a pattern of moving apart and then coming back together throughout the history of this country. Each time, we come closer.

Third Screen: Why is it important to you that jazz be a way of understanding this country?

Wynton Marsalis: I didn't have a philosophical understanding of music until I came to New York. I didn't understand how it applied to my kind and my generation. I thought it was just old people talking. When I came to New York, to Brooklyn, I met Alvin Ailey and Stanley Crouch and August Wilson. They were always putting things in a philosophical context. All the great jazz musicians did, too. There was always a sub-context to what they were saying about music even though they would be very down home and earthy. So I started to develop, in addition to my power and ability to simply hear, a way to place myself in a time.

Third Screen: What do you worry about when you see what's happening in the world of music?

Wynton Marsalis: I worry more about the marketing that's taken hold since the 70s. The Jazz era, the Swing era, those were huge. Entire decades were named for music. In the 1940s -- after World War II -- changes in taxation, ballrooms closing, people moving to the suburbs, and the onset of target marketing and the confusion of commerce with art caused some things to happen as a result that have taken us away from jazz and what jazz offers us.

Third Screen: What is the real shared value of jazz?

Wynton Marsalis: Jazz celebrates older generations and not just the youth movement. When you "sell" only to people of a certain age, you get cut off from the main body of experience. The power of couple dancing and courtship, it's elegant, and you wouldn't realize America was once a nation of dancers and singers today. People of all races could dance and sing. The black hole in democracy is integrity. The great unspoken is integrity. When integrity is not first and foremost, it's quite palpable but not visible. It's always there. Jazz highlights it because musicians and jazz always represented a high level of integrity.

Third Screen: If we can all play, or sing, or dance, what makes it an art?

Wynton Marsalis: Music is the art of all the invisible things that are real. Art, emotion, spiritual essence, consciousness -- these things are hard to prove. Music helps you to focus on your sound. We understand that for very young kids. Young kids are always singing and painting. When you get to that second and third grade level, you're supposed to put all that aside. What takes its place is very dry education. And the tools that actually can teach you -- singing and playing, learning how to participate with other people, spiritual richness -- are replaced with a big emphasis on how to memorize things. That's such an incomplete education. Survival of the fittest used to mean being bigger and stronger. But there's another type -- when those who are educated using their education to exploit those who aren't. That's what the sub-prime scandal represents -- people of education using it at the expense of others. At Jazz at Lincoln Center, we have 22 educational programs. Not just the word but the substance of education is guided by the arts.

Third Screen: When did you discover your sound?

Wynton Marsalis: I always knew I had one, I just didn't know if it was very good.

Third Screen: Martin Luther King Day concert and the inauguration are big events for everyone in this country. How do you feel about the Obama presidency?

Wynton Marsalis: I think it's great for the nation. I thought Obama was the most qualified, presented the best campaign, was the most disciplined. He should have won. It wasn't so shocking to me. Obama did not run as a black person. He ran as an American. His election is a triumph for our democratic process more than a racial triumph. It's important for us to re-assert the integrity of the democratic process and that has nothing to do with the color of a person's skin. The election is much more of a culture issue than a color issue. The values of music are aligned with the values of the constitution. The cultural issues are still out there to be grappled with in the remaining year.

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