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For Wynton Marsalis, forgetting the roots of jazz is forgetting the history of race in America

The legend explains again why he dislikes hip-hop, and jazz’s identity problem

My former employer, Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), invited me to moderate a panel discussion on jazz and race at its first Jazz Congress conference in New York this week.

Wynton Marsalis is the artistic and managing director for JALC. I’ve known him for nearly 25 years and worked alongside him for six years. From time to time, we’ve been able to steal a moment here or there to chat about things, but it’s been a long time since we’ve had a chance to have an extended dialogue, so I used this opportunity to sit down with him and have an in-depth discussion about the topic at hand: jazz and race.


JALC is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and Marsalis is showing no signs of slowing down. He has never been one to shy away from speaking his mind on the record as well as on issues of race. He won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for his jazz oratorio Blood on the Fields, which deals with slavery, and the content from his 2007 album From the Plantation to the Penitentiary is self-explanatory.

When asked about the impetus for the panel discussion on jazz and race, he replied, “Because race, race relations, racial tensions, racial harmony and questions of freedom are all tied up with the identity of jazz from its birth.”

Jazz music and Marsalis were both born in New Orleans. Dolores Marsalis gave birth to Marsalis at Flint Goodridge Hospital, and the mythic birthplace of jazz was Congo Square, an open space in the Tremé neighborhood.

When he talks about the origin of jazz, Marsalis is quick to point out the dangers of falling prey to a false binary choice.

“First off, the amalgam of elements in Afro-American music and in jazz come from different forms of European music, like the march form and the combination of a fiddle style or a European parlor piano style, which, when combined with the arpeggiated sound of a banjo and syncopation, becomes ragtime.

“The fact that the slaves could play the drums in New Orleans at Congo Square when they weren’t permitted to in other parts of the South allowed the drums to become the centerpiece of the style. Now the drums, while rooted in Africa, is Afro-American, which is American. To be Afro-American is also to be part Anglo-American. That is at the root of many of the problems related to race in America. It’s hard for us to come to grips with that notion. We have been conditioned into making a false binary choice, an either/or, when life isn’t that cut and dried. Oftentimes it’s both/and. But it’s hard for us to reconcile that both/and when we are so used to having to choose sides.”

Marsalis considers jazz to be America’s gift to the rest of the world and a perfect metaphor for democracy. Which is ironic because it is an art form forged in a foundry by founders who were not free.

“Now in terms of freedom, I think the way that the original jazz musician viewed freedom was extremely acute. It’s like the way a person who hasn’t eaten for days views food as opposed to someone who has a refrigerator full of food, like the way that people who were denied the right to vote, the way that they went out and voted when they finally got the right to vote as opposed to people who already had the right to vote and took it for granted.”

From the early 1900s until the 1950s, there was a very strong dance element to jazz music that began to fade. Marsalis believes that this is one of the contributing factors to the eventual decline in the popularity of jazz, which is now very much a niche music. In 2014, jazz only accounted for 1.4 percent of U.S. music consumption.

“We don’t have a national dance tradition that is intergenerational. Many South American countries have a national dance like samba or tango that is intergenerational that everyone can do that has some type of sexual content that is not pornographic. In a culture, there has to be a way that dance can express a fertility in the intermingling of the sexes that is not pornography. The only dance that we can think of like that in America is the Electric Slide at weddings. We had to find something, because you know you can’t be grabbing on grandma.”

“We need something that is going to engender a mutual respect as opposed to the trash that we give our young people today.”

One of the most devastating impacts on our culture in general, and niche music genres like jazz in particular, is the commodification of music, Marsalis says.

“At some point, people were trying to figure out how to sell music. In music, like anything else, when your primary goal is to sell, then you are going to focus on and highlight aspects that are most marketable, and many of those have nothing to do with music, like someone’s looks, their charisma or some type of tribal association. For instance, country music now is being equated with the military and with being white. That has nothing to do with the birth and origins of that music. Hip-hop is equated with some of the most pathological aspects of being black, and from the music has blossomed a culture of materialism and barbershop-level political discourse. It has also been used to reconnect with the minstrel tradition, with the ’hood replacing the plantation.

“The originators of that form were just creating something with what they had. Their creation was co-opted to tell an old tale. ‘Black people ain’t s—, especially men.’ Then, resources and support came pouring in from all corners of the country because that’s a comfortable story. Black and white people playing together and coming up with something creative, virtuosic, socially aware and elevatory is considered subversive. That’s why it’s so rare to see in the actual public space like on television.”

All of this conspires to create those false binary choices that force us to choose sides. In discussing how polarized we’ve become as a country, we both harkened back to one of our favorite quotes about American and Afro-American identity from Harold Cruse in his 1967 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership:

Said Marsalis: “… without a cultural identity that adequately defines himself, the Negro cannot even identify with the American nation as a whole. The fact of the matter is that American whites, as a whole, are just as much in doubt about their nationality, their cultural identity, as are Negroes. Thus the problem of the Negro cultural identity is an unsolved problem within the context of an American nation that is still in the process of formation.”

America is a very young country when we compare ourselves to other countries and cultures, and as such it would stand to reason that our cultural identity is in limbo and still in the process of formation.

Marsalis sees jazz as part of the solution for a shared cultural mythology between blacks and whites as Americans that could help move the needle on race relations. The problem is that both blacks and whites aren’t willing to allow jazz to be placed in its rightful place on the cultural landscape of American greatness.

Interestingly, that cultural mythology already exists in other parts of the world. Jazz has been and continues to be celebrated abroad as a uniquely American art form while at the same time being understood to be Afro-American.

Marsalis explained: “In the places abroad, mainly European countries, they have a tradition of listening, especially to long-form music. They have a concert tradition where music is removed from dance, which suited jazz once the communal dance element stopped being a part of the music like it was from the early 1900s to about 1950.

“They accepted it because it was Western art, they could accept an African-European combination, the Americanism, the optimism in the music. There was also a level of one-upmanship by the Europeans who were saying that America was supposed to be this bastion of freedom, but look how you dog these black musicians and we accept them over here. So in that way it was symbiotic, because the jazz musicians liked to say it and the people in those countries liked to say it.

“The population at that time [1940s-’60s] in those countries did not have the same type of pressure to denigrate people who were not like them, especially people with brown skin. There was less pressure to do that. Of course now there is much more pressure because their brown populations are larger. Also, it didn’t drive Europeans crazy that a black dude was with a white lady. Don’t get me wrong. They didn’t like it, but they didn’t go crazy over it, where in America you could get killed over it at that time. A false construct like race which has been used to lord power over the designated group must be protected with punishment and violence. Because if not, people will realize it’s all some bulls—.”

When asked what are the barriers to jazz becoming the catalyst for a shared cultural identity that could help advance the national conversation on race, Marsalis responded, “Jazz is not really in the contemporary conversation on race in any meaningful way because it is the one form of entertainment that was integrated first. So if you’re looking to sell something and you’re looking for the kind of titillating thing that’s on one side or the other, you need people cursing and acting a fool.

“Jazz is too rational. It has a history of maturity and of confronting different issues from different perspectives.”

Another reason is because jazz suffers from an identity problem of its own. Every musical genre is defined by a rhythm. There is no consensus among the jazz community as to what if any rhythm defines jazz.

Marsalis has been on a crusade for the past 30-plus years to promote swing as the foundational rhythm of jazz.

“Swing is the rhythmic identity of the music. Musical genres are defined by rhythm and the swing pattern is the foundational identity of jazz.

“Aside from the technical aspects of swing, there are elements to it that when done a certain way can bring about something that is fundamental to resolving differences.

“It’s about opposites coming together. The bass has to be at a certain volume, it has to be soft to make the drums play softer. The loudest instrument has to play with the softest instrument. Jazz is a music that depends on a balance and an intimacy because it is a music of conversation and dialogue.

“The mobility of the bass allows you to have conversations that are ongoing. Once the bass becomes immobile, meaning playing the same pattern over and over again, the music can still be great, but it regulates the way you are going to speak in that conversation.”

When asked why there is so much rancor over something seemingly so trivial, Marsalis said, “… because swing is equated with the American Negro, and nothing objective that comes from the American Negro is being studied with any level of seriousness by any significant numbers of whites or blacks in this country.”

Over the years, there have been some collateral damage in the black community over some of Marsalis’ musings about jazz and his promotion of swing.

I asked Marsalis questions that many black folks ask me when they find out that I worked with him.

Does Marsalis really think less of other forms of black music like rhythm and blues? Does he think there is some type of hierarchy?

Does Marsalis still hate hip-hop?

In response to the first question, Marsalis said:

“It is hierarchical. Let’s be clear, there are hierarchies in everything that exists. Like a family, like a classroom has a teacher, a basketball team has a point guard. Hierarchy doesn’t mean that one thing is necessarily better than another. It just means that there is a relationship of how things relate to one another.

“Those other forms of music came out of jazz. Any form of music with a bass and a drum can draw a line back to jazz. The difference is, like I said before, when the bass becomes immobile the conversation and dialogue become constrained.

“But where we find ourselves now, it really doesn’t even make sense to talk about hierarchies because we have slid so far from where we once were as a culture. It’s like food companies are trying to figure how much food can I take out of this food and still be able to sell it as food.”

In response to the hip-hop question, Marsalis smiled wryly and said, “The results of its 40-year reign are clear. You can draw your own conclusion.

“I’ve said to people over and over again that it is the minstrel show of our time, and nothing that I have seen in this time period has dissuaded me from that point of view — listening to it, having kids that like it, reading books about it, checking out the lyrics. Nothing has dissuaded me from that as a generalization.

“Are there people with a tremendous amount of creativity? Yes. Human beings are creative in whatever they do. If you read that manual that was published during slavery times about how they kept slaves in order, that was creative.”

(Something struck a chord, so he stood up and began to gesticulate as he continued.)

“Look at where we are. Look at how the language has changed. Look at male-female dance and relationships. Look at our young people. I’m not opposed to hip-hop. I just don’t think that it should be mainstream. When the default position is that a black person is a n—– and a woman is a b—–, then how can you side with that?”

He began to calm down, sat down next to me and said to me in a hushed, almost defeated tone.

“I don’t really argue about it anymore. I spent my 20s and 30s arguing about this, but then it dawned on me that people want this, and now 40 years later the results are clear.

“So the people have spoken.”

As we wrapped up, I referred Marsalis to the article that The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears wrote about Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan being inspired by Marsalis’ book Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life.

I asked him to explain how the fundamental aspects of jazz could be helpful to people in their everyday lives the same way that it was beneficial to Donovan.

“Jazz can help us all understand how to better manage our space in relation to other people’s space. The three fundamental aspects of jazz are:

“Improvisation: I am. Identifying who you are and bringing your unique self and personality to the table.

“Swing: It’s the opposite of that. Other people have personalities too. Other people need space too. With the same intensity of how you found yourself, find them. Find that common ground and nurture it. In jazz, it’s the opposites. The bass is way down at the bottom and the cymbals are way at the top, and they have to play on every beat together.

“The blues: Stuff doesn’t work out sometimes.”

At that I ended with my final question: “As you know, in the blues form, there’s a turnaround. It’s the place in the music for me when you can palpably feel the hope in the music. For many, Obama represented the ultimate turnaround for black people. It feels now like we’ve gone back to the top of the form.

“Where do you see the next turnaround coming?”

He smiled at me and said, “I don’t see it coming, but I believe in it. I believe in it because, because I believe that your belief creates it and if enough people believe, you all can create it together, and that’s the essence of democratic action. We’ve seen it time and time again in different ways.”

Andre Kimo Stone Guess is a writer and cultural critic from the Smoketown neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. He was VP and Producer for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and CEO of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh. He now runs GuessWorks, Inc. with his wife Cheryl.