Thoughts from beyond the “echo chamber”. A Chromatik interview with Branford Marsalis.

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis

From the perspective of Branford Marsalis, the generations of musicians coming up today need an attitude adjustment and he’s here to break it all down for us. Between American’s need for immediate gratification to musicians losing interest for their own music, it seems something needs to be done to advance the music. As both an observer and an active participant, Branford Marsalis gives an opinion or two in the way only he can. Read on as we dissect the industry, music students, and university educations among other topics he feels passionate about.

Your family has been a driving force in both jazz music and the education of musicians. You won the Jazz Master’s Award as a family pretty recently as well, right?

Yeah, it’s funny. I just received an email to respond to something because two years ago we won the Jazz Master’s Award as a family. There is all of this collective hand wringing in the jazz community and somebody wrote a piece saying that we needed to defend it, like we needed to defend our selection. A friend of mine who’s a writer wrote in asking if I wanted to comment on this idea that you need to defend it. So I just wrote it this morning actually. I said, “The great thing about not living in the echo chamber, meaning New York, is that you start to get a relationship with the world again.” I grew up in New Orleans and then moved to New York. And once you leave New York, you realize how non-existent jazz is everywhere else. So when we have these discussions about the most important this or the most important that or taking the world by storm; the world doesn’t even know who we are. And I think if more musicians understood that, then they might amend some of the ways they think about music, if it’s at all possible that they could. But when you live in the echo chamber, it’s like the frog in the well. You’re worldview becomes the well.

I wrote that in North Carolina I had a bunch of people congratulating me for receiving this award. I know they’re not jazz fans, so I said, “Where did you hear about it?” They said, “Oh, we read it on the ticker on the bottom of the newscast.” So then I started thinking, well, when the great musicians won it I wonder if there was a ticker at the bottom. So I just started to ask them, “Well have you ever heard of the Jazz Masters Award?” No. “Have you ever heard of Benny Golson?” No. “You ever heard of Phil Woods?” No. “You ever heard of Kenny Clarke?” No. “You ever hear of Kenny Barron?” No. “You ever heard of Ron Carter?” No.

So to me, it seems like what the Jazz Masters or what the NEA did was, they made a decision that would enhance the marketability of the product. But of course because the musicians and the people that write about the music live in a vacuum. They wouldn’t even consider that as an option. The discussion is on the artistic merits for whether we actually deserve the award or not, which the answer is, no we don’t. But in an era where there is budget tightening all over the place and of course as you know, the arts are the first things to be cut. It is entirely plausible that the NEA is fighting for its existence in the era of a Tea Party where Republicans are trying to cut everything. And things should be cut; we’re in a budget crisis. But like in the universities, why should band be cut and football remain other than the fact that football makes a ton of money and music programs make none? So if they could do something to enhance the viability of the award itself, or the marketability of the award, they can preserve the award.

Given the fact that Americans have this really nutty obsession with families, they decided to give it not to my father, but to the family. And now suddenly there are news stories coming out all over the place. Every article says “NEA Jazz Master’s Award.” For the first time, and they have an entry into certain elements of popular music. That seems like a smart plan to me. But in the jazz community, which is often massively insecure, constantly introspective, and limited in their thinking to be honest, the only question is whether it was an artistically valid decision. Art has nothing to do with it. People make artistically valid decisions all of the time and cease to exist. At the end of my letter I wrote, “And this year, now Mose Allison is going to be a Jazz Master and the hand wringing has already begun.” Does Mose Allison deserve to be in the same arena as all of the great piano players – Art Tatum, Bill Evan, you know? Here we are with the same dumb ass discussion again.

How do you see the state of music education now considering all of the arts cuts as well as all of the technology that is making music more accessible?

Well entertainment, yes, not the arts. Arts aren’t accessible at all. Entertainment is extremely accessible. You know, singers get younger and younger. When I was a 17-year-old kid there were no 17-year-old singers. All of the singers were adults. So the singers get younger and younger. They are less musically skilled. They have good voices, but they are less musically skilled. Entire projects are put together by DJs. So basically, kids today want to be pop singers. My girls even want to be Disney channel singers or X100 singers. And then the others want to be rappers. What they constantly see, if they see an instrument at all, is a guitar or an electronic keyboard or drum set. They don’t see saxophones, they don’t see trumpets, and they don’t see trombones. So there are a handful of places in the country, mostly in the Midwest, but also in the Far West like Seattle and places like that, where kids actually play instruments. And in New Orleans, thank God, they play instruments. That’s because we have a culture that supersedes pop cultures setting the tone for our cultural experience.

So a lot of times, the people who have the most talent to play the music don’t have any access to instruments. They have a desire to play music so they do other things. They sing or they produce. It’s different, you know. That’s the big problem. How do you get access for the people that have talent?

Do you see any solutions happening as of yet?

The New York City schools don’t have bands. The schools in the system don’t have bands. That’s the solution. Bands. Most of the kids today that play music can’t read music. Yet, the music they’re playing doesn’t require them to either. So if I have a friend of mine who wants to play keyboard in a gospel band, they all have great ears and they learn by ear, why should he read music? You know, he doesn’t want to be a studio musician, he doesn’t want to be a classical musician, he’s not going to pick up gigs. He doesn’t need to read. You know, friends of mine who are rappers don’t need to read either. They don’t even need to write. They need to sound good.

So if you’re not going to have school bands, that’s where kids learn to read. That’s where they need to read. Every week we learn new music, we read new charts. Then reading becomes a priority.

There is a large community of university-taught musicians on the scene today. Do you see university as a necessity for becoming a professional musician?

No I don’t think it’s a necessity. In our country we’ve made it a necessity. Universities are repositories for information. You could get the information in other ways though. The thing that makes universities necessary is that if I wanted to do research on music and a comparative analysis between the philosophies of Camus and Rilke. I could do that on my own, but it would be much easier if I could affiliate myself or align myself with a professor who has already read both extensively and then find someone else who has written about music extensively and use them together. The university setting is perfect for that. But the idea of learning how to play music in any university system is a flawed proposition. You can learn how to play an instrument in a school, but learning how to play music, that’s personal. You have to figure that out.

It’s no different than watching college athletics. Certain kids figure it out and certain kids don’t figure it out. The thing that’s funny about athletics is that you see it all the time. All of the extra training in the world helps you with your polish, but it doesn’t help you with your cognition. Without cognition you can’t have intuition.

What were some of your most pivotal moments in learning music?

Well when I was a kid I played in a band. It was an R&B band and we had a Monday night talent show, which meant that I had to learn all of the songs on the radio. The club owners didn’t want same old songs every week. They wanted to hear whatever was on the radio. If the people were dancing then they were drinking and people weren’t going to dance to the same songs over and over again. But the guys in my band wouldn’t learn the songs. So I would learn the songs for them. I would learn everybody’s parts. When I first started doing it I was 15 and it took me a day to learn one song. By the time I was 17, it would take me 6-minutes on a 4-minute song because of the repetition of doing that. I could learn them off the radio; I didn’t even have to buy the 45s anymore. I could listen to them on the radio and write it down as it was going across on the radio. What I missed I would wait for in the next hour when they would play it again.

What about in the bands that you played in, were there any pivotal mentors?

Art Blakey when I moved to New York. He taught me that I didn’t know a damn thing about jazz and I had better learn it. With that early band, the R&B band called The Creators, my ears became so good that I just started listening to music and it was through listening that I learned the syntax of music. When I listen to a lot of jazz guys today, they don’t really sound like jazz to me. The only thing you could say that they have in common with jazz musicians from 40 years ago is that they play a solo. But they don’t play with rhythm and they don’t have the tone of the jazz musicians. The tone of R&B saxophone is more like the tone of rock.

So when I got to New York as an R&B saxophone player armed with two Lester Young records and a couple of Miles Davis records with Wayne Shorter on them, Art Blakey and an old tenor man named Buddy Tate were the guys who taught me that Charlie Parker and the bebop wasn’t a revolution like the mythology said. It was an extension of the swing tradition. You would never learn bebop unless you listened to swing music. You’ve got kids all over the world right now listening to Charlie Parker records and not listening to swing music. And if you told them to listen to swing music they wouldn’t do it. I did it reluctantly. I didn’t want to do it, but it seemed to me kind of simple. Here I was and I sucked. They’re great; maybe they’re right. I gave it a chance and it took about four months. Then one day I put on a Charlie Parker record and I didn’t just hear those individual notes. I heard the rhythm that was associated with those notes. Then the sound became more important.

The first time Stanley Crouch made me listen to Ornette Coleman I thought it was the worst shit I had ever heard in my life. He says, “Well you haven’t heard it yet.” I said, “There ain’t shit to hear.” He says, “I suggest you keep listening to it.” Because he said that I kept listening. Every time I got to the seventh day I decided to give it another week. I wouldn’t just throw it away. I figured there must be something in there. Again it took a couple of months and then I turned it on one day and I jumped out of the seat because I could hear it. I think what I learned from that the worst part of our society for learning music is the illusion of genius and innovation and the instantaneous nature of the society. If you could cook a hamburger in sixty seconds surely it shouldn’t take you more than two weeks to learn an entire concept from a jazz record, right? So if a guy puts on the record and he can’t hear it and he tries to play like these guys and he sounds like shit, after about two or three weeks they just stop doing it. The ego kicks in, or I should say the insecurity kicks in. The ego would say, “I’m going to do this shit until I get it right.” The insecurity says, “I sound like shit. I need to stop doing this and focus on my thing.” And this is what we have now. We have two generations full of people who focus on their thing at the expense of the history of the music. They say things like, “Well, you know, Louis Armstrong was okay in his day, but we live in modern times.” There are so many things musicians can learn from listening to Louis Armstrong. They don’t listen to him because it challenges what you actually think the music is. At some point you have to say those three words that guys can not stand to say: “I was wrong.” They’ll do anything to avoid those words. They’ll even screw up their own futures and careers. That’s too bad.

So yeah, Art Blakey was a pivotal moment. Hearing Charlie Parker for real for the first time was pivotal. Hearing Ornette Coleman for the first time was pivotal. Understanding that John Coltrane was an amalgam of blues music and swing music and R&B music, and that listening to him by himself was not going to make me sound like him. That was a pivotal moment. The first time I heard Mahlers’ 5th Symphony. That was a pivotal moment. I have a bunch of these, man. They changed the way I thought about sound.

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