Yes, Wynton Marsalis has soul. The knee-jerk criticism of the 51-year-old jazz trumpeter ever since his self-titled 1981 album has been that, while always technically impeccable, his playing lacks soulful spirit. “I’ve never heard anything Wynton played sound like it meant anything at all,” pianist Keith Jarrett once told The New York Times. And so it’s somewhat ironic that this month should see the debut of both The Spiritual Side of Wynton Marsalis (a collection of spiritually inspired works) and Abyssian: A Gospel Celebration, a nationwide tour.
Marsalis—Pulitzer Prize-winning artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center—composed “Abyssinian Mass” to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Harlem’s storied Abyssinian Baptist Church back in 2008. Now, he and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra join the 70-piece Chorale le Château and conductor Damien Sneed on a 16-city tour (October 3 – 27), performing a spirited admixture of gospel and jazz.
Dressed in a sharp chocolate vest and polka-dot tie, the bespectacled jazz historian took some time out for EBONY.com post-rehearsal on the day before the tour launch to discuss cultural tradition, great jazz records and the young guns of the genre.
EBONY: The church is less central to African-American life than it was during, say, the Motown era of 50 years ago. Do you think this has contributed to the more plastic nature of today’s pop music? R&B musicians don’t come up in the church anymore like Ray Charles or even D’Angelo.
Wynton Marsalis: I think that the church tradition was poggled. There was a certain type of integrity that was insisted upon in the music. And once that integrity is not maintained, then the next generation can’t maintain it, and then the next generation can’t, and the next generation can’t.
You had to buck against [church music] to change it. That resistance was necessary. But once that resistance was gone, and it became like another type form of popular music, just with the word “Jesus” in it, then you can’t have another movement because there’s no more church music. It’s just a popular-style music with the word Jesus. I’ve seen people jukin’ in church music. You can’t be more lost than that.
That’s why you don’t have the same type of innovation you had. We tend to look at the innovation, but we don’t look at the tradition. The innovation was a counter-statement of the tradition, or a statement of the tradition. Without the tradition, no innovation.
EBONY: I recently highlighted seven jazz players under the age of 30 that everyone should know. Could you add five more?
WM: Mm-hmm. Russell Hall, a bass player. Patrick Bartley, alto saxophonist. Chris Pattishall, he’s a piano player. Bruce Harris, he’s a trumpet player. Joe Saylor, he’s a drummer.
EBONY: Someone responded, “Seven players under 30? Find seven fans under 30!”
WM: I could find seven for you.
EBONY: [laughter] Address the perception of jazz music not attracting the youth.
WM: When you are exploiting the youth, it’s hard to give them something that’s developing. If you exploit me, I lose the ability to judge for myself what’s best for me. Black people with their tradition of loving minstrel material? We supported that minstrel material forever, man. At the point that you begin to support minstrel material, you’ve lost your judgment.
With the music we have today, calling each other ni**as and bitches and all that, that speaks for itself. To criticize that, actually, is absurd. And that a bulk of our people love that? That has come in and defined who we are? After all that we went through, that’s an international embarrassment that we all live under. It’s like a black veil.
Pardon the use of the word black; you could call it a white veil. [laughter] Actually, it’s more like a white veil, like a hood. [laughter] It’s like we’re doing so much of the work that the Klan was trying to do for ourselves and we’ve accepted it. So at that point, when your people, that you love, have made that decision for themselves, it’s not unusual that you would not find a fan or a bunch of fans [of jazz]. And your younger people who have come up under a group of people that have allowed that to happen. That’s a statement about our education, our understanding of ourselves and what we’ve gone through in this country.
It’s too bad—it’s unfortunate. But it’s not anything about the music. It’s more about the quality of our own education and how we’ve let our young people get away from us. And it was true in my generation, so I never tell my kids, “Back in my day…” Back in my day, we was bullsh*tting too. [laughter] We’re just doing the same sh*t we was doing.
EBONY: Take me through the evolution of Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration.
WM: On the 200th anniversary of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, I was speaking with Reverend Calvin Butts and he said it would be nice to have a piece. We talked and we discussed some way to work it out. I wrote a composition for the church and Rev. Butts son is married to Tiffany Ellis. Tiffany worked for our organization, so she was in the family—she’s in our family—so we just kinda we worked it out. I got with the Reverend about many ideas about the form, what the mass could be about, which scripture it should be based on. He gave me a breakdown of the form. I took a lot of notes.
EBONY: Name five jazz CDs we should all own, besides anything from John Coltrane or Miles Davis.
WM: Duke Ellington and New Orleans Suite. Billie Holiday, Lady in Satin. Mingus Ah Um. Thelonius Monk, It’s Monk’s Time. Or, Thelonius Monk Plays Duke Ellington. People understand that. Dave Brubeck, Time Out. That’s a good record.
EBONY: What’s the difference between mixing jazz and gospel, like this production is doing, and mixing jazz and pop—like Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtles—or the mixture of jazz and hip-hop, like Branford Marsalis’s Buckshot LeFonque or Miles Davis’s Doo-Bop?
WM: My whole thing is with the backbeat. The heart of a music is its rhythm. The heart of rhythm section music is the rhythm. I don’t have a thing with the terms. My thing is, once you start to put a backbeat on your music or something that has a machine in it, you have popularity, but you lose the flexibility. And you lose a richness.
Now all of a sudden, all these rich grooves and all this music is now, [makes a hip-hop with his mouth]. That’s like putting Tabasco sauce on everything, or sugar. So, it’s not a statement about music or musicians. It’s merely about the rhythmic identity of the music. The Afro-American contribution and the Afro-American instrument—If I tell you to pick all the instruments in the world—Afro-American instruments, what is the signature instrument of the Afro-American?
WM: There you go. What’s on most of the records that people hear today?
EBONY: Beat machines.
WM: That’s a progression, and it tells you what you need to know. That’s all you need to know. You don’t need to know nothing else. That was my problem with it. And that was before the machine, but I could see it. I didn’t know it would be a machine but I said there’s got to be something. You go from drummers to someone going, [makes a hip-hop with his mouth]. They not playing nothing. The drum is the center of our identity. We fell for it, hook, line and sinker.
It’s like dope. You give somebody some dope, they gon’ get high and they gon’ want more of it. If a person says, “we don’t need to be taking all that dope,” they a drag, they messing up a good time. They’ll say, “man, we’re high and you tryna tell us what to do.” No, it’s still no problem for some people to be high. But everybody gonna be high? Sh*t, man. [laughter]
Go to our schools and see that our kids’ language, the way they behave, see their sexual habits. Just go see it—you don’t have to even ask me about it. It’s speaking for itself. Don’t waste your time being angry about me or anybody who says anything. Just go experience it. If you have a heart and a consciousness, you too will be angry. And then ask yourself, how much time to these people spend interacting with this [hip-hop music]? And you’ll find that solution to what I’ve been saying for 30 years.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.