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.
Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration
Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration
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