Music as Metaphor by Marsalis

by Victoria Aschheim

In anticipation of the first in a lecture series to be presented at Harvard over two years, I spoke with nine-time Grammy Award-winner and Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz artist Wynton Marsalis. He shared artistic wisdom, hopes for the nation and even a strikingly innovative suggestion that America adopt swing as its national dance. Marsalis also expressed profound views, views that could rightly make national headlines, on the place of the Afro-American in jazz. What follows is an edited and condensed version of a conversation that captured the poignant thinking of Wynton Marsalis, whose sold-out lecture takes place Thursday, April 28 at Sanders Theatre.

Why is it so important for artists and academic institutions to work together and what do you hope will come from your time at Harvard?

I think that artists work intensely with the identity of the people that they come from, and so the artist can give an insight into the nature of what is to people that is much deeper and more profound than science. The artist exists at one time on the cutting edge of what the society has to offer, and also they serve as the memory. Groups of people when they are not educated in their art and in their culture, they don’t know how to use their political power or their intellectual power, they don’t know how to use economic power. I hope to leave with the students a sense of who we are as Americans and where we are in the world and give them an understanding of how the best of what we are is reflected in our musical art.

For so many of us Harvard students, we are not only practicing musicians, and in ensembles and orchestra, but we also study music history, or we study history of art in some way. You have pinpointed that America right now doesn't do a really good job of teaching our children what music means in order to develop taste in music which reminds us and teaches us who we are. In other words, there is room for us to improve as a nation in educating people about the role of arts in culture. What steps can be taken nationwide to achieve this greater cultural understanding especially in terms of music?

I think that the first practical step that can be taken I feel is to put aside time in the school day for the arts. For some reason we teach kids in the arts in elementary school/kindergarten, but as we grow and we have a chance to interface with more sophisticated arts and we come into contact with a more sophisticated vision of who we are, we take that art component out of our education. So I think that is why we have created a kind of hyper-selfish culture. The arts, interestingly enough, focus your individual creativity, at the same time they put you in the larger world because you realize that everybody else is creative also. And the arts also put you in contact with your greatest thinkers, and your greatest thinkers will naturally lead you to an understanding of larger human issues regardless of what nation you come from. But in America we produced a large number of original thinkers and people who left us a fantastic legacy.

I think a step that would help our students instantly would be a national swing dance competition. Just the fact of younger people in middle school and in high school having to deal with each other in a couple’s dance. It has the spirit of competition and things that stress our way of life, but it teaches them flexibility, improvisation, and respect for other people across gender -- men and women. It teaches yu to have respect in terms of how you address your partner, and it teaches that it is a partnership. I feel that would be the one step that I could take that is very practical that immediately would cause a tremendous shift in our country’s attitude about itself. Not just a competition, but classes and lessons. Let that be national -- like we used to take square dance -- I’m old enough to have taken square dancing when I was in school. But let the swing dance be the national dance.

African-American musicians have played a real, heroic role in achieving civil rights goals through their originality in creating jazz. Can you comment on this aspect of the role of jazz as a way for people to meet each other and to talk with each other through music? And do you think that it is happening today in jazz culturally as much as the dialogue happened years ago in the advent of jazz?

I think that jazz was on the cutting edge of civil rights movements in the '20s and '30s. It was pre-jazz that took an important part in changing people’s attitudes. Scott Joplin’s music used a form of John Philip Sousa marches, Philip Sousa played ragtime pieces, Dvorak taught Will Marion Cook and Rubin Goldmark in the same class. Duke Ellington was a contemporary of George Gershwin. He played George Gershwin’s music and vice versa. Fletcher Henderson was an Afro-American; he arranged for the Benny Goodman’s band. Benny Goodman was a Jewish kid from Chicago. So it was like that. It was truly the melting pot. And it was an aristocracy of ability. If you could play the clarinet, if you could play the trombone -- Jack Teagarden was a great trombone player -- he influenced Afro-American trombone players. Everybody was influencing. Benny Goodman’s band was integrated before baseball was integrated. And the competition created an equality in the culture. Nowadays there has been a great intellectual reshifting of jazz so the Negro element has been taken out of it. A lot of what is considered to be jazz does not have that element, so there is no longer the need to -- there is no longer the tension with the other because he doesn’t exist. In a way it mirrors a lot of the position that the Afro-American occupies in our culture in general. He is either relegated to the prison camp or something like rap music or something that is almost like a minstrel show, or he doesn’t actually exist in the national mind, unless he is playing ball.

Is there more work we can do then to return to that sense of the true Americanism of jazz?

The beautiful thing about the internet and all the different tools we have developed in the last 20 or 30 years is that there is so much information, it is readily available, it is easy to get, it is just a matter of knowing our history and understanding what are objectives are.

I wanted to ask you about your personal influences in your own musicianship and composition. Would you describe those?

Musicians from New Orleans, like my father and James Black, people that are not really known, but they influenced me. Of course, great musicians like Jelly Roll Morton from New Orleans, Duke Ellington, great classical composers that I like in terms of just the organization of materials, with music I studied in school and continue to study. People like Aaron Copland, Bach, Beethoven, the musicians that are involved in the great common foundations of Western music. Stravinsky’s music I love, Bartok’s music, a lot of popular music, contemporary music, things that I learned to play -- like a mish-mash of information.

In terms of your technique of playing and also the experience of playing with your ensemble, what from the classical training do you take from that, not compositionally or harmonically, but just in the practice of your music, what influences you?

My practice -- my group and I -- comes mainly from jazz. Like our way of rehearsing -- our way of learning music -- is in the tradition of all of the jazz musicians. When I was 18, I played with Art Blakley and the Jazz Messengers. I may have used techniques for the way he did things. I went to college; I now have my own way of doing them. But since a lot of our music is not written out, many of the things we do are very difficult to practice, but the ensemble playing and other things that we know we have to do, we just work on it and practice it. A lot of our music also is about knowing what it is. That’s why our music doesn’t have a lot of markings on it. A lot of it is just knowledge: You have to get how to play, how to breathe, and I feel like I do have a methodical way of working on things and thinking about things, but I don’t see that from the culture of classical music, its just my way of looking at stuff.

Would you give us a quick overview of your forthcoming lecture Music as Metaphor?

It is not so much music as metaphor in terms of metaphoric language; it is more metaphor as symbology. And it addresses the fact that there are instances in our music, and that those things in our music that have a meaning and those meanings amplify, or can diminish, they can be lost due to fundamental instances like: we all have grown up with individuality in relation to improvisation, and the individual versus the group or cooperating with the group which is like your individual rights, and your responsibility to the group, states' rights versus the federal government, the question of consolidation -- that we are great consolidators -- and then the balancing after you consolidate, like how a drum set would consolidate, and then how are we going to balance the power of the drum or the balancing of the hybrid, the whole question of hybrid in America, like the African and European elements came together a certain way, how were they balanced, and how was that balance ongoing, how do we continue to deal with each other. It deals with fundamental American things, and it shows how the music is a metaphor for these things.

Where do you think writing about jazz is going in this era, whether it be journalism, criticism or scholarly writing?

I think the critics largely are lost. But I think there are a lot of good books about the music. Robin Kelley wrote an excellent book on Thelonius Monk. Another book is Duke Ellington's America. That was a fine book, a great addition to writings on jazz.

I want to bring you back for a second to the idea of Harvard and your presence here. What does it mean for you to come to Cambridge with the young people and, particularly, this university -- if you have a few more reflections on this, it would be super.

I think it is a premiere institution of higher education in our country, and there is the tradition of musicians speaking there. Bernstein spoke, Copland spoke. It is an honor for me to be there to talk about music as a great American tradition.

[Caption: Wynton Marsalis, seen here leading a Learning From Performers master class at Kirkland House in 1987, returns to Harvard tonight to lecture at Sanders Theatre (photo by Donna Paul). ]