WYNTON Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) had Shanghai audiences on their feet at the 2017 Music in the Summer Air (MISA) in early July with his “jazz of integrity.”
JLCO with 15 members presented such works as “Windows,” “Dean Man Blues” and “The Happiness of Being” at Shanghai Symphony Hall, while Marsalis, 56, as the artistic director and lead trumpeter, helped introduce the pieces and members of his group on the way.
“All jazz is modern,” Marsalis said. “It is more like people talking, telling people’s recognition of tragedy and optimism ... It never dies.”
Born in a family of jazz musicians in New Orleans, Marsalis played music since childhood. His talent was widely recognized even before he turned 20. With nine Grammys in both jazz and classical music, his “Blood on the Fields” was the first jazz composition to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
The American is widely portrayed as “the savior of jazz” in the 1980s, when it was at odds with electronic, rock and punk music. But he was more inclined to identify himself as a man who loves jazz, and was willing to defend its integrity even if no one else did.
“So many times, I was portrayed as negative and against this or that. But actually, I’m not against anything. I am for the integrity of jazz music.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t play fusion or don’t play with other people. It means that our music has an identity and that identity is special; it is what makes our music special; it is what we need to know in order to be jazz musician,” Marsalis said.
Q: What is the “jazz spirit” according to your understanding?
A: Jazz has three fundamentals: first is improvisation. Improvisation is freedom; its “I.” It’s a very satisfying statement of your individuality. I improvise. But that’s balanced by swing. Swing means “we.” So yes, you improvise, but you have to improvise with me. You can’t improvise for as long as you want, we have to find each other.
And the last component is the blues. The blues is the form, and the scale. It’s the harmony. It is also aesthetic, a way of perceiving the world. And that way of perceiving the world is optimizing in the face of recognizing tragedy. Bad things happen, but I am still coming back tomorrow.
So those are the three components of jazz. And in jazz you have to play blues, convincingly and with feeling. And you have to improvise and create logic and order from chaos. And swing, play in time.
Q: You were often credited as a savior for jazz. Do you think jazz needs to be saved?
A: No, I think jazz is an art form. When I came along as a young person, 18 or 19 years old, I believed in the integrity of the music when a lot of older musicians didn’t. I gave it a kind of boost. But jazz doesn’t need anyone to save it. Art forms tend to stay around. Take Greed tragedy for example. There’s a handful of great tragedians. And we didn’t know about it for a long time until William Shakespeare. Likewise, jazz didn’t need a savior. There were great arts in every period. I was just a young person who loved the music.
Q: It is said that you keep loyal to the “genuine jazz” — no fusion. Why?
A: I believe in integrity. Fusion is a type of corruption to jazz. The fundamental rhythm of jazz is swing. So when you alter the fundamental rhythm of the music to be more rock and roll, that’s another form of music. It doesn’t mean that’s bad, but it’s a corruption of jazz.
Jazz is based on improvisation, in a mobile environment. When it becomes static, then there’s less chance to improvise. So when the music is about the interplay of musicians, like a conversation, and when the music gets above a certain volume, what kind of conversation are you going to have?
There are elements of corruption in terms of it being considered as an innovation in jazz. It’s actually another form of music. It is more of R&B, funk or rock style than jazz style. So I’m speaking more about semantics than I am about the music.
I am open to all kinds of music and I have fun with all kinds of music, but jazz has an integrity and a purpose of its own. There’s no need for it to constantly sacrifice its identity in order for it to claim its worth and its value. It’s like if I tell you for me to like you, you can be everything but not Chinese, and now you have to sit up with everything that’s not Chinese and smile.
I came directly from the jazz tradition, so yes I defend it. If no one else in the world defends it, I still will.
Q: Have you tried other music forms?
A: Yes, there are many forms I like. I’ve collaborated with flamenco musicians, tango bands, mandolin players and symphony orchestras. I did a recording of Brazilian music. I played with Willie Nelson in country music and Eric Clapton in the blues. The list can go on and on.
The forms that interest me the least are the most commercial forms. There are thousands of forms of music that are not commercial. But since commercial things have been so overwhelmingly successful, there’s a kind of a thought that everyone must follow that and there’s no room for anyone to say “I’m not really a follower of commercial things.” But, I am really not.
Q: Do you feel differently when playing classic pieces and jazz?
A: Yes, It is really different. In jazz, you’re improvising, and conversing with other musicians who are also improvising. You don’t know exactly what they’re going to play, so you’re creating something together.
But in classical music, you know what you’re playing. It’s written and you’re trying to bring it to life and bring an intensity and a seriousness to that form. And you’re also playing with other musicians but you don’t have that element of “I don’t know what you’re going to play.”
I enjoy playing jazz more because I’m from the jazz tradition. But I also love classical music.
Q: Do you think it is necessary to bring jazz to concert halls?
A: I don’t think it’s necessary. The first jazz concert was given by Benny Goodman in 1938 at Carnegie Hall. For many years, jazz musicians have played in concert halls, but it doesn’t mean that we do not play in clubs any more.
We embrace all the venues that we play in. The question is more the quality of the music than the place.
Jazz music requires an education for it to be popular. It’s like classical music. Neither of the two is popular today, since neither of them is on TV.
They are not popular because we have not done a good job of bringing our younger people into things that are adult. Your youth is not a market. When you view younger people as if they were a market, then it is difficult to make mature decisions. Classical music has a lot of infrastructures like halls, schools, scores, libraries and orchestras, while those for jazz is still limited.