Don't play Duke Ellington like Haydn Trumpet Concerto, says Wynton Marsalis

April 11, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

As the first musician ever to have been signed simultaneously to the jazz and classical divisions of Columbia Records, Wynton Marsalis is intimately familiar with the differences and similarities between the two worlds. We spoke to him over the phone, during a tour stop in Boston, and asked what he thought about treating jazz like classical music.

Q: Lately, it seems as if certain kinds of music from the pre-rock era are being treated with the same reverence as classical music. What does this portend for jazz? If you treat the composition as being of primary importance, doesn't that make the improvising soloist secondary?

A: There are different schools of thought. Since the Lincoln Center program has generated a lot of publicity, there's the comment on jazz as a fine art, and so on. But jazz has always been a fine art. It's a fine art in that it addresses a song, like a Gershwin song, as if it's a piece of folk material. You take the melody and perform the art of jazz on it, and turn it into a piece of jazz.

Now, there are different approaches to playing. The first approach would be the improvisational approach, which comes out of the blues. But with younger musicians, nobody is playing blues. If you go around the country and teach the younger people how to play, you'll find that the hardest thing to get them to address is how to play with blues feeling. Essentially, blues is adult expression, and most of the expression they're familiar with is adolescent expression.

In an era like ours, having the music of Duke Ellington will only help them, because then they'll be able to get the essence of what the music is about, because those are blues-based melodies, and they will be in contact with blues music.

It's the goal of a jazz performer, even of Duke Ellington's music, to play that music with a certain feeling and flair -- which comes out of blues playing. So it's not like when you play "Black, Brown and Beige" by Duke Ellington, you're going to play it like the way you would play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto. Because you still have the feeling of swing, and the sound of the blues in the music. And in a lot of ways, playing that music can teach you how to improvise. Especially if we're talking about the music of Jelly Roll Morton, which has large improvisational sections in it.

Q: Still, there are those who would say that Jelly Roll Morton's music should be played a specific way, and that jazz musicians should learn that idiom the way that performers in early music groups learn the vocabulary of medieval dance music.

A: But that's not what you try to do with musicians when they play Jelly Roll Morton. The first thing is, to play a piece of jazz, the point of teaching somebody how to play jazz and to improvise is the group improvisation. So you stress that reflex and the ability to interact with the other voices, who also improvise.

When I'm playing Jelly Roll Morton's music, there's no way in the world we're going to sound the way, like how they sound. We're not trying to sound like that. What we're trying to do is use that vocabulary of music to create our own improvisation.

Q: So what you're saying is that by schooling people in the roots of jazz, it will be easier for them to grasp the more distant branches?

A: Jazz is very different from classical music, because jazz has a ritualistic component to it as well as an artistic component. Elements of jazz are not supposed to be divorced from everyday life, so in that way it doesn't have to change over centuries. When we compare that to, say, music for aristocrats or something, we see that this is the wrong approach to criticism of it. . . .

What I'm saying is, the reason that people don't like to hear a lot of modern music is that they simply don't like it. I've played a lot of contemporary classical music, and a lot of times when you're playing it, you're saying to yourself, there's no way people are going to like that.

A composer has a dual responsibility. How can you create something that actually sounds good and it is modern and forward-looking? There's a belief that for music to be modern, it has to have that ugly, disjointed, confused type of sound. To me, having played a lot of that kind of music in both jazz and classical music, I don't think there's ever going to be an audience for that. And people in the arts community have to realize that we have a responsibility to make something exciting and interesting and new, but also listenable and good. That's the challenge.

WYNTON MARSALIS

When: April 19 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $16, $24, boxes $34.

Call: (410) 783-8000.

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