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Hi, I’m Susan Lewis, host of TIME IN, an interview series focusing on people in the arts—an intimate and up-close look at their experiences, discoveries, and thoughts about life today. The series launched in the summer of 2020, connecting with artists during the pandemic. Now, TIME IN is about how artists are moving forward, making new connections, learning new skills, and rethinking priorities, encouraging us to look to a brighter future.

TIME IN with Wynton Marsalis and The Blues: Finding Optimism In Tumultuous Times

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Piper Ferguson
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Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis talks about his Blues Symphony and more in this interview with Susan Lewis.

Composer, musician, and bandleader Wynton Marsalis has won multiple Grammys for jazz and classical recordings, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Music.  The artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center since 1987, he’s also a writer, advocate, and thought leader about issues in American culture. In this interview he talks about his Blues Symphony, his Democracy Suite, and how the blues offers a path through difficult times. 

For Wynton Marsalis, music and life have been intertwined since he was a child growing up in a family of musicians in New Orleans, including his late father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, and brothers saxophonist Branford, drummer Jason, and trombonist Delfeayo.

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Credit Luigi Beverelli
Wynton Marsalis with his father, Ellis Marsalis

Born in 1961, he got his first trumpet at 6 and performed with the New Orleans Philharmonic at 14. He entered Juillard in 1979, joined the Jazz Messengers in 1980, and the next year put together his own jazz band - the same year he recorded the Haydn, Hummel and Leopold Mozart trumpet concertos. He was then just 20 years old. At 22, he won the first two of many Grammy Awards, in both jazz and classical music.

His musical compositions express a range of jazz styles; his classical works include a violin concerto and four symphonies. His collaborations span a variety of genres and musical traditions. His Blues Symphony was premiered in 2009 by Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony; a recording performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Cristian Macelaru, was released in May 2021.

Offstage, in quiet conversation, Wynton is thoughtful and direct, warm and funny, interweaving personal stories and metaphors about life and music in a way that engages, connects, and inspires, leaving you with a sense of hope.  

Zooming in from Spain, Wynton met me during a break in his European tour on July 15, 2021 to share his thoughts about his Blues Symphony, his Democracy Suite, and how to move forward from the last year and a half.

Here are selected edited excerpts from our conversation: 

THE UBIQUITOUS BLUES

Could you talk a little bit about the relationship between the blues and jazz? How do you describe the blues?

“The blues is like our folk form,” says Wynton. “It’s like water that runs through our music. You’ll find the blues in all forms of music, except probably the most contemporary.  Gospel music, country and western, bluegrass, forms of American popular music ... blues is a very prevalent, important element in all forms of our music.”

A harmonic language and a life philosophy?

“The blues form, you’ve heard it a million times.” He sings, “ dun da dun da dun da dun da de de de de de de de de …”

And the life philosophy? Blues with lyrics, he says, give a clue to the general sentiment: "My baby left me, she won’t come back. I got to get up this morning, get my life on track.  Something bad happened. I’m going to find a groove and figure out a way to get over whatever this is, even if it's just dancing to this blues, or swaying my head to it, or identifying the problem… The general disposition of the blues is an optimism that is not naive.”  

Wynton talks about the blues.
Wynton talks about the blues.

BLUES SYMPHONY

What inspired you to write a symphony, which is infused "with the form and feeling of the blues”?

“I love the orchestral instrument; what what it can do. The blues has been used many times: on a Broadway stage, on recordings, and in pop contexts that use string orchestras: in movies, TV shows. In the jazz age in the 20s, there were many attempts to bring these forms together, and later, great composers like Leonard Bernstein, and even Aaron Copland in John Henry touches on the blues with his orchestration.

There’s no improvisation in Blues Symphony. How do you inject that feeling of the blues into the symphony; what are the challenges?

“Mainly the musicians just have to know what the sound of it is, because we all have it in life. And if you come from this culture, and you're a certain age, you’ve heard it your entire life. If you like rock and roll, or popular music or TV shows; Batman is a blues,” he says, laughing. “You could go on and on about songs that are blues.”

What inspired you to use this particular narrative with seven movements, each of them a different historical period?

I wrote the two symphonies, the Swing Symphony and the Blues Symphony, to reiterate fundamentals of our music.  Each has seven movements and they’re kind of connected in a way.

At the beginning of the Blues Symphony, he says, “I used the flutes and piccolos to be like fife and drums. Then I juxtapose the flutes to the fiddles, that's the beginning of the American tradition of fiddling and flutes. And then I bring the brass in later; the brass kind of band movement, even though it was not as big until the middle of the 19th century.”

"Each movement has a kind of instrumental relationship,” he says. “I use the English horn sometimes, tipping my hat to Dvorak, with The New World Symphony, and the sound of the Negro spiritual. And with the ragtime movement, I brought the three instruments from the New Orleans frontline: the trombone, the clarinet and the trumpet.

All movements have that type of relationship, including the Latin percussion section in the Danzón, and the use of different types of percussion in the Choro.  I try to be idiomatic with the things that make playing each of these forms difficult. And I consult with people I know who really know forms.

When you work with orchestras playing a symphony, do you explain not only the musical techniques, but the the ideas behind the music?

“You don't have that much time, I mean it has to be on the page,” he says. “So I use stuff like ala Max Roach. Ala Freddy Green. Ala Hot Quintet of the Hot Club of France. I try to put what something should evoke the sound of.”

DEMOCRACY and TIMES OF TURMOIL

The last movement of Blues Symphony is about democracy.

You've written, spoken, and composed music about democracy in the midst of turmoil. I wondered if you might talk a little bit about your Democracy Suite, recorded with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Septet (released Jan 15, 2021).

“That was more looking at the things that were happening in time and more optimistic because I had done a piece right before that called The Ever Fonky Lowdown that was very pessimistic. So I always like to go from mode to mode.  So I have the one very pessimistic piece, saying how we're being hustled. And then I wrote the other one saying, these are the things that happened in this time."

"The challenges of democracy are always sharing wealth, providing more opportunity for citizens, and for citizens to develop a philosophical understanding of their position inside of a culture, so that they don't accept a willing slavery. And that slavery could be to the media, to popular trends; it’s very hard to develop the type of independent thought required to make sure that your participation in the system counts."

"Our form of democracy gives us that opportunity, but if we, as citizens, don't take it, we will fail at it. And then the next system will come in and that looks like it's going to have a lot of slavery involved."

How do you encourage people to be optimistic?

“Participation breeds optimism,” he says. “You know, if you're stuck in traffic and you get out of your car and you start walking, even though you're not going to go any further than you’d go if you just sat and waited in the traffic, the fact that you're doing something makes you feel good. You feel much better doing something, than not doing.”

“I feel it's better to choose to participate, even if you're wrong. We all figure out things as we go along. We broaden our viewpoint and we change. I'm just saying don't stand on the wall at the dance.”

You spoke very movingly at the commencement speech at Tulane University in New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, where you also talked about the importance of participation and encouraged people not to be disillusioned.

"Right. If you look at the timeline of human history, we've had a lot of ups and downs; that's life. And we all have personal challenges. Because life and the quality of life many times depends on whether we have control over our circumstances to any degree, how we feel about being alive and what we bring to that feeling."

"And sometimes it can be overwhelming; sometimes we actually lose control over how we feel because a lot of people are struggling mentally with depression and rightfully. So it's a difficult time for different reasons."

"We need to encourage help for our mental health; we need to encourage forms of music and entertainment that are holistic and lead people into a deeper feeling of acceptance of our humanity. We’re at an inflection point and there's a lot of pain and sorrow out there. And to be optimistic and not naive -- that's an achievement in this time.”

Well, it's been quite a year and a half - with Covid, and social unrest and injustice. Could you share some of your thoughts about your experience ?

He shakes his head.  "Tough year for me. I mean, I was blessed with a great orchestra, a great organization. We worked the entire time. I worked more this year and a half than I ever worked in my life. At my age, 59, okay, it kept me young.”

“My father passed away; some of my friends did; a lot of jazz musicians passed away. But you know, that's life. We’re not guaranteed things. I’m very fortunate to have the things that I 've had, including a lot of people who support our organization. I’ve had a lot of great conversations with people who are also struggling.”

“This year - this one got my attention.” He laughs. “I always always laugh when something is really hard; something really, really hurts.  I have to just laugh about it. It’s too painful to do anything else.”

Did this year change the way you think about anything? Did it change anything you did,  that you may want to continue?

"Sure, the way that we deliver music, the way we get in [a performing] space. It changed many things, but a lot of things we didn't know we could do, we had to do out of necessity, for communication. I always laugh and tell people: We look at each other on this phone; if you are a certain age, we only saw that on The Jetsons! Know what I mean? So, if you go back to that, and you think, man I'm talking to somebody on the phone. I mean I'm looking at you, Susan!

And it's easy to just accept that as a part of progress. But yeah, I learned a lot about the value of the music;  I interfaced with a lot of different people I never would have.  This has been very instructive.

Do you ever get time to relax?

"In this last year and a half, there wasn't too much relaxing going on, but now I have my last two or three gigs of this tour, and then I will.  I need to. I'm tired at this point." 

What do you like to do just to relax?

"Well, for me, music and writing and and other stuff is so much like a hobby, and I'm not a big relaxer but I'm going to relax now.  And I have to put my mind at rest, just absorb all the things that happened, all the people I talked to, all the people I lost. I have a tendency to just keep going like a plane in turbulence: thinking, if you keep going, you can be okay."

"My father said -- I was teasing him before he passed away -- we were talking about Covid, and he said man, you know people are losing loved ones all over the world. You losing yours is not any more or less significant than anybody else. So we both start laughing. We didn't exactly know we were talking about him, but we were.  And it's just - that’s life, you know."

I’m sorry.

"No, it’s okay. He wasn’t dramatic at all about this. It’s important to put yourself in perspective; then you don't over emotionalize anything. You are another person. That was something my Momma used to always say when she was mad at you, when she thought you were getting ahead of yourself.  She didn't use the word ‘person;’ she used another word - she’d say, Child, you just another ____ out here."

What role can music play, do you think in helping go forward?

"Yeah, music stretches across time, so it's always helping. It helps us with our internal lives.  Even if it's just light entertainment music with very little actual nutritional value, it can help you get through a day. It can help you laugh or it could just help you with whatever. My daddy always said, if you made a judgmental comment about somebody, leave people alone it's hard enough out here."

"Music can help you. And it can create change over time and across time in individuals; it can be good  anthemic for groups of people, but it can also be destructive.  It's like any tool."

*****

Among Wynton Marsalis's many  awards and honors are the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1997, the National Medal of Arts in 2005, and the National Humanities Medal in 2015. He’s been artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center since 1987 and director of Julliard Jazz since 2014. His six books include 2009’s Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life.