Follow the history of individuals who changed the world with this collection of teaching resources for Black History Month.
Wynton Marsalis Interview Transcript
The Grammy Award-winning musician joined us for an interview in February of 2002. Read a transcript of that interview below.
Born October 18, 1961, in New Orleans, Louisiana, Wynton Marsalis began studying trumpet when he was twelve years old. Today he is one of the most famous jazz musicians alive. He has made over 40 music recordings both in jazz and in classical music and he has won nine Grammy awards! Today he is the Artistic and Managing Director for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, the world's largest arts organization devoted to jazz. One of the best parts of his job is to teach about jazz. This is one reason why he wrote a jazz curriculum for students and teachers called Jazz for Young People. Wynton Marsalis hopes that you can learn more about the history and the theory behind jazz so you can enjoy it more in the future.
Question: How does one go about purchasing your jazz curriculum? I have your videos and they are excellent!
Question: I learned to play the trumpet when I was 13. How old were you?
Mr. Marsalis: I started playing when I was 6, but I didn't start practicing until I was 12.
Question: How many hours do you practice the trumpet?
Mr. Marsalis: When I was in high school, four or five hours every day, at least — sometimes more.
Question: Who inspired you to become a musician?
Mr. Marsalis: My father. My father is a musician and an educator.
Question: Do you play any other instrument besides trumpet?
Mr. Marsalis: I play piano and drums very poorly and French horn and tuba all equally as bad.
Question: Do you have any other profession other than music?
Mr. Marsalis: No.
Question: How did your family support you doing music when you were young?
Mr. Marsalis: My mother always took my brothers and me to music lessons. There were six children. Our parents attended our concerts and encouraged us to study and enjoy many different types of music. They allowed us to stay out late at night playing in bands when we were in high school and supported us moving to other cities to continue our education and learn our craft.
Question: When you were young, where in New Orleans did you first hear jazz? Did you like it right away, and did you parents like it? Did certain teachers inspire you, and did you ever think you would grow up to have so much impact on jazz?
Mr. Marsalis: My father is a jazz musician, so I grew up hearing jazz. My parents loved it, but I didn't like it. It went on for too long. Yes, I had certain teachers that really inspired me, like Danny Barker, and John Longo. And I had no idea that I would have any impact on jazz. When I was 12, I began listening to John Coltrane and I developed a love for jazz, which I still have more and more each year. The name of Coltrane's album that influenced me is "My Favorite Things."
Question: Then how did you start to play jazz if you didn't like it at first?
Mr. Marsalis: I learned simple songs that many New Orleans's musicians knew, like "When the Saints Go Marching In."
Question: What do you like about jazz, and what gave you the inspiration to work with kids and jazz? Did you ever give lessons or teach music?
Mr. Marsalis: Jazz provides a painless way to learn about the best in American culture. My father is a teacher and I've had the opportunity to be a teacher for many years. I love working with kids. I love to take lessons, and I love to give lessons.
Question: I'm a fifth grade teacher. How would you suggest I use jazz in my classroom?
Mr. Marsalis: The music can teach geography, where the different musicians are from. It can help with math, the way forms are laid out, the way musical forms are counted, rhythms. I can teach sociology, when you get into the different social philosophies of different musicians. It gives students confidence in their own individuality, when you learn how musicians develop their own identities and sounds.
Question: I'm 13 and I love music. Would you suggest getting into jazz? And why?
Mr. Marsalis: You love music, you have to love jazz. Because jazz allows us to make up your own music and play with other people that are doing the same thing. Jazz is challenging music and it feels good to play a good solo.
Question: What do you think of music today (rap, rock, punk, r&b, etc)?
Mr. Marsalis: I have very little respect for most of those forms. I know they are popular, but I feel that the social content is very high (how you look or what happened to you in your life), but the musical content is very low. That means, can you actually play the instrument or sing? I find that the personality becomes more important than the music. One of the main objectives of education is, how does a young person successfully grow to adulthood?
Question: If I were to play jazz, how would I get started?
Mr. Marsalis: Just like you would if you were learning how to talk, learning phrases and simple songs and doing the best you can to make sense out of it.
Question: Do you like jazz more from the 1930s or the 1990s?
Mr. Marsalis: I don't prefer any decade. Jazz is jazz to me.
Question: Do you like Charlie Parker?
Mr. Marsalis: I love him.
Question: Do you like Miles Davis? And did he inspire you?
Mr. Marsalis: Yes, a great deal. I was especially inspired by his earlier music, before 1969.
Question: Do you like Benny Goodman?
Mr. Marsalis: Yes. Next year we are presenting a concert of his music.
Question: Did Goodman inspire you?
Mr. Marsalis: Not so much, because he was a clarinet player; I was inspired mainly by trumpet players.
Question: Who else do you admire in music?
Mr. Marsalis: Many, many musicians. Too many to name.
Question: Which musician influenced you the most?
Mr. Marsalis: Several, for different reasons. [Thelonius] Monk for thematic development and for being modern without being ugly. Duke Ellington for range of creativity and fortitude. Lester Young for sweetness of sound and steel of personality. Louis Armstrong for the power of phrasing and the subtlety of a finely nuanced tone. Jimmy Yancey for down-home hoop and the proper swoop. Charlie Parker for making sure that you never become arrogant. John Coltrane just because. Billy Holiday for phrasing and intent. Count Basie because he took his time.
Question: What about Ella Fitzgerald?
Mr. Marsalis: Her too and the rest of them too.
Question: What do you think about jazz-rock fusion?
Mr. Marsalis: I think some of it is interesting.
Question: When you were in school, did you have problems with other children and other people who looked down on you because of your race?
Mr. Marsalis: Yes, I had many a little skirmish with kids using the "n" word and being happy about it. But when I was a kid there was a general level of disrespect that was tolerated much more than now, 30 years later.
Question: What other types of music do you like? Do you like country?
Mr. Marsalis: Yes, I like bluegrass and folk music. I like tango music. I like samba music. I like classical music. I like traditional Japanese music. I like fiddle music.
Question: What is your favorite style of jazz?
Mr. Marsalis: I don't have a favorite style.
Question: Do you like free jazz?
Mr. Marsalis: Not that much, but it's a good tool for education because it allows students to just invent without knowing any form; it allows for free expression of emotion and feeling.
Question: Do you like swing music?
Mr. Marsalis: Yes.
Question: Do you have any suggestions for getting young people, especially teenagers, to appreciate jazz?
Mr. Marsalis: Just expose them to the music; it's all a matter of exposure.
Question: Do you have any goals you haven't accomplished yet, but would like to?
Mr. Marsalis: Many. I won't tell you, because if I fail to meet them I don't want you to mess with me about it.
Question: Can you talk about any future projects you have in store with students?
Mr. Marsalis: Jazz at Lincoln Center will continue to have programs for students of all sizes around the world because that's what we love to do.
Question: Do you have any trouble with your students?
Mr. Marsalis: Never. I take the students at their own level, but realize that they respond positively to the authority of an adult as long as you don't beat them over the head with it. Some schools are very tough. Those students require more time and more love, but the problem is generally not with students, but with parents.
Question: Which jazz album do you suggest for beginners?
Mr. Marsalis: Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. Duke Ellington, Three Suites. Ella Fitzgerald, The Cole Porter Song Book. And many others.
Question: Who's the greatest jazz musician today?
Mr. Marsalis: Sonny Rollins and some others.
Question: How much personality do you put in your music? How much politics?
Mr. Marsalis: Music is more specific than your voice. Everything about you is in every note. There's nothing you can do about it because music is too abstract a language to permit dishonesty.
Question: What age range is the best to introduce students to jazz?
Mr. Marsalis: Any age. Early to late.
Question: Do you like the blues?
Mr. Marsalis: Oh, yes. You can't get any higher than the blues — or lower.
Thank you very much for tuning in today. You all have been very sweet and now I can go about my day with a much better attitude.