Why We Must Preserve Our Jazz Heritage; Trumpet Virtuoso Says Rich Musical Legacy Is Crucial to Black Identity

By Marsalis, Wynton | Ebony, November 1990 | Go to article overview
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Why We Must Preserve Our Jazz Heritage; Trumpet Virtuoso Says Rich Musical Legacy Is Crucial to Black Identity


Marsalis, Wynton, Ebony


Why We Must Preserve Our JAZZ HERITAGE

Trumpet virtuoso says rich musical legacy is crucial to Black identity

The most beautiful and important thing a people can do is create an art form. An art form can influence your thinking, your feeling, the way you dress, the way you walk, how you talk, what you do with yourself. It has that power because it contains structure, development, contrast, emotion and soul. An art form is complete: it sets a standard for performance and it expresses standards for living.

Jazz is an art form and it expresses a Negroid point of view about life in the 20th century. It is the most modern and profound expression of the way Black people look at the world. It is not like what Black people did in sports, where they reinterpreted the way the games could be played, bringing new dimensions to competitive expression in boxing, basketball, and so forth. Jazz is something Negroes invented and it said the most profound things not only about us and the way we look at things, but about what modern democratic life is really about. It is the nobility of the race put into sound; it is the sensuousness of romance in our dialect; it is the picture of the people in all their glory, which is what swinging is. Jazz has all of the elements, from the spare and penetrating to the complex and enveloping. It is the hardest music to play that I know of and it is the highest rendition of individual emotion in the history of Western music.

What Louis Armstrong brought to the world when he started giving notice through his horn in the 1920s had never existed before. This man stood up there and improvised music that made perfect sense, that expressed intellect and emotion in action. He brought new angles of melody and rhythm into the world. Louis Armstrong was a great artist, one of the greatest of all time, and, as Albert Murray points out in his classic, Stomping the Blues, Louis Armstrong's work made him a hero. Murray also points out that what jazz musicians did with the popular tunes of Gershwin and all those people was to show that the distance between them and those songs writers was the huge gap between high art and folk art. Those show tunes, as Max Roach says, were lightweight and would have been forgotten if jazz musicians hadn't played them and improved them through the Negro methodology of swing. In some liner notes to a Billie Holiday record, Stanley Crouch expands on that by saying that jazz is about improving things and that to jazz something up really doesn't mean to mess it up; it means to make it better. That's what jazz musicians did: they took some low-grade Puccini imitations and made them into American songs. One of the reasons is that most of the best writers of popular songs in the '20s, the '30s, and the '40s were immigrants. They were new Americans. Negroes had been here for 300 years and they put the weight of centuries into what they did. Nobody is more American than a Black person and that's why you see so many people all over the world influenced by the way Negroes put things into style. When people talk about the international influence of America, they're talking about us as much as anybody, but too often we accept the idea that when you put the word Black in front of something, it ceases being connected to anything, except itself. When the Wright brothers invented the airplane or Edison invented the electric light, those became American inventions. Things we do are often rejected or pushed into a corner or devalued because we did them, and when we accept the idea that we aren't part of the modern age or part of America--a central part of America--we assist those who work to keep us in a position where we can be taken advantage of, sometimes gratefully.

Jazz is opposed to all of that. Jazz is about not being satisfied with mediocrity. Jazz is about being yourself and working your hardest to live up to the responsibility of developing your gift.

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