"Live" with TAE: Wynton Marsalis & Stanley Crouch

By Walter, Scott | The American Enterprise, March-April 1997 | Go to article overview

"Live" with TAE: Wynton Marsalis & Stanley Crouch


Walter, Scott, The American Enterprise


WYNTON MARSALIS AND STANLEY CROUCH ARE TWO OF THE MOST SUCCESSFUL, FORWARD-LOOKING MEN IN JAZZ--LARGELY BECAUSE THEY LOOK BACK-WARD, TOO.

The Marsalis family doesn't have a jazz tradition; it has a jazz dynasty. Patriarch Ellis Marsalis is still going strong, more than a decade after one critic declared him "New Orleans' premier jazz pianist." His wife, Dolores, sang with jazz bands before her children were born. Number-one son Branford is a prominent saxophonist and band leader, while the second of their six sons, Wynton, is the only musician to win (or even be nominated for) simultaneous Grammy awards for jazz and classical recordings. Younger brothers Delfeayo and Jason are also active in jazz

Since 1987, Wynton Marsalis has collaborated with author Stanley Crouch on projects that led to the creation of Jazz at Lincoln Center the first program at a major American arts center to put jazz on par with European art forms like the ballet. Long an influential jazz critic, in recent years Crouch has also become known for his incisive commentary on politics, film, and race relations--all written in prose that leaps and glides and twists like a Sonny Rollins sax solo. Novelist Ralph Ellison has praised him for questioning "the views of both liberals and conservatives." The "key to Stanley Crouch," explains The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier, "is the music. Jazz gave him a standard of excellence by which he measures black culture and black politics."

TAE editor Scott Walter interviewed the two men in Marsalis's apartment in Lincoln Center.

TAE: Tradition literally means handing on something. How has jazz been handed on in the Marsalis family?

MR. MARSALIS: The thing that had the most impact was just being around all of the jazz musicians, having an opportunity to see how they interacted with each other. It wasn't necessarily what they played.

My father was always much hipper than whatever was hip. Things are marketed to you when you're younger to make you buy into the whole generation gap. With my father, you never really could do that.

TAE: What are some of the best lessons your father taught you?

MR. MARSALIS: He taught me so much. I guess the first thing is that you had to practice if you were going to learn how to play. It wasn't that he preached, "Man, you got to practice. You saw him practicing.

Another important thing I learned from him is that the value of something is not based on whether it's accepted. Nobody really would go to his gigs, but he felt good about what he was playing. So we would play gigs, myself and my brother, and we couldn't play at all--we were 13, 14--and our gig would have 2,000 people. My daddy would get 30. But we never had the feeling that the fact that we had 2,000 people made us able to play--or that he wasn't playing.

TAE: In jazz, old songs are called standards. Do you think that a certain respect for tradition helps musicians keep up high standards?

MR. MARSALIS: That helps anybody keep up high standards, because it means that you are relating to the entire history of your field, rather than to whatever is current. Track and field records have stood for 35 years. You don't say, well, what did they jump this year? You're competing with the history.

If you're a doctor, if you're somebody working in technology, you have to keep current. What you're learning all the time is the tradition of your craft.

TAE: Perhaps part of respecting tradition is having a certain humility about yourself. Do you think humility is useful for a musician?

MR. MARSALIS: Humility means that your vision is much broader. Take somebody like Richard Wagner, who wasn't humble, but his insights were so profound--he was humble in the face of Beethoven. Just practicing to develop techniques requires humility. You can't just think, "I'm the greatest." If you really feel that everything is based on you, there's nothing for you to work on. …

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