Soul, Craft, and Cultural Hierarchy
ENERGETIC, ARTICULATE, AND MUSICALLY impressive, Wynton Marsalis brings considerable weight to the contention that jazz is superior to other popular musical genres, and to a narrow, bebopcentered view of the jazz tradition. As forcefully opinionated as he usually is, though, Marsalis was brought up short a few times during this joint interview with keyboardist Herbie Hancock (b. 1940). For Marsalis, free jazz, electric instruments, and pop influences blur that tradition's boundaries and dilute its artistic force. For Hancock, these are all vital resources for the creative musician. But despite Hancock's interest in other genres, his credentials as a virtuosic bebopper are beyond reproach, making arguments about the musical limitations of pop musicians tricky. Years earlier, handing the young trumpeter one of his first big breaks, Hancock had invited Marsalis to tour with him, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williamsthe legendary rhythm section that had backed Miles Davis in the 1960s. So Marsalis is in a bind: while he does not respect what Hancock respects, he cannot help respecting Hancock. In this interview for Musician magazine (moderated by journalists Rafi Zabor and Vic Garbarini), each musician reveals much about his values, goals, and musical training. Their disagreements are instructive, reminding us of the many consequences of how we think about jazz's past and future. Both musicians are principled and passionate. For Marsalis, "black music is being broken down"; for Hancock, the more walls come down, the better. MUSICIAN: We don’t want to get you guys into an argument.
HANCOCK: Oh, we won’t, we never argue.
MARSALIS: I would never argue with Herbie.
MUSICIAN: I'll tell what we want to start with. Is there a necessity for any young player, no matter how brilliant he is, to work his way through a tradition? MARSALIS: That's a hard question to answer. When we deal with anything that's European, the definitions are clear cut. But with our stuff it all comes from blues, so "it's all the same." So that'll imply that if I write an arrangement, then my arrangement is on the same level as Duke Ellington. But to me it's not the same. So what I'm trying to determine is this terminology. What is rock 'n' roll? What does jazz mean, or R&B? Used to be R&B was just somebody who was black, in pop music they are white. Now we know the whole development of American music is so steeped in racist tradition that it defines what we're talking about. MUSICIAN: Well there's the Berklee School of Music approach, where you learn technique. And some people would say, "Well, as long as it's coming from the heart, it doesn't matter about technique." MARSALIS: That is the biggest crock of bullshit in the history of music, that stuff about coming from the heart. If you are trying to create art, the fit thing is to look around and find out what's meaningful to you. Art tries to make life meaningful, so automatically that implies a certain amount of emotion. Anybody can say "I have emotion." I mean, a thousand trumpet players had soul and emotion when they picked up trumpets. But they weren't all Louis Armstrong. Why? HANCOCK: He was a better human being.
MARSALIS: Because Louis Armstrong's technique was better.
MUSICIAN: Is that the only thing, though?
MARSALIS: Who's to say that his soul was greater than anybody else's? How can you measure soul? Have any women left him, did he eat some chicken on Saturday night? That's a whole social viewpoint of what payin' dues is. So Duke Ellington shouldn't have been great because by definition of dues he didn't really go through as much as Louis Armstrong, so naturally his piano playing didn't have the same level of soul. Or Herbie wasn't soulful, either. Because when he was coming up, black people didn't have to eat out of frying pans on Friday nights. MUSICIAN: Well, one of the ways of judging...