When Louis Armstrong was only age 21 at the dawn of the Jazz Age, he left his hometown of New Orleans to seek his fortune. By 1928, he’d become the toast of the town in New York City after making a series of recordings that essentially defined jazz.
A half century later, Wynton Marsalis, another gifted son of New Orleans, made his way to New York to seek his fortune and became the face of contemporary jazz, a tireless composer and performer but also a teacher, administrator, and political advocate who became a leader at America’s preeminent cultural institution, New York’s Lincoln Center.
Armstrong and Marsalis had very different backgrounds—Armstrong, the grandson of slaves, had to make his way in a world scarred by the politically accepted racism of Jim Crow. Marsalis was the crème de la crème of the New Orleans music-education system, the son of the city’s respected jazz educator Ellis Marsalis. Yet, for all the cultural differences between Armstrong and Marsalis, the culture of music—New Orleans music, or as Wynton calls it, “our music”—binds them together as if they were from the same family.
I caught up with Marsalis on his cell phone as he scurried around New York streets between meetings. He was engaged and extremely frank, even as distractions surrounded him. At several points the conversation was drowned out by police and fire sirens (“Wherever I go they follow me,” he laughed); at another point, as he took a seat on a stoop to make a point, he stopped in mid-sentence to greet a well-wisher (“Good to see you, brother”). Marsalis was preparing to play a concert with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at the Saenger Theatre, a benefit for the Tipitina’s Foundation.
Have you worked with Tipitina’s Foundation before?
No, I never have. One thing I want to point out is the focus that the foundation has on young people and music. We need to contribute to education. We need for the level of our playing to be higher. We need to teach the students about the great history of our musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, like Louis Armstrong.
Armstrong is obviously an extremely influential figure in your life.
Anybody who plays trumpet in jazz—if they sound good—they’ve got some Louis Armstrong in their sound.
You once said, “All of the trumpeters from New Orleans live in the echo of Pops.”
That goes for any jazz trumpet with a good sound, whether it’s Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis. I was listening to an interview with Clifford Brown and he was talking about Armstrong. He set a very high standard for playing on that instrument or communicating on any instrument.
Do you remember the first time you heard Armstrong’s music?
I always heard it because my pop taught African-American music classes and he would always start with Armstrong. I was crazy; I thought I didn’t want to listen to it when I was a kid because I thought he was an Uncle Tom, you know? Like everybody else, I didn’t really know who the man really was; I just knew the contemporary version of him. And many times with a great figure, if you didn’t really know who they were, you were just getting a kind of media version of who they were. It’s just misinformation.
Armstrong left New Orleans when he was 21 to make his fortune and didn’t come back much, yet he became an inspiration to generations of New Orleans musicians. Why do you think that is?
Because he’s the embodiment of our music. He never really left it. He never left; he took the gift of that music all over the world. He always talked about New Orleans, he always played New Orleans. It’s in his style. He was born into a great tradition, and he was a conservator and an innovator in that tradition at the same time. So wherever he went he brought that, because that’s what he was. That’s what he continues to be. He came up with so many solutions he basically taught the whole world how to play New Orleans-style. And everybody loved him because of the depth of his feeling and the depth of the meaning in his music. It wasn’t just his popularity; there’ve been other popular stars that had large audiences and were even venerated. But nothing like Louis Armstrong.
Mosaic Records just put out a nine-CD box with a lot of stuff that has never been released. It really underscores how great Armstrong really was as a player in the late ’40s and through the ’50s. Many of the histories of Armstrong talk about how he’d lost his edge by this time, but it’s clear on these recordings that he was still technically at the top of his game.
Critics, they don’t really know about our music a lot of times. You always have to check the stuff out yourself. You can’t go by what someone else says. Sometimes it seems almost like they’re doing it almost as if to dismiss the art that’s in it. When musicians get away from the art of it, it starts to become just entertainment. On one hand, they become better known and celebrated by the public, but the critical community can pick and choose who they’re gonna turn on. If it’s a person like Armstrong they’re talking about, it’s more undermining of jazz to attack him. We have a strange way of treating our artists over the critical history.
You were co-chairman of the Bring New Orleans Back cultural committee. Looking back now, are you satisfied at what you were able to achieve? Were any of your recommendations adopted?
No, it was a waste of time. They didn’t adopt any of that shit. They wasted our time. I wasn’t satisfied with it.
Is there a lesson learned from that?
I don’t know. What can I say about it? Nothing came from any of our recommendations. What lesson can you learn from that? There was no implementation; it was not taken seriously.
The education system has really taken a beating—music education particularly has taken a tremendous hit.
I kind of feel that you have to be in something to have an intelligent opinion about it. I never wanted to be a dilettante, just coming in and out and making comments off the cuff. I’m not really informed enough to have anything intelligent to say about it now.
You did mention before how important education is.
You know jobs are important, too. If you asked me, ‘Is education as important as jobs?’ I’d say no. If there are jobs you’re gonna get education. We all know civilization requires education but it requires jobs too. I think the most important thing is the parents. Kids cannot develop if their parents don’t have opportunity, it’s almost like slavery, so I’d say it’s more important to have jobs.
Irvin Mayfield talks about how much he learned from being with you in New York and watching you apply your ideas to dealing with the powers that be there. He’s tried to implement some of those ideas here, so you’ve had a profound impact in that sense. Does he consult with you, talk to you about what he’s involved with?
We talk all the time. Sometimes I’m consulting with him. We all know each other. Yeah, he’s like my little brother, but at Jazz at Lincoln Center we have our own things to deal with. And there are many ways to solve problems. No one person has a monopoly on it.
There’s a movement to try to start a Jazz Museum in New Orleans. Is that something you’d be in support of?
Yeah, I think we should build a museum around Buddy Bolden’s house.
Did you talk to Irvin about that?
We talked briefly about it but we didn’t get into any details.
I spoke to Wendell Pierce last year and he talked about being part of what he called the Joshua Generation, with your parents’ generation being the Moses Generation. Can you talk about the legacy your generation inherited and how you’re trying to create an inheritance for future generations?
It’s difficult—I can’t really speak for them, but technologically, I think we did a fantastic job. Artistically, I see a lot of missed opportunities. Socially, I see a lot of missed opportunities. I think that we failed to capitalize and develop on the Civil Rights Movement. Since Ronald Reagan, the Confederate narrative in New Orleans was allowed to continue for far too long in the modern world. I say that about my generation across the board. We’re still fighting the issues that we fought for in the 1960s—shit, some of them we fought for in the 1860s. So technologically, great, we built great computer companies, which is no small achievement; it’s a great achievement. And the world blessed those people with lots of money. But as for our generation artistically, culturally, educationally, in my mind we dropped the ball.
From a generational standpoint, I don’t think our artistic achievements were great. I wished we had achieved more as a generation. If we had achieved culturally what we achieved technologically, our whole culture would be different. We figured out to subvert the technology with pornography for kids. That’s what we’ve created, the female stereotype of showing yourself naked on video. We went back to the minstrel show, calling each other niggers and bitches and all of that, celebrating bling and bullshit. On a mass level this is what I’ve seen. I’ve seen us retrench into deeper segregation. I’ve seen us put thousands of people in jail for carrying weed in their pocket. I haven’t seen the type of development in other fields that I’ve seen in technology. The personal computer, the internet, iPhone, YouTube, making music free—achievement, achievement, achievement. Let’s talk about the prison system, what achievements have we gotten there? Let’s talk about education, what have we achieved there? Let’s talk about the quality of our popular music. Whoo! Let’s talk about the scourge of rap music, which is absolute bullshit foisted on the public that now stands in the public eye as the identity of Black America. What happened to the heart of our culture? So I don’t see such great achievement in those areas. Let’s talk about political achievement; our politicians can’t get together on any issue except how to steal people’s money. It’s not that profound—we all know it. Show me a person in America who doesn’t know that. That’s why congress’ approval rating is .06 percent.