After 22 years with Columbia Records that produced over 30 jazz albums and 11 classical albums, many of which have gained multiple Grammy awards, plus the Pulitzer Prize-winning Blood on the Fields, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ association with the label is over. His new album, The Magic Hour marks his debut on the Blue Note label.
News of his departure from Columbia flashed the jazz world with some questioning if it indicated a slip in the star’s lofty status. However, as the 42-year-old trumpeter and jazz legend says in this telephone interview from New York, he views the move casually—just business, just a label change. Always incredibly busy performing, composing, teaching, touring and recording plus now overseeing the building of a new home for his Jazz at Lincoln Center project, Marsalis has too much cooking to study the small stuff.
The Magic Hour finds Marsalis in quartet with a strong, young rhythm section—pianist Eric Lewis, bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson—cats he’s mentored and worked with since they were teenagers. The trumpeter calls in vocal stars Dianne Reeves and Bobby McFerrin for two cuts on the disc, the mood of which is almost surprisingly light-hearted. The title cut reigns as an over-13-minute, multi-personality suite that moves from exhilarating to calming.
We discussed the new album, his myriad of projects including his recent work with his father and brothers, his association with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and his hometown of New Orleans. The always communicative and sometimes outspoken Marsalis offered many a thought provoking response.
I haven’t spoken with or seen you for a while. Since that time it seems as if—from afar at least—there have been a lot of changes in your life, particularly moving from Columbia to Blue Note. Does it seem that way to you?
Not really. I do what I do. I’m mainly on the road. I’ve been on the road for 20-something years. Jazz at Lincoln Center, we’re still going on. It’s not like I spent that much time up at Sony.
I’ve read this and that, but what actually went down with your departure from Columbia? And what about your classical output? Will you have a place to record that?
It wasn’t acrimonious or nothing strange. After all of that time, it was just time for me to go. They were going in a different direction from the one I wanted to go in. Now they don’t even have a jazz department really. That’s the direction things are going, which is not necessarily surprising because the record industry in general is having trouble. So it only stands to logic and reason that things that are not their major thrust—and their major business—would be the things that get neglected when they begin to have trouble with their major business.
I’m not recording that many classical albums anymore. I can use EMI but owe Sony a record anyway of baroque music.
Well there’s been a lot of talk about—almost blaming you—that now that you turned on some many people on to the past greats jazz legends that the companies are going into their archives and reissuing material instead of seeking out young talent.
Well, the young talent it’s important for them to be able to compete with greatests. That’s how we keep the level high. If you can’t do it, practice. That’s what keeps the tradition rich and that’s what makes the younger musicians stronger. There’s no field of study in the world that’s not based on the greatest achievements of the past. No field be it medicine, aeronautics, even computer technology. They move forward based on what has been done. Education itself is based in the past. Because if you’re not going to learn about what has been achieved what are you learning? Are you learning what you thought this morning? All that is just talking—it’s hot air—that has the weight or very little thought underneath it.
Let’s talk about the album a bit. Was it different at all recording for Blue Note? I know you had Delfeayo in there as producer again.
There was no difference recording. It was different to be there because there [at Blue Note] there are a lot of people dedicated to jazz so it’s very different. In two days we recorded it.
Is this the smallest group you’ve recorded with since the band with Marcus Roberts (piano), Bob Hurst (bassist) and Jeff “Tain” Watts (drummer)?
Yes, it’s the smallest I’ve recorded with but I work with quartets all of the time. Even this group, we’ve played things in New York over the last six or seven years—since they [the members] were teenagers. We’ve been playing like benefits and things like that. I wouldn’t have like Herlin [septet drummer Herlin Riley] or Wess [septet saxophonist Wess Anderson] or musicians that had to come in from out-of-state. I would just play with musicians who were in New York. I would always use Ali and Eric and Carlos. We’ve been playing together since they were in high school.
I find that there’s certain light-heartedness to the album.
Yeah, it’s supposed to be like tunes like we do at a party at my house or something. We have a lot of them where people would sing the blues—a man would sing, a woman would sing. People would start dancing around. We’ve had a lot of parties like that through the years. It’s got that kind of feeling. I’ve got some congas in my house and a tambourine—you know we just play around. Somebody might play the piano and the guitar is there and like that.
I guess I wondered if the music was a reflection of your mood at this time perhaps.
No, I play around and clown constantly. I’ve always been like that.
I feel that there’s a real sense of equal partnership on this album.
Well, you know they are young guys who I’ve been knowing. I love them. We have a personal relationship. You know with younger musicians, your relationship with them goes up and down. When they’re young, you’re like a mentor. And then they go through that period when they compete with you and they get mad at you for whatever—like with your kids. If the competition don’t work out like they want it to work out they might be mad with you for a little while and then they come back around. It’s like a cycle that happens with older and younger people as well as older and younger musicians. So with most of the young musicians I have known, I have that type of cyclical relationship with them where it’s like anything you say is the law, then you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about at all. Then they slowly come back in. They might stay out for a little while and try to establish their own identities and own ideas and thoughts about things. So it’s necessary for them to go away from what they learned from you or what you think. Then they come back around, sometimes. Sometimes they don’t. Now we’re in the stage where all that is past. Now they just tease me and mess with me all the time and say I can’t play, they’re cuttin’ my head, I’m getting old, they call me old man. I like it. I don’t care. It’s kinda funny. I call myself the old man—“the old man” [Wynton hilariously mimics the voice of an aged gentleman].
On The Magic Hour you bring in vocalists Dianne Reeves and Bobby McFerrin for two cuts. There might be a perception that by including names that are so familiar to such a wide audience that Blue Note wanted you to do that or that it might spike record sales. How did their appearances on the CD come about?
Well, I wrote the one song I was going to sing, “Baby I Love You.” I just called Bobby on a whim like if he would agree to do it and write the words because the words I had written were so pitiful. He probably agreed just so I wouldn’t have to record those words. And well, Dianne, we’re like family—I see her all the time. She’s sat in with us. She went on the road with Wess [saxophonist Wess Anderson] and all the guys in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
Blue Note had nothing to do with me calling them. I called them on my own volition. Bruce [Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall] also doesn’t try to tell me what to play or what to do. That’s not what my career is like. I’m just not that type of musician or that type of person. It’s a business type of relationship. If I can come up with something that fits in with what the label is doing then they’ll keep me and I’ll stay. And if not, they won’t want me to stay and I won’t stay. But I’m not going to look to the label to give me artistic direction. I’m 42 years old; I didn’t do that when I was 19. There’s no reason I would do that now. I’ve never done it and I won’t do it. This is a way of life for me. It’s not just a way to make a living. And you know, I’m not trying to compete for publicity or to be the most popular. I don’t really even desire that. I desire to make the music that I want to make and leave a recorded legacy about how I felt about my time and play with the musicians I want to play with and participate in the life of jazz the way I know it to be. I’m at an age now that I don’t play around. It’s what it is.
I really love the title cut, The Magic Hour. Can you tell me about the song? I mean it goes pretty far out with those high notes you’re burnin’ and comes back in. Then it swings and goes to a Latin tempo.
It’s for people who have kids that are pre-adolescent. It’s the hour before the kids go to bed for the kids; for the parents it’s the hour after. It covers the basic movements of jazz—the four basic rhythmic attitudes that we have. One is 4/4 swing—in the case of the kids, that’s like them running around before they go to bed. And you have to put the blues on them to get them to go to bed. After the blues, they get into a groove and you get into a groove—a certain understanding. Then the second magic hour starts for the parents. You were running around but now you’re running around horizontally. Then two is the blues—and in adults the blues is a matter of mutual recognition. And third is the groove and in adults the groove is a matter of getting down to working on what you mutually recognize. And then there’s the slow ballad portion which in adults is a matter of reflection and contemplation.
How are things proceeding in building the new home for Jazz at Lincoln Center? What is the proper name of the facility?
It’s going great. We’re going to open our building in October. We’ll be finished with construction in July. We’re still raising the remainder of the money—we have about $15 million left to raise. We have our program together. We’re just trying to do the work we have to do to get where we’re going. The name is Frederick P. Rose Hall—he’s a New York philanthropist.
You were touring with your father and brothers in support of The Marsalis Family – A Jazz Celebration album. Was there anything about it that came as a surprise to you? How was that?
It was good; it was fun—that was last year, a while ago. The most surprising thing about the family band was how good it was. ’Cause like me, I didn’t really feel like doing it. I was dreading it. It’s like almost anybody—people with families—they say, “Oh, I got to go with my family for the holidays and deal with my family.” Everybody knows what family life is like—what happened to somebody when they were 12 or 16. But everybody was out there to play. And because my father’s belief is in playing so it was good. It didn’t sink down into that kinda cheesy type of thing that a family thing can be. It was about playing some music. My daddy was not playing around. He was making us understand it’s about playing. It was sold out—the people came out and they enjoyed it too. A lot of people told me, “Man, we thought it was going to be maybe corny, but it was about playing.” That’s what they were saying. [Wynton laughs.]
Recently, you were briefly here and attended a press conference concerning the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. I believe it was announced you’d be performing with the ensemble sometime this year. [Wynton sits on the Board of Directors of the NOJO.]
I came just to endorse the orchestra and help him (NOJO director, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield] in any way I could. I think I am [coming in to play] but I don’t know what the schedule is. I was just endorsing it and trying to get some initiative started—endorse whatever Irvin’s direction is in what he’s doing. [Note: According to Mayfield, the concert and accompanying workshop dates are tentatively slated for sometime in November, though yet unconfirmed.]
When you say “endorse” are you helping in any certain way? Have you assisted him or the orchestra thus far?
In any way that I can help. I haven’t helped in any tangible way, but if there is a tangible way I can help, I will. What Dillard University has done to endorse jazz is unprecedented and it’s historical and the city should be behind the efforts of Dillard and of Irvin and Dan [Entergy CEO Dan Packer]. That level of endorsement of jazz with money with time with resources [by an African-American college] is very unusual. It’s something that should be cherished, admired and respected in the time that it’s going on. The time is now for it.
Irvin has had his share of detractors who voice resentment for his position and attitude. It is often said that he’s trying to emulate to you. The comparison is sometimes meant as a compliment though it has also been issued as an insult.
Well, I don’t think he emulates me. First, I wouldn’t have ever gotten into that tub with two women. I might get in the tub with them, but there wouldn’t be any photographs of it. But I love him. He don’t care. He does a whole pile of stuff I would never do. But first, he’s funny. He has a sense of humor and he has courage so I’m sure he doesn’t care what they say. He’s so funny, man, somebody as funny as him don’t have to worry about any of that. Plus I told him the next time he gets on the cover with his shirt off he has to get in the gym for a little while. But I loved the fact that he did it. He’s doing his thing. He has the courage to get something done and he’s getting something done. Like that African proverb: A log may lie forever in a river but it will never become a crocodile. They can complain all they want but he’s doing what he’s doing and he’s getting it done. So let the critics criticize and let the doers do.
In that way—of getting things done—he is similar to you.
Well, in that way he’s similar to anybody who does anything. That’s a universal thing.
Well, you are both ambitious people. I often call the some of the shots taken at you stemming from a kind of “king of the hill” syndrome. You know, wanting to drag the top dog down.
Yeah, I don’t even know what it is. But like I said, after a certain point you reach the age you’ve been doing something long enough your objective becomes totally different. I don’t even care about any of that at this point. I’m trying to get education programs out, write good music, play good on concerts not to concentrate on whatever talk and all of that—yeah fine. Whatever the talk is, that’s just what it is. Irvin’s getting a lot done and it’s getting done because he’s there. That’s why it’s getting done. He’s very different from me. He has his own way of doing stuff and looking at things and he goes his own way and I respect that. Whether I agree with all of it is not really significant. That’s why I’m saying I support what he’s doing in the endeavor of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. I’ll follow his leadership and his guide. I’m trying to give the same type of support I got from musicians like John Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Foster. Gerry Mulligan was another one that always had good advice. He also had humorous comments on stuff. [Wynton starts laughing.]
Well, Irvin does have a cocky personality.
Well, he’s a trumpet player—I mean, we all have that.
You mentioned how much you tour, but you rarely play in New Orleans—maybe every other Jazz Fest. We haven’t even had the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra here. Why? Are people not coming up with the bucks? Is New Orleans still considered off the beaten track?
Wow. It’s not because we don’t want to go. I don’t really know.
That’s what I figured—bookings aren’t your department.
I love coming home, but I don’t worry about it. There’s a lot of other places in the world to play. At a certain point every place becomes like your home. If you’re from New Orleans it’s a different thing because there’s no other city in the world like New Orleans. I mean, I love the city but what can I do? I can’t promote myself. We played in Mississippi, Alabama and Texas and we played in Shreveport on this last tour. We played in Baton Rouge—it wasn’t off the beaten track for them. I don’t know.
What is your perception of New Orleans from afar? I mean things often look different from when you’re here.
I’ll always love New Orleans. We have a tradition and a history unique in the entire world. I feel like we have done a disservice to jazz as a city mainly because of our racial policies and the ignorance of the city. But as far as cities go and the nostalgia—I don’t even like to stay home that long because I’ll want to stay. It’s the kind of place that if you’re from there, you’ll always love it. It’s like in the center of your being. People around the world love New Orleans. It’s one of the things that I’m most proud of, saying I’m from New Orleans. I think if our city ever got behind a cultural renaissance we would go a long way. I had the opportunity to speak with the mayor and he seemed like he was interested in that proposition. If we could ever get behind jazz and what it actually is and educate all of our kids in that—black kids and white kids—and work on our education system and take pride in who we are in fact—not just like a place where you can drunk and have a good time but you can do that too. Because we have a lot of universities—we have a lot in New Orleans. It’s hard to understand why you can’t use all of that brain power and all the things we have down home to correct some of our glaring problems and make our city much more livable and just a better place. Central to that could be the use of jazz and the phenomenal event of the birth of jazz in this city. I’m talking about an education system that embraces the music, preserving places where the musicians played jazz, festivals and competitions for elementary school kids—tangible things. Jazz attracts a lot of people to New Orleans. We should have the very highest level of performances from many ensembles like Vienna has.
Yeah, because tourists often hear a lot of horrible music when they come here.
Yeah, and they know that. I hear. The first time I talked with Bill Clinton—before he was President—he said, “Man, I was in New Orleans and some of the saddest shit I ever heard in my life I heard down there.” We have so many great musicians, we just need first class training and we need to have respect for what was discovered there. But you know, I’m not trying to cry because the city is still great. Even with the disrespecting of our music and our culture on that level, it’s still a phenomenal place. I love the city with so much intensity and I’m proud to represent it everywhere I go.
Is there anything that you really want to do and haven’t done?
Dunk a basketball. I don’t think that’s going to happen. But I did beat Oliver Thomas on one-on-one and I made Irvin give up chess. As a matter of fact, when I see Irvin and they pull a chessboard out, he starts crying. He has psychological problems now about chess. When you show him a chess piece he starts crying and peeing on himself. Tell him I’m really sorry about that.