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Wynton Marsalis on America’s Cultural Bankruptcy

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Wynton Marsalis has managed to get himself in the news a lot the last week or so. First he spoke at the National Press Club about “an entire generation of Americans who are culturally ignorant”. Although I have issues with Wynton (see below) he made some excellent points in his speech. Like pointing out that many a school band doesn’t play jazz and classical music, but rather watered down versions of pop songs. My man MaoXian highlighted parts of the speech and also points to a video of the speech (55 minutes of RealMedia) – there’s also a full transcript available (PDF):

“As Americans, it’s more important than ever that we have a sense of our identity. When you look at a Stuart Davis painting, or listen to Charlie Parker play the saxophone, or watch an Arthur Miller play, you are living an important part of the American experience … We need a generation of diplomats who understand and take pride in our culture, and can share it with others.”

“The power of great music is timeless. That’s why it remains an indispensable tool for teaching our youngsters … Music is one of the few things that transcends the boundaries of race, class, religion, and geography that too often divide us.”

“Can you imagine a society where no one had an appreciation of music, or theater, or art? Where no one could perform, everybody’s lip-synching? Nobody could teach? Well believe me, that’s the direction we’re heading.”

“Playing in an ensemble teaches you more about good citizenship than I don’t know what.”

He also made some great points during the Q&A session. In regard to the issues around file sharing he said that CDs are over-priced and more emphasis should be placed on live performances (where the real money is made for most artists). He also addressed the images that young people are bombarded with through the media. (Can we please stop using the word ‘nigga’ on record? Not to mention all the other ish. But that’d be a great place to start.)

Wynton was also in the news dissing hip-hop again (via Hip Hop Anonymous):

“I listen to any kind of folk music,” Marsalis said. He doesn’t listen to rap and hip-hop, which he described with one word: ignorant.

“Rhythms have to have a meaning,” he said. “If the rhythm is corrupt, the music is corrupt and the people become corrupt.

“It’s not always something you can see. But as you watch and listen, the ignorance will become clear to you.”

I can’t believe that his brother Branford (Buckshot LeFonque) still hasn’t beaten any sense into Wynton’s head with respect to hip-hop. Of course there’s a good amount of ignorance in hip-hop, but there’s also plenty of good, innovative music. He could simply listen to some of his brother’s projects to recognize that. I wonder if Wynton realizes that he’s casting the exact same aspersions upon hip-hop that were cast upon jazz music back in the day.

(originally posted on Move the Crowd)

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About Trader Mike

  • Eric Olsen

    Michael, very interesting and important, and I agree with your balanced take exactly: he’s right about culture, wrong about hip-hop because his blanket statement ignores all that is good about it. Rhythm for its own sake is fine, not ignorant – what is ignorant is the ugly, destructive, anti-human message of much of hip-hop, not the rhythm.

  • Wynton Marsalis frustrates me, because he can in the same breath wax rhapsodic and moronic about undeniably great music. How can anyone who can see the greatness of Thelonius Monk fail to see how Cecil Taylor, or Busta Rhymes can be similarly great? And I’m speaking here only of rhythm and leaving aside concerns of harmony, melody, or the dubious criterion of “artistic merit” that Marsalis so often trots out when he’s skewering fusion for the millionth time.

    Hey Wyn, news flash: the world moves on and a LOT of music has happened since 1961.

    Corrupt rhythms indeed. What the hell is a corrupt rhythm? It’s a damn shame that one of our most protean and important jazz talents is wasting his time fighting a rearguard action against the future.

  • What is wrong with what he says? He thinks hip-hop is mostly crap, so what? Does he have to like it cause he is black or something? Give the bloke a break. It would have helped if he had used the word “most” as Eric did.

    His points on Americans being “culturally ignorant’ are spot on as far as I am concerned.

  • Eric Olsen

    A couple of things: I said “much,” which is less than “most”; but more importantly, Marsalis doesn’t have to “like” anything, but there is a difference between not liking and characterizing as “ignorant” and “corrupt.”

  • The problem with Wynton is that he himself is quite ignorant, and so shouldn’t be pointing fingers. Anyone who considers himself a jazz musician who can straight-out dismiss jazz post mid-60s is ignorant, plain and simple. To write off all Miles Davis did in the late 60s . . . that’s just stupid. He will never recover from the damage done to his reputation with the Jazz series. Great musician he may be, but he’s hopelessly stuck in the past.

    It’s amazing his brother, Branford, makes such great, forward looking music (I refer to his *jazz* work, not the “stew” that Buckshot LeFonque was.) Anyone looking for good new jazz is recommended to skip the expansive Wynton portion of the Jazz M section and head back to Jazz B for Branford’s stuff.

  • Eric Olsen

    Um, aren’t they both Jazz M?

  • Thanks Eric.

    Well said Johno – there are so many similarities between hip-hop and jazz. It’s very frustrating that Wynton doesn’t seem to see any of them.

    Tom, you’re so right about Branford.

    Andrew – Wynton is free to think and like whatever he wants. Just as we’re free to disagree with him. The fact that he’s a black jazz musician just makes it more frustrating that he won’t give credit to any hip-hop music at all. No doubt that part of his problem with hip-hop has to do with his age. But if Quincy Jones can appreciate hip-hop surely Wynton should be able to as well.

    What’s wrong with what he’s saying is that he’s making a blanket statement about all hip-hop. Anytime you do that you’re treading on thin ice.

    I also find it ironic that he’s railing against budget cuts in school music programs but fails to see that hip-hop was a child of that very environment. If kids didn’t have instruments to play, they turned to turntables, mixers, and drum machines and created music with those tools.

  • Eric, details, details. 🙂

  • Eric: um . . . yeah, yeah they are both in M, aren’t they? Duh! It’s been a VERY LONG morning so far. I see an even longer day ahead. Yikes.

  • I think that Wynton may be *trying* to comment on the perception presented to most people of most *popular* rap/hip-hop. He may be truly ignorant about the whole genre, but I think his aim with his comments is purely at what is on the charts – what he hears occasionally on TV, in the mall, etc., which is influential to kids today. With that narrowed scope placed on his statement, he’s right.

  • cjones

    As a child of the hip hop generation and one who grew up in the NY during the birth of hip hop, rap or Emceeing (M.C.) as it used to be called back then, I really have to say that there is no comparison to between hip hop and jazz. Hip hop was started with already created music spinning loops and stealing samples of someone else’s ingenuity. Many times it used and still uses jazz samples. Today it is evolving to the point where it uses some instruments but it still is basically someone walking back and forth on stage braggin’ about what they have and what they did. There rarely is beauty or class involved in any of it as opposed to jazz. How in the hell could a human being with two functioning ears compare Thelonious Monk with Buster Rhymes is beyond comprehension to me. Can you compare Mary J Blige and Sarah Vaughn, Foxxy Brown and Billie Holiday? There is absolutely no comparison.

  • CJones,

    I wrote a paper about all the similarities between jazz and hip-hop back in my college days. I wish I could find it now. Perhaps the biggest similarities are the use of improvisation, the melding of several previous types of music, and intricate rhythms. Other similarities, aside from the music, are that they both became cultures and many people swore that neither was real music because they broke so many traditional musical rules. There’s been a lot written on this topic. Here’s but one of those articles – Hip Hop Music and its Connection to Blues and Jazz By W.E. Smith. And if you saw the Jazz documentary on PBS, you could almost substitute “hip-hop” for “jazz” in much of the discussion and the basic story would still ring true.

  • I can’t disagree that this is a society in which ignorance is encouraged. However, I have no brainstorm in regard to what can be done about that. Seems to me that individuals have to decide they don’t want to be stupid. No one else can do that for them. The younger people are when they make that decision, the better.

    I also believe at least two kinds of hip hop are being discussed here without being delineated. Wynton is definitely right about gangsta rap, which sells disproportionately, mainly to white kids who are giving stereotypes about black people a new life. By subsuming that ‘music’ in the broader genre, people skip around the issue. It is also telling that many hip hop artists don’t play any instruments, read music or even sing well. The absence of real skills suggests that something other than musicianship is responsible for their success. Too bad Ralph Ellison is dead. I would love to hear his take on this.

    Michael, mainly what is missing from too much hip hop music, in addition to musicianship, is any evidence of intelligence. That is why it will never reap the respect jazz has. I am not saying there is no brainy hip hop music, but most is all show, no substance.

    Eric, thanks for correcting someone who fell all over himself criticizing a genius he can’t hold a candle to.

  • It’s pretty clear that Wynton is speaking about all hip-hop, even instrumental. In his speech, he (kinda) beat boxes a simple (hip-hop) beat and says ‘stay away from stuff like this’.

  • Michael, very true.

    CJones, I limited my comparison between Busta Rhymes and Monk to rhythm only, for a reason. That reason? Both Monk and Busta had a highly individualized approach to articulation and phrasing that ties them together. I’m not claiming that they are two peas in a pod, but simply that in terms of rhythmic inventiveness/playfulness/slipperiness, there’s common ground between the two. Not all hip-hop artists have such rhythmic facility, but Busta certainly does.

    And I would NEVER compare Foxxy Brown, a hack with giant photogenic tits, to Billie Holiday. Mary J. I would make a better case for, because she has a hell of a voice, even if she does need to take a class (or woodshed a bit) on basic improvisation technique. But by that same token, would you compare Koko Taylor to Etta James? Janis Joplin to Bessie Smith? Holly Cole to Dinah Washington? I think the point of the whole discussion– and the point that Wynton Marsalis misses– is that excellence can be measured by many standards, and Marsalis’ is just one of them.

  • Mac Diva,
    your point about intelligence::respect is well taken, but the unfortunate thing is that jazz is now by-and-large a museum piece. Yes, that means respect, but only in the same way that ancestral worship means respect. Moreover, jazz spent so much of its history being thoroughly DISrespectable that its current enshrinement implies that most of the vitality is gone for now. (Ditto rock and roll.)

    And while I agree that the VAST majority of hip-hop ranges down the scale from dimwitted to fuckwitted, millions of people respect it each week, with their wallets.

    Just playing devil’s advocate.

  • cjones

    Thanks for the articles Michael and Johno your points are understood.

  • JR

    Wait, there’s instrumental hip-hop?

    Any good examples? I might actually want to listen to that.

  • Johno, I’m running with your devil’s advocacy: I don’t agree that jazz is dead by any means (and it doesn’t even smell funny, either.) Jazz today will never equal the vitality it had in the heyday of the 50s-60s, but neither will rock match it’s own heydays of the 60s and 70s. But jazz has very much been revitalized to a point where it actually means something again to talk about jazz as an advancement in music. Do I care if it’s ever big again? Not a wit – I just care that it remains big enough that people aren’t dissuaded to become jazz musicians so more of the great stuff that’s going on today can keep happening.

  • JR,

    There have always been scattered instrumental tracks on albums. Remember, hip-hop did start with the DJ. To name a few:

    Many a single/12 inch has an instrumental B-Side
    Many tracks by the turntablists – DJ Shadow, X-ecutioners, Beat Junkies, Invisibl Skratch Piklz, U.N.K.L.E., etc
    Eric B & Rakim – Chinese Arithmetic, Extended Beat, Beats for the Listeners, Eric B is on the Cut (samples a voice)
    Too Short – The Ghetto (instr. version)
    Malcolm McLaren – She’s Looking Like A Hobo, World Famous, Buffalo Gals is nearly instrumental
    Mos Def – May-December
    Jive’s ‘Rhythm Tracks’ albums – a ton of classic tracks which have been sampled many times over.
    Public Enemy – Terminator X Speaks with His Hands, Security of the First World, Mind Terrorist (samples some voices though), PowerSaxx from the Brothers Gonna Work It Out Single, with a serious sax solo by Branford Marsalis I believe, and a bunch of other PE tracks
    DJ Quik – Quik’s Groove ( I think he did one of these on each of his albums), Medley for a V (Reprise)
    The Roots – I can’t think of a track but they must have at least a few
    Schooly D – It’s Krak and Free Style Cutting (samples a voice though)
    Dr. Dre & Snoop – the instrumental version of 187 is an incredible track!

    The Instrumental version of Dre’s 2001 album

    Boogie Down Productions – Criminal Minded, with a bunch of instrumentals
    (I may have to buy these last 2 my damn self…)
    Planet Patrol – Rock at Your Own Risk
    Mark the 45 King – The 900 Number
    Mantronix probably has a few
    Jungle Brothers – Sounds of the Safari
    Herbie Hancock – can we call Rockit a hip-hop song?

  • JR


    I actually have the Herbie Hancock. It probably predates the term hip-hop, but I suppose that doesn’t mean the label can’t be applied to it retroactively.

  • If you want to know what hip-hop and jazz have in common, do yourself a favor and pick up DJ Spooky Optometry, which is a jazz album featuring the cream of today’s cutting edge crop – Matthew Shipp on piano, William Parker on bass, Guillermo Brown on drums, and Joe McPhee on sax and trumpet, oh, and Spooky on laptop, bass, and turntables. It’s his date, but he’s using the jazzers’ work to build his own stuff. It’s mostly instrumental, but is undeniably infused with a heavy dose of hip-hop sounds and textures.

    For the exact opposite – jazz getting mixed into hip-hop – check out Anti-Pop Consortium’s Antipop Vs. Matthew Shipp. I can’t say I care much for rapping, but what Anti-Pop has crafted here using Shipp’s free-jazz explorations is pretty intriguing.

    I’m telling everyone again – the future of jazz is on Shipp’s Blue Series, put out by Thirsty Ear. If you aren’t listening to this stuff, you’re really missing out on a preview of what the future of jazz is going to sound like.

  • Eric Olsen

    I like the Blue Series stuff a lot also, and this isn’t of any particular help to anyone, but I have probably 1000 hip-hop and rap 12″ and I admit that as often as not I like the instrumental B-side best. I am a huge fan of dub also.

  • gotta agree with Tom on the Matthew Shipp thing. Nu-bop is pretty cool. a great combination of jazz & electronica.

  • Robert Rucker

    To all who disagree with Marsalis statements ….if Wynton did not stand up for jazz during the time this music lost it’s way. Jazz would have surely found it’s death. Even though this music has been documented well…Many jazz musicians of that time didn’t take the time to teach our youth. Miles was to busy being a pimp. we needed new champion for jazz. To preserve the history. He made sure that young jazz musician study the history. You can say what you want….but look what he has done and backed up. He is responsible for a many new jazz musicians to arrive and has keep the old working. Duke Ellington would be proud of him I think

  • godoggo

    I wonder what Marsalis thinks of the jazz/hip hop played by former sideman Russell Gunn or acolyte Nicholas Payton. Me I like’em a lot, and I simply loathe most hip hop, although I’ve heard some interesting stuff on public radio. But there’s something fundamentally wrong to me about the idea, let alone the sound, of electronic drums.

    I have my problems with Wynton as a musician (for one thing, I think he’s influenced some trumpeters who actually improvise more expressively and melodically than he) , but I disagree that he hasn’t innovated. Listen to Blood on the Fields.

  • HW Saxton

    I don’t know about Wynton but Branford
    has experimented with Hip Hop. He likes
    a lot of the musical aspects.The use of
    experimental & cutting edge production
    techniques,use of samples and blending
    of CG beats with organic music/musicians
    getting out a strong & positive message
    and just the musical end in general.

    He’s against the gangsta lifestyle,guns,
    misogyny,dope,glorification of violence
    and those aspects of it though. He did
    those “Buckshot LeFonque” records in the
    mid 90’s.”Breakfast At Denny’s” was even
    a semi-hit. The best stuff from B.L.F is
    the tracks Branford did with DJ Premier
    from GangStarr. Really funky HipHop with
    some slamming sax work.

  • godoggo

    Don’t forget that he also recorded with Public Enemy.

  • He is right about popular culture. It is deteriorating although not with the help of Wynton or Branford Marsalis; fine musicians.
    Hip Hop and rap remain to be seen although all genres of music find their geniuses — and their hacks. As do the other arts.

  • Vern Halen

    Some wonderful & thought provoking reading here in this thread.

    Maybe the whole issue is the fact that the music industry has simply fragmented over quite a long period of time. If a person likes jazz for instance, he or she may have time to listen all the way back to Charlie Parker, but not have time to listen to other genres like hip hop, consequently leading to a misundertanding of that genre. But if a person says they listen to all kinds of music, perhaps they never get more than a superficial undertanding of many different styles. I dunno – you’d have to be your own judge of yourself there. But in both cases, blanket statements like “(insert least liked genre here) is dead” are somewhat invalid. The fact is, few people have the time, training and/or intuition to fathom the history of popular music from even the last 50 years, much less the parallel developments in jazz, blues, folk, rock, world music etc.

    I think at this point in music history you’ve got to be very subjective and develop your own concept of how music works for you in your life – there’s no point arguing whether either the Stones or Eminem are geniuses or just past their best before date. Whatever works for you.

  • Stonedog

    One thing so many people don’t understand; Hip-Hop has exploded, grown, mutated, bred and cross-bred. What IS hip-hop?? There are so many styles,forms and wings of hip-hop… You can’t really say hip-hop = x or hip-hop= y. It’s too multi-faceted.

    Know this; hip-hop can absorb, imitate or accomodate any other style of music. That’s why artists of all other genres have worked with hip-hop influences or artists. You see it every day!

    There’s Blues&hip-hop, Jazz&hip-hop, Classic music&hip-hop, Metal&hip-hop, House&hip-hop, Latin&hip-hop….it goes on and on… Hip-hop can adapt any style, it is like water. Like clay as long as you’re creative and daring. And every day Hip-hop also creates completely original sounds and forms.

    Right now the answer to “what is hip-hop?” is a very long answer. It might take a whole book with audio CDs to explain it.

    So how can anyone make a generalising statement about hip-hop?? You can’t. Wake up.

  • J.R. Ortiz, jr.

    Mr. Marsalis has a very good point. In this country, USA, ignorance is promoted as some “virtue”. Rejection of the past is the norm. Being “scruffy” and uncultured is considered “cool”. How often do I hear about “hip hop”, Madonna, “The Sopranos” and other cheap “popular culture”, yet rarely one hears about George Gershwin or Leonard Bernstein. The problem gets more complicated when this country try to “sell” itself to the outside world. Has nothing to offer except the same cheap “popular culture”. Aren’t we promoting more “anti-americanism” with our attitude? Thanks!