Take Note: Wynton Marsalis On The Intersection Of Jazz And Democracy

Dec 4, 2020

Wynton Marsalis
Credit Wynton Marsalis

What does jazz music have to do with democracy? We’ll find that out from this week’s guest, jazz great Wynton Marsalis. He’ll explore power, struggle, finding common ground and how those factor into his new album, The Ever Fonky Lowdown.

This interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. 

TRANSCRIPT:

Emily Reddy:  
Welcome to Take Note on WPSU, I'm Emily Reddy. What does jazz music have to do with democracy? We'll find that out from this week's guest jazz great Wynton Marsalis. He'll explore power, struggle, finding common ground, and how those factor into his new album The Ever Fonky Lowdown. Today's interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. The Institute's Jenna Spinelle interviewed Marsalis.

Jenna Spinelle:  
From the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, welcome to Democracy Works. I'm Jenna Spinelle, here today with Chris Beem and Candis Watts Smith. Listeners, you might have noticed that this episode is going to be a little bit different. Rather than our normal theme music, at the top of the show, you heard a clip from The Ever Fonky Lowdown, a new album from Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. And we are very excited, very fortunate to have Wynton on the show today to talk about this album and the themes that underlie it. And we've all been listening to it. I think we all agree this is a serious work of art and something that requires great reflection and really ties into a lot of the themes of democracy that we talk about on this show all the time.

Chris Beem:  
On top of that, this is master craftsman at the top of his game. And, frankly, I'm a little embarrassed that I hadn't heard of this piece before. But listening to it, it's just like, you know, who am I to say. But it is, at minimum, an amazing work of art. And it does, as you say, Jenna, reflect a lot of themes that we talk about from the perspective of academics and activists. But here's an artist reflecting on the same themes, and it is absolutely worth our investigation, our reflection.

Candis Watts Smith:  
Yeah, into this work of art, it tells us a lot about the history of the United States, but generally speaking the histories of empires and how they work, and what challenges our kind of every day... our everydayness brings to the goal of democracy.

Chris Beem:  
And so my thought when I was listening to this, I was reminded of the phrase, the hermeneutics of suspicion. Which is a really fancy way of saying, there are thinkers, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, from the 19th Century and early 20th Century who were arguing that, look, here's what you think is going on. Here's what you think you're doing and believing. But none of that is true. What's really happening is underneath. And I'm going to show you what that is. And I'm going to make it clear to you for the first time, your role in it. And it's only by doing that, only by presenting you with the truth, so that the scales can fall from your eyes and you can see, for the first time, that you're being hustled that you can actually genuinely respond to it.

Candis Watts Smith:  
So I suppose, looking at the libretto and listening to The Ever Fonky Lowdown, from my perspective, is that I read it through the lens of Charles Mills's Epistemology of Ignorance, which I think is also echoed by scholars like Carol Anderson and Ian Haney Lopez, Derrick Bell, who is a central figure in critical race theory. But ultimately, it's kind of we know what we want to know, and we don't know what we don't want to know. And that works if you are trying to produce a society that is hierarchical, that money is central to the way that things work, that self interest is. And, you know, we sometimes don't want to know the answers that undermine the way that we think about ourselves and think about our society as maybe fair, egalitarian, meritocratic, so on and democratic.

Chris Beem:  
And decent, right?

Candis Watts Smith:  
So in the CD era, and the same for like the records era, you listen to it from front to back.

Chris Beem:  
Right, mmmhmm.

Candis Watts Smith:  
And now and I'm not you know, I do this too you kind of listen... you just put on a playlist in the background and you get a mood. You don't know necessarily need to listen, and you can just let the music wash over you. But this requires a deeper level of engagement. And so I was really pleased to engage with this material and learn more about Wynton Marsalis and his kind of orientation toward jazz and democracy and how he links the two and sees them in relation to one another. And so like jazz, which demands more than just letting it wash over you, democracy also requires more than politics.

Chris Beem:  
So Wynton Marsalis says that jazz is this inherently cooperative thing. And we always think about jazz as being improvisation and free, and you know, self expression. Which of course it is, right? But he's saying that expression, that freedom, only works when people are cooperating, when they're working together, when they're collaborating, when they're taking each other seriously as fellow participants and respecting their contribution. And, man, if you wanted to have three sentences that describe what we need to make our democracy work better, you could do a lot worse.

Jenna Spinelle:  
Yeah, no, that's a great transition, I think, into the interview. We pick up talking about some of these themes on jazz and democracy and how they're similar. So yeah, we're really excited to have Wynton with us on the show today. So you'll hear now another clip from The Ever Fonky Lowdown as we head into the interview.

Wynton Marsalis, welcome to Democracy Works. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Wynton Marsalis:  
It is my pleasure to be speaking with you. Thank you so very, very much. Look forward to it, Jenna.

Jenna Spinelle:  
Yeah, so you have been writing and speaking about this notion of democracy as jazz, jazz as democracy for a while now. And before we dive into some of your more recent work, I'm wondering how and when these two strands came together for you.

Wynton Marsalis:  
I think when I was in high school, I always loved history and the Constitution. And then I combine that with teaching, I also went to an art school, that the music of Beethoven or the music of Wagner had something to do with their political condition. So I put the kind of idea together, and being from the 1960s, and my father, being a jazz musician, he was always talking about our way of life and how the music is related to that way of life. And I would read books that were always talking about jazz musicians, and what they knew about the music and how the music was connected to our way of life and the pursuit of equality, and justice and all of these things. If you remember, in the 60s, there's a lot of records, John Coltrane and "Love Supreme," "Fables of Faubus" Mingus, Max Roach. "Freedom Now," that's more '50s going in the '60s, well, my father and them were always listen to that kind of music. So I was aware of the connection between the music and the arts, and the struggle for equality and freedom and for democracy.

Jenna Spinelle:  
Yeah, and that's something that you have really started to articulate in your recent work that The Ever Fonky Lowdown your forthcoming piece, the Democracy Suites. So as I understand it, it's personal freedom, individual expression and common ground. Can you talk about how all of those things play out in jazz, and then maybe how you see them also playing out in democracy?

Wynton Marsalis:  
Sure. The first is just the belief that nations and groups of people are not granted endless art forms. They participate in art forms, and they are endlessly creative and come up with many things. But every now and then, ideas and practices congeal into an art form, and that art form mythologizes your way of life. So generally, people study their art forms for revelations. The problem in the United States was that revelation came from Afro Americans. So it created a problem in the culture. We can't accept a revelation from this group of people because they are the do not pass go caste. So that's why we have these ongoing dialogues. Of the three components of jazz, only one of them ever really comes under fire. The first is improvisation, which is personal freedom and the expression of that. The second is swing, that's the one that comes under fire. Because swing is a matter of balance, negotiation, the sharing of agency. Just as in our culture, we struggle with sharing agency. And then the third is the blues, which gives us an optimism that's not naive. So it means that the blues, we recognize this stuff. Something is wrong, but we feel like we can make it better by use of our personal freedom and our ability to find and nurture common ground. So the other two tie into that third one.

Jenna Spinelle:  
Yeah. And there's a struggle there too, right. Your work has kind of touched on this for your whole career. And I wonder, is there always... does there have to be that element of struggle? I mean, not that we may ever fully realize some of these struggles. But what happens if we do? Where everybody draw their inspiration from then? How do you think about those kind of things?

Wynton Marsalis:  
You know, I think that there is struggle, because in this time there is. And it's in everything. Childbirth is a struggle. To create ideas is a struggle. To contend with yourself is a struggle. To balance your own needs with your wants. And your needs and wants, with your abilities. I don't care who you are, you're going to struggle. Then you have health struggles that are inherited, and you're going to struggle with those. And you have struggles in your personal relationships that come down through your family systems. You're going to struggle. So it's best and easiest to embrace the fact that it will be a struggle, but don't get addicted to struggling. Instead, become addicted to riding the waves. And finding... like John Coltrane, interesting interview he gave, he said he was trying to find the one through line through all these complex harmonies. And it was it was interesting... So just the thought of, let's try to figure out how to thread a needle and find like a kind of common space that allows us to achieve balance. Let's dance on the edge of this model, and figure out how to find our equilibrium in a place of uncertainty. And I think that's what we have to do. Now, I do believe that eventually, with the whole progression of humanity and the world -- and maybe even the worlds -- that there comes a point of the kind of end game of a catharsis, like where there's a realization, and there's the disillusion of polarity. I believe that will happen. I don't know why I believe it. But I don't think anywhere...

Jenna Spinelle:  
Well...

Wynton Marsalis:  
Yes?

Jenna Spinelle:  
You've also spent the past 40 years touring the country, touring the world, talking to all kinds of different people. Do you perhaps draw some inspiration there? And maybe also, have you observed any changes in the state of our discourse in that time?

Wynton Marsalis:  
You know, I think, yeah, I've talked to a lot of people over time. I think that, uh, it's hard for me to say. I think... I don't think enough time has passed for me to really see whether there's been a change. I think, maybe 300 or 400 years, you can tell. I don't feel like even if you live to be 100... Technology changes, of course, you know, these kind of things that are easy earns. Something is not difficult to have changed. But the technology of the human soul doesn't change. Are we less hurt? Or do I feel a bit less hurt? Are we less greedy? Are we less loving? Are we not... I mean we have much more obvious, open discord in our country it could seem at this period. But if you remember back to the '60s, all the killing that took place.. you know what I mean? I don't think I'm going to live long enough to see [inaudible].

Jenna Spinelle:  
Yeah, you mentioned that concept of "agency" before. And that, to me is is related to this notion of power. And that idea of power really spoke to me as a theme on The Ever Fonky Lowdown, it's kind of this game, right? You know, Mr. Game, your narrator in the piece about who has power, who gets power, who keeps it, who holds it. How do you see power fitting into this larger story you're trying to tell?

Wynton Marsalis:  
It's interesting, because you can go back to your-- when you're growing up, if you have a little brother or sister, how do you treat them? Do you take their stuff, because you can take it? Do you share things with them? Like, what do you create? Or even with your parents, you have a certain type of control over kids, at a certain point they're gonna do what you tell them to do. And how do you deal with them? But our world is such beauty and complexity and simplicity. It's no way to summarize the kind of power, agency gained. But I do want to say that it's interesting, you know the two strains of thought in action. And they are endemic in different meanings. And they are expressed in different mythological beliefs systems. One kind of Sumerian belief system is a is predatory, like a select elite group exploits a larger group of lessers and slaves. So Sumerians said we created these people to do work and somebody messed up and gave them a little bit of consciousness, but they're really just basically...And that's what you see at work in our country, by and large. We're going to exploit a large class of white workers who are not as educated as an elite and we're going to use racism to make them think "here's the problem here" while we take their money and subject them to all kinds of stuff. Make it so they don't work, do whatever, all the mechanisms that have been going on since before the Civil War. So that's one. And the other is a symbiotic, which is reflected more in the book religions that we've-- and I would even include Buddhism; it's not a book religion, you know, Buddhism is just a kind of-- the leadership invest in the largest population of fellow citizens, and they create a more equitable and livable world for all. Now, that's difficult to invest when you could take. So if you think that the main problems we currently have in the world, if you think about the realms that we all as human beings-- the first would be business trade. We learned about trade immediately, you know, I mean, we could be little kids. When I was growing, we played marbles. And we knew what, how much a cat I was worth, as opposed to it is, we start trading marbles immediately, we didn't have anyone tell us. So we have business, we have a religion. This is what we believe. We have politics, which is how we negotiate with each other. And the trick is civics. Because civics is all investment, education, stuff like a fire department, people in fire departments very different from a police department, fire departments in America, even though many are volunteer, because the thinking is, if your house burns down, mine is gonna burn down too. Whereas the police department tends to be the military wing of a political establishment. So when you start to have corruption in all of those realms, where religion is more interested in money, where all of civics is not investment, but taking: I'm going to charge you for education, charge you for health care, charge you to put a candy machine in, and charge you to get-- now I'm businessing you. And politics, obviously, I'm going to buy my candidates, I'm going to create the thing where all they do is create a kleptocracy to distribute this money to these elite groups. And all we have to do is fool this mass of dumb people. And we just trot some minority group out and allow them to sacrifice them, and then we can keep stealing this money. So everything just can't be about making or taking money at all costs. And we have to come to that. And we're like the cutting edge of the world on that. So we're gonna see-- and it's not even predicated on this election. It's just the general direction our populace is going to go in, and we gonna be predatory and try to be an empire. Or will we be symbiotic and focus more on being a republic.

Jenna Spinelle:  
Right. And that's the struggle, as you said, it's been going on since the founding of the country, and certainly others as well. And I've also, speaking of the founders, I heard you described them as beboppers recently. Can you talk a little bit more about that comparison?

Wynton Marsalis:  
When you look at the diversity of talents of, you know, Madison and Hamilton, and even Washington, even if people kind of try to disrespect Washington. Washington had an important purpose and Ben Franklin and you start to look at the skills that people, uncommon. Now you have a whole history of your nation, you did not have another time period since then where you had those types of people in the foreground, three or four certifiable geniuses. In bebop, we had the same thing. You had Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke. We haven't had a time of those kind of concentration of thinkers in one place who could actually achieve the things that they achieve; your Miles Davis, Max Roach, all kind of hovering around at the same time. That's in the way that I meant that.

Emily Reddy:  
If you're just joining us, you're listening to Take Note on WPSU. Today's guest is jazz great, Wynton Marsalis. Today's interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. Interviewer Jenna Spinelle talked to Marsalis about his new album, "The Ever Fonky Lowdown" and what it has to do with democracy.

Jenna Spinelle:  
So thinking about that game you were describing, there's a thought out there that if you try to find common grounds that it is in some ways just perpetuating existing... it just kind of another way of perpetuating existing power structures or keeping this game going, right? I mean, so how do you see that notion of finding common ground fitting in with this larger game that's happening in our society?

Wynton Marsalis:  
Well, if you're finding common ground, you're not trying to exploit people, so you're not fitting into the existing. Now all of a sudden, your kids education... you're not fighting over whether you want nutritious food. You're not fighting whether people should be able to pay for sickness. You're not fighting over people having $400,000 in student debt. That's not a battle that you're having. Because you're thinking of the larger ground. You're saying: well, okay, this country gave me "x" and "this." I want people's kids to be educated. I don't want them to not. I want to make sure we have a good junior college system. I want to make sure our state universities are well funded. I want to make sure-- I don't want my sanctioned violence force committing crimes against citizens because they don't have money, or because they always show up as predators in movies, or because they even degrade themselves. I don't want-- just certain things are gonna go away because you don't want that. You know, you, that's not what you're interested in doing. It's like, it's like a person comes home from work. They don't want to come home from work and start hollering and screaming at their husband or hollering, screaming at their children or husband, holler and scream at the wife and kick the dog, and do everything because they're anxious about stuff. If they don't want to create that environment in their home, regardless of their personal situation, they're going to try not to do that. Doesn't mean they succeed. But that's not going to be their goal. Their goal is not going to be: when I come in here, all y'all shutup. You understand?

Jenna Spinelle:  
Yeah.

Wynton Marsalis:  
So we have to decide, do you really feel good about being what you are? It doesn't matter if you're on the left or the right. And if you really feel good about it, okay. But your problem is not the right, your problem is not the left, you are the problem.

Jenna Spinelle:  
Yeah, it's, and that again comes back to that, that idea of agency, right? You have the ability to change and control some of those things. Two more questions here before we let you go. One thing that's often pointed to when we think about the state of our democracy in the U.S. and how people feel about it, is the decline of civics education. I wonder where you see arts education fitting in to civics education or education creating citizens more broadly in our schools?

Wynton Marsalis:  
Well, I think that when people have arts education, they have a larger sense of the world. And if you really think about it, they have a larger sense of what the world was. The more you have an understanding of the texture of life, and the ebb and flow of life, and the more you're put into an understanding of human circumstances, you're able to have a nuanced view. The more nuanced your view is, the more you can find simplicity in complexity, ironically. The less nuanced your view is-- it's kind of like in a Biblical sense what the devil does. The devil simplifies things for you. Go get them. It's like so yeah, the fact that we've chosen not to educate our kids in our arts, and the fact that we've chosen not to teach geography and civics and things that give us a sense of the world and our place in it, is an indication of a deep, deep, troubled ignorance and a lack of understanding. But once again, let's go back to what we were saying about that Sumerian mythology. If I just need you to work a job, and I don't want you to participate in nothing, I don't need you to be educated. I would rather you be ignorant. It's a choice we have to make. Now, if I want to interact with you, and I want you to be powerful, and I want to learn, and I don't want to curate my life-- with you as a bit player, or you as an extra in it, I want you to be educated. I want you to know about the arts because you're going to teach me. And we still have a ways to go with understanding that and the importance of that, especially with civics.

Jenna Spinelle:  
Yeah. That even goes for the art we consume, too, right? I mean, you can listen to what's on the radio and just take that in, let it wash over you. Or you can listen to music like you and your contemporaries make that does require that deeper thought, deeper understanding.

Wynton Marsalis:  
Right. We have to laugh at a lot of that stuff because it's gotten so ridiculous. These are just products that are put together by teams of people. And I don't even know what to say about it at this point. You know what I mean? I've critiqued it for years. So I feel like we think of art as a product. And it's something that's connected in some way to some type of sexual taboo. That if you sell it to an 11 or 12 year old you have a fan for life. And I don't understand it. But I think that we can understand that art is consciousness and mythology made physical, we're capable of understanding it. And that it is creation, recreation, and is re-creation. So one thing, you have a thing that is creation, you make up something, it's recreation, it can be fun. But it's also re-creation. Like, the priest comes out and they say another thing, the priestess does "this" and that means "this." It's connected to the repetition that is important for us to learn what it means to be us. And that, you know, it inspires inner growth and contemplation and, most importantly for us, it inspires discernment. But, you know, discernment is important in this time, because you really don't know when people are lying to you if you don't know. And now there's so many lies going on you need to be able to sift through things that sound like they're the same, but they're not the same. I think art and that type of education puts you in touch with the mythic substance of human history. And it teaches you how to think and to perceive symbolically. Then you know. You can't have a Postmaster General getting rid of mailboxes. It's crazy. Just symbolically, it's crazy. You can't have people trying to figure out how to have you not vote under the guise of protecting rights. Just symbolically, art helps you also to develop your attention span and your perspective. So yeah, I could go on and on. You know, I could go on and on.

Jenna Spinelle:  
One last question for you. We say on the show quite a bit that democracy takes hard work. It's not natural. It's not easy, in some respects. And you are perhaps one of, if not the most, dedicated, driven people we've ever had on the show. What's your North Star? Or, what advice might you have for people who are still aiming, or still striving, to have that level of dedication to being fully part of our democracy?

Wynton Marsalis:  
I got two things I like to say to my staff, it makes them laugh. As talkative as I am, it's "Let's see. Can't wait." We have to be urgent and we have to be ready. And that should be your state of mind. Urgent. Just come with the urgency. Can't wait. Let's see. Let's get to it.

Jenna Spinelle:  
Great. Alright. Well, Wynton, we will leave it there. Thank you so much for your time today.

Wynton Marsalis:  
Hey, thank you so very much, Jenna. Very appreciative.

Clip from Wynton Marsalis's Ever Fonky Lowdown:  
Yeah. You have to believe in yourself to be successful. I see you have accepted that concept quite well. Too much negativity and reflection are like all vegetables and no cake. Follow me while I explain what this is gonna take. I'm Mr. Game. Success is my middle name. I became famous for my financial twerking that showed folks how to make money without even the money working. We could go on and on about me, but we have a lot of stuff to do. And tonight's proceeding is all about you. Believe me, oh, glorious people. You are great. And we are so fantastic. But have you noticed a growing population of others who look suspicious? They seem to be everywhere. Who are they? Count them. I think they may soon outnumber us.

[music from "The Ever Fonky Lowdown"]

Emily Reddy:  
Wynton Marsalis's new album is "The Ever Fonky Lowdown." Today's interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. Jenna Spinelle was the interviewer. You can hear more Take Note and Democracy Works interviews at wpsu.org/radio. I'm Emily Reddy, WPSU.