♪ [Static popping] ♪ This is my kitchen table and also my filing system.
Over much of the past 3 decades, I've been an investor.
The highest calling of mankind, I've often thought, was private equity.
[Laughter] Rubenstein, voice-over: And then I started interviewing.
I watched your interview because I know how to do some interviewing.
I've learned in doing my interviews how leaders make it to the top...
I asked him how much he wanted.
He said, "250."
I said, "Fine."
I didn't negotiate with him, and I did no due diligence.
I have something I'd like to sell.
Rubenstein, voice-over: and how they stay there.
You don't feel inadequate now because being only the second wealthiest man in the world.
Is that right?
[Laughter] If there is one form of music that America is famous for having invented, it's jazz.
[Jazz playing] Invented in the early part of the 20th century in New Orleans, jazz has now become synonymous with American music not just in the United States but around the world, and America has produced incredible jazz legends like Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, but today at the top of the jazz world is Wynton Marsalis, the founder and director of Jazz at Lincoln Center.
He's a performer, he's an educator, he's a composer, and he lives jazz 24 hours a day.
♪ So you do you get tried of people calling you a jazz legend?
-Do you feel older when they say that to you?
I like the word jazz.
I don't like the legend.
Heh heh heh.
Let's talk about your family for a moment.
Sadly, your father passed away in April at the age of 85 because of COVID, so it must have been a very sad loss because you were very close to him of course.
For all of us, for me and my brothers of course, he's our father, we loved him so much.
He was such an example for us, and he was such a kind man and a man with a large worldview and also a large person.
He didn't do small things.
He was very philosophical.
He wasn't a touchy-feely type of person.
He's from that generation, too.
Wasn't a lot of hugging and "I love yous" going on, but there was underneath a lot of resolve and seriousness and just kind of deep love not just for us, but also, he had many students who love him and love to tell stories about him, and he supported a lot of us.
Rubenstein: So for those who may not be familiar, your father was a very, very prominent jazz pianist.
When you were growing up, you obviously looked up to your father.
Was he somebody who said, "I want you to be a trumpet player.
I want you to be a jazz trumpet player," or did he not push you into that?
He didn't push any of us into anything, you know.
I always hung out with him.
My father really struggled when I was growing up.
He was trying to play modern jazz in the era of segregation and in clubs and with a populace that didn't like that style of music, so much of my experience was going to sparsely populated clubs with him in colorful areas, so I loved to go because I was always the only kid in the room, and it started when I was 3, 4, 5 years old, and it continued till I got into high school and started to work myself, but I always went with him and identified with his struggle really because he continued to play even though he didn't get audience support, he was not well-known, he wasn't famous.
He struggled financially.
He never complained, and he was very high-minded in his belief in jazz and in his belief in the necessity of it as a tool for healing people and raising consciousness and things like that.
So when you were growing up, you obviously experienced racial discrimination because it was a segregated area then, is that right?
That defined the entire-- segregation, discrimination, racism, that was just a part of life.
Like, it's not something you could-- this is not philosophy I'm talking now.
It was just how it was.
Your neighborhood looked a certain way, the white neighborhoods were a certain way.
Black people generally lived in our area on one side of the railroad tracks.
We still had ditches in our streets, and any type of systems always worked against you, and you had to--it was just-- it was what the system was.
You didn't have distance from it, so you didn't have-- it's easy to look back on a thing and experience it not the way you experienced it when you grew in it.
When you grew in it, it was very much a fact of life, so I happen to be someone who never liked it, so I fought with it a lot and had a lot of problems in that system, but most people adapted to it and were OK with it.
They didn't like it, but they--sometimes, you're in a bad situation-- in this case, we're talking about racism.
It could be anything.
It could be a health situation.
The degree to which you're willing to fight against it really is based on your ability to accept the pain of fighting against it.
So are you surprised about the Black Lives Matter situation?
Here we are in the year 2020, well advanced past the time that you grew up, and we still have racial problems of that type.
We're not anywhere near advanced past what I grew up with, so no I'm not surprised by it.
I had the honor to go into so many American schools throughout the eighties and nineties and early 2000s, probably well over 1,000 schools, so we have a segregation in our systems in general, so no, no, it doesn't-- none of it is surprising to me.
So today as a famous jazz musician, you're recognized all over the country and many places around the world.
Do you feel you are still suffering from racial discrimination?
Do you still feel--even despite your exalted status in the music world-- you are really not treated the same as you would be if you were white?
Yes, I feel that.
I feel it in terms of the kind of intellectual patronization that I receive, the low level of criticism of our music.
I'm subject to things-- of course nothing like what I grew up with, nor do I make a habit of complaining about it constantly because I'm also treated in a way with so much respect by so many people that for me to complain would be past gratuitous.
So if you ask me the question directly, yes, I have been treated unfairly by newspapers, something like the "New York Times," the way our institution Jazz at Lincoln Center has been covered is abominable.
Even though we get articles, the quality of those articles are always very poor, poorly researched.
The writers oftentimes down through the history lack the intelligence and depth of engagement with the form to be qualified to speak on it in the paper of record, but because it's jazz, it doesn't matter, so that's only in direct response to your question because I don't want to-- I don't want to confuse it with when I was growing up or the situations that I found myself in or my father's situation or grandfather's, or let's go back in the generations.
So I'm not doing that, and I'm very, very grateful for how I've been treated by people all over this country of all kinds.
Rubenstein: So there's a story that when you were 10 your father had you sit down with, I think, Al Hirt and maybe it was Miles Davis, and they said, "How would you like to play the trumpet?"
and they gave you a trumpet to play.
Is there anything true to that?
When I was 6, my father was playing with Al Hirt, and Al Hirt gave me a trumpet for my sixth birthday, so that's true, and my father later was talking to Miles Davis and said, "I'm getting my son a trumpet"-- before Al got me a trumpet, my father was talking to Miles-- he was standing with Al-- and Miles said, "Don't get that boy a trumpet.
It's too hard."
So that is true story.
So as you grew up, you were actually-- as I understand it-- a classical musician more than a jazz musician, and when you went to Julliard, where you went to college, you were interested in classical music.
Is that true?
I grew up always wanting to play jazz, but jazz is always much more difficult to learn-- in that time especially-- than classical music.
Because my father was a jazz musician, I was always around the music.
I was raised in the culture.
I love the musicians, and my father was a modern jazz musician.
He wasn't playing New Orleans jazz, but at a certain time when I was maybe 10 or 11, he started to play New Orleans music, and I also played in Danny Barker's Fairview Baptist Church band, which was a New Orleans traditional band.
Jazz--it was difficult at that time for a person of my age and my generation to figure out what it was because it was not a part of the American mythology, whereas with classical music you had competitions and classes you could go to so you could get a track record on your resume.
Like, if you see what did I do, it will say when I was 14 I won a competition to play the Hayden "Trumpet Concerto" with the New Orleans Philharmonic, but I was playing jazz the whole time, but what could I say that I did?
I played in a club called Tyler's Beer Gardens on a Wednesday, and I played a lot of concerts in high school.
I played with a lot of ensembles.
My sensibility was always of a jazz musician because that's the environment in which I was raised.
Rubenstein: But one year, you won a Grammy-- the only person to ever win a Grammy in jazz and in classical music in the same year.
Marsalis: There's a funny story about my father.
He went to the Grammys.
He was not into those kind of things, and he sat through the whole show, and he was like, "Wow.
You know, this is the Grammys."
So at the end of the show I won, I was back in the hotel with him and my mother.
I was like, you know, getting ready to go out to a party or something, and I had my-- I was like, "Yeah, man."
My daddy looked at me, and he was wondering-- He said, "Man"--he said, "So that was the Grammys, huh?"
He said, "I'm glad you won.
I mean, don't get me wrong.
"It's great that you won, but you don't think this means you can play, do you?"
So I started laughing because I was, like, 22, and I knew what he was saying because I still of course had a long way to go to learn how to play.
But he told you he was proud of you as your career progressed, I assume.
He didn't have to tell me.
I mean, it was so much deeper than that.
He didn't have to-- he never really told me "I'm proud of you."
You know, he never-- that wasn't--his personality was not any kind of overt emotion, but I knew he would check things out, he would come, he would look at all our-- I did a series once teaching.
He would always--I teased my father most of the time because he's real serious, so I was always joking with him, and he was just kind of like, "Yeah, man.
OK." And I would always play the piano or do something and act like I could play better than him, and, you know, just-- he would look at things that we did.
I did a television show once teaching kids about jazz.
He called me and said, "Man, I see you're using all my stuff."
You know, it's hard to capture the type of humor we--that I had with him because he took everything in good humor.
He was always very-- he was very relaxed, and he was very much a jazz musician in philosophy.
So explain to us and to everybody watching why jazz is so popular-- in a certain sense, it's one of the maybe most unique American forms of music.
You could argue classical music came from Europe, and you can argue that other parts of music came from other parts of the world, but jazz was invented in the United States, and it's a classic American kind of invention I would say, but why is it so hard for some people to understand it?
You've written a book about it, and you make it in your book sound like it's almost a religious experience to play jazz and to understand jazz.
It's important to be an individual who can play well but also to play with a team.
Can you explain why jazz is almost like a religion to people who care about jazz?
Marsalis: Well, jazz is our national artform, and as such, it objectifies a lot of our basic principles, and if a group of people are blessed to have an artform-- which you can have a civilization and a society and you may never create an artform that has-- that does that.
It's a blessing, so America was blessed with a group of musicians and a social condition that produced this music.
The music has 3 fundamental elements.
The first is improvisation, which is our kind of individuality in what we believe in.
We have rights and freedoms and things that are about the individual.
Then swing, which is about nurturing common ground, finding balance with other people, working out an agenda as you go along under the pressure of time, and then the blues, and the blues is an optimism that's not naive.
So the blues also implies an acuity.
That's a democratic thing.
Now suffice to say that everything in the music ties into things that we do down to the 3 branches of government like the rhythm section, or to amend the Constitution is like adding to an arrangement.
I could go on and on, and after a while of giving you these examples, you'll realize these are not superficial things that are contrived, that they actually come out of the American way of life.
Now to kind of give you-- it's gonna be a little longer answer, but it's important because the central question of jazz's position in our country concerns the relationship of slavery to the American identity in our mythology as a country.
Black Americans by and large in our country have little or no knowledge of jazz, and jazz is the greatest achievement of the Afro-American culture in the context of the American culture, meaning it's Afro-American but it applies to all Americans as many things in American culture apply to all Americans.
Our poor public education system makes sure that a certain group remains ignorant, and the average white jazz writer is actually a rock fan who's for a long time wished that jazz would actually be something else without black folks at the core of it or that maybe jazz would just die away.
That's why if you study jazz there's a long-standing tradition of article after article in decade after decade saying, "Is jazz dead?"
That's probably one of the most questions that's been asked since the 1930s.
Now all of this investment in the destruction of jazz is to further obscure a big lie that jazz uncovers, and it's important to look at this because it's a serious thing to consider if we are to transform our nation.
If we say our nation is based on human freedom and we're the first on Earth founded on the glorious celebration of human freedom, dignity, and rights, how do we then reconcile and correct the systemic dehumanizing ownership and brutalizing of a large underclass of people for free labor because of their skin color?
It's too much injustice to correct, so we're forced to say that those people are responsible for the problem, they're less than human, and it's just their condition, but if they aren't, if it's not their condition, it means that our mythology and belief about ourselves is not true.
Now is Elvis gonna not be the King?
Man, where you gonna put jazz if Elvis is the King?
So let me ask you if I were to go to listen to a Tchaikovsky concert or a Beethoven concert, it's gonna be mostly sounding the same no matter where I'm gonna listen to it and no matter what orchestra.
They basically might play slightly better, slightly different, but basically, you know what you're gonna get you when you sit down.
With jazz, am I wrong in that a jazz musician can kind of expand on what has been composed and kind of play it differently every different time.
Is that part of what jazz is all about?
That's the improvisation part.
That one part allows you to-- you have a lot of latitude to do things.
It's like the way Americans conduct business.
All in the innovations we have, the freedom we have to speak, the fact that we think we can step into a space and use our personality to transform a tradition.
Yes, we have that freedom, but balancing that freedom is we have the responsibility to extend a courtesy and an understanding to other people who have those freedoms and nurture that common space.
That's the part of jazz we struggle with.
So when you're playing jazz in a concert and one of your musicians is improvising, do you know when he's gonna end or she's gonna end, or-- You know when they're gonna end because we play on a cycle.
Now you don't know when they're gonna end, but you know when you hope they end.
Sometimes, they can keep going-- they can keep going, and the rhythm section does a natural thing that we call sighing.
If you play too long, the rhythm section... ♪ Dum dum dum dum ♪ [Inhales] ♪ Dum ♪ When they get to the top of the form-- we play on a form, a harmonic cycle that goes around and around, I mean, in most instances.
There are many types of jazz, but in most instances, we're playing on a chord progression that repeats, so when you get to the top of that repetition, you start listening to is this person gonna stop playing?
So they normally will indicate to you when they're getting ready to stop, but sometimes, they keep playing too long.
Then there are certain cues and things that take place on the bandstand to let you know it's time for you to stop soloing.
So in your book on jazz, you talk about some of the greats who you either played with or who influenced you, and I'd just like to ask your brief comments on some of them.
First is Louis Armstrong.
You originally thought he was, as you say, an Uncle Tom, but you obviously changed your view, I guess.
Marsalis: Yeah, because it's hard for later generations to understand the challenges of an earlier generation and norms and things in show business and what Louis Armstrong did.
It doesn't mean that necessarily even with my-- now I understand more of his genius and who he was and what he played, but it still doesn't mean that when I look at the movies he made or the positions he went, I still don't necessarily like that.
I don't like a lot of the way Black people are in any of the American movies of the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s, and as a matter of fact, some of it now, a lot of it now that has that same type of destructive mythology.
If you consider the fact that when I was a teenager the heroic figure for Black youth in movies were pimps.
I mean, what is it for a pimp to be your hero or to be at the top of your mythology, but to not get sidetracked with that, yeah, I thought that, but later I learned and understood who Louis Armstrong was as a musician.
That's a totally different story.
That man was a genius of such magnitude you can't even--you could lie about how great he was, and you still wouldn't be saying enough.
So you're a composer, as well a performer, educator, conductor, and so forth.
One of the great composers in the jazz world was Duke Ellington.
Did he have any influence on you?
You know, I love Duke, and Duke's intelligence, his dedication, over 2,000 pieces, and I love him, and because I grew up also listening to classical music, I love Beethoven.
Rubenstein: What about Dizzy Gillespie?
Was he an influence on you?
Marsalis: The thing about Dizzy Gillespie that hit me first was the depth of his intelligence.
I met him when I was 14, and just when he started talking, oh, the way my daddy and other musicians listened to him.
Yeah, Dizzy was very intelligent.
He's part of the reason that we developed Jazz at Lincoln Center because I didn't want to play in a big band because I'd always grown up playing small-band music, and Dizzy told me-- I called him and asked him "Man, what do you think I should do?"
He said, "To lose one's orchestral heritage should not be considered an achievement," so he was telling me because you need to figure out how to keep our orchestral heritage.
We paid a lot of dues to build up orchestral music in jazz, and for us to just give it away and say that big band is old-fashioned, that's not intelligent.
Let's talk a bit about Jazz at Lincoln Center.
So you began playing jazz at Lincoln Center when, in the late 1980s?
-That evolved into Jazz at Lincoln Center, which you're now the director of, artistic director and music director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, is that right?
Marsalis: We wanted to fill a space in the American arts and provide enough education and music and advocacy, enough concerts for us as a nation to have our native artform when it came time for us to address our mythology and correct it so that we could move forward as a nation, so we've succeeded beyond any of our wildest imagination with the volume of concerts we've been able to do.
We've built 3 concert halls in the middle of Manhattan on 59th Street, the House of Swing.
We have put on concert series over 30 years.
We have 12 education programs, and even since this pandemic, I mean, we've put out over 500, 600 pieces virtually.
You know, we're deeply engaged.
Rubenstein: So when you started at Lincoln Center-- when Lincoln Center opened in the 1960s, people thought, "OK.
This is opera, symphonic music, classical kind of music."
You came along and said, "Maybe we could have jazz."
What did people say initially when you said, "We need to do more jazz at Lincoln Center?"
Marsalis: We had a lot of support from the top of the organization.
Everybody was dedicated, and, you know, when it was founded, maybe Lincoln Center didn't think about the music, or maybe the initial founders, Rockefeller, they didn't like the music.
It doesn't matter.
The Constitution was not written with the rights of Afro-Americans and Native Americans in mind, but the Constitution can be amended, and it has been amended.
So let me ask you in a normal time before COVID came-- and hopefully when COVID's gone you'll return to the situation you had before-- are you on the road half the time and half the time in New York, or how do you divide your time, and how do you divide your time between playing, conducting, composing, and teaching?
Well, I do many things.
I'm also the managing director of our organization, so I deal with everything in our staff.
Our executive director Greg Scholl and our management team, they're all fantastic colleagues.
If anything--I mean, I work all the time, so I don't separate anything.
My work is also my hobby, and this pandemic-- I always respected all of my colleagues, but I'm gonna tell you that the pandemic has given me such a greater appreciation of the quality of people I've been blessed to work with.
We still have a vast majority of our staff on.
We're open for business, we're getting things done.
The orchestra is so supportive of the mission of the organization.
We have 11 arrangers in our orchestra.
That's something that has never happened.
Composers, teachers, the phone calls I get.
Then when you get to our staff and our managers of every division, of our building, our CFO.
I can go position to position.
People's dedication will bring me to tears, and that's why--you know, we're struggling like all the arts organizations are because we've lost the ability to earn revenue, but we are so for real about our mission and achieving it even under this type duress.
I think it's really the greatest blessing I've had in my life has been to work with this high quality people for this amount of time, so I'm so grateful for that opportunity.
I don't even consider it to be work.
When you go overseas, is jazz popular outside the United States?
Jazz has never really been popular, so it's not popular like funk was popular or like rock 'n' roll is popular.
It's not popular.
It is--jazz is meaningful, and it's necessary, so those who are interested in that like jazz.
Those who are not, they don't like jazz.
There's a lot of other things to like.
We need to teach our kids about the music.
It is a national artform, and I always make the point-- people say, "What's gonna be new in jazz?"
I say, "People are gonna listen to it.
That's what's the new thing."
Let's suppose somebody says, "I've never been exposed "to jazz very much.
"I've just listened to Wynton Marsalis.
"I'm persuaded he knows what he's talking about, so I'm gonna listen to jazz."
What is it that you would tell people about why the jazz experience as a listener is so compelling compared to other forms of music?
Well, because it has a development section.
So you have to follow what musicians play from one point.
It's like what I loved about that Beethoven symphony.
It wasn't just one thing repeated over and over again.
It was a thing and then another thing, another.
Jazz is the music that's most in the world like conversation.
Jazz is a music that prizes individuality.
You have a lot of great individuals you can interface with from Lester Young to Billie Holiday to Chic Corea, Herbie Hancock.
You can just name musicians.
You have great groups that you can love that play in different forms, and you have the whole Afro-Latin form of jazz that takes you everywhere from Brazil to Cuba to Puerto Rico.
It integrates your citizenship and your understanding of the world, and most importantly, it gives you tremendous pride in being American because we didn't have to denigrate or cut anybody down or do anything negative to anybody to create this.
It's a nonpredatory form.
It's a symbiotic form, and you can be as rich as you want to be in jazz, and nobody else has to be poor.
You're a teenager by my standards, so you're very, very young, but I suspect that you'll continue to do this for another couple decades because this is what you love doing, is that right?
Man, I still smell Similac on you.
I don't know what you're talking about.
Marsalis: I'm gonna do this till I die if I can, if the good Lord willing and people will have me.
I've been blessed to do something kind of just abstract and get unbelievable support from people.
That's why earlier when I answered the question of racism, for somebody like me to complain, I'd have to be out of my mind.
♪ ♪ ♪