Words from Wynton

I’m a huge fan of Wynton Marsalis. In my opinion, he is the standard bearer for great musicianship in our generation. When it comes to playing, pedagogy, communication, and advocacy of the craft, it’s hard to imagine that anyone is really his equal. I take time out of my hectic schedule as often as I can to hear him play, most often with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and they NEVER fail to impress. Even more than his playing, I am always enamored by Wynton’s ability to speak to people in way that is relatable to them. In person, he has that rare ability to make you feel like the most important person in the room. He also has this affect in his writing. For those who are unaware of his book Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life, I would highly recommend it!

Below, I would like to point out a handful of quotes from the book that I found particularly interesting. These selections are just the tip of the iceberg and don’t even begin to capture all that he’s talking about in the book, but I thought maybe some of you might find them interesting. I really considered making a blog posting out of each quote and spreading the information over a longer period of time, including my personal thoughts on each, including experiences that relate to each quote. However, I think for the time being, it would be better to drop them all on you as many of them speak for themselves. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section and perhaps begin a discussion.

“In music and life, serious listening forces you to recognize others. Empathetic listeners almost always have more friends than other people, and their counsel is more highly valued. A patient, understanding listener lives in a larger world than a nonlistening know-it-all (no matter how charismatic).”

“Playing reveals the authentic you. If you’re impatient, it will show in your playing; you just won’t wait. If you’re slow, if you don’t think quickly, everybody will hear it. If you’re shy and it’s hard for you to project your personality, you may have great ideas but they won’t come out, or you might overplay to compensate. If you’re self-centered, you can’t play with other people – they have to back you up or lay out. Of course, you can survive like that, but it’s not fun to play with you – especially if you play the drums.”

“Whether you like it or not, you’re always in some kind of real or imagined competition with the best in your field. In jazz, the standard is very high. That’s why many would rather forget all about the past: Tatum, Bird, Prez, Pops. ‘Damn,’ somebody thinks, ‘what about me?’”

“The most sophisticated musicians should consider it a challenge to try to communicate with the most inexperienced listener. You can’t be ‘too hip’ for the people. When you lose the desire to communicate with an audience that hasn’t been exposed to your music, you begin to step away from the humility required to develop your artistry.”

“The best musicians know this music isn’t about ‘schools’ at all. Like my father says, ‘There’s only one school, the school of ‘Can you play?’ It’s about the individual men and women who honestly answer yes to that question.”

“Kids seek education for the chance to be one of the greats, not to learn from them. They don’t consider the possibility that there could be something of substance in the music itself that merits study.”

“I always suggest youngsters consider the value of playing well, rather than worry about whether they will be come another Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington. There is power in achieving your personality and projecting it. The whole world may not imitate you, but you’ll be satisfied. You have to play well before you can play great.”

“Some contemporary trends aside, art forms actualize the collective wisdom of a people. They represent our highest aspirations and our everyday ways, our concept of romance and our relationship to spiritual matters, as well as how we deal with birth, death and everything in between. In short, the arts focus our identity and expand our awareness of the possible. They offer tools for survival with style in times of peace and war. If they are insightful, if they are well crafted, if they are accurate enough, they stand as testaments to the grandeur of a people across epochs.”

“I believe that to know the essence of a thing requires returning as closely as possible to the origin of that thing. The passage of time tends to quietly erode meaning and enthusiasm. The farther you move away from the sun, the colder it gets.”

“We all know that civilization requires a supreme effort. Our technology will become outmoded, but the technology of the human soul does not change. We still read Homer, but we’re not that interested in using ancient Greek technology. We’re not interested in returning to the aristocratic governments of Beethoven’s time, but we still listen to his music because it still speaks to the depths of the human soul. He spelled it out for us in the Ninth Symphony. His music in its original form lifts our souls, today, right now. And while people in each era believe their times to be the worst times ever, there is always much to celebrate as well.”

2 comments

  • Joe Schoonmaker

    Joe Schoonmaker

    Thanks for posting these, Weston. I'm going to get the book sometime. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the one about kids seeking education from the greats and the penultimate quote about returning to the origin. I've heard Wynton described as neo-classicist. Do you think (or does he say) Wynton is not enamored with a lot of jazz from the last few decades? He clearly has a passion for big band swing, blues, and Dixieland. Regards, Joe

    Thanks for posting these, Weston. I'm going to get the book sometime. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the one about kids seeking education from the greats and the penultimate quote about returning to the origin. I've heard Wynton described as neo-classicist. Do you think (or does he say) Wynton is not enamored with a lot of jazz from the last few decades? He clearly has a passion for big band swing, blues, and Dixieland.

    Regards,
    Joe

  • wesbone00

    wesbone00

    Hey Joe, Thanks for chiming in. As usual, I think Wynton is right on point with his comments about kids seeking education to be one of the greats, not as much to learn from them. I know when I was attending college/conservatory, that was a large part of my mindset. My primary goal was going to an institution that would get me the biggest orchestra job the fastest and get me on the path of being a great trombone player. Obviously, I knew that a lot of learning had to take place in order for those goals to be accomplished, but the concept of learning for the sake of learning was not at the top of my list of priorities. It was more about learning for the sake of personal accomplishment. I think now that I'm a little older, my mindset has shifted. I'm much more open to learning from anyone and everyone that I can. The pursuit of knowledge is completely for the sake of learning and not the least bit about glory seeking. Perhaps it has something to do with maturity enlightening you about how little you actually know. I try to attend every masterclass, recital, concert and read any books/articles that will improve my knowledge, simply for the chance to learn. If only I had known earlier that this mindset makes you improve more quickly than the other! I'm not really concerned with getting a different job or a better job or enhancing my reputation. I just want to get know more and get better! As for the penultimate quote about returning to the origin of music, I'm not sure that I can really expand on that or say anything more valuable than what was already stated. I've also heard Wynton described as a Neo-classicist. It's not my place to speak for him, but I think he really does enjoy a lot of jazz and music in general from the last few decades. I think he would say that good music is good music no matter what generation it comes from. However, a lot of modern music has gotten away from the things that generally draw people into a love of music. Those things would be basic human elements like a connection to love, spirituality, suffering, celebration, etc. Often times, these connections use a melody. It's when music doesn't seem to have a relation to anything that is based in the human experience that some listeners become less "enamored" with it. A lot of people from this generation are playing in a spiritually moving way. Wycliffe Gordon, Christian McBride, Ali Jackson and Herlin Riley are just a few that come to mind, and I must admit that my knowledge of jazz artists is not that deep. There must be tons of others. That's my opinion, and my guess at what someone like Wynton would say. He's a super accessible guy. Go to one of his concerts, and try to catch him backstage and ask for yourself. Let me know what he says! Weston

    Hey Joe,
    Thanks for chiming in. As usual, I think Wynton is right on point with his comments about kids seeking education to be one of the greats, not as much to learn from them. I know when I was attending college/conservatory, that was a large part of my mindset. My primary goal was going to an institution that would get me the biggest orchestra job the fastest and get me on the path of being a great trombone player. Obviously, I knew that a lot of learning had to take place in order for those goals to be accomplished, but the concept of learning for the sake of learning was not at the top of my list of priorities. It was more about learning for the sake of personal accomplishment.

    I think now that I'm a little older, my mindset has shifted. I'm much more open to learning from anyone and everyone that I can. The pursuit of knowledge is completely for the sake of learning and not the least bit about glory seeking. Perhaps it has something to do with maturity enlightening you about how little you actually know. I try to attend every masterclass, recital, concert and read any books/articles that will improve my knowledge, simply for the chance to learn. If only I had known earlier that this mindset makes you improve more quickly than the other! I'm not really concerned with getting a different job or a better job or enhancing my reputation. I just want to get know more and get better!

    As for the penultimate quote about returning to the origin of music, I'm not sure that I can really expand on that or say anything more valuable than what was already stated.

    I've also heard Wynton described as a Neo-classicist. It's not my place to speak for him, but I think he really does enjoy a lot of jazz and music in general from the last few decades. I think he would say that good music is good music no matter what generation it comes from. However, a lot of modern music has gotten away from the things that generally draw people into a love of music. Those things would be basic human elements like a connection to love, spirituality, suffering, celebration, etc. Often times, these connections use a melody. It's when music doesn't seem to have a relation to anything that is based in the human experience that some listeners become less "enamored" with it. A lot of people from this generation are playing in a spiritually moving way. Wycliffe Gordon, Christian McBride, Ali Jackson and Herlin Riley are just a few that come to mind, and I must admit that my knowledge of jazz artists is not that deep. There must be tons of others. That's my opinion, and my guess at what someone like Wynton would say. He's a super accessible guy. Go to one of his concerts, and try to catch him backstage and ask for yourself. Let me know what he says!

    Weston

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