Wynton Marsalis on America's Musical Classics

What They Are and Why We Need to Share Them with Our Kids

Wynton Marsalis, the jazz trumpeter who has won nine Grammy Awards, is known internationally as a musician of the highest caliber and as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. But there is another role that he takes just as seriously as being a performer: being an educator. From one-on-one lessons with aspiring trumpeters to whole-school sessions in a noisy auditorium, Marsalis consistently makes time to share the music he loves with children. In the following Q&A provided to American Educator by Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis explains why all children—not just the few who will become musicians—should study music.


Question: Through Jazz at Lincoln Center, you've established many music education programs—Jazz for Young People concerts, Jazz in the Schools performances and demonstrations, and the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band program. Why is music education so important?

Wynton Marsalis: Music, in its purest form, encompasses the very ideals that we want to impart to our children.

Q: Can you give an example?

WM: Sure. One ideal that music teaches us is how to get along with others. Consider the music I love: jazz. Each member of the group can improvise, but none of it works—for a soloist or an ensemble—if the musicians do not play in balance. If the drummer, who plays the loudest instrument, decides he wants to be much louder than the bassist, who has the softest instrument, you're going to have discord. This group dynamic teaches the importance of choice, and many choices require some form of sacrifice. You must listen. You must have a conversation. The group must work together to achieve its goals.

Q: In the past, you've lamented the fact that only 25 percent of the nation's eighth-graders are able to play instruments in their music classes. What does playing an instrument teach a student?

WM: Well, for one, music teaches us the language of expression. You and I and Martin Luther King, Jr., could read the exact same speech and it wouldn't sound the same. The words are the same, of course, but why is it that Dr. King's voice and tone carried something beyond the words? It's the expressiveness of the performance. Similarly, three people playing a trumpet don't sound the same. They can play the same note or melody, but only some trumpet players have a feeling that touches our heart.

Q: You've called for the federal government to put more funding into music and arts education. Why should that be a priority today when there are so many other concerns?

WM: As Americans, when we live in the shadow of terrorism, 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're living an important part of the American experience. We need a generation of leaders who understand why we must defend our country, of course. But more importantly, they need to understand what exactly it is that we're defending; something more than just a slogan. We need a generation of diplomats who understand and take pride in our culture and can share it with others. Only then can we truly put our best foot forward and show the world that America is about a lot more than some "shoot 'em up" movies, quasi-pornography for kids, and a 99-cent hamburger that makes you reach for some Rolaids.

Q: Is music really central to our identity?

WM: Of course. Music has always been at the heart of our national identity. George Washington watched the British return to England to the tune of The World Turned Upside Down. In the Civil War, it was The Battle Hymn of the Republic versus Dixie.

Q: Why do certain pieces of music have such power over us and such timeless appeal?

WM: Because art interprets the human soul, and the technology of the human soul does not change. The power of great music is timeless. That's why it remains such an indispensable tool for teaching our youngsters. What's more, music is one of the few things that transcends the boundaries of race, class, religion, and geography that too often divide us.

Q: Speaking of transcending boundaries, tell us a little about the cultural contributions of African-American music.

WM: Going way back, the slaves created the first viable body of purely American music, the Negro spirituals, and those songs are still played, sung, and recorded today and still have meaning. Then, the 20th century saw the blues become the foundation for every music to follow—American popular song, country and western, bluegrass, gospel, rock-and-roll, and the counterculture music of the 1960s, which was the soundtrack of the civil rights and anti-war movements. And, of course, the blues is the lifeblood of jazz. You turn on the radio today, and even in the music that your kids are listening to, the theme songs of Generation Y, you still hear echoes of the blues—breaks, riffs, call and response.

Q: How is your music, jazz, received around the world?

WM: No matter where I go, people respond to music in the same way. I hear: "Do people like the music in France?" Or "Do they like it in Japan?" Or "Do they like it in Russia?" Everywhere we go, they do the same thing: "Keep swinging." "Can we hear another tune?" "When are you all going to be back?" Music is the one truly universal language with the power and the spirit to bring people together.

Q: If the great music that you play has such worldwide appreciation, why are today's top-selling songs of such low quality?

WM: Over the past 20-something years, I've seen a generation of Americans who are culturally ignorant, who lack a basic connection to, and an understanding of, the arts—of music, of theater, of dance, and of the visual arts. I also see a government that is just unwilling to invest in turning this situation around. And in a nation that's as rich in culture and dollars as ours, that's truly unacceptable.

Q: So the problem is with the society as a whole, not just today's kids?

WM: We hear all the time something is wrong with the kids—the music they listen to, what these kids are doing. I always tell older people it's not the kids. They act on what we give them. They don't have the ability to control what's going on. They follow.

Q: If they follow, with what should we lead them? That is, what should music teachers and bandleaders select for their students?

WM: Many times, what's offered in the schools is a watered-down version of the latest pop song and, as a result, our kids don't even know what a classic is. School bands should play, for example, a John Philip Sousa march or a Scott Joplin rag or a symphonic dance by Bernstein or a Duke Ellington swing, something swinging.

Q: But don't the young people in the band want to play their favorite music?

WM: If so, it's because they've never heard the music that so many of the world's great musicians learned from, or even the great music from our country. Instead, they only know about the latest commercial musical ventures—ventures many times designed to drive a wedge between them and their parents, and exploit their young sexuality.

Q: So do you see it as the music teacher or bandleader's job to broaden their musical taste?

WM: Yes. The music our children hear on the radio may feel good, like a candy bar feels good, but it has no nutrition. The foundation of any music education cannot be found in the Top 40 this week. That's not how you train the ears of a musician or even a non-musician. That's not how you lead kids into a deeper understanding of who they are or who they will be, which is even more important. We're sending our kids into the world with their skills and talents untapped and underdeveloped. We are doing that; it's not them. We're depriving them of a fundamental part of their educational development, and our nation is really much poorer for it.

Related Articles

The Neglected Muse
Why Music Is an Essential Liberal Art
By Peter Kalkavage

Wynton Marsalis on America's Musical Classics
What They Are and Why We Need to Share Them with Our Kids
Q&A with Wynton Marsalis

American Educator, Fall 2006