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Marsalis wants to captivate young people and turn on new listeners, but he's going to do so on his own terms. "People are always struggling with 'Am I going to sell out for commerce or am I going to stay true to my art?'" he notes. "The people who sell out, they know. It's like a big game. If you put on Kenny G and David Sanborn, and then John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, if you just play those four individuals for anybody, the people will know what it is. They know that one makes them feel more at home and is something they can relate to. The other requires a certain amount of intellect and knowledge to get into it. We live in this fantasy land. It's like people are afraid to say Kenny G is not playing jazz. But I think we have to come on in and call it like it is." And Marsalis is not one to suffer pretenders gladly. "What we have here is just prostitution. They are pimping the name of jazz, trying to latch onto the fact that Duke Ellington was a genius and Louis Armstrong was a genius, and Charlie Parker was a genius, and Thelonious Monk.... And these people latch onto that because that's like credibility. Popular musicians make all the money, but jazz musicians have all the credibility. People like Kenny G play pop music A they should just label it that. But you know, then the grandeur of it would be lost. They couldn't say he's the greatest jazz saxophonist. They'd have to say he's the greatest pop instrumentalist, which he is," Marsalis grudgingly admits.
Other contradictions arise from the man himself. An intellectual, Marsalis talks street. He reveres those who went before him (particularly trombonist J.J. Johnson, to whom he dedicates Pilate), but claims to have gotten nothing out of stints with Art Blakey, Ray Charles, and Fats Domino ("I don't have much to say about that," he says.). And although his first album received critical acclaim, he has no use for jazz critics, whom he believes to be frustrated musicians stuck in the past. "They heard John Coltrane in the Sixties, and that's the end of jazz to them," he complains. "I'm not opposed to that for them, but they're trying to bogard that on us and say, 'These young musicians are not doing anything new.' I've had conversations with many of these guys and I say, 'What about this?' and point out certain elements that Wynton and Branford and their bands brought to the music. And these guys, they don't want no addressage. So that's something we're trying to face: how can we get not only the students to be more involved, but also obtain a certain level of respect from the people who are writing about the music A the, quote, jazz aficionados."
Respect seems inevitable for the trombonist whose seamless chromatic scales and challenging arrangements match his formidable production skills. Once again, though, contradictions. "The thing about music, it's how smooth, how sweet you can play," he says. "That's always been the true testing element of any musician. If you're a spiritual player, but you never practice, you'll sound like shit. You have to have a combination. All the great musicians, in any idiom, have always had phenomenal technique. And it's through that that they've always been able to express what they were doing."
Marsalis has been expressing himself through music and production quite a bit lately, and plans to return to the studio in June for his sophomore album. Other projects include production duties on Branford's new album, Bloomington, Wynton's latest, Resolution of Romance, Vol. 2, pianist Marcus Roberts's The Truth Is Spoken Here, and father Ellis's new Blue Note release. Then there's his involvement with BRAVO. "They called me on the phone," he yawns, "and asked me if I wanted to do a gig for them. And I said yes." But the disinterested jazz cat knows better than to be too coy. "We're trying to figure out how to expose more people to jazz and also make it interesting," he says of his JazzFest program. "We're trying to get people more involved and at the same time educate them."
Which he does in Branford's liner notes. "I wrote: 'The negro is a natural musician. He can learn to play more quickly than a white man,'" he laughs. "I got that from a music journal from 1865."
Delfeayo Marsalis will be hosting the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on WLRN-FM (91.3) this weekend.