This past Tuesday, I had the privilege of spending the day and night with the famous Wynton Marsalis and his band, the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Wynton, for those of you who don’t know, is arguably the most famous living jazz trumpet player on the planet. At a net worth of $15 million, Wynton has done what a fraction of a percent of jazz musicians have done: he’s made it.
So, I’m in the presence of a living legend, and of 14 more living legends in his big band. When the guy whose music I’ve been hearing and playing since I was in fifth grade (probably earlier) comes to town, it’s hard not to get too excited and expect too much.
Too much wasn’t enough, though. From the green room to the stage to the tour bus, the entire experience was eye-opening and musing to the point that I’m still processing what I learned.
What I want to talk about are the amazing conversations I had with Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra drummer Ali Jackson and trumpet player Lawrence Jackson on their tour bus after the show.
What looked on the outside like a simple travel bus gave way to a rock-star quality, party-worthy interior that I’m only used to seeing in rap videos. Maybe it was that, or maybe it was me trying to get the most out of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I had to ask the two musicians everything that came to mind, including, “Do you ever get in to any hip-hop?”
In the past years I’ve come far, when it comes to hip-hop. In earlier years, I openly mocked hip-hop as a simplistic music that catered almost exclusively to those who didn’t want to be challenged, musically speaking. I was that one dickhead kid who wouldn’t listen to anything that wasn’t distorted.
I haven’t really placed when I made the transition from disrespect to real respect, but it happened. Maybe I lived and learned, or maybe my taste just changed but my library has gone from Lamb of God and Metallica to J Dilla, Kanye and Drake, and I wanted to breach the topic with musicians whose opinions (in my opinion) are much more relevant than mine.
The irritation that the question caused was understandable.
“Whenever I’m getting interviewed, I always get asked, ‘Do you ever get in to any hip-hop or rap?’ I’m a jazz musician, man," Ali said. "Ask me about jazz. You never see anybody asking rappers if they get into any jazz.”
He went on to talk about simplicity in music and when it gets too simple. When Ali teaches at schools, he draws on the board harmonically, melodically and rhythmically what is happening in songs in different genres.
“I ask the kids what the most popular song is right then, and they tell me,” Ali said. “I figure it out and I write it up there, and then I say, ‘Now lets write out a jazz chart.’ And they can see the difference.”
It was refreshing to hear someone take and defend this stance. Hip-hop is one of the most prominent genres in pop culture right now, and I haven’t heard anybody really discredit it in a long time.
I’ve long debated whether hip-hop should be classified as music or as poetry, but the real divide that I saw acknowledged was not the divide in the music. It was the divide in the attitude of the people involved.
Like I said, I’m still processing, but one thing I know for sure is that I was invited to sit in a bus shared by some of the best musicians out there. Then, I proceeded to have a long and meaningful conversation with two established men that are living a life that I dream about on a daily basis.
I’ve been to rap shows, but I’ve never been invited to the bus by Snoop or Tech.
When you get to a certain level as a musician, or with anything, there’s a kind of moral responsibility that floats around you to share what you’ve learned with the future of whatever it is you may do. Moreso than anywhere else, I see that responsibility being accepted by jazz musicians from all over, and I like that.