An aspiring jazz trumpet player's blog about jazz improvisation and ear training.

December 28, 2008 Jazz Blog 3 Comments

Ethan Iverson on Wynton Marsalis

One of my favorite jazz blogs, Do The Math, recently featured several interesting articles about Wynton Marsalis. If you aren't familiar with Do The Math, it's a blog by Ethan Iverson, the pianist from The Bad Plus. As Ethan would readily admit, the articles tend to be a tad on the long side (some of these Wynton articles are real doozies!), but don't let that scare you away. I think you'll agree that Ethan's intelligent and insightful writing is well worth your time.

ethan iverson and wynton marsalis

I'd expect that these Wynton Marsalis interviews and articles are of more interest to my trumpet playing readers, but I'd encourage any jazz enthusiast to give them a read. If nothing else, I'm sure you'll come away with several new albums to add to your listening lists.


  • Interview with Wynton Marsalis (Part one) - detailed discussion with audio clips of Wynton's latest major opus, Congo Square.
  • Interview with Wynton Marsalis (Part two) - blindfold test of classic trumpet solos including a dissection of "Knozz-Moe-King" from Live at Blues Alley. If you only have the time or interest to read one of the interview parts, read this one.
  • The "J" Word - a discussion regarding some of the controversies surrounding Wynton Marsalis and his relationship with the jazz community at large.

Following are some of my thoughts about the articles:


As you may already know, Wynton Marsalis' definition of what is and isn't jazz is a source of controversy in the jazz community. As Ethan Iverson points out, Wynton's definition of jazz seemingly excludes free or avant-garde jazz, the even-eighth-note jazz associated with ECM artists, and musicians who straddle the worlds of free and straight-ahead music, such as Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, and Dewey Redman. For Wynton, it isn't jazz unless it's blues-based and swinging. It also helps if the music sounds like it was composed before 1955.

During the latter part of Ethan Iverson's interview with Wynton Marsalis, Wynton attempts to justify his narrow definition of jazz by comparing jazz to basketball. Wynton argues that if we were to call everything "basketball" then you couldn't teach people how to play basketball anymore, since the word itself would no longer have a distinct meaning. This argument suggests that jazz actually benefits from a narrow definition, because it's easier to identify, teach, and learn.

While I agree with Wynton's argument in theory, I think his definition of jazz is so limiting that the basketball equivalent would state that it's only basketball if you've got a full court, 15-minute quarters, referees, regulation equipment, and five people per team. A half-court, one-on-one game would have to be called something else entirely (Hiphopketball?). Personally, I prefer a more inclusive definition of jazz in conjunction with qualifying words like "free," "straight-ahead," "atmospheric," or "smooth" -- if you must.

You might say, "Why does it matter what Wynton thinks about jazz? After all, he's entitled to his own opinion and he can believe whatever he wants." True enough. The issue, though, is that Wynton Marsalis also happens to be the most visible and influential person in the jazz community. When he defines jazz, people listen. His voice has an impact on audiences, club owners, and ultimately the livelihood of those he excludes. His influence came to a head with the Ken Burns "Jazz" series, in which the Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch school of "jazz" casually omitted all jazz from the 1960's and beyond. Members of the jazz community were not in the least bit happy to see themselves and/or their favorite musicians erased from the history of jazz, and I can't say I blame them.

It isn't my intention to start a new debate about Wynton Marsalis or the definition of jazz. I'm simply mentioning the above issues to provide some background for the Ethan Iverson articles. As a trumpet-playing author of a jazz blog, I expect that several of my readers will be big fans of Wynton Marsalis. Some of you will be learning about this Wynton controversy for the first time and it might come as a shock to discover that not everybody digs Wynton Marsalis as much as you do. If all of this is new to you, please try to keep an open mind when reading the Ethan Iverson articles. Also, keep in mind that while you might be on the Wynton side of the argument, most of Ethan Iverson's readers probably are not.

Regardless of your views about the Wynton controversy, I think you'll agree that it's pretty cool for Wynton Marsalis and Ethan Iverson to come together and talk so openly with each other about jazz music. I also appreciate how despite their differences, Ethan Iverson writes about Wynton with respect both for his music and for his role in the jazz continuum.


One of my favorite parts of the interview occurred during the blindfold test when Ethan Iverson put on Wynton's recording of "Knozz-Moe-King" from the "Live at Blues Alley" album. I first listened to that recording almost 20 years ago, when I found the record at my local library. "Knozz-Moe-King" is the first track and I still remember exactly how I felt when I first heard it. I felt terrible. It was the first time I had heard Wynton really open it up on a solo, and it made me miserable to know how bad of a trumpet player I was by comparison. Of course, I still can't play any of that, but at least I now know there are very few trumpet players who can even come close to what Wynton played on "Live at Blues Alley."

Anyway, what fascinated me about the interview was when Ethan Iverson played the "Knozz-Moe-King" clip for Wynton, and Wynton immediately started to pick it apart. Wynton criticized the interaction between himself and the other musicians and even said, "it ain't no good". Obviously, Wynton's aesthetic has changed over the years and I'm sure that has a lot to do with his current assessment of the music, but damnâ?¦ It's an incredible track by any standard. Ethan Iverson seemed equally incredulous as he expressed his admiration of the recording. I guess it goes to show that regardless of how things might seem to you or me, an artist will always find something to critique about their work.


In both the Young Lions article and in "An Old Feud," Ethan Iverson laments the fact that the Young Lions of the 80's didn't embrace the avant-garde jazz scene that existed contemporaneously. He goes on to say that he "can't stop feeling that ignoring free and experimental jazz was the greatest weakness of the Young Lions."

I tend to disagree, and wonder if today's experimental scene is actually more interesting thanks to the Young Lions' singular style of music. I say this because I think the Young Lion style of virtuosic, rhythmically and harmonically complex jazz (HardBop++!) raised the bar for future generations of jazz musicians. Seeking to approach the same level of mastery, young players probably spent more time in the practice room and consequently became better overall musicians. If they then decided to use their heightened skills to play experimental jazz, then the experimental jazz community would benefit from having better-quality players. Perhaps Ethan Iverson and the other guys in The Bad Plus are themselves examples of fantastic musicians who were motivated to achieve excellence thanks in part to the virtuosity of the Young Lions.

You might say, "Hey, the experimental jazz scene had virtuosos. Weren't they raising the musical bar too?" Absolutely. I think the problem here is that to many outsiders, free jazz can sound like a bunch of random noise. If it sounds like noise to you, then it probably also sounds like anyone can just pick up an instrument and squawk away. I know this isn't the case, especially when speaking of the truly gifted free jazz musicians and their music, but I do think it can be an uphill battle to convince some people that a) free jazz is music and b) that it takes skill to play. As such, I don't think free jazz on its own is capable of inspiring the same levels of musicianship that you'd get from the music of the Young Lions. This might not be the cool thing to say, and I could certainly be wrong, but I think it's a point worth considering.

Comment by Ty

With all due respect, I think your reading of Wynton's Basketball analogy is off the mark. As both a performing jazz musician and educator, I have frequently encountered the frustrating limitations of a limitless definition of jazz, and now see the value in an emphasis on a particular canon of performers, encompassing the earliest and latest eras of this music, with an insistence on the importance of particular musical qualities, namely blues and swing. I don't see how this definition, fairly consistent with Wynton's, is at all stifling to those interested in developing a taste in jazz, either as a player or a listener. It is of no lack of coincidence that my most heated dislike for Wynton was before I had really begun to digest the following musician's work: Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Buck Clayton, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Sidney Bechet, Roy Eldridge, and Louis Armstrong, to name just those that jump immediately to mind. The benefit of a clearly-defined canon is that it is positive, emphasizing what is jazz as opposed to what isn't jazz; we should thank Wynton for his leadership, not deride or mischaracterize him, as I once did in the past out of ignorance and insecurity.

Comment by Jesse

"For Wynton, it isn’t jazz unless it’s blues-based and swinging. It also helps if the music sounds like it was composed before 1955."

You are misinformed. If you look at the programming of Jazz At Lincoln Center, you'll see fusion nights featuring the Yellowjackets, Jazz For Young People concerts focusing on the avant garde (who else teaches young children and their parents about avant garde music?), and many different styles and cultures that Wynton is fusing with jazz, which makes it thoroughly modern.

Additionally, you have not listened to "Congo Square". "Congo Square" is Wynton's big band teaming up with the Ghanian percussion ensemble Odadda to create music that is like nothing I have ever heard. Wynton's teaming up with French accordian player Richard Galiano is music like nothing I have ever heard. People get so bent out of shape when Wynton doesn't include electronica, for example, but what makes electronica more valid than Ghanain percussion? The people who call Wynton an elitist for this reason are projecting their own psuedo-elitism onto him. Wynton's greatness inspires a lot of people, but it also clearly exposes people's insecurity.

Rant over!

Comment by Rick

I know Wynton's die-hard fans are extremely loyal and quick to refute any and all criticism. But I certainly didn't think any of them (Jesse) would go so far as to insist that the fundamental premise of the Wynton controversy doesn't exist - his narrow definition of jazz. Wynton's specific and narrow definition of jazz is very well documented and has been discussed in dozens (hundreds?) of articles and interviews. In fact, Ethan Iverson and Wynton Marsalis were discussing that narrow view in the interview and articles that inspired this blog post! Whether you agree that Wynton's definition of jazz is right or wrong, is up to you. For example, I would never tell Ty that he's "misinformed" or wrong to agree with Wynton's narrow view. Nor would I ever say that to Wynton himself. That's their opinion. But obviously many people think it's too narrow, otherwise there wouldn't be any controversy.

Not only did I listen to the clips of Congo Square on Ethan's site, but I also rented the DVD from Netflix. But since Jesse tells me I didn't listen to it, I couldn't possibly say that a lot of it sounds similar to other tunes from the Duke Ellington-inspired repertoire of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. But I wish I could say that ;-)

I am a fan of Wynton Marsalis, btw. I've seen him several times in concert, I own many of his albums, and he was a major influence on my playing, especially when I first started listening to jazz. So, I find it disturbing to hear comments suggesting that my differing view is the result of "ignorance," "insecurity," or "pseudo-elitism." Perhaps it wasn't the intention of the previous commenters to apply those dynamics to my views, but it reads that way to me. Regardless, while I am a fan of Wynton's music and I respect his role in jazz education, I also think it's ok to have a difference of opinion. And that's something I'm sure Wynton would agree with.


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