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In 1985 Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis sat down for one of the most entertaining joint interviews about jazz that I’ve ever read. Despite being good friends and incredible musicians, Hancock and Marsalis had very different ideas about what constituted good jazz, and bad music.

But entertainment value aside, it was also a fascinating look into the way that perceptions of genre have made an impact on the development of jazz over the years.

Wynton and Herbie: Background

The story really starts a year earlier, at the 26th Grammy awards in early 1984 – but first, a little background on our two players.

Herbie Hancock is one of the most important American musicians in the last 50 years, not just in jazz. He grew up playing classical piano but was introduced to jazz in high school. He went on to release some really incredible solo albums and played in one of the legendary Miles Davis lineups in the 1960s alongside Tony Williams on drums. Importantly, Hancock then went on to be a pioneer of jazz fusion in the 1970s, especially with the record Headhunters. This was all while Miles Davis was pushing into jazz-rock fusion, alongside players like John McLaughlin and Zoe Zawinul.

Wynton Marsalis is younger than Herbie and played with Herbie Hancock’s band early in his career. In the 1980s ‘The Young Lions’ – a group of players that included Marsalis and his brother Branford – were tearing up the jazz world. There were all exceptional players, but they basically ignored the fusion and free jazz movements at the time, almost exclusively embracing older jazz styles, especially bebop and hard bop. Neo-bop is sometimes used to describe the music they played, although we’re really stretching the genre names at that point.

Turmoil at the Grammys

So back to February 1984, at the Grammys.

Wynton performed and won two statues that night: best solo jazz instrumental performance and best solo classical music performance. Wynton has always kept a foot in both camps.

Herbie Hancock had a good night as well, winning the Grammy for best R&B performance for Rockit, which he also performed on the night.

Rockit was a pop smash, coming from Hancock’s experimentation with synths, drum machines, and other staples of pop production. Rockit’s music video was also important, later winning 5 MTV video music awards. Along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Rockit was one of the first music videos by a black artist to be played on MTV, which made it much easier for other black artists to get on the platform.

But back to Wynton’s Grammys. His acceptance speech included a slightly controversial line. In accepting the Grammys, he thanked:

“Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong — all the guys who gave an art form to the American people that cannot be limited by enforced trends or bad taste.”

Were Wynton’s enforced trends and bad taste referring to Hancock? Or maybe Miles Davis, who’d recently returned from a hiatus with a series of funk albums? Was Wynton condemning them for abandoning jazz? Miles thought so – he was later quoted saying:

“He sounded to me like he’s supposed to be the savior of jazz – Sometimes people speak as though someone asked them a question. Well, nobody asked him a question.”

Wynton Marsalis later said Miles and Herbie weren’t in his sights, but Wynton has also said he likes drama, so he probably knew he’d ruffle some feathers.

Herbie and Wynton sit down

Jump ahead a year, where Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis are sitting down for a joint interview with Musician magazine. The Grammys are directly discussed early on

Hancock: “I have to congratulate you on [your speech]. You implied that there was good music and music that was in bad taste. Everybody wondered, “What music is he referring to?””

Marsalis: “The only statement I made was that we’re trying to elevate pop music to the level of art. Not just in music. Pop culture. Pop anything. I have nothing against pop music. Just understand what the music is about, because the function of pop music is totally different from jazz.”

There’s a great exchange later where Marsalis fleshes that out.

Marsalis: “To me what pop music is trying to do is totally different. It’s really geared to a whole base type of sexual thing. I listen to the radio. I know tunes that they have out now…It’s low-level realizations of sex.”

Hancock: “It’s not like that, Wynton. If it were, it would just stay the same. Why would the music change?”

Marsalis: “Because they get new computers.”

In a different exchange, Hancock does a good job of outlining the more open view on the relationship between genres.

Hancock: “When we have life, we have music. Music can be manifest in many different forms, and as long as they all have a purpose, they shouldn’t be pitted against each other as one being more important than the other. That’s stupid. That’s like apples and oranges.”

That final quote I’ll include from the interview is the one I enjoyed the most, but remember that these two men have a lot of respect for each other, so there’s no hostility here.

Marsalis: “The purpose of pop music is to sell records that appeal to people on a level that they want to accept it on. If you put out a record and it doesn’t sell, your next response is…”Let’s try to do this or that to make the record sell.””

Interviewer: “That’s terribly condescending toward pop. . . .”

Hancock: “Why are we asking him about pop music? What does he know about pop music?”

Wynton: “I know a lot about pop music.”

Hancock: “No you don’t.”

Wynton: “I played in pop…”

Hancock: “Wynton, you don’t. You think you know.”

They’re nothing if not blunt.

Two friends disagree

Besides the entertainment of a bit of drama, the interview illustrates something fascinating. These two, absolute giants of the genre, have two completely different opinions on what constitutes musical artistry.

Even if you think Wynton is the inspector general of the jazz police, there’s no denying his skill. And even if you think Herbie Hancock is a fame-hungry sellout, you’d have a hard time arguing against him being one of, if not the most influential jazz player of the last 50 years.

As it’s put in the original article, “Marsalis is in a bind: while he does not respect what Hancock respects, he cannot help respecting Hancock.”

As far as the actual definition of jazz, we’re probably a long way past it referring to a singular genre. Knowing that a piece of music is rock, pop, or classical doesn’t really tell you anything about the music. These are some of the broadest possible categories, and jazz should be considered the same. Whether that includes tunes like Pharaoh’s Dance, Rockit, or Lingus is up to you.

The importance of argument

The fact is, Wynton comes up short in the interview on a few occasions. It’s hard to say that pop music is a lower form of art than jazz in a room with Herbie Hancock, who’s been successful in both styles.

But I do want to defend Wynton, not for his opinions, but for how important it is for him to have them. Lots of opinions about jazz are controversial, but those debates about the meaning and importance of jazz are what give its relevance over time.

It’s not about saying who was right or wrong after the fact – instead, we should try to understand how people related to their music at the time it was being created, in order to really understand the true history of jazz, not some idealised history we think it should have had.

To get a real sense of this idea, you should read the article for yourself. You’ll find the full interview in the anthology Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History.

Marsalis and Hancock also spend a lot of time in the interview talking about the place of race in jazz. That’s not my story to tell, and they do a good job of it on their own.