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Interview Marcus Wyatt

At the Cape Town jazz festival 2010 I conducted an interview with South African trumpet player Marcus Wyatt. He said:


When I was 11 or 12 and I was given a cornet to play. I wanted to be a drummer but there were no drums available. I remember struggling for a couple of years to get a grip on the instrument. The hardest thing for anyone starting the trumpet is to get a nice sound / tone on the middle G or C. I am lucky in that I have been playing for a long time so the technique has come through a lot of practicing and playing. I was playing in school bands and we were reading for years. I am lucky to have had a classical background and brass band which is that English tradition. For a brass player this is the best training ground because you really have to get your technique together. In a brass band all those fiddly bits that the strings play will have to be played by trumpet. It is a serious workout technique wise. I always love to play.

I met a lot of great players in the navy band and I started to feel the instrument, hear the possibilities and it started to resonate as a sound. The sound is very human like and that is why I find it a very frustrating instrument, because for me it must have a warm tone, like voice.

I had great English teachers: Mr Jones from school and a large American guy who really understood the instrument. Once I finished school I joined the navy band and studied at UCT. Since then I have never had trumpet teachers, it has been more about concepts and finding ways and facilities on the instrument to express more. The instrument constantly presents me with technical issues, but what I am more concerned about is the sound and playing in such a way that I am moved and people are moved and not necessarily worried about the instrument itself. It is easy to get caught up and absorbed in worrying about the instrument, the mouthpiece … you just need to make what you have work and concentrate on music.

There was a music experience I had which took music from the realms of a hobby to a spiritual thing. A few years ago I had my first musical experience where I became unaware of where I was and it was really just the music that was engulfing me. I remember opening my eyes and realizing that I was in the Green Dolphin. That was when music first touched me in that sense. Since then I have been pursuing that. It has been about the music, but the music goes hand in hand with the instrument. You don't forsake one to chase the other, they go together.

Trumpet is a hellova instrument. You have to play every day. You have to do your long notes. Technique wise I still play from the Arban, the French Bible of trumpet. I do things every day to keep my lips in shape. I could be doing more.

I have often composed from the bottom up as opposed from the top down. I have a lot of basslines and grooves and put meat around the skeleton like chordal structures and then put a melody on top of it. It is only lately that I have written new stuff the other way round from melody to chords and bass.

When I studied at UCT I started practicing a lot and I met Dr Kebberly and he opened me up in a different way to talking more about the sound and making music as opposed to just playing the notes.

I listened to piles of Miles Davis because of his sound and his approach to melody. And I listened to Clifford Brown as Clifford Brown for me was the consummate hardbop bebop lyrical player with a beautiful sound. He plays the most intricate rhythmic and harmonic patterns very effortlessly. I later found out my grandfather was a musician and his brother was a drummer. So there was something in the family. We don't have a lot of trumpet players in South Africa. I worked with the late Dennis Mpale. I met him in Joburg. Standing next to that guy on stage, he had the spirit of Miles in him, the same kind of messed up tone, but it was so beautiful with a lovely centre.

I am not really a trumpet player that listens to a lot of trumpet players. I listen to saxophone and piano players. Trumpet is a tricky one. I don't necessarily like the sound of the trumpet in a certain register as it can be quite a hard sound. The frequencies can be hard on the ears sometimes. I love a midrange sound. Miles plays in that midrange. It is a warm sound and resonates. For me: the bigger the tone, the rounder the tone, the better. It is good to aspire to more technique as then you can express yourself more.

Frustration never goes away as far as I can tell. It is always important to remember that there is a reason why you are doing what you are doing. There is a goal. And that is to play music. I failed my scales in all my exams. It was only when somebody actually explained to me why we learn scales that they became easy to me. Before that it was like an exercise and I didn't understand why I needed to learn it. Once you start being able to put into practice what you practice and realize that the whole point of it is that you can play and make music, then you do. Everything you play should be music. I remember watching a documentary about Wynton Marselis, 'To catch a snake.' He was saying to this kid in a workshop, ‘You don't ever throw any notes away. You don't just play something because that is what you have been told to do. You must make music, even if you are playing a scale. Try and make it sound beautiful. Any exercise you are doing.' That is a big secret. Once you can find that then the whole thing will be much more worthwhile, focusing on music and not the trumpet. The trumpet is a means to an end. If I wasn't playing trumpet I would be playing something else.

I am always going to be playing music. I always want to be pushing trying to find new ways, new sounds and get to a place where I lessen my hardships of the instrument. But that is up to the individual to put in the work.

The first Interview with Marcus Wyatt is from 2000 shortly after the release of his debut album. I asked him, ‘ Since the release of your album, have things as an artist started to happen for you?' He said:

I don't know about that. I am finding it harder to get gigs at the moment because I guess becoming a so called solo artist takes a while to get into festivals as people are so used to you being a sideman with other bands that they tend not to take you as seriously as the other guys. I am still struggling. Since the launch, I haven't done a gig and that was well over two months ago. It is nice that there is stuff being played on the radio and more exposure and through interviews more people are getting to know about me, which is great, but I am not getting out there to play my music, which is frustrating.

What about releasing and recording independently and not going with a label?

I don't think people here can release independently without a big company behind you for distribution and marketing because, it is such a small scene and people protect that scene so much that as an outsider trying to come in and get in on other record companies turf in terms of radio play and this kind of thing, I don't think it would have really worked.

I was independent in terms that I paid for the recording myself. I own the master and all I was doing now was a distribution deal with Sheer, a licencing deal. I did have complete artistic control of the project, which would be the same if I had done it independently. It is just when it comes to distribution and marketing that you do need someone with a bit of money behind it.

Why did you record it independently and not go to a big company?

The record companies weren't exactly lining up for me. I didn't have a lot of choice. The sad truth of it is I am a whitey and playing traditionally black music. The minute they check that out then they are not really interested. I have been rejected by quite a few of the companies. Damon himself, I argued with him for two years or something about that very thing. It is difficult. I was speaking to the guy from the Sowetan about it. That was all he was interested in speaking about, the whole colour thing. I don't dig speaking about it too much. It's boring.

Are record labels supporting local music?

They support the music and are bringing it out but there are these pigeon holes and everybody has their set ideas of what things are. It does take a lot longer to get a deal if you are the wrong image for music. They see that image and that is all they see. So, when you come in and are not part of the image, it does not matter what the music sounds like. They get scared and they don't actually want to take the chance. And this is why I made a deal with Damon eventually and said I will pay for my recording, and he said if you pay for your recording, I will release it. I think he is changing his mind and he is pleasantly surprised because in the end the music does speak and it doesn't matter what colour you are. He was very scared that I wasn't going to sell any records because I am white. And that is why I had to pay for it and that is why I couldn't go to any other companies.

Doesn't that put pressure on you to go abroad?

Yes, I am still going to do that. Not immigrate but go. It is not necessarily because I am saying I am going to make it over there. It is in my nature as a musician. I don't want to stick around for too long in any environment because it stagnates you as an artist and you have to constantly look for fresh input and other people to play with and collaborate with. And that is why I moved up here (Johannesburg) from Cape Town because I had been there for seven years and basically played with the people I had wanted to play with. I am originally from PE. When you move to a new place, when you get to Cape Town everything is exciting, there are all these new musicians, you dig them and they dig you and all that. As soon as you establish yourself in that scene, all the bullshit comes out, all the politics and the little things that get in the way of making music. And that is when you kind of want to move on. When I came up to Joburg it was the same thing. All new and exciting and now the realities do set in which is dealing with musicians ego's and this and that just to get gigs and do gigs so I am not going to be here for too much longer. I will always come back because I love this place. For my own musical inspiration I want to get out and see what else is out there.

Where are you looking to?

I have been applying to schools in the States and New York and stuff but they cost a lot of money. It is a good way to get into a scene through a music school so I applied to a new school in New York which costs just for tuition 20 grand a year in dollars. What I might do is go to Holland for a while. I have got a few connections there in Amsterdam. Amsterdam is fairly cosmopolitan. Americans go through there, African musicians. There are a lot of people in that place and Paris.

I have never been to America and I would love to go there. Obviously New York is like a mecca for jazz musicians. I can just picture that there is a helova lot of bullshit there as well in terms of musicians and the whole colour thing. I really just want to play music.

Do you think the SA music industry is running the risk of losing a lot of people?

I don't think so because the artists and the musicians do fall into those categories that industry sets. The way that the media deals with musicians and artists here in South Africa you can be elevated to super stardom in a very short space of time. It puts people into a comfort zone. They are not going to leave because if they go over and decide to go to the States or wherever they are going to be a very small fish suddenly again. A lot of people don't want to actually experience that. The papers here seem to label people geniuses and kings of jazz and blah blah blah and then people start believing that shit and that this is their turf. They are not going to leave because it is not going to happen elsewhere or for a long time.

The local industry is growing and there is a lot of stuff starting to happen which is great. I am not going to leave for that fact; I am going to leave for my own reasons which are purely musical. Unless guys are moving away for that reason, then I don't think they will move. It is not like the old days when all the exiles left. I think it is booming and people are actually trying to make things happen. The last obstacle in the way of the music industry really booming is the record companies being convinced that they could make a good deal of their money from the local artists instead of the new Michael Jackson release or whatever. As soon as they start doing that then it is going to be even bigger.

Moses's theory is that we are at a period now that is almost another Sophiatown, a period of cultural opulence booming through the present generation of so called young musicians. Do you agree?

Sure, there are a lot of new guys now coming out and bringing new ideas whereas before it was kind of like the Big 5 Abdullah and Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa and all that; and everything sounded like that to sell. Now there are all these new things happening and guys are pushing the boundaries of what is going on, like Zim with his sound and Moses who is experimenting more. It does feel like that and even just this year there are a lot of albums coming out and people are not sticking to the formula. I think they are getting a bit more leeway from the recording companies so there definitely is a boom. It will get bigger as the years go on as there are still pigeon holes and limitations being put on the artists to perform and do certain things.

Do you as an artist fall into both those camps performing with Jimmy on the commercial side and with Carlo on the not so commercial side. How do you find those contrasts?

On the one hand I make lots of money and on the other hand I don't! It is quite amazing actually. If I look at this weekend on Friday night we played with Jimmy before Ronny Jordan at Mega and the place was packed. It was shoulder to shoulder you could not move in there. Jimmy's music went down a storm, they loved it. The audience was going mad and hailing us as heroes or whatever and that kind of vibe. And that is the same set we have been doing for three years. And then we get to Sunday night and we are playing some stuff at Kippies which is a helova lot more interesting and there are a handful of people, maybe fifty people that are sitting there more fascinated than anything else because they have never heard anything like it but they are not sure if they like it. We get cut off after an hour because there was a misunderstanding from the contract blah blah blah and it all kind of fizzled out. We left the stage feeling what the hell was that? That was amazing, all in one weekend. It was the same festival where playing the commercial stuff there was an adoration of a thousand people and playing the other stuff which is really musically out there and satisfying and they don't really dig it. I don't think South Africa is advanced enough yet in terms of the audience. I don't say that in terms of the musicians because there is a lot of good stuff out there but the audience themselves is not really ready for too much besides the norm. It is going to take a lot of international artists to actually make that happen. It is no good us with that band going to a Moretele Park gig and playing Carlo's music on stage in front of ten thousand people because they are not going to get it and they will probably throw bottles at us. If more and more experimental international acts, you know like the hip guys like Branford Marsalis, if they can be brought out for jazz festivals, instead of the smooth crap that gets brought out, it is educating the audience more than anything else.

One thing that really struck me in Cape Town that was amazing was when Herbie Hancock played. The whole audience was there because they know Watermelon Man and they know funk stuff that he did and they know Cape Town audiences love that stuff. The audiences love funk and jazzing as they call it. Herbie straight off the bat said well I am not going to play that stuff. I am going to be doing stuff from my new album, Gershwins stuff and to their credit, most of them hung around and listened to the whole set. There was the 20 or 30% that left after the first song because they thought 'what is this,' but generally they hung around and those kind of things start opening their eyes to different sounds and the only way they can listen to the local guys do that shit is if these big heroes of theirs do it first. That is the sad fact of living in South Africa.

Where does your album sit in relation to this divide between commercial and not so commercial?

I made the music to sound the way I like the music to sound but there are elements in there that I know that the average person can relate to, elements of groove and elements of harmony that your South African listener can relate to. I think there is a nice balance in there. It is not compromising and there weren't any tunes put in there to say here is going to be a commercial hit or whatever, but what is appealing about the album to those people who are more into commercial sound is the fact that it is recorded live and you can feel the energy of the musicians. It is not like an album where they over-dubbed the solos and they over-dubbed this and that so in the end you get a perfect sounding song but there is no energy between the musicians. There are a couple of tracks on the album that will appeal to the commercial side in terms of harmonic structure and groove element. On the other hand it still retains the musicality and everything that will appeal to the non-commercial sector.

What about the Miles Davis tribute?

I did it once as a way to get into the Grahamstown festival as a solo artist. And every year they wanted the Miles Davis tribute. I love Miles's music, but I didn't want to do that. People associate the trumpet with Miles Davis. It is quite something to do a Miles Davis tribute because for me he is one of the most creative jazz musicians of this century. When I first did it I definitely wasn't ready for it and I probably wasn't paying as much respect to the music as I should. I should have checked my shit out a bit more before I did it. I was young and ambitious. I don't think I will do that again for a while.

How much does that effect where your music is now?

I never tried to play like Miles, it is just that whether I had done those tributes or not I still listen to a helova lot of Miles. He has influenced me in terms of concept. I love his concept of space in music; letting the music breathe. It is so weird when you listen to old Miles records playing with Coltrane and I am not comparing or anything (I am much better than Miles!) and myself and Buddy who have been playing together for a long time and Buddy plays a helova lot of notes, he is a great musician. And then I listen to Miles and Coltrane and Miles plays like one note in 4 bars and Coltrane is like balalalblaboboibiyo. It is quite a good partnership in a way because it highlights different aspects of the music. I like Miles's creativity and direction. He always went forward and kind of found the new thing that was happening. He didn't always create that thing but he found the new thing that was happening and went into it with the guys that were doing it. He didn't try and copy it with other guys. He got the street musicians who were doing the hip hop and that kind of thing. I like that in a musician. It is like Branford Marsalis with his Buckshot Lefonque project, going out and experimenting and taking the music forward. It doesn't always sound the same unless you are a purist and then it has to sound the same. It has influenced my composition style in a way. I have tried to fuse that with other influences. There is a song on this album called, 'Divination' which is actually a tribute for Miles because it is very similar in approach as a composition of Miles's and it has that same feel. It is track 9. It is a very slow ballad thing.

Where are you going with your music?

I do some stuff at home. I have a little studio and I do that kind of loop based hip hop and dance kind of stuff, something I am always interested in and will always do on the side unless it can really be done properly with the right guys in terms of production and everything. I would like to obviously take a sound that I am trying to develop, compositionally and then put it into a more acoustic environment because a lot of the South African sounds we hear have electric base an drum and it is always a pattern that is played; the African thing which is repetitive patterns. I really dig that but I think it can be put into an acoustic environment and really allowed to breathe. If you listen to all these albums that have come out recently like some of Jimmy's stuff, Moses's stuff, Vusi's stuff and the grooves and everything are really great. If you are listening to Jimmy's album and there is a solo happening, and the band is kind of grooving along in the background, obviously the rhythm section didn't know what the soloist was going to do because the soloist came and did the solo after they had finished. There are times when the soloist does something and you think shit the rhythm section could have gone with that and that is what is important to me in the music is the interaction between the musicians. It is not that it sounds perfect because that is the smooth sound. There are no mistakes and everything is well rounded off and each little drum fill is like perfect. I don't like that sound, so to take those kinds of grooves and put them into a live setting and an acoustic setting it makes it more organic and the music can breathe and whatever the soloist does and the rhythm section wants to go with him and then that happens and that is exciting for the listener. Instead of him just being impressed by the technicality of that thing, the soloist actually feels that music because that music for those few bars suddenly goes on a little wobble, it goes like that way and the listener gets dragged into that direction and then back again. That is part of the whole experience of listening to music. It should be that experience. It shouldn't be a perfect sound because music is life and life is definitely not perfect. I know that is a cliché but if you want to be honest and portray stuff that is happening in your life and stuff that happens around you in the music and you make the music perfect then I don't know what that is. That is not me.

How do we go in a global direction?

A lot of kwaito music in terms of the production and the instruments they use is a little bit dodgy. We were talking about it the other day, why do these kwaito bands have these horrible saxophone sound from the keyboard, or horrible brass sounds or flute sounds. Why do they not get other musicians involved? Why do they not get live musicians involved and collaborate in that respect to make the proper sound? Maybe they think of that or maybe the sound of kwaito is what they get from those crap keyboards? Maybe that is what is unique about that music? But, sounding like that is not going to compete on the international market, simply because productions and sounds and everything have advanced 15 or 20 years from that sound and this stuff is not going to sell unless it is in kind of a world market category which is kind of shit. The world market category is sometimes kind of an excuse for music that is not produced well. Why does there have to be a category of world music, you don't go into a shop and see American music. It should just be music that is good and can sell.

In the jazz thing here in South Africa things are getting better where we can compete on a world market without intentionally trying to do so. Production values and things like that are much better now. You take a lot of the albums that are coming out now and they can stand up to international standard in terms of production and musicianship comes into it in a big way. Five years ago or ten years ago a lot of the so called jazz albums that were coming out, the production wasn't good and that unfortunately is not going to stand up to the overseas market because they want to hear great production. America pretty much governs the whole thing. Unless it sounds like it is produced there it doesn't really stand a chance.

Which way are you taking your sound?

The sound I have on this album can be integrated into the global market, not because I intentionally tried to do that but being a white South African growing up in the last era of apartheid, my main influences when I was young was not African, South African influences because that is not what the government wanted me to hear. I listened to a lot of global stuff and grew up with a lot of those influences and classical learning and all that kind of stuff so the music that I have made here is a combination of all those influences plus an awakening of African and South African sounds since the early 90's which has come in and really stirred the pot and given me a sound to work with that is not unique but slightly different. I am going to continue to make music the way I hear it and the way I want it to sound. It is a purely selfish thing if you look at all the honest musicians that are still living. If you ask them and they are completely honest, they make music that they like and they want to hear. It is not usually done for this person or that or for a market. Charlie Parker made the music he wanted to play. Miles always made the music he liked. You wouldn't find him sitting there saying I don't think anyone is going to dig this! And Carlo, he does his thing irrespective. And I am going to do what I want to do. And that is what is appealing to people in a way. That is why so many people bought Miles's music and even went to see him live and he turned his back on the audience most of the times and he didn't even talk to them most of the time, he was just there to play his music and people respect that. It cuts through all the bullshit and all the entertainment section of the music which is also important obviously but if you want to go in a direction you have got to be 100% honest.


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