Seven years ago, Wynton Marsalis, speaking about the similarities between the art of jazz and the game of basketball, made an eerily prescient prediction.
"We've seen great ball players but I don't think we've ever seen individual brilliance at every position. Then that would be an unbeatable team. [...] That's the John Coltrane Quartet. Or the Miles Davis Quintet in the 60's."
Let's back up a little, though.
(Before moving any further, I'd like to thank GSOM user BornInDaEB for bringing this interview to our attention. Seriously, great find!)
As Wynton says in the interview, jazz and basketball are very similar in that they are both predicated upon "virtuosity on the form." In basketball, that form is "dribbling, shooting. We know the rules of the game." There are rules in jazz, as well. Endless wrinkles in the playbook. "A blues has twelve bars. We know the typical songs, and we try to do variations on them."
But jazz and basketball are much more than mere games restricted by overarching rules. At the pinnacle of each, there is a freedom, a release. The best, most illuminating players and musicians take existing rules and upend them. Take those rules and—while staying within an agreed upon form (The Great American Songbook; the coach's scheme)—rearrange what is feasible. Go beyond what anyone has ever thought possible.
"The spiritual dimension in athletics is different," Wynton continues. "Like, there are people that have a spiritual inheritance. A shot will go in for them. The ball comes to them. And they can beat the people of their era."
Sound familiar? Looking at you, Steph.
Wynton continues, saying, "Musicians, artists, speak across epochs. It's not—Louis Armstrong wasn't trying to beat anyone. He was just sharing the gift that was given [to] him with the world."
But here is where I differ in opinion from Wynton.
I think that basketball players, the truly greatest basketball players, are similarly just "sharing the gift that was given [to them] with the world." And I also believe that musicians are much more competitive than he acknowledges.
Believe me, I'm one of them
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Full Disclosure: I've known Wynton since I was...fifteen? I came from California to participate in the Essentially Ellington Competition, and he saw me play. I even won an award for my drumming. Later that night, I led an expedition uptown to a jam session I'd heard about. It was at Cleopatra's Needle, on 93rd street. Wynton and a bunch of the guys from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra were there, tearing down the house, setting the bandstand on fire. I sat in, played with them. Forged a connection. Later, I was recruited from California to attend Laguardia High School of Performing Arts. So, at the age of sixteen, I up and moved to New York City by myself to pursue a life in jazz.
I stayed in touch with Wynton. He'd check in every now and then. See how I was doing. He was extremely generous with his time.
About a year later, he called and offered to take me up to meet one of my absolute heroes.
"You wanna meet Elvin Jones?" he asked.
"What?" I stammered. "I mean, of course. Of course!"
"Alright, we'll, I'm going out of town but well set something up. I'll take you up to his crib."
I got off the phone, feeling high as a kite. But then my ego kicked in. I wanted to meet Elvin on my own terms. I had another mentor, Eddie Locke (amazing drummer who played with Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins and was in the "Great Day in Harlem" picture) who'd grown up with Elvin in Detroit.
"Shit," I thought. "I'll have Eddie take me. It'll be more honest." I was closer to Eddie. Thought somehow it would mean more that way.
What can I say? I was seventeen and young, dumb, and full of...jazz. (For those who wouldn't know, the origin of the word "jazz" has some, umm, interesting backstory)
A year passed, I didn't press the issue with Eddie. Wynton and I fell out of touch.
Eventually I left NYC altogether and traveled for the better part of eight years. Hitchhiking, singing songs, walking in wonderment beneath behemoth redwood trees, eventually touring with a funk-rock outfit that played upwards of 180 shows a year.
Life comes at you fast.
Elvin Jones died and I never got to meet him. I have no one but myself to blame.
About a year ago, I got off the road. I settled back full time in NYC, started playing jazz professionally again, finished a novel, and somehow fell ass backwards into a bunch of basketball writing. So, there you go.
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The through-line of all these stories is simple: The best moments of my life have been lived wild and free within the construct of an existing moment.
The freedom of playing over a blues with musicians who can fly.
The feeling I get when my fingers start running over the computer keyboard. Words spilling out.
It's that same improvisatory sleight of hand that Stephen Curry displays on the basketball court.
It's Klay Thompson rising up, the entire crowd certain the shot is going in because Klay has that "spiritual inheritance" of which Wynton spoke.
And now, as was predicted seven years ago, there exists a team that has improvisatory talent across the board. The Warriors have magicians at each position. "The most successful improvisation happens—like the most successful ball—when every person really knows the function of those plays from their perspective," said Wynton, before going on to predict that a team with "individual brilliance at every position" would be unstoppable.
But, there is a larger way in which Wynton Marsalis and I differ.
Jazz, for me, was the gateway to wonderment and improvisation. But by no means was it the end of the road. One thing I always struggled against—and honestly was the reason I never took him up on his offer to meet Elvin Jones (again, I'm an idiot)—was his staunch reliance on delineating what "is" jazz and what "is not" jazz.
Why even bother with the boundary?
As soon as we try and preserve something for the sake of cultural posterity, we've already caged it in a glass box. It's done growing. Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform a very specific version of jazz. It is not the end-all be-all of jazz music. Heck, they even generated controversy when they bought the domain name jazz.org, switching from the old site jalc.org. The community at large was NOT pleased.
I only bring this up to say: There is a fine line between being an open, honest improviser, and then finding your own "truth" and confining it in a museum.
For what truly, is a genre?
If the Warriors are indeed jazz incarnate, does that mean they have to forgo the love of other songs? Other bands?
Too often we put the cart before the horse. The main goal—the main artistic drive—is to live a life full of magic, creativity, and freedom, right? So what does it matter what name we bestow upon our creations? The Warriors are the Warriors. They are playing some mutant brand of basketball never before seen on this planet. And yet, it is the natural, direct outcome of everything that came before. Mike D'Antoni's Suns. Michael Jordan's Bulls. The list goes on.
Just because they look and feel different, don't hate them! Don't unnecessarily limit them! Let them find their improvisations. Let them fly. And once they're finished, whenever this grand carnival comes to a halt, let them be remembered as trailblazers.
But by all means—by all means!!—don't put them on a pedestal. Don't over-worship. Don't freeze in a museum. Because somewhere, someday, another team of players will come along and reinvent the entire equation again.
That's life. That's sports. That's jazz.
Regardless of genre, regardless of definition, Wynton Marsalis understands that basketball and jazz share a common heritage of love and adventure. At their core, they are both deeply American. "Most things in American life that are improvised and virtuostic will be like jazz," he said. "Because jazz is our definitive art form."
The key words, "will be."
Jazz grows with each generation. Jazz informs the musical landscape of today. The music flows through all the cracks in our lives. Heck, look no further than Thundercat winning a Grammy for his work on Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp A Butterfly."
The future is ours to make with it what we will. You learn from the masters, study their game, search deeply for what is important, and then emerge to create something new. Something wholly different, and yet grounded in the past.
You can envision the Warriors as the John Coltrane Quartet reincarnate?
Yup. I see it too.