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Jazzing the Pulitzer

April 9, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It was a Pulitzer first–jazz in the category usually reserved for classical music, and the winner was 35-year-old trumpeter Wynton Marsalis for Blood on the Fields, a three-hour jazz oratorio written for three singers and an assemble of 14 musicians.

The piece was commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center and traces the journey of an African couple sold into slavery in the United States. Here’s a brief excerpt from a recent performance.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Here now to tell us about Blood on the Fields is Wynton Marsalis, who is also artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. And congratulations to you, Mr. Marsalis.

WYNTON MARSALIS, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Music: Thank you very much.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What is Blood on the Fields?

WYNTON MARSALIS: It’s a piece with music and singing. They call it an oratorio. I didn’t call it that, but I guess technically that’s what it is.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What does that mean?

WYNTON MARSALIS: It means musical singing.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That’s what an oratorio is. Well, what do you call it?

WYNTON MARSALIS: Well, just musical singing.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What is it trying to convey?

WYNTON MARSALIS: I guess multiplicity of emotions, and it–I guess the main thing it is trying to convey is how to be free and still be a slave, how to–when you’re still a slave how to be free.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And it–did I get it right, that it is the story of an African couple moving from slavery to the United States, et cetera?

WYNTON MARSALIS: Well, it’s really–it’s about them as Americans, I guess. It is–the story is kind of, it exists in different times. The relationship between a man and a woman actually comes from the way that we relate to each other today. But historically they started as Africans, but we trace the growth of the man in America.

The woman kind of always has a sense of how things are, a much deeper humanity than the man has. And he relies upon her once he realizes that he needs her to teach him what he needs to know, he relies upon her to share her wisdom and her knowledge with him.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now describe the piece and its elements, although let me apologize in advance. We don’t have the three hours that it takes to play this piece for you to describe it, but I mean, like the excerpt we just saw. What was going on there? What was that trumpet saying? It was talking to us, wasn’t it?

WYNTON MARSALIS: Yes, ma’am. That’s like a dance of the demons. This was at the point where the man is realizing that his way of looking a the world is not going to take him closer to freedom. And he just received a terrible beating when he tried to run away, but he wasn’t equipped with the right information to be free.

So he comes back, and all of the forces of nature are talking to him. And the band represents the forces of nature, and I’m him. But I’m like laughing, crying, and making all these different sounds, and the band is telling you like, you know, I told you so, I told you so.

This is what happens when you try to get out here too soon, and at the end of this, this piece comes after he sung a song which is entitled “Oh, What a Fool I’ve Been,” saying how he just–because before this he would never listen, no matter what you told him.

He was so full of anger and hatred, and just the fact that he was a slave because he was a prince in Africa, and it was very difficult for him to adjust to his surroundings and to his change in fortune.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And some of the other–tell me about some of the other elements in the story. I mean, you’ve got singing, and you’ve got other kinds of–is it all jazz?

WYNTON MARSALIS: Well, it comes out of the language of jazz and the orchestral stylings of the great jazz arrangers mainly Duke Ellington, but the form–a lot of form stuff, they come out of like Jellyroll Martin and Mingus and Mat Roach, things that have been–that a lot of jazz composers have touched on.

Of course, styles like a brass chorale style–I just put different type of blues harmonies in it. And we have a lot of chants and things that we find in New Orleans music, stomps and other little effects. We even have some touches of the fiddler’s reel, and the word song.

I have one song that’s kind of–I tried to make the band sound like a big banjo by using a pointalistic type of style, where I’ve had six or seven different members hit one note apiece, so it would go ding-bo-do-bo-ding-bo-do–sounds like somebody plucking a banjo. And we use a lot of different–a lot of different effects and different styles–forms.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How did you go about writing this? I mean, did you do the music first, or did the story come to you? I mean, how did you put it together?

WYNTON MARSALIS: Kind of all at once really. I started–I had an outline like I always have to kind of know where I’m going, from point A to point B, C, and D, and where I want to modulate, like which keys do I want to go in. I also–I figured that I wanted the band to be like a Greek chorus, but a modern hip chorus, so we say things that are kind of funny sometimes, and I also wanted the musicians to play like I wanted to juxtapose a single voice to many, just like we just heard that excerpt–that piece is entitled Back to Basics–the part that we just saw–but where you have one, which is a trumpet, and then the rest of the ensemble answers.

Well, we have a chorus formed, but we’re all sitting up. In fact, we are judging the action and moving it forward and commenting on it, so one person will start, like the first one we say, “Trouble in our own land, crimes against the human soul, far too large for any describing words to hold.”

And before we say that, I play that–those syllables on it–I may improvise some of the melody, and then the band goes into this tune, this section, which is the trouble in our land.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So the story evolves, or you had that pretty much in your head as you went along, or did you get to a point–because jazz is about improvisation, and you’re the master of that–was this a story that was improvised?

WYNTON MARSALIS: Well, no, the story is written down. You know, in jazz all the ensemble parts have to be written. What you do in jazz composition is you try to find a suitable framework to inspire improvisation in the reading of the parts and also when–you have to know when to use improvisation to give that feeling of freedom that’s needed.

But you also have to balance it with that arrangement because if you just improvise constantly, it can be exciting, but it can also be very boring. It can also lead to chaos.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In the pantheon of jazz pieces, though, jazz subjects, this is very unusual, isn’t it? I mean, aren’t most jazz subjects about the here and now?

WYNTON MARSALIS: Well, I don’t think that’s–people write that but not in the history of jazz. Most of it–most music really is connected to memory, as just a characteristic that music has. I don’t know–it could be the music of Bach, or it could be Duke Ellington’s music, or, like John Coltrain is a good example, I think that’s obvious, because he was known to be really in the avant garde or the vanguard of the 1960′s. But the sound that he–when he really got his conception, he went all the way back to the spiritual, the sound of the spiritual.

Now he had–when the music–you can have the ancient and the modern at the same time. But the far back you can reach you reach back to something that’s just human. And when you get to the–like a whale is a whale. When you get to that human element, it really–it exists outside of time.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now speaking of time, this piece, three hours long, puts it in a class all by itself. I mean, why three hours, and is it going to stay three hours?

WYNTON MARSALIS: Yeah. I tried to cut it, but you know some stuff is just long. And slavery was long. We’re still long, you know, in the human sense, it’s still long, and it–is long. We all say that in the band, because we’re playing it every night, you know, and everybody is like, this is long, and we say it’s long.

Well, let’s try to cut it. But then when I would cut pieces out, they would say, no, don’t cut that part out, keep this part in. So it’s just one of those things that’s long, and we have other pieces that are thirty minutes long and forty-five, but this one is actually three hours and fifteen minutes.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Right. And this establishes–you’ve got jazz established now as a permanent part of the Lincoln Center repertoire. What is–briefly, what does this Pulitzer do for jazz?

WYNTON MARSALIS: Well, I don’t really–I don’t know really if it–either way, it’s a great honor for us, you know, for me and for the band, that we would be recognized and our music would be recognized.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Right.

WYNTON MARSALIS: Because a lot of times when jazz is talked about, it’s only gossip or something social. But we’re going to do what we’re going to do anyway. Duke Ellington did that. He swang out here for 50 something years, and we’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to come out here and play and represent our music.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right.

WYNTON MARSALIS: We’re doing it at Lincoln Center. We’re going to do that, you know. We’re all going to swing.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, swing on, Mr. Marsalis.

WYNTON MARSALIS: Yes, ma’am.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you.

WYNTON MARSALIS: Thank you.