The Negro is a natural musician. He will learn to play on an instrument more quickly than a white man.... They may not know one note from another, yet their ears catch the strains of any floating air, and they repeat it by imitation.... Inferior to the white race in reason and intellect, they have more imagination, more lively feelings and a more expressive manner.... With their imagination they clothe in rude poetry the incidents of their lowly life, and set them to simple melodies.... Blessed power of music!... It is a beautiful gift of God to this oppressed race to lighten their sorrows in the house of their bondage.
"Songs of the Blacks," Dwight's Journal of Music, IX:7 November 15, 1856
This quotation, a failed effort to define or explain the spirit and exuberance inherent in the most comprehensive American music, appeared in an anonymous American article. Though one might denounce the author's cowardice, certainly his forthright honesty must be applauded. The Emancipation Proclamation—while moderately affecting Uncle Sam's peculiar institution—did nothing to abolish this misguided, reductive portrait of the Noble Savage. Over 130 years later. the struggle against stereotypes of this nature continues.
The conception of the Noble Savage characterized the thinking of certain Europeans and their American descendants who were not willing to accept slaves and their descendants as intellectual equals. Thus, the common opinion about extraordinary Negro artists was, "Genius by night, nigger all day." The legendary pianist Blind Tom provided an excellent example for these theorists, as he was able to replay any music he heard after only one listen. But Blind Tom was an exception, not the rule.
In the 20th century, high-brow jazz improvisation began with Louis Armstrong, progressed through Art Tatum to Charlie Parker and continued with John Coltrane. These particular individuals were geniuses— not intuitive geniuses—cerebral geniuses, who represented our most sophisticated ideals with immediate clarity. Due to the warm racial climate in America, however, Armstrong appeared in various movies as a "spook,' a butler (with maid servant Billie Holiday), and as a field hand playing trumpet to a horse. A man who was as financially wealthy as any Negro could hope to be, heralded as the greatest trumpeteer/entertainer of all times, honored by the king and queen of England, and worshipped the world around for his unique personality, was also greeted by a generic actor in a grade B movie as "Uncle Tom." It is no longer socially acceptable to overtly promote such narrow-minded attitudes. Consequently, today's youth enjoy a kinder, more subtle indoctrination to this insidious American tradition.
Branford Marsalis' Bloomington, with its broad range of dialects and comprehensive vernacular, provides asociological analysis of the sophisticated racism that dominates our country today. Over the past century, the language of America and its music has experienced both an expansion and a diminution,ßimultaneously, While words have become more personalized and their underlying ssage remains fixed—we hold these truths to be self-evident...With one major exception.
What Marsalis expresses through his music is the firm knowledge that human beings are responsible for upholding the ideals of their society. Though we have made significant technological advancements, commerce has forced mankind to compromise his honesty and therefore sacrifice its resultant enlightenment. As the82-year-old virtuoso explains, "People think that the gospel and blues musicians were singing about how terrible their lives were slaving on the plantation antThow everything would be cool at Judgment Day. Those types of songs were actually a way to avoid dealing with a grimreality." It is often difficult forpeople who maintain a refined level of integrity to embrace acts of flagrant Oishonesty, lest they are accepted as the will of a supreme being. In this fashion, Negroes havejustifie virtually L every conceivable injustice.
In the late 19th century, when law books stopped supporting slavery, an unwritten Code of ethics was birthed, nurtured and preserved. Jim Crow, as this practice of enforced segregation was affectionately named, exhibited a capacity for humbling that only the Grim Reaper could surpass. Thoggtl many try to dissociate Jim Crow from American art, his existence has always been directly latedâo the deve10P7 ment of jazz music. Crow was responsible for the defection of America's first g eat saxophonist; Sidney Bechet, who moved from New Orleans to Pans early in his career and nŸver returned to the South. Many jazz musicians preferred the financial and personalsupport ok Europeans more than the "Southern hospitality 0f down-home good old boys. In fact, the term "paying dues" was developed as a polite description of work under Crow's management. It appears that not yeqrly 20th-century musicians had to pay dues in the Fameáashion or to the same degree.
During the bebop era, Crow emerged under the guise of "cabaret" identification cards, issued by the police to perpetuate legalized harassment. Police officers would(cohfiscate a performer's card if he/she were arrested for any reason. Without the cardv,an artist could not work in New York city nightclubs and was subject to confinement. A hallucinogenic narcotic, heroin, introduced a new form of escape from this everlasting reality. For the brave musicians who chose to confront old Jim rather than deny his existence, any sedative would suffice.Ähe high volume of substance abuse could have been prevented, however, if genius minds had been cultivated, not violated. The racist attitude in this country led many great artists to "live on the fringes, and pass on long before their time," in the words of legendary bassist Milt Hinton. Hinton. a progenitor Of American music, Vividly recalls both the accelerated dynamism of the bebop era and the melancholic effects of several lynching incidents from his childhood years in Mississippi. Though society scorned the seemingly evil lifestyle of Negro musicians, it never directed attention at the cause, only the result.
At the height of our nation's greatest internal conflict since the Civil War—the 1960s Civil Rights Movement—the music was enjoying a revolutionary movement of its own. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong,
John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Ornette Coleman all had rebellious bands that were swinging and stretching the boundaries of acoustic music, yet never compromising their beliefs. Oddly enough, as the Civil Rights Movement began to lose steam, so did jazz. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 would coincide with the last great years of contemporary jazz until the 1980s. This new generation of musicians would be the first in American history to address democracy (as described in our constitution) without the psychological bondage of legal segregation.
Branford Marsalis was unquestionably a vital part of the 1980s jazz resurgence. With this recording, jazz music's most contemporary saxophonist reaffirms his philosophical convictions with brilliant clarity and eloquence. It is his recognition and acceptance of the American odyssey—from the chitlin switch to the penthouse. slave quarters to the big house—that give his improvisations an unrivaled originality. In its most revealing moments, Bloomington displays a spiritual potency capable of conjuring optimism in the face ofthe most daunting adversity.
The music Of Branford Marsalis reflects the seriousness and intensity that confrontation demands: against one's own personal limitations and dogmatic indignation. In a strictly improvisational setting, this trio is performing the most sophisticated. contemporary, and innovative music today. Very few instrumentalists in jazz history have been able to function in this setting comfortably, none with the stylistic diversity of Branford Marsalis. The saxman credits Duke Ellington as his primary inspiration. Though there is an Obvious contrast in styles, Ellington's broad musical horizon has assisted all succeeding American musicians in a manner similar to William Shakespeare's influenceover western writers.
Marsalis iS quick to point out, "Duke was a masterauthor. Like any great storyteller, he realized the need for different grooves, tempos, and was light years ahead of everybody else...me10dy, harmony, rhythm, texture, form,scounterpoint, call-and-response. Just compare his catalogue of music in any decade with other big bands and it's very obvious what the deal was. As far as soloing goes. Pops, Bird, and Trane are the,pivotal instrumentalists in American history. They extended single-line improvisation to a spiritual level-far beyon technical description. I can feel their presence whenever I play in this context." Wherea§lárge ensemblé music requites a,dértaiWåmount of cálcúlating and premeditation, trio performance relies strictly upon the spontaneoustímagination and creative resources of each player.
Duke Ellington controlled his music and dictated the entire structure, form, and content of each composition; improvisation serving the purpose of the music. The most difficult task for Marsalis' trio—in which the music serves the purpose of improvisation—was adapting such a regimented sound into a completely free environment, while avoiding the undisciplined random conclusions that are often equated with •avant-garde" music. He points out, "Bob and Tain are the only two musicians in the world who can play this music in this setting...we're at each other's mercy. We don't decide to go into a groove at a particular time or play for a certain length of time, The music takes care of that on its own."
Marsalis and associates• powerful performance on Bloomington must be recognized for many advancements. In "Xavier's Lair," for instance, all melodies are self-governed, not restricted by patterns or clichés...(:56-1:19*) 28 bar phrase, (1:19-1:52) 39 bar phrase: fluent juxtaposing of different time meters (5:39-7:09); extended imitation of melodies and rhythms (7:31-9:49); call-and-response (10:12• 10:29). Almost all of the saxophonist's melodies are inspired, acknowledged, contradicted or co-signed by Watts or Hurst. An excellent example of the group's overwhelming power is the Nebulous Neb section (4:38-4:50), so named because neither the chord changes nor the time meter is discernible.
"Citizen Tain" is a tour-de-force exhibition Of the trio's ability to interpret complex solo forms and mathematical equations. Each musician seems to thrive off such challenging structures, for example: (5:41-6:13) or (7:43-9:46). The group definitely sounds more convincing performing abstract. crazy people's music than imitating someone else's style.
One profound aspect of Branford Marsalis' personality is his ability to accurately interpret different -musical styles. In addition to his jazz musings, he has played and composed several types of popular -dance music, Middle-Eastern, African, gospel and mellow mood material. Actually, the Ringling Bros. came into town one year and I could have sworn I saw him playing a wooden flute, wearing a big red nose and peppermint pantaloons!
Because of his role as an endearing sideman on many projects that are not associated with his own music, Marsalis has bewildered those individuals intent on describing a personal philosophy with a catchy slogan; the same ones who managed to reduce the genius and unparalleled accomplishments Of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to adrearn. If elitism is equated with intelligence and comprehension, so be it. Though this writer would never postulate whether Branford Marsalis is a " purist" or not, Bloomington is as pure as it gets.
— Delfeayo Marsalis