The Americanists 

Wynton Marsalis and Ornette Coleman.

Blood on the Fields
By Wynton Marsalis
Performed by Wynton Marsalis & the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra
Columbia Records; 3 CDs; $34.98

Skies of America
By Ornette Coleman
Performed at Lincoln Center, New York City, July 9, 1997, with Prime Time and the New York Philharmonic

Wynton Marsalis’ enormous composition for jazz band, Blood on the Fields, nearly three hours long, won an unprecedented Pulitzer Prize for music this year–unprecedented because Pulitzer Prizes have, until now, never made the leap from the world of classical music to the world of. I have not heard Marsalis’ piece performed live, but Columbia Records has just issued a 3-CD recording by the composer and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, with program notes by Stanley Crouch, encased in a well-designed box featuring a bloodstained stars and bars. And I can see that Blood on the Fields belongs to a particular American musical genre that has always made a special point of leaping from world to world, stylistically speaking. The genre consists of full-length meditations on the meaning of America–a music that got its start, I suppose, with Charles Ives’ turn-of-the-century leapings from symphony orchestra to Fourth of July brass bands and back again.      The most famous composition on such a theme is doubtless Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, which goes leaping from classical music all the way to Civil War political oratory–though a better example might be the same composer’s Third Symphony, with its “Fanfare for the Common Man.” (Click Sound01 - Bob-fanfare.asf to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra perform a part of the “Fanfare.”) The title of that fanfare conveys all by itself the idea of incongruous democratic juxtapositions. But this kind of musical meditation has never been confined to conventionally classical composers like Ives and Copland. Last month Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic performed a 90-minute composition from 1972 by Ornette Coleman, his Skies of America, featuring Coleman himself and his jazz octet, Prime Time. Plainly, this piece likewise belongs in the national genre–and wants you to know it, too.

T he Philharmonic’s Coleman program opened by nodding to Aaron Copland with a performance of the “Fanfare.” Next came a recitation, by the actor Reggie Montgomery, of a hellfire passage from the writings of the Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards, followed by excerpts from Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, Joy Harjo, and a few other personalities in the populist mode. And only then did Skies of America get underway, with the Skies in question consisting of antiphonic passages for jazz musicians and symphony orchestra, leaping back and forth in fraternal alternation except for the occasional head-on collision, as if in a further nod to Charles Ives.      I loved those head-on collisions. But the leaping back and forth proved, on balance, to be less than flattering to the world of jazz. Coleman raced up and down chromatically unusual scales on his pallid white alto saxophone, and the members of his octet produced a mad tumble of sixteenth notes, and for some reason the group chose to pour all those whirling figures into microphones and electronic pickups, which duly reduced every last sound to a mousy gray. The Philharmonic, by contrast, played in full, unamplified technicolor.      The alternating sections didn’t exactly lead anywhere, but what Coleman meant to express was easy enough to infer. Aaron Copland’s national idea, back in the time of the Lincoln Portrait and the Third Symphony, was a combination of democratic grandeur and World War II bombast–a musical equivalent, say, to the poetry of Carl Sandburg. But Ornette Coleman’s idea in Skies of America was a combination of transcendental ecstasy and sardonic alienation, together with a spirit of excess–a musical equivalent to the 1970s-era poetry of Allen Ginsberg, except without Ginsberg’s amusing lightness. 

W ynton Marsalis’ national idea in Blood on the Fields is something else entirely–an idea of democratic patriotism in a bitter mode, dominated by a deep resentment of American slavery. The CD box describes this work as a jazz opera, though it is actually an oratorio, containing song and chanted recitative, with the words as well as the music written by Marsalis himself. The words tell a tale of slavery under democracy’s star–a story of the Middle Passage from Africa, the horrors of the auction, plantation misery and joys, and the dream of freedom. The historical themes are grave, and I’m afraid the gravity overwhelms everything else, so that you find yourself pensively trying to imagine the life of a slave, as prompted by the sometimes pedantic lyrics, with the music bouncing along in the background.      Musically, Blood on the Fields is entirely jazz, and its compositional ideas and the performance remind us of why Marsalis, in his young days in the 1980s, set out to overthrow the likes of Ornette Coleman. Mousy gray is not a timbre you hear from Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The musicians play with the broad range of burnished colors that you expect from classical performances (and ought to expect from jazz). Marsalis, as a composer, is a descendant of Duke Ellington–attracted, as Ellington was, to the folk styles that went into jazz, the blues especially, but also to several kinds of boogie, hoedown, hymn, shuffle, and work song, one of which, “Plantation Coffle March” (click here to hear it), echoes ever so slightly, no doubt unwittingly, the iambic tetrameters of the second section of Coleman’s Skies of America.      Ellington was indirect and sultry, though, and Marsalis tends to be earnest and cerebral. He scores for a big band as if writing for an expanded bebop quintet. The exotic brass-and-saxophone hues that, in Ellington arrangements, create rhythms of their own are mostly reduced to fleeting ornaments in Marsalis’ composition. And the effect becomes a little wearing, after a while. 

S till, the historical and musical themes mesh well enough in several sections of Blood on the Fields–in the title song, for instance, with its trumpets and trombones calling out rhythms in a wonderfully inventive, mambo-influenced style (click here to hear it). Technical virtuosity surrounds Marsalis like a halo. If only, in the future, he were to deepen his harmonic scoring; if only he would leave aside the didactic impulse in his social and historical thinking; if only he would search out the sensual dimensions of his own music–what this man couldn’t accomplish! That is asking a lot, though. Blood on the Fields counts, in any case, as a distinct contribution to the genre of national musical meditations–less adventurous than Ornette Coleman’s Skies of America, but more lucid. Less grand and imaginative than Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony–but also less bombastic, and more appreciative of America as tragedy.