The following notes accompany the August 11, 2019 WYNTON concert.
Concerto in D for violin and orchestra (2015)
Wynton Marsalis (b. 1961)
This piece was written for Nicola Benedetti. It takes inspiration from her life as a traveling performer and educator who enlightens and delights communities all over the world with the magic of virtuosity. Scored for symphony orchestra, with tremendous respect for the demands of that instrument, it is nonetheless written from the perspective of a jazz musician and New Orleans bluesman. We believe that all human beings are connected in the essential fundamentals of life: birth, death, love, and laughter; that our most profound individual experiences are also universal (especially pain); and acknowledging the depth of that pain in the context of a groove is a powerful first step towards healing.
Nicky asked me to “invite a diverse world of people into the experience of this piece.” Because finding and nurturing common musical ground between differing arts and musical styles has been a lifetime fascination of mine, I was already trying to welcome them. It may seem simple enough, but bringing different perspectives together is never easy. The shared vocabulary between the jazz orchestra and the modern orchestra sits largely in the areas of texture and instrumental technique. Form, improvisation, harmony, and methods of thematic development are very different. The biggest challenges are: how to orchestrate the nuance and virtuosity in jazz and blues for an ensemble not versed in those styles (a technical issue); and how to create a consistent groove without a rhythm section (a musical/philosophical issue).
Because modern living is an integrated experience, it is never difficult to discover organic connections. Turning those insights into something meaningful and playable, however, is another story. It has to be lived and digested. That’s why I looked for real-life examples in the history of jazz–symphonic collaborations and to the environment and experience that connect Nicky and me. I considered aspects of her Scottish ancestry, the great Afro-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s love of legendary Scottish poet Robert Burns, my love and inextinguishable respect for Scottish baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley (and his gleeful recitation of pungent limericks), and the luminous but obscure achievements of Afro-American keyed bugler Francis Johnson, father of the American cornet tradition and one of the first published American composers…who was also a fine fiddler. These sources led me to reconnect with the Anglo-Celtic roots of Afro-American music.
The piece opens with Nicky whispering a solo note before the orchestra enters, as if to say “And so it came to pass” or “Once upon a time.” Then we are into a form constructed in fours–as in the four corners of the earth, where her travels take her.
Each of the four movements, Rhapsody, Rondo Burlesque, Blues and Hootenanny, reveals a different aspect of her dream, which becomes reality through the public storytelling that is virtuosic performance.
Movement 1, Rhapsody, is a complex dream that becomes a nightmare, progresses into peacefulness and dissolves into ancestral memory.
Movement 2, Rondo Burlesque, is a syncopated, New Orleans jazz, calliope, circus clown, African gumbo, Mardi Gras party in odd meters.
Movement 3, Blues, is the progression of flirtation, courtship, intimacy, sermonizing, final loss and abject loneliness that is out there to claim us all.
Movement 4, Hootenanny, is a raucous, stomping and whimsical barnyard throw-down. She excites us with all types of virtuosic chicanery and gets us intoxicated with revelry and then… goes on down the Good King’s highway to other places yet to be seen or even foretold.
As in the blues and jazz tradition, our journey ends with the jubilance and uplift of an optimistic conclusion. All of us–Nicky, our conductor Cristi Măcelaru, the Festival Orchestra, and I–come together to make a mutual statement on the common sophistication and soul in our respective and collective art that we hope can be enjoyed by any and all.
The Blues Symphony (2009)
Wynton Marsalis (b. 1961)
The Blues Symphony is a seven-movement work that gives a symphonic identity to the form and feeling of the blues. It utilizes the language and form of the blues across regions and genres regionally to convey the basic attitude of the blues as music: “Tragic circumstances accepted, better times should be pursued and can always be found.”
This piece is intended to further the legacy of Gershwin, James P. Johnson, Bernstein, John Lewis, and others who were determined to add the innovations of jazz to the vocabulary of the symphonic orchestra. I believe there is an organic and real connection between all Western traditions regardless of instrumentation and that the symphonic orchestra can and will swing, play the blues, and feature melodic improvisation.
THE FIRST MOVEMENT begins with piccolo and drum in evocation of the American Revolution and the birth of the possibility of the blues. It is supported by a low humming drone that represents our Anglo-Celtic roots. The drone also spells out the 12-bar blues progression that is repeated through all seven movements. The repetition of this form replaces the repetition of melodic themes that organizes much of the music we find memorable and unifies the entire composition. It is all based on repeated blues progressions with some variation to stave off boredom.
After solo piccolo and drum, the upper register flutes and violins play a constant twinkling counterpoint. In this abstract tapestry, the SOUND of flutes and fiddles is more significant than any single melody they may play. The inclusion of a proper trio section featuring flute, oboe, and clarinet aligns this movement with the form of a March. After the trio, the amorphous sound of the many different voices slowly differentiate themselves into an identifiable melodic theme based on ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ to exemplify E Pluribus Unum—From many, one. We crescendo to the end with the orchestration becoming more and more uniform as we stomp a Ragtime March to the closing piccolo cadenza.
THE SECOND MOVEMENT begins on the open seas of the Middle Passage utilizing a florid melodic language of Afro-American parlor music of the 19th century as a way to access cresting waves of orchestral dynamics. A pastoral interlude of brass and woodwinds is followed by the trombone preaching the gospel with a choir of French horns as elder deacons in recognition of the centrality of church music to the blues and jazz. The trombone usually calls the beginning of New Orleans funerals and is considered the instrument closest to the voice of an exhorting preacher. In a reversal of roles, the clarinet actually leads us in a funeral march and its solitary cry is answered by the introspective memory of tambourine and closely-voiced woodwinds.
A final clarinet cadenza brings us to the washboard and 2-beat country shuffle of the slave and rural fiddler to an organic evolution into the 4/4 swing violin of masters like Claude Williams and Stéphane Grappelli. This movement requires the orchestra to identify the meaning of spirituals, of New Orleans funereal music, and of the gospel preaching tradition. It places pressure on the string sections to pursue the American fiddle and international swing traditions in order to play with a disciplined looseness and unforced naturalness. After a brief return to the opening seaborne theme, the French horn sings a spiritual. It is followed by a reprise of the clarinet dirge on cello with the introspective answer now becoming an exotic groove. The final call is a spiritual nocturne delivered by the trumpet with English horn response. The trumpet cry, as in the playing of ‘Taps,’ is often the final sound for the deceased. So we conclude with a repeated blues cry on the English horn above a sustained trumpet note with respect to Dvorak’s 9th Symphony ‘From the New World.’
THE THIRD MOVEMENT begins in the world of circus waltzes and parlor music—New Orleans circa 1890. It features wide melodic leaps and brief clarinets making the sound of Riverboat calliopes. Then we are off into the world of ragtime with the breaks and call and responses idiomatic to early jazz. We hear from the trumpet, clarinet, and trombone playing through the breaks in time that Jelly Roll Morton said were essential to jazz. These three instruments are the front line of a New Orleans Jazz ensemble and are pictured in the earliest known portrait of a Jazz group drawn around the same time.
After a trio section in the sub-dominant key (because rags are mainly marches anyway) featuring flute, clarinet and bassoon, we hear from the wa-wa mutes, swooping clarinets, whooping French horns, and tom-toms which bathe us in American clichéd African mystique. The closely voiced and rhythmically complex woodwind soli above the drums and Chinese cymbal lead us right back to a romping New Orleans trumpet solo and Ragtime ensemble statement… then… the train.
That train symbolizes freedom. Once the train pulls into the station, we have a long coda based on permutations of the harmonic turnaround that concludes Jelly Roll Morton’s King Porter Stomp. As we repeat versions of this progression, the orchestra expands in size, intensity, and groove. It eventually becomes one big train that stomps to a halt with a New Orleans-cymbal-choke tag.
THE FOURTH MOVEMENT begins with the free call and response of the Devotional opening of the Afro-American Baptist Church. It features instruments high and low in a Sunday morning pastoral moan. This turns into Saturday night with the straight-up dance shuffle. Soaring strings sound the melody that is punctuated by shuffling woodwinds and percussion. The shuffle is our most flexible and enduring American rhythm. It is our version of an African 6/8 clave that all countries in the Americas have interpreted in their own way. We then demonstrate E Pluribus Unum in reverse by investigating different regional takes on this single rhythmic constant from “cowboy” to “train” to “sanctified” to “boogie-woogie” and once again visit the holiness of the American Negro Spiritual briefly before returning to that old locomotive motive. We end with the Charleston rhythm over modern 4/4 swing and, when present, improvising soloists.
THE FIFTH MOVEMENT is Manhattan and the sound of solid structures breaking the sky against the 12-bar grid of the blues sometimes augmented by a couple of extra bars of rhythm. Breaks and stop-time effects feature different types of percussion from the bebop drums of Max Roach to the claves of Latin jazz, to the brass and percussion of Third Stream jazz. This movement places a lot of pressure on the percussion to play in the feeling of a jazz drum set. After traveling from the financial district to Midtown and up to Harlem, the French horns enter playing a single note with syncopated rhythm to signify the easily accessed primitive underbelly of New York City. In spite of such architectural and technical sophistication and imposing wealth, the City is quite capable of devouring you. The clacking percussion set against angular, strident, orchestral attacks speaks to its unforgiving exterior. Traffic sounds and the everyday fade out of 5 o’clock passes on to a softer, angelic side of the city… but the chanting brass and repeating bass tell us: it’s still the asphalt jungle.
THE SIXTH MOVEMENT begins with New Orleans/Cuban concert music feel and a male-female dialogue between violin and cello; the danzón and then the mambo with cha cha bell and swooping strings. This movement places a lot of responsibility on the percussion section to learn the subtleties of Latin percussion. An interlude of woodwinds leads into a Charanga-inflected flute solo in honor of Alberto Soccaras from Cuba who played the first jazz flute solo in 1927. Mr. Soccaras was an ear training teacher of mine in 1979-80, and I had no idea who he was.
We get deeper in the groove and then those trumpets with bell tones end the mambo. After another contrapuntal woodwind interlude, we turn to the habanera. It is the most universal Afro-Latin rhythm. A transparent orchestral treatment of sultry themes is counter-stated by aggressive French horns and celli with trumpets and trombones punctuating the groove. A brief bossa nova interlude takes us to the Ragtime of Brazil, choro. Choro and samba bring us home and we end with a bossa nova tag.
THE SEVENTH MOVEMENT is the only piece of music I have ever written on the trumpet. In order to get to the most modern and abstract blues style, I recorded myself playing a typical improvisation on a very fast tempo blues form through some melodic keys, transcribed the rhythms and melodies, and spread them out across the bottom and top of the orchestra. The lines are obtuse, chromatic and polyrhythmic, yet still the blues. It is a dialogue between the low and high voices that ends up in a shouting then screaming match. After reaching the climactic point, that serves also the resolution of the argument, we reprise a patchwork quilt of moments from the preceding dialogue alternating between high and low voices. It is business as usual. We have to communicate with one another. The orchestra ascends to a final very brief break, and with one final grand statement of the very first theme, the Blues Symphony is done.