Wynton Marsalis : His Jazz Suites from the 1990s


Shortly after Wynton Marsalis burst on the scene in the 1980s, he and what was seen as his “agenda” became subjects of controversy.  Just prior, the Jazz scene had experienced Free Jazz and Fusion, both of which were styles Marsalis and his fellow traveler Stanley Crouch opined were “outside the tradition” of Jazz.

Two decades later, at the point when Marsalis and Crouch were prominently featured by Ken Burns in his extended documentary Jazz, it was clear that Wynton Marsalis had provided an answer to the questions of what was Jazz and who possessed the authority to define it.

duke ellington

Briefly put, Marsalis and Crouch argued that there were three definitive elements that must be present in the music for it to be considered Jazz: Swing; The Blues and Improvisation.  Certain improvised music might be wonderful on its own terms but it was not Jazz, or even an innovation from within Jazz, if it did not exhibit all three elements.  Accordingly, Marsalis and Crouch noted that both Free Jazz and Fusion were problematic in this regard.


Marsalis believes that the primary element that defines Jazz is “Swing.”  The playing of Louis Armstrong in the 1920s, specifically as documented in his great Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings, expressed musical time in an absolutely new manner,  “Swing”.   After Armstrong, Jazz was never the same.

armstrong1The genre “The Blues” is a uniquely American genre of music, and one can easily say it is a uniquely Black contribution to American culture.  The Blues runs through jazz as its life-blood.  Had The Blues been all that African-Americans contributed to world culture, it would have been enough.

While many genres of music throughout history have featured improvisation, if it did not swing and did not exhibit The Blues, then it was not Jazz.   Of course, Jazz can include other influences, e.g. Latin, European, Syncopation, but the defining elements, according to Marsalis and Crouch, are Swing, The Blues and the improvisational playing of Jazz musicians.

This is a long way around to get to what I originally meant to discuss in this article, which are the extended Jazz suites by Wynton Marsalis:  In This House, On This Day; Blood On the Fields and The Marciac Suite, which was just one of the ten recordings from 1999 Marsalis called Swinging into the 21st Century.

In This House, On This Morning (1993)

in this houseFor this double CD, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis musically depicts in three parts a lengthy Sunday church service with program music composed for each of the traditional activities. The set does take quite awhile to get going with much of the first two parts consisting of introductions and transitions to themes that never seem to arrive. There are some exceptions, particularly Marsalis’ violent trumpet distortions on “Call to Prayer,” a spirited New Orleans blues and Todd Williams’ tenor solo on another blues.

However it is the third section that is most notable.

The 28-minute “In the Sweet Embrace of Life” instrumentally portrays a preacher giving a heated sermon, building up to a very feverish level. Marsalis’ model in his writing is clearly Duke Ellington. Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon is an expert with mutes and Todd Williams is able to hint at both Paul Gonsalves on tenor and Dixieland clarinetists on soprano while altoist Wes Anderson and pianist Eric Reed are also major assets to the septet. Due to the memorable final section, this lengthy work is one of the high points of his career thus far.  (AllMusic Review by Scott Yanow)

In This House, On This Day was the first work Marsalis composed for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, it had special significance.  “There are many tempting pigeonholes in which to place this 2-hour work by Mr. Marsalis. You could call it his personal variant on the old Ellington Sacred Concerts. Or you could look it as an apprentice effort pointing toward Marsalis’s later Pulitzer Prize-winning composition Blood on the Fields. You might even see this as a historic moment in the institutionalization of jazz.” (Jazz.com)

Blood on the Fields (1997) 

BloodontheFields_300_300_80The music on this three-CD set (released in 1997) won a Pulitzer Prize, but it’s not without its faults. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis tells the story of two Africans (singers Miles Griffith and Cassandra Wilson) who are captured, brought to the United States and sold as slaves. Because the male had formerly been a prince while the female had been a commoner, he considers himself to be her superior. He asks for but then ignores the advice of a wise man (Jon Hendricks), gets caught trying to escape, discovers what “soul” is, finally accepts the female as his equal and eventually escapes with her to freedom. Marsalis wrote a dramatic, episodic and generally thought-provoking three-hour work, utilizing the three singers plus 15 other musicians (all of whom have significant musical parts to play) in a massive 27-part suite. Hendricks is delightful (and the star of the catchiest piece, “Juba and a O’Brown Squaw”), Wilson has rarely sounded better, and Griffith keeps up with the better-known singers, while the musicians (particularly trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, baritonist James Carter, pianist Eric Reed and, near the work’s conclusion, violinist Michael Ward in addition to Marsalis) are quite superb. It should, however, be mentioned that the use of group narration to tell parts of the story does not work that well, the music could have used a stronger and more complicated story (the last hour has very little action), and few of the themes are at all memorable; Marsalis in the mid-’90s was a more talented arranger than composer (despite Stanley Crouch’s absurd raving in the liner notes). But as is true of all of Wynton Marsalis’ recordings, this one deserves several close listenings.  (AllMusic Review by Scott Yanow)

Ben Ratliff  weighs in on the work and recording with his review in The New York times:

An Oratorio of History With History of Its Own
By Ben Ratliff, Feb. 24, 2013, The New York Times

And yet another view expressed by Willard Jenkins writing in JazzTimes:

Wynton Marsalis and The Lincoln Center Orchestra
Blood On The Fields
Columbia Jazz
By Willard Jenkins, JazzTimes, Sept. 1997

What is obvious from these two works is that Wynton Marsalis must be acknowledged as a major compositional voice, but nothing made this more plain than what he accomplished in 1999.  He released ten recordings that presented his septet in both small group and large ensemble settings: Including tributes to Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Jelly Roll Morton; a ballet, a film score that was never used, a Jazz remake of Igor Stravinsky’s A Solder’s Tale, and finally a collection of his five live recordings of his stints at the Village Vanguard.  All in all a very busy year.

The Marciac Suite (1999)

The Marciac SuiteThe eighth installment in Marsalis’ exhaustive series of 1999 releases, this disc was originally offered as a freebie in the mail only if you bought the previous seven, and it didn’t appear in the shops on its own until 2000. It was a strange marketing scheme, and one that unnecessarily muted the fanfare for the most artistically successful of Marsalis’ original works in his 1999 series. Marciac, a small town in France, hosts an internationally renowned jazz festival and even erected a statue of Marsalis, which moved the composer/trumpeter to conceive this 76-minute suite for his favorite septet lineup. For personnel, Marsalis draws from his usual stable — Wycliffe Gordon (trombone), Wessell Anderson (alto sax), Victor Goines (tenor and soprano saxes, bass clarinet), Rodney Whitaker (bass), Herlin Riley (drums), Roland Guerrero (percussion), and a tag team of pianists — with his own effortlessly fluent trumpet reverting to the neo-bop style of his early recordings. There are no programmatic pretensions (“Big Train”), no PC pronouncements about slavery (“Blood on the Fields”), no overt homages to Ellington, Monk, or Morton — just Marsalis sounding mostly happy, buoyant, and, in the musical portraits of his friends, even warm-hearted, hugely enjoying himself as a composer. The sunny atmosphere is quickly established in the first loosely swinging number, “Loose Duck,” and though the music is often difficult, encompassing all 12 keys, the musicians seem to scale the hurdles without an audible care. Best of all is the finale, “Sunflowers,” a long, carefree, handclapping number with a jaunty repeated bassline. If Marsalis’ entire Swinging Into the 21st series can be considered an eight-course meal, this is the tasty dessert. (AllMusic Review by Richard S. Ginell)

Swinging Into the 21st Century (1999) 

swinging into 21stThe 2012 Columbia box set Swinging into the 21st collects all of trumpeter/bandleader Wynton Marsalis’ ten albums released in 1999. An ambitious project approved by Columbia due to Marsalis’ highly respected career and longstanding association with the label, Swinging into the 21st featured a mix of large- and small-group sessions in various cross-genre settings from classical and ballet to big band, all connected by the theme of jazz. In that sense, each album was a logical extension of Marsalis’ career and musical inclinations up to that point and, as such, generally featured the more traditional New Orleans-based jazz approach he began to favor in the early ’90s. This is true even when exploring such divergent musical entities as Thelonious Monk on Standard Time, Vol. 4: Marsalis Plays Monk and Jelly Roll Morton on Standard Time, Vol. 6: Mr. Jelly Lord. Also included here is The Marciac Suite, At the Octoroon Balls: String Quartet No. 1, A Fiddler’s Tale, Reeltime, Big Train, All Rise, and a single disc of selections from the box set Live at the Village Vanguard. The best cuts from the Swinging series were the small-group sessions where Marsalis and his septet got to stretch out with longer solos and inspired group interplay, as on the rollicking New Orleans second-line number “Juba and a O’Brown Squaw” from Live at the Village Vanguard and “King Porter Stomp” from Mr. Jelly Lord. Also engaging are the slightly more modern tracks, including two roiling, cubist Thelonious Monk numbers, “Hackensack” and “Green Chimneys,” which Marsalis worked up for Marsalis Plays Monk. While his small-group recordings are certainly a highlight here, Marsalis’ extended large-ensemble pieces such as the bluesy “Loose Duck” from The Marciac Suite and the lyrical violin-led ballad “Morning Song” are superb orchestral jazz recordings that, as with all of Swinging into the 21st, showcase the urbane and always swinging mind of Marsalis.  (AllMusic Review by Matt Collar)

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