Music

Wynton Marsalis: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

Robert R. Calder

Wynton Marsalis

Unforgivable Blackness: the Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2004-11-30
UK Release Date: 2004-12-05
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For purely circumstantial reasons, I've missed seeing Ken Burns' Jazz in its entirety. What I've seen suggested a preoccupation with public history at the expense of jazz histories. Exit Calvin Coolidge and Bix Beiderbecke together, more or less? Hedda Hopper stated, "Coolidge is dead? How do they know?" But a lot of music has been alive without many people knowing. Jazz has an insufficiently publicized history, and the music, rather than the recording of it, has never been given the same chronology as public vogues and political events. Some people accused Ken Burns of sticking to the past, but his film did stand against fashion, by at least implicitly posing some questions about new ways of misusing the term "jazz", letting the music's language be abused to death.

The liner notes to Unforgivable Blackness, the soundtrack to Burns' documentary on boxer Jack Johnson, cite the socialist hero Jack London urging the need for a great white hope; Johnson's dominance as a sportsman affronted some Americans almost as much as Jesse Owens' did a lot of silly Germans in 1936.

I suppose some people would prefer a Jack Johnson film to have the Miles Davis Jack Johnson music as its soundtrack, rather than music whose centre of gravity is more or less Jelly Roll Morton. That wasn't really the music of Johnson's heyday as a boxer, though. It took him a long time to get to the top, and he lost his title only because he was over 40 and the fight lasted 26 rounds. This was in 1915, yet the prevailing mode on Unforgivable Blackness is rather a 1940s revival of the middle 1920s.

Johnson was an amateur performer on double-bass; this might in a a literary sense have inspired the tracks on this album featuring bassist Reginald Veal but, well, they have their own justification. Veal doesn't come into his own until after the first track, where Douglas Wamble plays a sort of blues guitar prelude to the album, which features a Wynton Marsalis small group performing Marsalis' standard adaptation of older New Orleans music. The second track "Ghost in the House" features Veal strongly, with a clear attack over the small group ensemble, whose nearest recent equivalent might be Bobby Watson's take on the Ellington-Strayhorn style of 1940 that was featured in Johnny Hodges' groups. The third title is "Jack Johnson Two-Step," and it is genuine garbage, straight out of Roaring '20s pastiche with Kwa-kwa trumpet from Donald Doowacka Duck Marsalis. If I burned CDs I'd omit that 90-second aberration.

"But Deep Down" is a 50-second interlude with the amazing bass clarinetist Victor Goines, with Wamble, Veal and Herlin Riley. Then there's "High Society," which isn't the best among many recordings of that number. Its origins remain a mystery. The words, as sung on an old Clarence Williams version, suggest that the High Society of the title is some sort of collegiate body. Performances commonly begin as a march, and then there's a classic clarinet solo or counter-melody allegedly composed by Alphonse Picou. He was a true legend because he was out of practice and past it when finally he was recorded nearer 1950. Goines, wonderful on several tracks here, slurs and makes a mess of that solo, after the band's ugly lurch out of the march. Why no finesse?

"Deep Creek" is one of the standout Morton recordings; the performance here, though OK, is crass in comparison with the original. Lucien Barbarin comes of an older New Orleans musical family and ain't right on trombone. Morton's Bill Cato was a very obscure player, but, like every sideman on the original recording other than the soprano saxophonist Paul Barnes (a New Orleans clarinetist Woody Allen reveres), also a polished New York pro. (The tenor saxophonist, Joe Garland, also composed "Tar Paper Stomp", a silly tune later lucratively renamed "In the Mood"). On the Marsalis performance the often-complained-of Dr. Michael White does as well as anybody would at approximating to the original magnificent clarinet solo of Russell Procope, later longtime Ellingtonian. The other musicians haven't the poise of Paul Barnes' soprano solo.

The personnel details are wrong on "The Johnson 2-Step", which has a long piano intro and a trumpet, trombone, clarinet front line doing some funny business. It's a period number gone a bit 'off'. There's a six-clarinet ensemble on the misleadingly-named "Rattlesnake Tail Swing", which sounds nearer to Aaron Copland or maybe Samuel Barber than to swing. Eric Reed takes a very Ellington-esque piano solo, with an interlude which demonstrates that he can really play Morton. Goines on clarinet is a standout on "Weary Blues", which is none the better for Lewis' piano solo in a splashy sort of postwar 'revivalist' New Orleans style. Marsalis sounds like Ernie Cagnolatti, who did well on Jim Robinson's classic pianoless recordings for Riverside and Atlantic without being a major player. 1940s revivalism again...

"Troubles My Soul" brings back, or rather again brings forward Veal, while the band performs in Wynton's stock modern New Orleans manner. He's done the sanctified business before, though not with Veal preaching on his bass. "Johnson Two-Step", with its third similar title, is just Goines on clarinet, playing very well with Lewis; Wycliffe Gordon joins in at the end in agricultural manner.

"Fire in the Night" has a full band, with two bass clarinets creating an atmospheric opening before some trumpet work by either or both Marsalis and Marcus Printup (his sole appearance). During the conclusion of that trumpet section one of them plays some unidiomatic notes. They sound bum to me: wrong notes that should have stayed on the Miles Davis disc they came from. The duet between Goines' bass clarinet and Gideon Feldstein's could be far worse. This is extremely nice, and the next two tracks are short interludes. "Morning Song" takes us back to neo-Copeland territory. It's mostly a piano solo, but with Wamble joining in, in the kind of non-jazz style which influenced early guitarists through Eddie Lang. None of it is jazz, but it's a very fine little piano miniature.

"I'll Sing My Song" demonstrates Lewis' considerable abilities, but nobody could rescue these 77 seconds of Wynton Marsalis-does-Andrew Lloyd-Webber, which at least lasts only 77 seconds. "Buddy Bolden's Blues" has no piano, but Goines is good and Marsalis is back like Cagnolatti. Goines is there again in the septet track "The Last Bell", which Lewis opens again a la Copeland before a few gospelly thumps introduce the horns, arranged in New Orleans memorial style. "We'll Meet Again Someday" is just your old sad song, as commandeered long since by the veterans of Preservation Hall, but with a guest intro and the rest performed by Lewis in Van Cliburn (Glenn Gould?) manner. It's a pity he hadn't yet learned to play Morton (he needs a more attacking, less flexible fingering).

Overall this set isn't at all bad. Americans can have problems playing this sort of music, tending to sound slick and coarse at once. The Americans on Unforgivable Blackness don't always avoid such problems, with Goines and Veal winning the prizes.

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