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The Freedom to Create

Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

‘Blood on the Fields.”

The title alone makes it immediately clear that Wynton Marsalis’ epic jazz oratorio is not a casual piece of music. Bristling with a panoply of textures overflowing with gospel sounds, jazz improvisations, field calls and blues patterns, it is a virtual lexicon of jazz played to a poetic reflection upon the harshest aspects of slavery.

As thoughtfully compelling as it is musically entertaining, it is a work that further solidifies Marsalis’ central role in the contemporary music world. Comparisons with Leonard Bernstein--frequently raised in reference to Marsalis--will once again be in order.

The world premiere of “Blood on the Fields” in April 1994 was described by the New York Times as “the symbolic moment when the full heritage of . . . Ellington through Mingus was extended into the present.” Thursday night, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the work receives its first West Coast performance with Marsalis, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and singers Cassandra Wilson, Jon Hendricks and Miles Griffith.

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Remarkably, Marsalis, 35, not only composed all the music, he also created the libretto.

“I wrote all of it,” he said, barely suppressing his own amazement at the results. “It took about two months to do it, and I was afraid it wasn’t going to be sophisticated enough. Sometimes I would have the music and sometimes I would have the words, and somehow it all worked out.”

There were few places to go for modeling. Aside from some liturgical and musical theater works by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, and Dave Brubeck’s liturgical oratorios, jazz has not exactly overflowed with large-scale, dramatic presentations of words and music. Especially in the context of such a serious historical and social issue.

But Marsalis--who has a full-time job as artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Center, an active recording career in jazz and classical music, a radio show and a television series--likes to see each new activity as a creative challenge.

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“Whatever I do,” he said, “I try to work on something I’m interested in, so that each project can teach me something else.”

And “Blood on the Fields” clearly was a major learning experience.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said, with a laugh. “And it was a typical wait until the last minute. A lot of the music was written in the last two weeks before the performance.”

The seed idea for “Blood on the Fields” traces back to the late ‘80s. Marsalis read a book by Robert Hughes about Australia called “The Fatal Shore,” which reported that on the ships carrying convicts from England to Sydney’s prison colony, up to 90% of the prisoners were lost in vessels packed like the slave ships plying the Atlantic from Africa to the New World.

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“That started me to thinking about slavery,” Marsalis said. “I wrote out a couple of things in the late ‘80s for a work I was going to call ‘The Middle Passage,’ ” a reference to the slave ship journeys that took place between Africa and the Western Hemisphere in the 17th through the 19th centuries.

In the interim, a few important elements came together for Marsalis.

“I read some stories--like Stephen Vincent Benet’s . . . ‘Freedom Is a Hard Bought Thing.’ And a girl I knew told me a story about her great-great-grandmother and the experience she had in slavery. And that was what finally got me back to writing some music about this basic, African American experience.”

Initially, Marsalis viewed the work as primarily instrumental, with “two or three singing sections.” And even these vocal passages were conceived from an instrumental perspective.

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“The original idea was that you couldn’t tell where the music left off and the words began,” he recalled. “It wasn’t going to be complete sentences and stuff--just fragments. But then it was too weird. I couldn’t figure out how to make it sound good to anybody but me. The language was going to be too internal. So I changed it.”

In the process, a story began to emerge, a riveting chronicle of the passage of two slaves--Leona, sung by Wilson, and Jesse, sung by Griffith--from Africa to America as they make their inexorable pursuit of freedom.

“I didn’t know Wynton had this kind of talent,” said Hendricks, a veteran lyricist and the author of most of the words sung by the seminal jazz vocal group Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. “He told me, ‘Look, anything you see that you think should be changed, please feel free to let me know.’ But I haven’t seen a lot that I’d want to change. Which is saying a lot for me, because, since I’m a lyricist myself, I’m very critical of most people who write.”

Some of Marsalis’ lyrics, in fact, have the epigrammatic, but pointedly impactive qualities of Hendricks’ best work. In the title song, for example, Wilson, as Leona, sings an image-rich series of phrases:

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Blood on the fields

King cotton grow

Brown soil yields

White up above

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Red down below . . .

I can’t take no more, no more, no more.

Hendricks, whose 1960 work “Evolution of the Blues” covered somewhat similar territory, at least musically, sees both similarities and differences between his and Marsalis’ musical overview of African American cultural history.

“The subject matter covers the same ground, true,” Hendricks said, “but there’s no blood on my fields.

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“I think Wynton was born into this generation in which everybody’s jaws are tightened up and everybody’s angry. But to me, as a person of African American extraction, I think you have to look at the situation in one of two ways. Either as something terrible that happened to you or as something spiritual that took place under terrible conditions--because I have a phrase that goes, ‘God don’t make no mistakes.’ But I think that for what Wynton wants to say about it, it’s a good title, and it’s amazing what he’s done.”

Perhaps unexpectedly, working on the music was, Marsalis said, more difficult in many ways than working on the words.

“When I first took it into rehearsal, it sounded like noise to everybody. So it took a while to get it to the point where I could convince everybody that wasn’t just noise, it was real dissonance.

“At first, everybody said, ‘Man, what is this?’ But eventually it started to sound right. Like on the title piece, “Blood on the Fields,” with all those different people hitting one note at a time. It was kind of like pointillism, but it took a while to get to that point. Then one day we got it, it just suddenly started to swing a certain way. And those are the moments you hope for.”

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Despite an almost unbroken string of successes (including the West Coast premiere of his string quartet “At the Octoroon Balls”), Marsalis found that preparation of “Blood on the Fields,” his busy schedule at Lincoln Center and the constant demands for public appearances had a distracting effect upon his own playing.

“I let my horn go down the last year or so,” he said. “I got depressed because it seemed as though nothing I was doing on the horn was being addressed seriously. And that exposed a real weakness in my musical character. And I had to recognize it, even if it was only for myself.

“So I had to purify my intentions more. Now I just want to play my horn on a higher level, and I don’t really care how it’s commented on. If it’s commented on, great, go play more horn. If it isn’t commented on, great, go play more horn. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last month--practicing every day for three or four hours, doing all the fundamental things.”

What emerges in any conversation with Marsalis, in fact, is his belief in all the fundamental things about music as a whole. His tenure at Lincoln Center has had its share of controversies, as he himself has had, in part for his own determination to approach jazz with an unwavering creative honesty.

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“It’s like if you’re in love with a woman,” he said, “and you really want this woman, and you go after her, and go after her. But nothing you do makes a difference, because she doesn’t really want you. But you still maintain your belief in love. . . . You say, ‘OK, this is what happened to me, but love is still a magnificent thing.’ ”

Clearly, to Marsalis, jazz, also, is still a magnificent thing. Nevertheless, he has been burned enough by his critics--both in the profession and in the press--to have felt a powerful need to reorient himself toward listeners who have met his many shifts of musical focus with a constant enthusiasm.

“The most gratifying thing about being a musician,” he said, “is your relationship with the audience. That’s it. If you didn’t have that, man, you could always stay home and practice or play, but who wants to do that?

“With people, even if they don’t like the music, they tell you something. It has a meaning. But a lot of what kills the spirit with jazz musicians is their relationship with the profession. Man, you’re always dealing with people who are trying to tell you to water down what you’re doing or that the public doesn’t like what you’re doing. And what you need to do is get above that and say, ‘Let me just present this to the people, and see what they have to say.’ ”

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The enthusiasm of cheering overflow audiences for the two-night premiere of “Blood on the Fields” in New York City would seem to indicate that Marsalis is pointing in the right direction. The work’s greatest accomplishment is that it deals with the most disturbing issue in this country’s history, revealing its grim underside while suggesting an optimistic view for the future. It is, in other words, a creative achievement with a message that manages to reach across racial and generational boundaries.

Nowhere is this better revealed than in the final passages of “Blood on the Fields,” when Hendricks sings:

Freedom ain’t no simple thing, but all you need to know

Freedom’s in the trying and walk on through the door.

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That’s all I need to know.

* * “Blood on the Fields,” with Jon Hendricks, Cassandra Wilson, Miles Griffith and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra conducted by Wynton Marsalis. Thursday, 8 p.m., Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. $8-$60. Information: (213) 850-2000.


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