Blood on the Fields

WyntonMarsalis“Blood on the Fields,” the magnificent jazz oratorio composed by Wynton Marsalis, transported the hall last night at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Marsalis’ music cuts straight into the soul, expressing the gamut of naked feeling, from sorrow and pain to longing and joy. His music transcends the insufficiency of words.

The composition does more than relate the tortuous journey of a man and a woman from slavery to freedom. It makes the audience experience (at a very safe remove, to be sure) the nausea and fear in the rolling, fetid hold of the slave ship, the indignity and cruelty of the slave market, the forced labor that leaves blood on the fields, the desperation that leads to escape and vicious recapture, the sustaining spirituals and the steady drumbeat directing the way to freedom.

The genius of Marsalis and the artistry of his musicians coax their drums, cymbals, saxophones, clarinets and trombones to replicate the rattling of chains, the shrieks of pain and the lash of the whip. In the hands of Marsalis, his trumpet becomes a woman’s soothing voice, an anguished cry, a spirited dancer, the rustling of the wind — anything he feels or hears. Absolutely amazing.

It is Black History month, and Americans are following the Oscar aspirations of Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” “Blood on the Fields” embodies the history of jazz — music that that was born in slavery  and is uniquely American — as it recounts a story that most would like to forget. But these American artists remind us that Black history is American history. The descendants of slaves live in a White House that was built by their ancestors, and an African-American was chosen by a solid majority to direct the ship of state. The American experiment in democracy is still evolving, and the past has lessons to teach that are very much relevant today.

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