For those of us following Wynton Marsalis's career, The Majesty of the Blues seemed an abrupt change of direction when it was first released in 1989. The two albums leading up to it were Marsalis Standard Time, Volume 1, and Live at Blues Alley, both of which were virtuosic neo-bop quartet recordings. To suddenly jump back to New Orleans style, timbre and ensemble seemed a drastic shift. In retrospect, however, The Majesty of the Blues was a natural development. The return to New Orleans, musically, was already hinted at in the liner notes to Marsalis Standard Time, Volume 1, as evidenced by Wynton's unique application New Orleans jazz principals to bop. I've always felt the brilliance of that classic quartet was explained best by the trumpeter himself in the following quote:
“Every instrument,” says Marsalis, “is allowed the freedom to interpret the form from a different metric vantage point. This frees Marcus, Bob, and Jeff from having to keep a strict basic time, but gives them the responsibility of resolving superimposed meters correctly in the original form. Though we are approaching the form with rhythmic and metric freedom, everyone has to work within the flow of the improvisation. The last thing I’m interested in is freedom that can only justify itself by its existence. I’m interested in freedom that encompasses the fundamentals of music, allowing for inspiration rather than desperation.”
This concept was pushed to further extremes on Live at Blues Alley, and those of us who ran out to purchase The Majesty of the Blues expected something more obviously in the same vein. But instead of linear development of these ideas, we heard Wynton playing with New Orleans street beats, instrumentation, and subject matter (the New Orleans funeral). Of particular interest to jazz clarinetists, we also heard a clarinet style not often experienced outside of the Crescent City in those days: the tradition-steeped sound of Dr. Michael White.
Dr. Michael White's clarinet approach is directly descended from the New Orleans style which stretches back through George Lewis, Johnny Dodds, and Sidney Bechet, among others. His playing tends to overturn the paradigm that jazz styles are merely links in an evolutionary chain: that one stage of development "surpasses" or "replaces" another. Instead, he inspires us to listen seriously to players such as George Lewis, Johnny Dodds, Pee Wee Russell, and Raymond Burke. We've seen in previous posts that not every jazz clarinetist has appreciated all of these players (Barney Bigard and Buddy DeFranco were particularly dismissive of some of them). But Dr. White's playing is in many ways a call to reevaluate what others haven't fully appreciated, and to re-focus on the roots of jazz. While other subsequent recordings show a greater range of his artistry, his presence on The Majesty of the Blues is therefore of particular importance.
Beyond the music itself are Stanley Crouch's liner notes, which contain one of Wynton's most important summaries of the blues. And it's this that I really want to emphasize in this post. Three successive paragraphs are of particular importance.
The first deals with the expansive brilliance of the blues as a musical system:
“The blues addresses the central chords of Western harmony, the I, the IV, and the V chords. Its central progression is the I, IV, I, or ‘amen’ cadence in Western religious music. It’s also a style and a form that gives you access to all 12 notes at any given time because the notes that are not in the key are non-harmonic tones, and those non-harmonic tones are blues notes. If you are in the key of C major, C, D, E, F, G, a, and B are the seven primary notes. B flat, the flat seventh, is a blues note; A flat, the flat sixth, is a blues note; G flat, the flat five, is a blues note; E flat, the flat third, is a blues note; D flat, the note Dizzy Gillespie uses on his blues Wheatleigh Hall, is the minor second. So, there’s all 12 notes of the chromatic scale right there.
The second reenforces what all great jazz musicians have known: that sound and timbral language are paramount to expression (not merely grafted on, but substantial to the musical meaning):
“Though you have all 12 notes right there, the essence of the blues is a sound. There are notes within that sound which are not heard in the tempered scale, Negroidal timbral essences which are heard in the blues signers and in the band of Duke Ellington. Ellington would arrange music so that these tones would come out, tones that are not in the Western scale. By a sophisticated and successful combination of notes, the chords and the harmony would bend. In this way, the blues is a whole form and an innovation in the history of Western and African music simultaneously. When you add to that the percussive elements that have to be refined and dealt with that also come out of the American experience, the Negroization of the melodic properties of American music through the unique use of the major sixth interval, there is much to be done, all of which demands a specific kind of technical skill.
The third discusses the necessity of applying this to instruments--an African-American timbral language and unique musical system derived from multi-racial sources, applied in new ways to old instruments:
“That’s why all of the great jazz musicians have been strong technicians on some level. But techniques vary. Take a titan like Thelonious Monk; he invented an entire technique for the piano because the European approach was not sufficient for what he wanted to do. Monk was focused on the sound that has its basis in the blues, and everything he did took direction from that. Coltrane, who had the kind of velocity technique people recognize, was always coming from the blues sound, as was Bird. Ornette Coleman’s whole conception is based in the harmonic freedom implied by the meaning of the blues note in and out of the scale.”
Wynton's observations concerning Thelonious Monk have particular significance. Had he wanted to, he might have said the same of Louis Armstrong, Artie Shaw, or Coleman Hawkins: each of them invented new ways of playing their instruments, because "the European approach was not sufficient for what [they] wanted to do."
I've lived with these three paragraphs for over twenty years now, and they seem to me an essential orientation if one really wants to be a jazz musician, as opposed to being a musician who dabbles in jazz as though it was a "style." Too often, players mistake the Blues--which is foundational for any understanding of jazz--as mere effects to be grafted onto their playing, when in fact the Blues is a musical system of expression that must be lived consistently and allowed to transform both the player's technique and their fundamental musical outlook. It's my opinion that no jazz clarinetist can avoid these points--and that a willingness to investigate them opens a world of creative potential.