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Wynton Marsalis: Unforgivable Blackness

Jim Santella By

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The story of Jack Johnson deserves to be accompanied by music that is majestic, bold, daring, and passionate. The boxer, whose fate has been depicted in a new film by Ken Burns, led a life that was filled with happiness, success, romance, tragedy, and misery.

Wynton Marsalis' music for The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson parallels the fate of America's first Black Heavyweight Champion of the World. From sprightly entertaining to dramatic and intense, his score follows the boxer's fame and estrangement. The blue mood of Jelly Roll Morton's "Deep Creek," featuring Lucien Barbarin's soulful wah-wah trombone, provides a plaintive cry that we identify with the racial struggles that Johnson experienced. "The Jack Johnson Two-Step" adopts different moods, from happy and gay to slow and depressing. With each scene portrayal, Marsalis provides genuine sounds from the period.

This was a time when jazz was first getting its start. Marsalis' score combines ragtime, blues, and traditional jazz with mood-setting circumstances. Johnson, who loved music, played contrabass and sponsored a jazz band in his Chicago nightclub. The "St. James Infirmary" mood that Marsalis offers on "Fire in the Night" clinches Johnson's original love for the music that moved America. His historical feats in boxing deserve to be tied in this manner to the historical changes that were being made in early jazz.

Extending his traditional sextet, Marsalis recreates the sound of history with an expert's touch. Victor Goines, Doug Wamble, Reginald Veal, Wycliffe Gordon, Herlin Riley, pianist Eric Lewis, and Marsalis provide a lovely soundtrack that represents the period as well as the boxer's rise and fall. Highly recommended, Unforgivable Blackness provides an excellent overview of Johnson's place in history.


Track Listing: What Have You Done?; Ghost in the House; Jack Johnson Two-Step; But Deep Down; Love & Hate; High Society; Careless Love; New Orleans Bump; Trouble My Soul; Deep Creek; The Johnson 2-Step; Rattlesnake Tail Swing; Weary Blues; Troubles My Soul; Johnson Two-Step; Fire in the Night; Morning Song; I'll Sing My Song; Buddy Bolden's Blues; The Last Bell; We'll Meet Again Someday.

Personnel: Wynton Marsalis- trumpet; Wessell Anderson- alto saxophone, clarinet; Victor Goines- clarinet, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Wycliffe Gordon- trombone, tuba on "New Orleans Bump;" Lucien Barbarin - trombone; Eric Lewis- piano, washboard on "What Have You Done?" Eric Reed- piano; Reginald Veal- bass; Herlin Riley- drums, tambourine; Doug Wamble, Don Vappie- banjo, guitar; Dr. Michael White, Sam Karam, Sherman Irby, Andrew Farber- clarinet; Gideon Feldstein- clarinet, bass clarinet on "Fire in the Night;" Marcus Printup- trumpet on "Fire in the Night;" Stephen Riley- tenor saxophone on "Fire in the Night;" Kimati Dinizulu- percussion on "Fire in the Night."

Title: Unforgivable Blackness | Year Released: 2004 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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