Revolution: Wynton Marsalis’ From the Plantation to the Penitentiary
Let’s say you could live to be 200 years old, you came in, in 1800. You are 165 years old before you even legally could do a lot of basic things. But like with a child, man, that first 65 years – whew, just think about that first 65 years… America was like: welcome, this is what we got for you. Then somebody made fun of the fact that you were that way for the next 100 years. You were like a national joke. Then you share crop, then you work, you don’t get paid nothing. Then people entertain themselves with you, you blacken up, call you nigger, you can dance and shine, show your teeth shine. Then you fought for your freedom with other people, not just a black, white issue. People fought, the civil rights movement was integrated. And you got to a certain point then what? No help. No affirmative action, “they’re taking all the jobs.” Damn, I waited til I’m 185 to get a job, instead of being a job or a chair or something. Now you’re telling me I’m taking all the jobs, Now I’m in jail cause I had some weed in my pocket. Damn, can’t you see, I went from the plantation right to the penitentiary.
Blue Note interview with Wynton Marsalis about his CD,
From the Plantation to the Penitentiary
The deliberate disharmony in the title track, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, is jarring on a first listen. The in-between notes of vocalist Jennifer Sanon match the chordal dissonance of the trumpet and saxophone. And at times the melody travels on an unexpected path, like it’s temporarily lost. Some phrases land on an off-key note that makes you stop short and wonder.
Marsalis explains, “It’s a strange kind of combination of something that’s very sweet, but has an edge. A sweet voice makes the music more striking” (Union Tribune, March 4, 2007). And the lyrics on this cut, written by Marsalis, are striking as well:
From the field hand cry/to the ten to twenty-five
From the ‘sold-off’ men/To the raised by next-of kin…
From the ‘no book’ rules/To the raggly public schools
From the coon and shine/To the unemployment line…
From the work long days/To the dope and drinking craze
From the stock in slaves/To the booming prison trade…
In the name of freedom… insane/In the name of freedom…and shame
In the heart of freedom… in chains/In the heart of freedom…insane
The first time I listened to this song, I found myself physically wincing at the end, when drummer Ali Jackson, Jr. methodically hard slaps the tambourine to take you back in time, evoking the sting of a skin-cutting whip as jingles in the background conjure up the sound of slave chains. Only on a second listen did I realize that the very first opening bars had previewed this disturbing imagery.
Marsalis says: “Why I say from the plantation to the penitentiary is because I see a lot of similarities between the incarceration, the style of it now and the way of enslavement. Is it the same? No it is not exactly the same, but it is the same result in many ways, it generates a lot of income, and it reduces people to less than what they are.” (Blue Note interview)
A lot of musical environments are brought together on Plantation (which are noted with each song) – swing, modern Habanera, alternating 2-beat country groove, ballad, cumbia, 2nd-line swing and Motown vamp, to name a few. And Plantation targets a number of things, including homelessness, the U.S. “runnin’ all over the world,” corrupt politicians, government neglect, and misogyny in rap. On Supercapitalism, Jennifer Sanon’s frantic scat joins Marsalis’ frenetic trumpet in a tempo that has notes and lyrics almost tripping over each other. Gimme that. Gimme this. Gimme that…There’s never enough. It’s bebop on speed indicting the turbo greed of mindless consumerism. Plantation’s cover art work includes a painting of a man with a slave chain around his neck; another depicts a Black youth with gold teeth also wearing a chain around his neck.
Wynton Marsalis’ roots are in New Orleans and this is the first CD he’s done since Katrina. The weight of that hurricane, along with a palpable and deep anger at the government’s wanton neglect, has a heavy presence in every song.
Remembering those horrible, shocking days after Katrina hit, Marsalis reiterates the theme of Plantation: “People looked at the TV set and saw central government—and, let’s not forget, local government, which was black—behaving with incompetence and inhumanity. We saw human beings suffering through bureaucratic fumbling, ignorance and stupidity. And we saw the descendants of slaves weeping in front of the cameras, saying, ‘Have you seen my family? Have you seen my friend?’ And that was eerie. That could have been happening in 1840, do you know what I mean? It made you realize that the legacy of slavery is very much with us. And I think that radicalized a lot of people. It’s become something that’s forced Americans to ask serious questions about what we are doing. I would hope that people are more receptive to these ideas than they’ve ever been.”
Katrina was indeed a wake-up call for many, many people about the real nature of the system we live under and a reminder for many others of just how deep and current the systematic oppression of Black people is in this country. It’s now been over a year and a half since Katrina. Government promises to rebuild New Orleans have proved to be a sadistic, cruel joke. And this has been a sharp slap in the face for people like Wynton Marsalis who on a very deep level believe in the promises of American (bourgeois) democracy and think, as he says, that “we have a great country and a great way of life.” Sometimes, when reality painfully and undeniably clashes with those deeply held principles, such deep belief can propel people to act—with a response that is in many ways more radical than the response from those who may consider themselves more savvy or even more “left-wing” in their understanding of the system. And such beliefs are increasingly being challenged by things like what happened in New Orleans and other crimes against the people by the Bush Regime and the imperialist system it represents, both in the U.S. and around the world. Where Y’all At? includes the lyrics: “We runnin’ all over the world with a blunderbuss/And the Constitution all but forgot in the fuss.” This kind of questioning of and disenchantment with the system, which millions of people are wrestling with, is one factor creating potential for very real and fundamental change, beneath what can sometimes seem to be a locked down surface in today’s situation.
Wynton Marsalis is known for his musical conservatism in keeping to traditional jazz and his condemnation of hip hop. But he says that every decade he tries to do a record that has some relationship to contemporary culture. And in Plantation he actually does a rap on Where Y’all At?—although he is adamant that “this ain’t hip hop.” He explains, “Sometimes it’s important to speak in the vernacular, both lyrically and musically.” And the first lines of the song go: “You got to speak the language the people are speakin’/ ‘Specially when you see the havoc it’s wreakin’.”
Marsalis’ rap is accompanied by a bluesy New Orleans groove and a gospelly call-and-response as if in church – 2nd line swing and Motown Vamp, according to the liner notes. And the question Where Y’all At is directed at what Marsalis sees as a lack of leadership:
All you ‘60s radicals and world beaters/Righteous revolutionaries and Camus readers
Liberal students and equal rights pleaders/What’s goin’ on now that y’all are the leaders
All you patriots, compatriots and true blue believers/Brilliant thinkers and overachievers
All you when I was young we were so naïve’ers/Y’all started like Eldridge and now you’re like Beaver
Marsalis’ question, “Where Y’all At?” is a reflection of the fact that there are millions of people in this country looking for real solutions and leadership that is up to today’s challenges. And this underscores how many, many people, including intellectuals and artists like Wynton Marsalis, would want to know the work and leadership of Bob Avakian, the Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and what he’s all about. This is a leader – a leader who has had the courage to speak truthfully about the urgent dangers but real opportunities in the situation we face and to pose a revolutionary vision that’s both extremely challenging and very viable, and—as part of a project for the emancipation of all humanity—has spoken in a way that no one else has to the very acute and agonizing contradictions so powerfully pointed to by Marsalis in From the Plantation to the Penitentiary.
I might disagree with some of the ways Wynton Marsalis looks at jazz and other things as well. But stepping back onto a larger stage, I find there is something very important to both unite with and learn from in how he looks at his art and its relationship to changing the world. He says: “A work of art is always some type of protest. If it affirms something than it protests something else. And an artists, a lot of time, they, the ones who are very serious carry the identity of the people so it is very serious to them. The identity of the people and the memory of the people… It’s interesting, when you don’t have a world view, you don’t have the type of spiritual energy to develop the technique you need to express it. It’s interesting how that works, that when you don’t really feel strongly about a thing why you gonna practice all them hours and stay up and study all that stuff and learn from all those people, and I mean man, that’s a lot of work. It’s that world view. OK, this could be like this.”
Check out From the Plantation to the Penitentiary. It reveals some important truth about this country with a lot of anger and heart.
by Li Onesto