“The Jungle,” Wynton Marsalis’ Fourth Symphony, is a shock effect of sound and ideas, as authorities around the country continue to close what is home for many, closing in Ithaca, Seattle and San Jose. Colorful, dense parcels of land, poached by men and women and children with nothing, these hard-scramble places are still sites for stories and the music of freedom, as they have been since the end of the Civil War; places for disposed and the subsequent waves of immigrants, near the docks or the tracks or the raw meat market historically recorded in book-length by journalist Upton Sinclair in Chicago.
In 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt called Sinclair “a crackpot.” Later, Sinclair won the Pulitzer Prize.
Maestro Wynton Marsalis, also a Pulitzer medalist, awakens the ear’s mind with vision that follows history’s Jungle into our time. It begins with the genocide of Native Americans, and through the horror of slavery and into the struggles of Americans since. The music of “The Jungle” is inclusive of these painstaking times, their manners and means of expression, from hand-clapping to a wailing, free-wheeling jazz.
Marsalis is an American genius, a juggler of ideas and a poet. He is a family man who plays a trumpet like no one else. He is a leader, who, with his music, models for a higher ground. His book, among others, is heartfelt and smart: Moving to a Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life.
Marsalis describes “The Jungle” as “a dense mosaic of all kinds of people everywhere, doing all kinds of things.” His launch for music is New York City, where he lives and directs Jazz at Lincoln Center and its orchestra, performing at Chautauqua on Tuesday with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. The symphony was under the baton of Cristian Măcelaru, director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, and now the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne, Germany. He is a frequent guest conductor at Chautauqua and a frequent collaborator with Marsalis, a leader in realizing complex new work.
“The Jungle” may sound as a quiet sax on a rooftop at night, or as a scream, city-wide. It changes tempo and key suddenly, startling quotations from ragtime, bebop and the blues, a symphony that calls forth from these expressions the linkage of racial and ethnic inequality, prejudice, corruption and survival of the fittest. Yet such suffering, these denials of human rights, harvests joy as well, told by the urban legacies of Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Les Brown, and other greats.
Black Elk, a 19th-century Oglala Lakota medicine man, conveys another legacy Marsalis cites from outside the cities, a bequest from the plains. Black Elk knew the secrets of the Ghost Dance, and at 13 years old, fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn and subsequently survived the Wounded Knee Massacre. Black Elk told his story to his son, who shared it with John Neihardt, the Nebraska poet laureate, who wrote, in 1932, the book Carl Jung admired, Black Elk Speaks. Marsalis also listened.
“The Jungle,” in its first movement, calls out Native tradition, and over an hour, divides into six varied movements a powerful scatter shot across the bow of American truths. The composer names them:
“The Big Scream (Black Elk Speaks),” which comes on suddenly, with a driving beat — plucked strings, a hard piano, relentless horns and any clangorous device hidden in percussion. The horror right up front, and soon drums summon a Native voice, a call for presence. The reeds are scat singers at 1/16. They could eat violins but are restrained. Someone shouts. Someone has created a crow’s call. Someone is going to bite their reed. Oh piccolo, how can you sound so tough? Bells ring. Oh jazz ancestors, remember players on this Amphitheater stage.
“The Big Show,” and cymbals announce. A flute takes it to the air. Sounds like a hustle, then soft violins for Big Band musical theater or a Blue Book formal dance. A changing palette of memory. Was that Show Boat passing? Calling on bebop, ragtime, early century immigrant dances.
“Lost in Sight (Post-Pastoral).” This is personal, withal one man’s lens and ear. Post-Pastoral is in Marsalis’ city. That solo from a rooftop, so sweet it could be movie music, and the cellos add a haunt from a European tradition, a classical remembrance. A siren brings startling recognition; a reminder of troubles, the homeless everywhere, disposed, beaten down and out. How can it be so in the midst of unimaginable wealth? This is lost in sight — the reason for that doleful trombone from some lonely place. The everlasting blues upon which jazz takes shape and draws its breath with hollow sounds from the piano and insouciant interruptions: The wah wah of a capped trombone. Skeletal.
“La Esquina,” a street corner meeting place for the deep spirit of an Afro-Latino neighborhood. A huge cymbal interrupts, and a sax solo brings on dissonance, the blues and a hammer of wood on wood, knocking, a vulgar interruption. Violins attempt to bring order from another place.
“Us”: This is for all to hear — phrases from Les Brown and his Band of Renown’s “Sentimental Journey.” The words do not need to be sung: “Gonna take a sentimental journey / Gonna set my heart at ease …” The trombone stands for a solo. Action is before us all, Marsalis wrote, “with, against, and up against …” We stand on an edge of transformation; pay attention, jazz proclaims.
“Struggle in the Digital Market,” a hot wire in high register, a quickened pulse brought into mid-tones by winds and reeds, still with loosened edges on a shifting margin. In his notes, Marsalis declares that the struggle questions us: “Will we seek and find more equitable, long-term solutions?” There is false ending, a climax and a pause and the audience begins applause. Then a single instrument brings it back, the voice of an individual.
This ending solo by Marsalis is from the middle of the stage, seated as the fourth trumpet, a humble position. His improvisation begins as a scream, returning to the opening movement, but within a framework established in the 2016 premiere in New York City. An improvisation declares a personal freedom, while searching for a common ground with its listeners
This solo will be sustained as a masterpiece of sound and wisdom, built upon the call of an anthem and hints of New Orleans, then upon a subtle bed of strings and a challenging duel with the tambourine. Marsalis sits in his chair, virtually hidden. The bell of his instrument is capped, handheld, opened like a valve.
I interrupt in the spirit of “The Jungle.” Let me be personal.
I have heard the sound of a dying fawn, the cries from deep in her throat, under attack by a neighbor’s dog, just outside our window. I have not heard such a sound since, until Marsalis’ penultimate phrase. I will not forget that sound: Sharp, hard, guttural cries that chill to the bone. Where did this sound come from? Where does it lead?
It leads to an awful silence, Marsalis answered, leaving open the trumpet’s valves — his instrument registering only the sound of his breath. A series of three: Breath. Breath. Breath. And repeat. Again.
Then a long silence, audience composing its witness and standing gratitude.
Dr. Anthony Bannon is a critic who served as a newspaper and magazine journalist and as a director at George Eastman Museum in Rochester, and the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State. His recent book, Portraits: William Coupon, features a commanding image of Maestro Marsalis. A launch and discussion about the book, published by Damiani Editore, will be held at 7 p.m. Sept. 26, at the Burchfield Penney.