Wynton Marsalis - Plantation Polemics

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With his vexed views on the subject of “tradition” Wynton Marsalis has become the epitome of the starchy jazz conservative that many would-be jazz liberals love to hate. Yet is there more to the trumpeter than grandiloquent pronouncements on the need to preserve a particular strand of the music’s history? From The Plantation To The Penitentiary, Marsalis’ new album, reminds us that he is also a fervent political commentator as well as a fine musician.  Wynton Marsalis - Plantation PolemicsIn a frank interview with Kevin Le Gendre, he discusses his despair at the legacy of slavery and colonialism, his love of jazz as dance music and his fears for children growing up too fast in today’s exploitative society.

March 25 marks 200 years to the day that a Parliamentary Bill was passed to abolish the slave trade in the former British Empire. Amid the frightful figures on both the pain and the gain [approximately 17 million deaths, billions of pounds pumped into the British economy] occasioned by this heinous human trafficking, there is perhaps one statistic that stands out above all others. A liberal estimate of the number of victims of modern day slavery is 20 million.  

The past, it would appear, is not over. Moreover the ongoing effects of the original “respectable” trade and its sly business cousin colonialism have been uppermost in the mind of socio-political commentators for many years. The thread between what happened to African slaves then and what is happening to their Diaspora descendants now is crucial.

From The Plantation To The Penitentiary, the new album by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, explores this continuum, offering a forthright opinion on the alarming state of African-American, American and western society. Interestingly the new project wasn’t initiated by anniversaries or specific historical hooks. “A lot of the views on this record are things that I’ve expressed in interviews for many years, iterating them in different ways,” Marsalis says on the phone from New York. “The plantation to the penitentiary is a concept that I started to use when I would talk with friends of mine and we would talk about the problems of slavery and how it continues to haunt us today.”

To fully understand where Marsalis is coming from one has to engage in some lateral thinking. “If you were 400 years old and you had been in slavery for the first 250 years and you were segregated for the next 100 years then you had 50 years in which you had to fight for everything that you got, you would have a very hard time.

“Given modern psychology, where somebody goes for counselling or something, counsellors always talk about your past and how you grew up. Man, those first 250 years you had were very, very rough.

“When I say from the plantation to the penitentiary you had a large population that was forced to work and they were used as a stock the entire country made money off. And then we had a one hundred year dance back and forth trying to keep the people basically in a certain type of economic slavery, then the Civil Rights movement.

“And now we’re doing that same kind of dance again and people can go to jail from that same plantation population for having some herb or type of drugs where it’s ‘I’m liberating you from getting high…. by putting you in jail for 35 years’. It’s ridiculous.”

If penitentiary is synonymous with the misery of black America’s present and future (projections say one in three black boys born in 2007 faces a custodial sentence) then plantation embodies historical woe. Inextricably linked to the dehumanising symbols of the whip, the lash and the bossman, the plantation, that great field of blooded gold in the gallant south, signifies underclass as well as overspill of profit.

This feature is taken from Jazzwise Issue 107 - to read the rest of this article subscribe here