Wynton And Willie: Two Southern Blues Men
Walter Blanding, Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson
When it was first announced that Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson were going to do a gig together most people I know either dismissed it as a joke or thought it a very bad idea. And although I couldn’t imagine what they would sound like together I liked both Willie and Wynton separately…so I was all ears. The more I thought about the upcoming gig the more the idea intrigued me.
Here were two icons, one a composer /instrumentalist performing wondrous feats of musical virtuosity; the other a great troubadour whose song poetry – words and music – served as literature to the masses that are either too busy struggling for bread or too tired after a day of monotonous back breaking labor to read a book. Many of these folks found solace and guidance in the simple yet profound poetry of Willie’s songs about the vissicitudes of life. After giving the matter some thought, it occurred to me that this is the same thing bluesmen do. And Wynton is a blues man – although he plays sophisticated city blues and tells his story with his horn.
It soon became clear to me that this was the bridge that brought them together, their mutual love of the wit and wisdom of the blues. After all, both the blues and the sort of country music that Willie Nelson has been associated with over the years had quite a bit of intercourse during the growth and development of these two musical genres, which began as folk music and evolved into artifice. Furthermore both musical forms were born in the south; Wynton and Willie are sons of the American south.
Having grown up in the apartheid south, just like Wynton and Willie, I understand that the legal segregation of black and white citizens only controlled the movement of our bodies not the motion of our minds. And many white minds were transported to forbidden precincts of the black soul where the blues was born, buoyed on the wings of radio waves.
It was the nightly broadcasts of the Randy Record Shop, beamed all over the south from Nashville Tennessee, which introduced me to Mississippi Delta blues; that’s where Elvis Pressley first heard them too. The experience determined the character of Pressley’s musical career and so inspired Robert Farris Thompson, the distinguished art historian and Dean of African civilization at Yale, he became the world’s most interesting scholar on black art throughout the Pan-African world. I know this story because he told it to me. And Dr. Thompson was a white guy in Texas who didn’t know any black people when he first heard the blues lying in bed listening to Randy’s – just like Elvis and me.
There have always been Afro-American musicians who alternated between country music and the blues. Fiddler Papa John Creech and Chuck Berry are examples of this. Many of the bluesmen whose works Wynton and Willie perform are the same artists that I used to listen to from the Randy Record Shop. Especially the great Jimmy Reed, my favorite Delta blues man, whose 1950’s hit song “Bright Lights Big City” is the lead song on Willie and Wynton’s album “Two Men with the Blues.”
Their collaboration on this song offers a fresh interpretation of Mississippi Delta Blues which is a genuine extension of the tradition. On these tracks we get to hear the symbiotic relationship between the human voice and instrumentalist as it evolved from the deep blues roots of Jazz – especially on “Night Life,” where Wynton gives a clinic on the art of blues trumpet playing.
The objective of the instrumentalists in early jazz performance was to capture the phrasing and timbre of the great blues singer’s voices, but this would change as the instrumentalists developed a level of virtuosity that set the standard for musical performance. Since then the best singers in the jazz tradition have tried to approximate the timbre, phrasing, harmonic sophistication and rhythmic complexity of the horns. In the collaboration of Winton and Willie we get some idea of how it all happened.
* This Essay was the program notes for their concert at Lincoln Center in New York.