United We Swing—the new, star-studded album from the Wynton Marsalis Septet that's now available for pre-order—assembles a talented cross-section of elite musicians to explore the rhythms and harmonies that comprise the heart and soul of American music. And the thing that most unites Marsalis and his Septet with the record's guest artists, which include R&B masters Ray Charles, John Legend, and the Blind Boys of Alabama, is the blues.
The 12-bar blues, with its origins in the African American experience, is perhaps the most crucial building block in American music. It's about both joy and sorrow, lamentation and celebration. You hear that in the Blind Boys of Alabama's soulful take on "The Last Time," an old spiritual; you hear it in Ray Charles's playful "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town," which was his last public performance; and you hear it in Marsalis's lyrical trumpet lines, which weave in and out of each stirring performance on the record.
Marsalis is quick to note the blues's importance in pulling together all the musicians who performed on the album and dedicated their talents and time in order to help support Jazz at Lincoln Center's education programs. In writing about the inspirations for this record's material, Marsalis reveals the role of the blues as a through line for American culture and its centrality to jazz, America’s most important homegrown art form:
"They were forged in the scalding fields of American slavery and purified on the blood-soaked battlefields of civil war; tested on the frayed bow of an itinerant country fiddler facing a room of skeptical dancers; toughened around western campfires and emboldened by straight-faced pianists in drunken bars; immersed in absurdity on minstrel show stages; and apprenticed behind threadbare curtains of vaudeville houses on Main Street. They learned to cakewalk and boogie-woogie on prissy parlor pianos and were humanized by the broken hearts of common men and women, who sang in juke joints and danced the slow drag on sawdust floors, living lives that would have ended in anonymity if not for the blues.
"This music cost us a lot.
"Yes, these fundamentals were educated in the streets of New Orleans and covered in grease and grit in prison camps. Steeled in the mountains of Appalachia; baptized in camp meetings and sanctified by wearers of white robes in houses of the holy; disabused by people with names like Jelly Roll in houses of ill-repute and projected around the nation through newfangled radios. Consolidated by swing bands crisscrossing the country to entertain men and women seeking a good time at the tail end of a very bad time.
"They were remixed on Broadway, given super-sonic thought and fleetness of fingers in small nightclubs crammed onto jam-packed streets in the most crowded city in America; experimented on in jam sessions by people named Monk and Miles and Mingus. They triumphed on the stages of America’s greatest concert halls, with names like Ryman and Carnegie; and were legitimized on the fancy dance floors of ballrooms named Palladium and Savoy.
"Huge stadiums were filled with those same elements that were even still being picked on banjos and sang and blown through horns, all the way past social upheaval and even after an invasion of kids with electric guitars from Britain retook our country the same way Washington's Continental Army had defeated the Redcoats—with home-grown fundamentals.
"Yeah, our music went through a lot.
"It was a train. It was freedom. And it was indeed 'The World Turned Upside Down.'"
United We Swing is available for pre-order now, and 100% of the proceeds go toward Jazz at Lincoln Center's education initiatives, which introduces thousands of young students to jazz each year. Pick up this piece of American musical history and support a good cause today!