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Wynton Marsalis: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

For the Ken Burns’ PBS documentary chronicling the rise and fall of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight-boxing champ, Wynton Marsalis underscores the narrative with music that is wholly appropriate for the period of the pugilist’s reign, from 1908 to 1915. The soundtrack CD is chockfull of jaunty cakewalking, ragtime-flavored numbers (three variations of “Jack Johnson Two-Step”) along with authentic touches of W.C. Handy (a slow drag rendition of his “Careless Love”) and Jelly Roll Morton (“New Orleans Bump” and the upbeat “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”). Marsalis also makes allusions to James Reese Europe’s marching band music on his jubilant “High Society” and to the New Orleans brass band tradition on his septet’s version of “Weary Blues,” which sounds like something Buddy Bolden or Freddie Keppard might’ve played at a turn of the century picnic in the Crescent City.

Amid all period music, a few odd gems stick out. Marsalis’ “But Deep Down,” a trio feature for Victor Goines’ bass clarinet accompanied only by Doug Wamble’s guitar and Herlin Riley’s sparse brushwork, is a mysterioso theme that I wish the composer would have let stretch out beyond its 50 seconds here. Other delightful surprises include Eric Lewis’ delicate and lyrical intro to “Morning Song,” which sounds like Ellington’s “Solitude” as interpreted by George Winston, and “Rattlesnake Tail Swing,” an affecting chamberlike fugue that Marsalis composed for six clarinets and piano. And the funereal dirge “The Last Bell,” featuring Goines’ wailing clarinet, is the sound that the whole Marsalis clan absorbed into their bones while growing up in New Orleans.

Of course, Johnson wasn’t from New Orleans but rather Galveston, Texas (home state of blues guitar pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson). This might account for the use of country blues slide guitar by Wamble on the chilling opening track, “What Have You Done?” which carries dramatic impact under the opening credits of Burns’ documentary.

Originally Published