Sixteen years ago, newspapers across America riffed on an unexpected theme: For the first time, a jazz composition had won the country's highest musical honor.
"Marsalis swings a Pulitzer" trumpeted USA Today, its message echoing wherever cultural news was reported.
Not since Duke Ellington had been snubbed by the Pulitzers in 1965 — prompting two jury members who recommended him for the award to quit — had jazz become so dramatically linked to the award.
But this time, in 1997, the outcome was decidedly more positive. The Pulitzer board accepted the jury's recommendation that Wynton Marsalis' epic "Blood on the Fields" deserved recognition that had been denied jazz for far too long. I served on that jury and felt the same as any jazz lover when the Pulitzer board's decision flashed across my computer screen. At last, an exclusion that had begun in 1943, when the first Pulitzer Prize for music went to the great classical composer William Schuman, had ended — more than half a century later.
Next week, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Manhattan organization that Marsalis heads as artistic director, will revive the complete "Blood on the Fields" for the first time since the year it made music history. The performances, by Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, will run Feb. 21-23 at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater and will be streamed live for audiences around the world at jalc.org.
By returning to this work, Jazz at Lincoln Center, which commissioned and produced "Blood on the Fields," celebrates a key moment in its own history. But next week's events also raise an inevitable question: How does "Blood on the Fields" hold up nearly two decades later?
The performances obviously will sound different than before, and not only because the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra's staffing inevitably has changed. In addition, the roles originally sung by Cassandra Wilson, Jon Hendricks and Miles Griffith to vivid effect now will be taken by a new cast: Paula West, Kenny Washington and Gregory Porter. Moreover, when Marsalis unveiled the work in various incarnations in the mid-1990s, he was an ascending young man taking on one of the most wrenching subjects in American history: slavery.
Now, at 51, he stands as the world's most recognizable jazz artist as well as one of its most influential and productive. How the intervening years and his own maturation have affected his thoughts on "Blood on the Fields," which he conducted and performed in, won't be known until next week's concerts.
But Marsalis' definitive recording of the work, released in 1997 on a three-CD set, offers an irresistible opportunity to study a landmark composition anew. And though I've listened to portions of "Blood on the Fields" through the years, a front-to-back audition showed that the piece sounds as muscular, dramatic and compelling as before, and perhaps a little more so.
For starters, what had seemed like a long haul at roughly three hours duration seemed to move more quickly this time around. No doubt my familiarity with "Blood on the Fields" had something to do with it, but so did the sweep of its narrative, which propelled this quasi-operatic work with more urgency than I had recalled.
In essence, "Blood on the Fields" tells an historically familiar story — the epic tragedy of slavery — through harrowing personal terms. By focusing his story on two fictional lovers, Jesse and Leona, Marsalis shapes "Blood on the Fields" as an intimate human drama, even as he paints a vast and terrifying backdrop of whippings, murders and incomprehensible cruelties.
But beyond the poetry of Marsalis' libretto, it's the way he gives musical voice to this tale that grips the listener. The searing vocal lines, detailed orchestral effects and majestically layered musical motifs make "Blood on the Fields" a kind of unstaged opera, the scenery provided by our musical imaginations.
Listen to swaying rhythms that roll across the orchestra in the work's early pages, and it's easy to feel the lurching of the slave ship on which Jesse and Leona have been shackled. Similarly, the snapping sounds from the percussion section, followed by devastating silences, unmistakably portray the subject of "Forty Lashes." The horrors of slavery have become chillingly real.
And that's just the instrumental backdrop. When the vocal soloists step forward, their melodies tell their stories, while the musical idioms Marsalis draws upon reveal great deal about African-American musical culture. The slow, deep, darkly brooding lines of "Will the Sun Come Out?" — given voice by Wilson's throaty contralto — express Leona's despair but also the meaning and context of the blues. The slow-but-inexorable rhythms of "Work Song (Blood on the Fields)," the dirge-like tone of "Plantation Coffle March," and the bittersweet, spiritual-inspired lament of "Oh We Have a Friend in Jesus" advance the story through musical forms profoundly rooted in black culture.
That Marsalis writes passages of hope and faith in the work's concluding sections relieves some of the sorrow of the piece and reflects his innate optimism about the possibilities of life in America, then and now. For all its stretches of pain and grief, "Blood on the Fields" presses forward with the urgent, yearning strains of "Freedom Is in the Trying" and "Due North."
All of this distinguished "Blood on the Fields" from the dozens of classical pieces that had won Pulitzer Prizes before it, as did the score's many pages of blank space. In these sections, the soloists improvise freely, a technique integral to jazz (and to earlier chapters of classical music history) but one well worth celebrating.
All these years later, "Blood on the Fields" still carries visceral power. And though its large cast of orchestral musicians and vocal soloists, as well as its length, means it's too costly to be performed very often, the work remains an indispensable statement on a difficult but unavoidable topic.
For that reason, among others, next week's revival surely will not be the last. "Blood on the Fields" still has too much to say to us.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.