Wynton’s Abyssinian Mass by guest blogger

It’s jazz-beyond-jazz, alright, when Wynton Marsalis composes a work for gospel choir and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, in honor of the 200th anniversary of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. But I must admit that I am neither drawn to hear such work nor qualified to comment on it. Having experienced Marsalis’ previous large-scale religiously oriented works All Rise and In This House, On This Morning, I have developed some unshakable expectations and prejudices about such endeavors — it’s just not my cuppa tea. So I sought someone with fresh ears, more affinity for the material and less bias to report on the grand event. Meet Monica Hope seen here singing Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” at a memorial service for the bassist Walter Booker, Jr. 

A graduating student of creative writing at New York University, Ms. Hope this semester took my NYU course for the School of Continuing and Professional Studies in “Roots of American Music.” Besides being an ambitious writer, is the daughter of the late jazz pianist-composer Elmo Hope and the estimable, still-swinging pianist Bertha Hope. She has sung in choirs and is knowledgable about Wynton Marsalis and the LCJO, having written an extensive paper a couple years ago about why the expansive Jazz at Lincoln Center facility was built  in New York, and what that meant to/about jazz. Here’s her report about Marsalis’s Mass:

The Mass Wynton Marsalis created honoring the 200th
anniversary of the Abyssinian Baptist Church proves that jazz is not
constrained but rather a flexible thing that can incorporate many musical forms
within its frame.  Jazz is no
longer shunned as the devil’s music. 
It is regarded as an art that can, in Marsalis’s words, “affirm the best
of what our culture has to offer.”

With the influence of
Ellington showing through as it often does in his work, Marsalis mixed blues
and spirituals with aspects of bebop, the avant-garde, swing and Caribbean
styles in a lengthy, detailed score for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under
singing that included traditional Baptist, chorale and Gregorian-like
chants.  The Abyssinian Baptist
Bicentennial Choir, approximately 120 singers wearing cranberry robes with
white trimmed gold V‑overlays, fanned across the Church’s balcony in a
resplendent semi-circle; the LCJO was on a platform below them, facing the
congregation.  I expected Wynton to
direct, but he sat with the other trumpeters on the same elevation as the
band’s drummer, playing his horn throughout.  The sound quality was impeccable.

Constructed as a
Baptist or Pentecostal church service, the Mass contained lyrics new and familiar.  Segues between choir endings and orchestral breakouts were
seamless; even when the Orchestra played music quite unlike that sung within
the same piece, Marsalis’s score kept them from sounding disjointed.  The call-and-response Devotional matched
a male lead and trumpet soloist over a blues background, while the
improvisational Call to Worship was inspired by instrumentalists offering
praise over a Latin clavé.  Some of
the saxophonists clapped out rhythms. 
The Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts III led the assembly in the Lord’s
Prayer atop soft piano chords — as is typical in a Sunday service during the
Prayer — taken up by baritone sax and a vocalist.

choir, attendants, ushers and sometimes guest preachers march in to most
Baptist churches during the Processional. 
Here, the choir was rocking, swaying shoulders, shouting “yeah” and
“alright.”  Joy swelled as full
voices pealed through the vaulted ceilings to the sky, and music modulating
from New Orleans’ swing-to-blues-to-march pulled the audience to its feet.  Gregorian chant came to life in the
Invocation and Chant along with musical images from Brazil — all ending

After a soloist
gloriously sang of Christ’s resurrection and ascension, Reverend Butts
addressed us unscripted:  “People
of African descent prayed for justice to roll down like waters, and
righteousness like a mighty stream.” 
Invoking Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, he reminded us of the
pivotal networking role the black church played during the Civil Rights
movement.  Reverend Butts further
pointed out that Abyssinian was built to improve the relationship between the
races, and so its mixed congregation was an answered prayer.

I was most moved when
the bassist bowed the Meditation in molasses-slow, quiet reflection.  Only the men sang as military snare
rolls accompanied the Invitation, 
and being of Barbadian descent, I enjoyed its transformation into a
whimsical calypso, reminiscent of Belafonte’s “Matilda,” that buoyed the tap
dancer as his feet slip-slid, flurried and stomped like the Biblical David, in
a very tight space.

A uniquely arranged
Doxology, using the traditional lyrics, was representative of jazz
creativity.  The ‘traveling song’
Recessional trombones blew “woo woooo – woo woooo,” to bring the Ellington-Strayhorn “A Train” theme
to mind; as the male vocalists whistled the melody at the tune’s end, you could
almost see the hem-swaying robes of saints disappearing into the clouds.  The
Mass ended as a Sunday service would, with chants of
“Amen.”  A rapturous soprano and a
final call-and-response between the choir and Marsalis’s horn blasts brought
the “service” to a close.

The Mass was frenzied,
plaintive, rejoicing, hushed, mournful and playful. Wynton’s expository use of
the chorale from the European classical tradition for which he is acclaimed added
to the Mass;s many moods, blending with the cultures that feed jazz
as well.  As one not easily
impressed, I was blown away by this ambitious work that  through music, dance, theater and
scripture brought together the secular and the sacred. 

 For comparison, here’s Jon Pareles’ piece from the New York Times. 

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  1. Valerie Bishop says

    that i have goose-bumps while reading this review just touts the beautiful writing and passion of Ms. Hope. thank you for transporting me to an obviously special event. and i hope to read much more of Ms. Hope’s writings in the future.

  2. says

    Well done Monica!I was transported to a concert which I did not attend in person;yet I feel as if I’d been there and enjoyed myself as well!

  3. W. A. Collins says

    Wynton used to have something interesting to say as a player and as a jazz composer until he discovered he could make a career out of pretending to be Duke Ellington. Worse than this however is how he has taken the most important jazz band in the country and stripped it of its ability to move the artform forward to become a conveyance of jazz’ past.
    Indeed by championing jazz’ rich history and contribution to music has done it’s job to legitimize it, but in doing so jazz (big band jazz especially) is becoming fossilized and incapable of evolving. We live this phenomenom every day in the world of classical music. Why are we so hell-bent to have jazz suffer the same fate?
    Ironically no one has done more to help and hurt the cause of jazz as a living, contemporary art. Wynton, stop insisting that you are Duke’s successor by imitating him and return to forging your own path.