Saturday, October 31, 2009

'Blues Symphony' of Wynton Marsalis Parallels William Grant Still's 'Afro-American Symphony'

[Wynton Marsalis]

An Atlanta Symphony press release reads: “Music Director Robert Spano And The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra To Perform World Premiere Of Wynton Marsalis's Blues Symphony November 19-22, 2009.” The press release says: “Music Director Robert Spano will lead the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in the World Premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer-musician Wynton Marsalis’s new symphonic work, Blues Symphony. The new work celebrates the blues through the prism of different moments in American history, and will be the first work by Marsalis composed exclusively for symphony orchestra.”

To our mind, the news suggested striking parallels with the circumstances of William Grant Still's Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American). On the William Grant Still page at, Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma comments on Still's Afro-American Symphony in Africana Encyclopedia: “A contemporary of Work and Dawson, William Grant Still based his first symphony, the Afro-American Symphony (1930), on the blues and his experience as a jazz arranger.”

Michael Fleming quotes the composer in the liner notes for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's recording of Still's Afro-American Symphony, Chandos 9154 (1993): “I knew I wanted to write a symphony; I knew that it had to be an American work; and I wanted to demonstrate how the blues, so often considered a lowly expression, could be elevated to the highest musical level.”

Adina Williams of Boosey & Hawkes, publisher for Wynton Marsalis, has forwarded a link to a Facebook Page on which he is “Talking about the Blues Symphony - Movement I-II [HQ] (4:22).”
“I'm working day and night on Blues Symphony, the piece I'm writing for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I had a chance to sit down and talk about each of the 7 movements in the piece. Here are the first two. I'll be posting videos of me talking about the other movements in the days to come.”

On the video, Wynton plays several brief excerpts which provide a tantalizing preview of the Blues Symphony. While the times and the composers are very different, the music Wynton Marsalis played only strengthened our feeling that significant parallels exist between the composition of his first work written exclusively for symphony orchestra and the creation of William Grant Still's first symphonic work, the Afro-American Symphony. [William Grant Still is profiled at, which features a complete Works List compiled by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma]

Comment by email
Hello Bill, I am happy to see that Wynton Marsalis has not abandoned his classical interest and education. I look forward to hearing his new symphony. Gwendoline Y. Fortune

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