The issue of race is a thread that goes through nearly every documentary that the outrageously talented and amazingly prolific Ken Burns has made. Whether painting on an epic canvas — as in The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz — or creating smaller portraits, such as Mark Twain or Huey Long, Burns is fascinated by how intolerance, racism and segregation have affected nearly every facet of American society. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson is Burns’ latest look at the uncomfortable clash of black and white cultures, seen through the troubled career of the brash, early 20th-century African American boxing great. The two-part, four-hour series debuted on PBS to great fanfare and strong ratings this past January, and has been available on DVD since its airing.
Music always plays an enormous role in defining the historical settings for Burns’ documentaries, as well as amplifying the emotion of the events depicted. He has a knack for uncovering popular and obscure music that transports us back in time. The music doesn’t have to be of the period the film depicts, but it must resonate with the era onscreen. The wonderful soundtrack for Unforgivable Blackness sounds like it is filled with turn-of-the-century and jazz-age pieces, but, in fact, it is overwhelmingly the work of great modern jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis.
Musicians used cues from the film, playing off of charts matched to the visual.
Marsalis played a significant role in Burns’ Jazz Series: Onscreen, he was the supremely articulate historian, able to talk about the grand sweep of the story and the mechanics of actually playing in the idiom. Offscreen, he was a principal advisor. For Unforgivable Blackness, Marsalis wrote more than a dozen short pieces that explore different styles of late-19th and early 20th-century music, from stride piano to vaudeville-style numbers and, of course, lots of early New Orleans jazz. It is part of Marsalis’ genius that he can write music that sounds both authentic and original; old, but with unmistakable traces of modernity. In addition to cues written for the film, the soundtrack also contains a handful of songs previously recorded by Marsalis, including two by Jelly Roll Morton.
Remarkably, all of the original music for Unforgivable Blackness was recorded in a single day — September 3, 2003 — at Right Track Studios in Manhattan. The session was produced by Marsalis’ brother, Delfeayo, also a fine composer and trombonist, and — from Florentine Films — Ken Burns and Paul Barnes. Sandy Palmer-Grassi, who has a long history of working with Marsalis (and many other jazz and classical artists, and Broadway cast albums), was the tracking engineer.
“We went into Right Track’s big studio — A509 — and did 20 cues in one day,” comments Palmer-Grassi, whose current responsibilities also include recording concerts for Jazz At Lincoln Center. “I had worked in that room probably three or four times previously. It’s a very nice room. It has under two seconds of reverb, but that’s a little drier than I usually like.” Originally, she says, the plan was to record the cues to analog tape and Pro Tools, “but we ended up going live to Pro Tools alone.”
She also veered from her standard way of recording in that she used the preamps in A509’s SSL J Series console rather than outboard ones: “Normally, I use True Precision mic pre’s and I just mix on a console. I go right from the mic pre’s to whatever the recording unit is, out of the recorder, into the console and do my monitor mix. But I can’t complain; the SSL preamps sounded fine.” True to form, however, she resisted using EQ or compression to the multitrack.
Wynton Marsalis working his trumpet magic
The basic band comprised trumpet, trombone, clarinet, sax, piano, bass and drums/percussion, but different cues required different configurations of instruments: some just two or three players; others had two clarinets or a banjo or a guitar. “Wynton has a way that he likes to work,” she says. “If you think of people playing on a stage, like having a line of horns in front of the rhythm section, he likes to do it similar to that, but he likes to spin the horns around so they’re looking at the rhythm section. We had the drums in the middle, piano on the right-hand side open toward the horns and the bass on the left. Then, the four [horn/reeds players] were standing there facing them. So each time the ensemble changed, they didn’t really move.” A video monitor played cues from the film and the musicians played off written charts to the visual.
In terms of miking a group such as this, “I like to use a spaced omni array as my main [source],” Palmer-Grassi relates. “Sometimes, I’ll use a Decca Tree, but it worked out better having three U87s in omni, placed not in a straight line, within [the lateral spread of] the ensemble, and in a way to give more depth to the room and flatter the rhythm section.
“I tend to use the room mics first, but we had spot mics to assist the room mics or for when someone needs to be emphasized for a solo. I always use TLM 170s on the reeds — they never let me down. Wynton was using an [AKG] C-12VR; he usually uses that or a U67. For the piano, I love the [AKG] 414EBs. I’ll mike it in stereo: one high, one low. I always [pan it] high-low and then I find it in the spaced omnis so there’s no phase cancellation, no ghosts, no shadows.
“Bass was a FET 47 and then up above it a B&K 4011. On the drums, I had an [AKG] D12E on the kick, and I like an omni on the snare so I don’t have to mike the hi-hat. I used a B&K 4007 because it takes the power of the drum hit and still has a lot of clarity, and you also hear the kick drum and the hi-hat and all the cymbals in the omni, but you can work with it. I had 414EBs over the cymbals, and I think I put some 421s on the rack and floor [toms]. But usually the overheads cover them.”
Most cues required only a few takes and everything was performed completely live with no overdubs. “They couldn’t have been more professional,” Palmer-Grassi says. “Typically, Wynton would first explain the premise of the cue: ‘This is the one where they’re talking about his girlfriend and her reputation, and this is what we need to convey.’ With the caliber of the musicians and the fact that it’s people Wynton has played with a lot, it was pretty straightforward. So we really didn’t need many takes for a cue.”
L-R: Sandy Palmer-Grassi, Delfeayo Marsalis and Wynton Marsalis at Right Track A509’s SSL J Series board
photos: christopher Ewers
What was Burns’ role in all this? “He was very hands-on,” Palmer-Grassi says. “He was very decisive, and if there was something he wanted to modify, he could tell you exactly what it was. And he and Wynton work together so well. If he had something to say, it was usually right on point — something to adjust or wait for Wynton to change something in the writing. Or, ‘Here, let’s bring this up in the mix and maybe it will do more of what we wanted.’ Or, ‘I’m really looking for something to emphasize this other aspect of the film. Is there something we can add?’ And they’d work on it right then. It all went by so fast. We went all day, but there were so many times at BMG/RCA [Studios, where Palmer-Grassi worked for many years] I remember going for weeks doing these movie cues. The directors would come back and scratch a whole day’s work and the writer would write something new. This was so smooth.”
The mix for the CD was done later at Glenwood Place Studios in Burbank, Calif., by Pat “Jatty Q” Smith, who is Delfeayo Marsalis’ regular engineer. Other engineers (for the previously released tunes) on the soundtrack included Todd Whitelock and Jalmoose Rowe.
Even though Palmer-Grassi has worked often with Marsalis, even she is awed by his output. “He’s always writing something new,” she marvels. “Every season there’s another commissioned composition that exposes something new in his writing and his playing; it’s really amazing. And then you go to a concert and hear him play classical trumpet and he’s great at that, too. He has so much to say with his music and it’s a privilege to be there when he does.”
Click here to hear clips from Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, featuring a hearty portion of original music from Wynton Marsalis.