Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Sunday | April 5, 2009
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Marjorie Whylie: A national treasure

Marjorie Whylie represents a disappearing generation of musicians who were more than adept at a diverse range of artistic expressions and performances.

Herbie Miller, Contributor

Marjorie Whylie not only exemplifies the essence of artistic expression, she embodies it. As performer, actor, writer, composer, presenter, administrator and teacher, Whylie has shown that art at its best comes not from natural talent alone, but, perhaps, more importantly, through thrusting oneself fully into the rigorous mental and physical preparation necessary to better ensure the kind of performances she often achieves, which have provided artistic fulfilment, audience satisfaction and scholarly achievement.

From sweeping alluvial deposits left by streams of diverse cultural identities that have given form to a unique Caribbean consciousness, to lessons learnt from multi-cultural international humanities, Whylie's natural and instinctively rich, tropically drenched artistic attitude, complete with rhythmic confidence, is well shaped. This eclecticism, which coexists in each performance, is the essence of a fine and perfectly well-balanced cultural and artistic aesthetic.


The fusion of these elemental sources are rewarding because they allow her to shade a given piece of music with "a greater swell of nobility, a deeper sense of tragedy, a stoic nostalgia shaped by the facts, and a bittersweet richness born of the lessons she had learnt about victory, ambivalence and loss". [Crouch: p, 79]. These dedications are evident in any number of her renditions of traditional folk tunes, popular music, or jazz with its rich melodic examination, mottled textures and masterfully coloured improvisations. And the varieties shown suggest vaudeville, blues, and swing with a hint of bebop, which is complemented by subtle gestures to black church and traditional ritual. Additionally, Whylie's experience in dance, theatre and pantomime, adds dramatic balance to the overall presentations by bringing into play her attention to idiomatic sources like Afro-Jamaican drumming traditions - gereh, ettu, kumina, nya binghi - which encourages a percussive element that syncopates the beat and unites the whole process into a naturally flowing opus.

Her talent

As quick as a wink, she can change a straight-ahead jazz piece into a mento riff, interjecting along the way a figure or two borrowed from kumina or ragtime, by simply changing emphasis and directing her band into expressing both the Jamaican and American antecedents of popular music that emerged as independent indigenous forms here on the island as well as on the northern mainland, respectively.

As musical director of the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC), Whylie is responsible for integration of dance movements, gesture, action, social commentary, and historic references, enveloped in and punctuated by music, into cohesive and logical theatre expressions assisting the dance choreographer and dancers to convey narrative either in the abstract or realist mode so audiences can grasp its messages and be entertained all at once. This is no easy task, since one is working with different individuals and especially with a range of NDTC repertoire including canonic pieces, traditional sets and attention to new works.

Her responsibilities with the Jamaica Big Band, in addition to piano player and sometimes congolero, are as demanding and calls for creative sensibilities and organisational acumen usually shared in that context by two or more arrangers, composers, and a straw boss. That she has been effectively fulfilling these tasks for close to 20 years is no trivial achievement and testifies to her ability to multitask in diverse areas of musical production and, in general, the arts world.

Observing her last December, playing conga drums, in the studio with master drummers Karl McLeod and Sly Dunbar on traps, Karl Messado and Bongo Herman on kete, Putus repeater and Bro Royo bass drum, supporting the legendary Larry McDonald on congas and various drums, was seeing one with a complete understanding of the dynamics that swirl around musical genres, cultural difference, and social complexities. Counter-stating the rhythm on one session, she then introduced into the mix a series of beats traded across musical lines, and by example, she "elevated the quality of collective creation, upping the ante for every musician in the ensemble". [Crouch: p, 79]. The poetic density captured in those exchanges owed as much to Whylie's fertile imagination and bold initiative as much as the willingness of the musicians, all admirers of her creative genius, to be lead into improvisations that masterfully coloured the already breathtaking melodicism and powerful rhythmic complexity of the piece.

At the piano, her main instrument, Whylie performs primarily as a jazz musician. She does this with all the elegance, melodic invention, buoyant rhythmic current and a harmonic understanding befitting her conservatory education.

Performance after performance her playing leads to creative discovery only jazz can provide. Her solos, especially when the bass and drums lay out, are like etudes that reveal not only her technical ability, but also the artistic merit on which improvisation pivots. This is so because only jazz allows players of Miss Whylie's calibre to reinvent new ways to express familiar information, or information we thought we knew. In her soul, the iconic nature of jazz has been absorbed, reinterpreted, and replayed within a Caribbean context giving it new social meanings, at the same time allowing the adaptation to reflect the influence of its model. It's done as if it were a barometer that measures the mood and value of her appropriation against the established canon. The impulse that drives her reconfiguration lies with her understanding of jazz as classic American music, but that at its base were Caribbean models located on the ground in New Orleans that first provided it with cultural impact. And these models were not without dance, a discipline that is second nature for the NDTC musical director and which was a primary resource for jazz at its infancy.

A disappearing generation

For those who know, or those in the know, Marjorie Whylie represents a disappearing generation of musicians who were more than adept at a diverse range of artistic expressions and performances in a musical setting. A few, as she is, were also quite versatile, applying themselves to commentaries on music and the arts, research, providing new information and responding to the lively conversations that animate the art world. Above all, however, Miss Whylie performs music with the Úlan of someone who would have been much more appreciated and celebrated in a world where acknowledgement and reward by organisations, critics, fans and peer alike, is more forthcoming and generous. What we have in this national treasure is an architect of cultural regeneration, creative audacity, and pedagogical distinction in the order of Katherine Dunham, Don Drummond, and Janette Grant Woodham. Her performances reveal diversity, eclecticism and are specifically peer and audience focused. Any performance by Marjorie Whylie promises to be a superb occasion, and for those interested in the highest expression of the creative experience, to attend will be a decision well made, likely without regrets.

Herbie Miller is a cultural historian with specialised interest in slave culture, Caribbean identity and ethnomusicology. He can be contacted at herbimill@aol.com.

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