Into Gettin’ Fonky with Wynton Marsalis
Jazz legend Wynton Marsalis talks about New Orleans, his father and how politics shaped his new album
About this episode:
Wynton Marsalis was born into a musical tradition. He grew up in New Orleans, home of the best jazz musicians around – including his father, jazz-great Ellis Marsalis.
But Wynton Marsalis is a master in his own right. Back in 1984, when he was just 22 years old, he won two Grammy awards for his performances in jazz and classical music. In 1997, Marsalis became the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his record Blood on the Fields. Then in 2007, he released From the Plantation to the Penitentiary and it hit number two on the Billboard charts.
Marsalis now works as the artistic director at Jazz at Lincoln Center. That’s where, in 2018, he debuted the work that would lay the foundation of his newest album: “The Ever Fonky Lowdown.” The album is a deeply political, full-length opera, narrated by actor Wendall Pierce – a high school friend of Marsalis. And it’s dedicated to his father, who passed away from coronavirus complications this spring.
On Into America, Marsalis talks with host Trymaine Lee about his writing process, how politics influences his music, and the magic of New Orleans.
Source: MSNBC Into America
Trymaine Lee: No city tugs at my heart quite like New Orleans does. And nothing says New Orleans like jazz. I lived there as a young reporter, working for The Times-Picayune newspaper. And after work, I’d hang out at Bullet’s Sports Bar or Sweet Lorraine’s, listening to some of the best local jazz musicians. And, trust me, there were a lot of ‘em.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. And covering that tragedy, I saw firsthand the tension between beauty and pain in New Orleans. But some beauty is born from suffering. Few know that better than New Orleans jazz legend Wynton Marsalis.
Wynton Marsalis: I went (SCATS).
Lee: Wynton Marsalis is an internationally acclaimed musician, composer, and teacher. He’s the son of jazz great Ellis Marsalis who died of complications from coronavirus back in April at age 85. But Wynton is a master in his own right. Back in 1984, when he was just 22 years old, he won not one but two Grammy Awards, one for jazz and one for classical music.
In 1997, he became the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, for his record Blood on the Fields. Then, in 2007, he released From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, and it hit number two on the Billboard jazz charts. Marsalis is also the artistic director at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
That’s where, in 2018, he debuted his newest work, The Ever Fonky Lowdown. It’s a full-length opera and, like much of Marsalis’ work, it’s political. And it’s narrated by actor Wendell Pierce, a friend of his, goin’ all the way back to high school.
Wendell Pierce: We must strike first to prevent what they may be tryin’ to do to us, and to save them. Their leaders must feel our power. Believe me. Trust me. We will spare no measure or expense in the pursuit of their salvation. Can you find it in your hearts to save these poor people?
Lee: I’m Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. This summer, Wynton released a record version of The Ever Fonky Lowdown. Just ahead of Labor Day, we sat down to talk about his writing process and how his music is influenced by his politics and his beloved hometown.
Pierce: Everything is for sale, even a community. Like an old New Orleans auction house.
Lee: Wynton, thank you so much, Brother, for joining us. We really appreciate it.
Marsalis: Yes, sir. It’s really my pleasure, Brother Trymaine.
Lee: You’ve given us somethin’ really to ponder here with your new record, The Ever Fonky Lowdown. And it’s a full-length opera, and some are also calling it a polemic. Would you mind just describing this project for us? I mean, it’s heavy, it’s prescient. But from your eyes, what is this project?
Marsalis: Well, it’s a satirical, spoken piece with rousing, happy music, and is narrated by Mr. Wendell Pierce, and it features— a main character of Mr. Gain (PH) who was a combination of a political, street hustler, Dolomite evangelical preacher, carnival barker, con man.
Pierce: Our government has agreed to make a few small changes to our laws. The path is now cleared for us to liberate these people, extend our dominion, and increase our wealth. It’s a win/win/win for us. And in this game, winning is the only thing.
Marsalis: He convinces you to sell out integrity and buy into a progression of actions that lead to beating a group of others he identifies for you. And the piece is really a blueprint go help us go deeper than propaganda and start to help us rise above the hustle and think for ourselves. It’s bipartisan and it’s anti-sectarian.
And, in conclusion, we have to have a deeper level of involvement in the life of our largest identifiable community. And that community is anybody who’s tryin’ to help solve the problem with youth (?). It also addresses the meaning of freedom and the need to fight for agency for each other.
Lee: So it doesn’t sound totally fictional.
Marsalis: (LAUGH) No.
Lee: I mean, you think some of the political chicanery we’ve been goin’ through, the corruption. Sounds like it’s based on—
Marsalis: No, that’s it. That’s it.
Lee: —some folks we know.
Marsalis: It’s not fictional. But I studied also many leaders from Julius Caesar to Napoleon to Adolf Hitler to the American presidents that I’ve known, speeches that I’ve heard. A lot of this comes from kind of the experience I’ve had, bein’ in our country and travelin’ to so many states and teaching in so many schools.
But it’s also based on historical precedent and things that I heard Reverend Knight say on TV in the 1970s, or Oral Roberts. I kinda put everybody’s (UNINTEL) together, all the people who were really interested in hustlin’ people. And who people loved to be hustled by. And I think it does that.
But the music also has that. It’s kind of a panoramic view of different styles of American music. Funk, which I grew up playing in the 1970s, jazz, swing, and the music that I’ve dedicated my life to playing. It sets a difference between the music and the words. The words are kind of (UNINTEL) language, and the music is very from the perspective of the people who are participating in the hustling.
Lee: You started performing this back in 2018.
Lee: And so what was the inspiration then? I mean, it’s so fitting now, but what was the inspiration back then?
Marsalis: Well, these are not topical issues, you know. These are issues that have affected human beings since the beginning of time. It could be, you take your pick. Okay, you could go back in time, in any culture you go into, there’s always some group of others that people determine they’re gonna pick on.
Lee: And so obviously for those of us who are arriving at this project like right now through a 2020 lens, when you have the uprisings across the country, you have the police violence, it’s hard not to take all of those factors into account as we listen. For you, as the creator of this, are you also seeing it through a different lens, given what we’re goin’ through right now?
Marsalis: Yeah, because police violence didn’t start now. I did an album in 2007, it’s called From the Plantation to the Penitentiary. And I have to always tell people that we were Black before 1980. Like, there was—
Lee: Yeah. Right.
Marsalis: —(UNINTEL). And, like, there’s a lot of missed stuff. And this piece is not only about Black America. It’s from a Black American perspective, which is my perspective, but it deals with many, many issues and subjects of a human nature. And it shows how we are rolled into a larger context of humanity. And how you notice when people started to protest for George Floyd, it resonated with people all over the world who have their own struggles.
And I also don’t work on things like they’re projects, you know. It’s the way of life to me. My daddy was a musician; I grew up in music. I’ve been working on my compositional skills and all of it since I was a teenager. Everything is connected. So the same things I was tryin’ to articulate on Blood on the Fields in the 1990s, I’m still tryin’ to articulate them in the 2010s and so on and so forth.
Singers: Fannie Lou Hamer
Pierce: Here’s the lowdown. She was unwavering in the execution of her duty. Refused to be silenced. Followed the word and held to it. Her name was Fannie Lou Hamer.
Lee: Many songs struck me and stuck with me, and one of those is The Balled of Fannie Lou Hamer.
Singers: Fannie Lou.
Marsalis: (LAUGH) Yeah.
Lee: Especially given the time we’re in now where the vote is so important.
Singers: Fannie Lou. Fannie Lou.
Lee: It’s so important that some people are tryin’ to keep us, Black folks especially and poor folks especially, from accessing the vote.
Singers: Fannie Lou Hamer.
Lee: You think about Fannie Lou Hamer sayin’ she’s sick and tired of bein’ sick and tired, and how important she was to the movement.
Singers: Fannie Lou. Fannie Lou. Fannie Lou. Fannie Lou. Fannie Lou. Fannie Lou. Fannie Lou Hamer.
Lee: Why did you choose her as an inspiration?
Marsalis: Well, my mama loved her. You gotta remember, I was alive in the ’60s, so I remember Fannie Lou. I remember them talkin’ about her, her bein’ on TV. The community work she with Freedom Farm, how she was helpin’ rural people with health and well-being, even with small business opportunities. This was a woman that was the eldest of 20 kids and grew up on a plantation, segregated Mississippi.
She worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinatin’ Committee with voter registration in her region. She was shot at. She was beaten. All kinda stuff happened to her, but you could not turn her around. She ran for Congress; she wasn’t successful but, hey, she’s runnin’ for Congress in Mississippi.
So she always represented a kind of ultimate heroism to me. I always loved Fannie Lou. And she’s a great heroine, and perfect for this time. And I use her also because people don’t know who she is now, and she sacrificed a lot. And part of the hallmarks of being lost is you don’t know your elders. You don’t know what people have sacrificed. So you think every time you confront a problem, it’s a new problem. And you can’t use the victories of your past to help you develop a more constructive strategy of defeating the problems of the present.
Lee: And you said that you don’t consider these works projects. It’s all linked, right? It’s a lifestyle.
Lee: And you go back to Blood on the Fields and Black Codes and From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, and now this work. Is there ever any pressure to not get political, right? Because you could do very well just Jazz at Lincoln Center, stick to the traditions. But is there pressure to either go this route, or go the opposite route?
Marsalis: No, not for me. You know, I grew up dealin’ with a lot of project. But I don’t tell that many stories about it. It’s okay. Lotta people struggled a lot, but look at Fannie Lou’s life. I had the kinda life you would have it you grew up in segregated South. And I’ve always been interested in that.
I was interested in Frederick Douglass in the 1960s. I wrote a term paper in high school on slavery. It’s somethin’ I’m interested in so I tend to talk about it and deal with it. It’s not a struggle for me. I don’t feel any pressure. And of course I’ve been against many things that I felt denigrated Black people. If Black people love themselves then I don’t have a problem standin’ against them to say what I believe.
And people sometimes over my career have written me hate mail and stuff ‘cause I didn’t like stuff. But, I mean, I never got shot at or beaten for it. Besides, in the ’60s, when, you know, ass whoopin’s was bein’ handed out just ‘cause, you know, you in the wrong place at the wrong time tryin’ to do the wrong thing. Okay.
Lee: Everybody gets some. You wanna ass whoopin’? You wanna a ass whoopin’? (LAUGH)
Marsalis: Look, I don’t feel any pressure about expressin’ my opinion and point of view on this.
Lee: Do you have a favorite song on this record?
Marsalis: Not really. To me, the whole record is like one song. All these kinda long pieces I’ve written, I don’t know, maybe 20 of ‘em, they take a lotta time to figure out the structure and the form and to work out who’s gonna play what and to orchestrate it. And so I look at it as all one thing in my mind.
Lee: But do you have a certain sound that you really like that came outta this? Is there somethin’ that you could break down for us?
Marsalis: Look, I wrote a counterpoint, a contrapuntal style of the language of a guy named James Black who was a great drummer in New Orleans. He wrote songs like The Magnolia Triangle. (SCATS) Like New Orleans, got that kinda New Orleans lean, but it’s in 5/4.
So I use a kinda language like him and my father, the musicians who were tryin’ to play modern jazz in the ’60s would use. And I’d write other lines, contrapuntal lines on the bottom and the top. And I put it in different groves and different times, so in that context. And I like that type of contrapuntal writing. I had done some of it on Blood on the Field, but I expanded on that type of sound in this piece.
Lee: After the break, we talk about the influence of Wynton’s father, jazz legend Ellis Marsalis, who passed away earlier this year. And Wynton reflects on the role of music in processing grief.
After the break, we talk about the influence of Wynton’s father, jazz legend Ellis Marsalis, who passed away earlier this year. And Wynton reflects on the role of music in processing grief.
Lee: We’re back with Wynton Marsalis.
Singers: Oh, this life don’t bother me. Soon I will be free.
Lee: You know, of all the things we’ve lost of the last several months from COVID-19 and the uprisings, I think one of the sadder for many of us has been the loss of your father. You know, knowin’ New Orleans and knowin’ New Orleans couldn’t send your father home the way the city would have liked to, and I’m sure you all as a family would have liked to.
And The Ever Fonky Lowdown is dedicated to your father who is, for those who may know is, is Ellis Marsalis, a musical giant, a great, a mountain of man. Could you could explain to us, and those who just don’t know, who Ellis Marsalis, your father was? And the role and influence that he played growin’ up.
Marsalis: My father is someone who would play in a bar, in a club for two or three people for years just to keep the music goin’. He would teach kids for no money. He would teach everywhere, go deep in the hood and teach everybody. People come to our house; he’d treat everybody like they were his kid.
He was very philosophical. You know, he believed. He had a belief system and he was not a person who followed the crowd. And he was very quiet in a certain way. He talked a lot, but he was very nonjudgmental of people. But he believed in scholarship, bein’ serious. He took his life seriously. I went on gigs with him from the time I was born. So—
Marsalis: —I saw his struggle. And it stays with me.
Lee: So what was the biggest lesson? I mean, obviously there are many. But, for you, the biggest lesson that you carry with you to this day from your father?
Marsalis: That you can (UNINTEL) in your belief. But you just have to take what comes with it. Lotta what comes with it, you may not like. But if you can’t handle it, change your belief system. But you don’t have to go with the crowd. And you also don’t have to be hostile to people, because he wasn’t hostile. He was not bitter. He wasn’t that type of man. He was very accepting of things and of people. He didn’t compromise his beliefs, especially when it came to the music.
Lee: What’s amazing is that men such as your father, and then you and your brothers and your family, and so many great musicians comin’ out of New Orleans, you know, a place full of diametrically opposing forces, right? It’s as beautiful as it is ugly, right? It’s as peaceful as it is dangerous. And I lived down there for a while so, you know, I understand it.
Marsalis: (LAUGH) Right.
Lee: I wonder how all that shaped you. Like, that space in between that pressure.
Marsalis: You know, I was all around the city. (UNINTEL) parades, all aspects of the city, I lived in it, played in it. We played in a funk band so we played big dancing, (UNINTEL) type of galas with three bands playin’. We played police talent shows in all the poorest areas of the city. We played in clubs like (UNINTEL).
I played also with New Orleans Philharmonic. I played with civic orchestra. I played stuff like the Bob Hope Show would come; I played the circus in New Orleans. I played everywhere. And, you know, I’ve been at gigs where people was gettin’ shot; I’ve been at gigs where we’ve broke out into fights; I’ve been on gigs where people sat politely with their tuxedos and listened to music; I’ve been on gigs where we were dancin’.
Most of my gigs was just dances, you know, with people singin’ pop music, (UNINTEL) old ladies in the ’70s. And, you know, I have a lotta experiences and I always grateful to grow up in the Crescent City. You know how wild we are too.
Lee: Yeah. (LAUGH) Get down.
Marsalis: I didn’t understand that other places wasn’t that wild until I left (LAUGH) New Orleans. But, you know, I was fortunate. My mama let us go. When we were in high school, mama would let me get my work. I could come home at 1:00, 2:00 in the mornin’. And me and my brother Branford, we did. We played gigs. We was out there.
Lee: Obviously you were raised up in the music and you’re a jazz traditionalist, right, and you’re such a part of the American music scene and jazz music scene. But I wonder what role music, and jazz in particular, has played in processing grief and making sense of these very complicated things and complicated times we’re livin’ in?
Marsalis: Well, in New Orleans, we bury people above ground. When I was six years old, I lived with my great uncle. Now, he was born in 1883. He was a stone cutter for the cemetery. So I was always in cemeteries with him. He cut the names into stone and stuff.
You know, there’s all these stories of voodoo queen and we do parades out when people die. We know death is a part of life. We have a cyclical understanding of death. We deal with our grief very upfront. Of course there’s the aspect of death and grief that is so internal to each person, depending on their spiritual relation to who has passed away. It’s beyond anything a person can say about it. It’s just those deep, deep, deep sentiments that can only be felt and intuited. And each of us is very, very different in the way we process that, when we process it, and what comes of it.
Marsalis: And music is in the sound. I played so many funerals and played New Orleans Dirge to so many people walkin’ around churches, walkin’ around outside playing. And I know that there’s some notes I can hit where I notice people will start crying, where if I put that certain type of moan that come from deep down in the note, it hit people. There’s no name for it, it’s just a kinda sympathetic vibration.
Lee: When you think about that spiritual nature of the music and the connection that people have to it, how important is it to maintain the traditions of what jazz music is and what it represents?
Marsalis: Well, you know, human beings are very cyclical and traditional. And if you wanna know the condition of people, look at their mythology. What is heroic in their culture? What is virtuous? What are their rituals of courtship? How do they deal with birth and death? And what have they figured out about living in the world? What is their food like? What are their ceremonies? And how do they worship? What do they invest in? And it starts to give you a sense of who the people are.
Lee: So much has been made about the confederacy in the South. And in New Orleans, I’ve driven around Lee Circle many, many, many times and seen Robert E. Lee atop that circle looking down on us, all right. And I know you said before that you thought that, you know, certain aspects of hip-hop and the culture were more dangerous to Black folks than those symbols.
And now that those things are coming down and being dragged down from the folks and the people in the communities, and in this moment now we’re reckoning with race and reckoning with history and reckoning with who we say we are, do you view that aspect of things a little differently? Or do you still kinda maintain that, “You know what? That other stuff is more dangerous”?
Marsalis: What I’m sayin’ is, based on years of experience with our young people, I remember when they came in. And I will never change my perspective on that. That’s what I learned from watching my daddy play those gigs for no people. You don’t have to go along with the mob.
Now, it can me they damage you, or they don’t listen to your records, or they say stuff about you. Okay, great. You know, we don’t need to entertain people with that kinda material. At first, I was actually glad to see hip-hop come in because I thought everything was gonna be Michael Jackson, Prince, kind of people trying to change their appearance and put on a thing that was not like the Black music we had grown up playing, and try to just see how to get into the mainstream and come up with whatever would be acceptable to white audiences.
So that’s what I was thinking then. So I thought, “Wow, okay. Hip-hop, they reassertin’ the kinda Parliament James Brown, that strength.” Then when they met up with the pimp (UNINTEL), nah, man, I’m not gonna defend that. So, I mean, it’s not like my voice stopped us from doin’ it, but I expressed my opinion about it.
It’s like what people do with Trump. Trump is the manifestation of the problem; he’s not the problem. If you waste all your time with him, don’t look at him the whole time, let’s look at what this problem is. Because there are many “hims.”
Lee: You know, in The Ever Fonky Lowdown, Mr. Gain represents a lot of that, right? So you still found your way to address the concerns of today and connecting them to the past. And I do wonder just how tough it’s been comin’ out with a project in this moment where movement is restricted, you know, the economy is funny. What’s it actually like, just moving the music around in this time?
Marsalis: Well, listen, even Jazz at Lincoln Center, we’ve done 300-somethin’ things online. And we are dedicated to gettin’ music out and to keepin’ our people enriched and entertained. And we’re gonna do more stuff in the fall. So, you know, music is our business. We’ve been dedicated to it for years. And we’re gettin’ stuff out.
Lee: Wynton Marsalis, thank you so very, very much, man. The honor is most certainly ours. You are a true master of the music, and a beloved son of New Orleans. And we thank you so much for joining us.
Marsalis: Man, thank you so much. You know, it’s been a pleasure talkin’ to you, Brother Trymaine. Much love, man.
Lee: Wynton Marsalis is an internationally acclaimed jazz musician and composer, and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. His new album is called The Ever Fonky Lowdown. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I’m Trymaine Lee. And we’ll be back on Wednesday.