Wynton Marsalis Provokes Again With Head-Scratching ‘Ever Fonky Lowdown’

It had been a while since Wynton Marsalis — the famously provocative trumpeter and Jazz at Lincoln Center patriarch — had stirred controversy on the level that he did in May. In an interview with The Washington Post, he declared that profanity in hip-hop is “more damaging” to the black community than the Confederate statues that have come down across the country.

The interview was part of the publicity push for “The Ever Fonky Lowdown,” a full-length opera that his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra debuted a couple of weeks later. It turns out the statements weren’t just campaign bluster. “The Ever Fonky Lowdown” largely took up the same concerns: what Mr. Marsalis openly calls the “pathology” of those who, to him, seem to celebrate their own poverty.

Oh boy.

Performed by the full orchestra, along with three singers, three dancers and the actor Wendell Pierce, who read most of the lines in the lengthy libretto, the suite offered occasional moments of musical verve, as on the funky, simmering theme song, the three female vocalists harmonizing in a high, chirping refrain (“It’s the ever-fonky lowdown”), and the Caribbean-flavored, swaggering “It May Sound Like the Drums of War.”

But unlike Mr. Marsalis’s other most recent work — 2016’s “Spaces,” featuring the orchestra in conversation with two dancers — the music here was tertiary. The ensemble arrangements were largely unimposing, and they allowed for scarce soloing. Mr. Marsalis meant this piece as a polemic.

Mr. Pierce’s character, called Mr. Game, is a carnival-barking composite of Upton Sinclair and Orson Welles villainy, explaining how capitalists hoodwink the less fortunate. But as the libretto’s historical narrative inched toward the present day, his caustic critiques fell with an increasingly relentless thud on the urban poor (“I love the ghetto and the old plantation, ’cause the good-ol’-time-attracting, character-detracting stories and the acting is for me”).

Later, in an almost unbelievable moment, Doug Wamble, a white guitarist, drawled a taunting ditty called “I Wants My Ice Cream.” (This piece was picking up on Mr. Game’s earlier argument that those who feast on hip-hop culture are refusing to do the hard work of eating their cultural “vegetables.”)

Seeing all this presented to a largely white, conspicuously wealthy crowd, it was hard not to feel uncomfortable. How many Mr. Games were there, quietly nodding in assent?

By Giovanni Russonello
Source: New York Times

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