The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
The Ever Fonky Lowdown
About once every decade, Wynton Marsalis writes an extended work that comments on the social and political realities of American Life. Blood on the Fields was the first jazz composition to ever win the Pulitzer. The Ever Fonky Lowdown is Marsalis dissecting the forces tearing the world apart right now. It’s a disorienting work, throwing a lot at you all at once. The music reflects the diversity with everything from military parade marches to gospel tent revivals to late night jazz jams. Sometimes, composers will weave together diverse elements to show the unity of our common humanity. In The Ever Fonky Lowdown, these elements contribute to the works disoriented, lysergic-dosed nightmare of life in the Trump era.
I hear The Ever Fonky Lowdown as a modern twist on Dante’s tour through hell. Our guide is Mr. Game, a carnival barker con man laying out the tricks and traps used to beguile humans and keep them at each other’s throats. Mr. Game (voiced by actor Wendell Pierce) speaks to us of the poetry of the con. Over the course of the work, Mr. Game lays out how to turn people against each other by creating “others” who wants to take away what you have, how to exploit religion to divide people and how to use people’s need to see themselves as “winners” to get them to support their own oppression. Mr. Game shows us that everything is a hustle to prevent seeing whose hand is in our pocket.
Mr. Games’s knowledge bombs are the meat of the Lowdown. Mr. Game works through the steps of the con, each step taking the mark a step deeper into the manipulation. The musical sections are the blood animating this Golem. Mr. Game’s oily revelations are reflected back as a chorus falling for the con. After Mr. Game warns that “They” are going to cause problems, the masses sing, “I Don’t Like Anyone But Myself,” buying into the idea that everyone is out to get them. From there, it’s easy for Mr. Game to plant the seeds of war as justified and for the good of the people being subjugated. As the work progresses, Mr. Game lays out the cynicism of a multitude of hustles. In the end, Mr. Game reveals “this game was never about them. It was about you and all that’s been sold to you… You don’t actually want to grapple with more than two choices. You don’t want to sacrifice anything meaningful for your fellow citizens. You want to live in a fantasy world in which you may perhaps see people suffer, but from far enough away to change the page at a click.”
The Ever Fonky Lowdown is a morality play for an immoral world. It is an entertainment about how we’re all getting suckered and conned and the only thing the Game cares about is winning. The only way out of the mess we’ve bought into is to stop playing the game.
But can we do that? Can we stop playing the game of us against them? Can we get outside the game and realize we’re all better off when we work together? Mr. Game says no. Wynton Marsalis leaves the question unanswered.
My hope is people will hear The Ever Fonky Lowdown and question why we keep doing stupid things that are against our own interests. Mr. Game would tell me, to give up hoping. There’s a game on and that’s what people want.