Read an excerpt of the liner notes for Wynton Marsalis's The Ever Fonky Lowdown written by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.—acclaimed scholar and author of Begin Again and Democracy in Black:
"I have always understood the genius of Wynton Marsalis in the full light of a particular genealogy of African American letters. I will leave it to others to describe his musical influences, but the way he thinks and talks about American culture and black folks’ central place in it bears the markings of writers like Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, and Stanley Crouch. These complicated men offer searing commentary on the contradictions of American democracy, especially when it comes to race, but all hold an unshakable faith in its ideals—“with its image of hope, fraternity and self-realization,” as Ellison put it. For each of them, jazz embodies the spirit of this place, at once critique and aspiration, constraint and individuality. Theirs is not a naïve embrace, and they have shaped the voice and sound of Marsalis. One can hear echoes of them in the depth of Marsalis’s understanding of black vernacular culture when he talks about American life and how that becomes the raw stuff for his art.
Ellison, Murray, and Crouch often invoked jazz as an apt metaphor for American democracy. A way of ordering chaos, the music illustrates the freedom evidenced in improvisation and in the consent to the ensemble necessary for its expression. In America, like jazz, there is a fierce individuality within community, but that community is shot through with evils that all too often cut short dreams and promises. With The Ever Fonky Lowdown, Marsalis uses jazz not to illustrate democratic virtues, but to disclose America’s dark underside. The irony of the artform that best illustrates democracy gives way to the bitter irony that the same music exposes the grand lie of the American ideology. Dream and buy into the promise of America and witness it all become a midden dumped at your feet.
Mr. Game offers an account of America rooted in power, leisure, and consumption that knows no boundaries and promotes itself as the greatest gift to humankind: America is the greatest show on earth, with its carnival barkers who keep our eyes on the so-called prize while the winners rob us blind. He reveals how Black folk have been caught up in it all: how the horrors of slavery shaped the country and how our sounds and musings have come to make this ghastly place swing. In Mr. Game’s hands, or Wynton Marsalis’s, jazz exposes the ugly truths of American life. He wants us to see it clearly, the Apostle Paul be damned.
As you listen to the music and take in what Mr. Game says, one cannot help but feel a sense of pervasive sadness here. (The sadness may very well be my own, and it colors the music and his words a deep shade of blue.) Marsalis has seen a lot over his many years. His, one might say, is an earned insight into this particular American calamity. He does not seem angry or bitter. He has been saying something like this for decades. But, if I am right about The Ever Fonky Lowdown, there is something different here: he seems resigned not so much to his fate, but to the fact that America is what it is. That we are who we are. And no matter what we say or how we fight—I love the glimmer of hope he offers with the example of Fannie Lou Hamer—the power of the idea of America continues to overrun everything."