To Wynton Marsalis, playing jazz is like playing basketball: Anyone can put the ball through the net if they work at it, the same way anyone can solo over a blues progression so long as they practice their scales.
These pursuits don’t belong to any single person or group; the only barriers to entry are the ones people put on themselves.
“You say, ‘Hey, man, can I play with y’all?’ ” said Marsalis, an American trumpeter, composer, educator and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. “You see people with a ball standing around, but you don’t know them. But you want to play. So you ask them if you can, and after you play, they try to assess: Can you play?”
Marsalis’ comparison of an art form to a game is one he returns to in his full-length composition, “The Ever Fonky Lowdown,” which had its world premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2018.
At 8:15 p.m. Thursday, August 22 in the Amphitheater, Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will perform “Ever Fonky” for the second time ever, as part of the Week Nine theme “Exploring Race and Culture in America with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center.”
“(‘Ever Fonky’) features four soloists and a spoken word portion by Wendell Pierce, the actor,” said Damien Sneed, a pianist, organist and conductor who worked with Marsalis on the piece. “It has three female soloists: Camille Thurman, a young singer named Ashley Pezzotti and Christie Dashiell, who was featured on the NBC television show, ‘The Sing-Off.’ ”
Pierce will play a character named Mr. Game, a musical master of ceremonies and self-described hustler, who serves as one of the vehicles for Marsalis’ critiques on culture and society.
While not performing in the piece himself, Sneed said he has helped Marsalis as a coach for the “Ever Fonky” vocalists.
“It’s very interesting because the fourth soloist is the guitarist, Doug Wamble,” Sneed said. “So he’ll be singing some of the songs, like ‘I Wants My Ice Cream.’ (‘Ever Fonky’) deals with a lot of issues that people don’t talk about, such as not liking people who are fat or black or Jewish. The words in the libretto could be considered politically incorrect.”
The work is a continuation of a decades-long tradition by Marsalis to compose pieces that deal with issues like race, democracy and social consciousness.
“Each time it’s a different configuration or theme,” Marsalis said. “ ‘The Ever Fonky Lowdown’ uses an abstract version of the language from my album Black Codes. It’s a kind of funk baseline, something that uses funk principles, with really abstract melodic language on top of it.”
Marsalis said he looks to his past compositions, like his Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz oratorio Blood on the Fields, in order to find inspiration for his newer works.
A major theme in “Ever Fonky” is the rejection of pinning all of society’s ills on one group or person.
“Why does (President Donald Trump) come to make the whole trajectory of a nation different?” Marsalis asked. “We were better before him. All the problems we see — the housing problem, the segregation of our schools, Bush’s technological eavesdropping, which Obama maintained — they don’t have anything to do with Trump.”
Marsalis said “Ever Fonky” — which will also feature dancers Ian Klein, James Cabrera and Muata Langley — is highly complex.
“It’s by design that it’s like that,” he said. “I have a bunch of postcards that I put the (opera) on, like 70 of them. It’s still a little long, but I don’t know what to cut. I went through it time after time — I was looking at the chords last night. Even the notes I have for it are extensive.”
Marsalis said he “doesn’t know if (Chautauquans) will learn anything” from “Ever Fonky,” but that he’d like to provoke them to “think that we have to participate in the future of our country.”
“It’s going to cost us,” he said. “It won’t be free. It won’t just be getting online. It’s going to cost something.”