This American jazz oratorio composed and arranged by Wynton Marsalis (’81, trumpet) involves a big band, a Greek-style chorus of four jazz vocalists and a narrator, and a rich survey of American musical styles. This excerpt features Parts 1 and 2 of “The Ballad of Fannie Lou” with Damien Sneed conducting the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra and featuring Damon Gupton as the narrator, Mr. Game.
“The Ever Fonky Lowdown” tells the story of a game: a game ultimately about how you can be a willing participant in your own corruption, with a little help from poor leadership. Wynton Marsalis’ work is an American jazz oratorio premiered in 2018 by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. It involves a big band, a Greek-style chorus of four jazz vocalists and narrator and a rich survey of American musical styles. The narrator (Mr. Game), a carnival-barking hustler, gives biting satirical commentary on the rules of the game that alternates with often ironic musical interludes. Mr. Game describes a game that elevates ideals of exploitation, supremacy, and xenophobia—undermining the core virtues of modern American society. Similar to villains such as the Grinch or Detective Alonzo Harris in the film Training Day, Mr. Game tells a historical story of how the greedy have always hoodwinked the less fortunate. He explains the "prizes," "break down," “hand-me-down," and "lowdown" involved in each scene. The sarcasm, wit, and discriminatory tropes referenced create a disturbing but sadly accurate picture of greed and the challenges we face pursuing freedom as a country struggling with the baseline of slavery. Fortunately, the music itself and the portraits of heroes such as Fannie Lou Hammer point to the optimism and hope that can help us overcome the greed espoused in “The Ever Fonky Lowdown.”—Aaron Flagg (BM ’93, MM ’95, trumpet), chair and associate director of Juilliard Jazz
Damien Sneed conducts the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra with Damon Gupton as the narrator, Mr. Game.
Performed and recorded on January 14, 2023, at Peter Jay Sharp Theater