About a month ago jazz trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis used his latest recording on the Troubadour Jass Records label for the debut of the Uptown Jazz Orchestra. The town in question for this group is New Orleans; and the ensemble has tried to survey the broad spectrum of music to be found in this city, taking in everything from the street sounds of a brass band (the title of the third track is “Second Line”) to the far posher nightclub scene (with standards such as Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark”). However, because the title of the album is Make America Great Again!, it is hard to avoid the political reverberations of Marsalis’ own compositions. These include not only the title track but also “Back to Africa,” whose opening lines set the uncompromising tone of the song:
Here you are away from the MotherlandTrying to get by anyway you can.Living in a country without a planGo back where you came from and call it home!
The title track is, of course, based on one of the most familiar tropes in speeches by one of the candidates in this year’s Presidential Election. (Do I really have to say which one?) Marsalis sees the phrase as an appeal to a form of patriotism that only thinly veils undercurrents of intolerance and exclusion. As Marsalis himself puts it:
Living in New Orleans, there's an everyday consciousness of the Confederacy and the despair that a lot of people have over their defeat. You still feel the ramifications of that. Folks are still fighting to keep the Confederate ideology alive, and that's what we see in the constant incarceration and brutality towards our young men.
That message is delivered with full impact by structuring “Make America Great Again!” not as a song (“Back to Africa” actually combines song and rap) but as a narrated text with musical accompaniment. Marsalis’ narrator for this recording is Wendell Pierce, whose voice recalls both the world-weariness and wry humor of Antoine Batiste, the trombonist character that Pierce portrayed in Treme.
That wry humor is also reflected in the overall structure of the album. The opening track is “The Star-Spangled Banner,” delivered with unmistakeable New Orleans rhetoric. This account only has to suggest that some pretty heavy irony is on the way, and the performance is striking for not overplaying its hand. At the other end of the “program” on this recording is an arrangement in a similar vein of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” used for any number of displays of tub-thumbing patriotism, almost all of which have been oblivious to the populist aspirations of Henry A. Wallace, whose “Century of the Common Man” speech inspired Copland.
The result is an album that basically discourses on the theme of identity from beginning to end. Jazz radio stations may try to play individual tracks to let listeners know what Marsalis is up to these days and to assist him in cultivating awareness of the Uptown Jazz Orchestra, but this is unlikely to satisfy those who take their jazz listening seriously. One might almost call the album a song cycle. However, the songs are interleaved with instrumental selections; and, as has already been observed, text is spoken as well as sung. An intellectual might call this album a “well integrated whole;” but anyone who pays close enough attention to grasp both the denotation and the connotation of the words is likely to be far more cautious about using the adjective “integrated,” not only for this album but for any number of other social settings.