I can’t, for the life of me, remember when I first heard it, but I do remember hearing (or reading) that, once upon a time, a significant part of Mutual was introducing Mormon youth to the best of literature, music, art, and other learning. After doing some quick Googling that suggested, but didn’t prove, that my memory was right, I did what any right-thinking person would do: I messaged Ardis. And she was kind enough to respond that yes, the M.I.A. had once been a repository of learning about art and culture.
Satisfied, I decided to follow through on my main reason for searching and asking: the introduction of a virtual M.I.A. Periodically (and undoubtedly irregularly), I plan on introducing and writing about some type of art, music, or literature that I’m enjoying, and what makes it worth sampling. While I doubt that most of my picks will have any significant Mormon connection, I consider this as Mormon a blogging topic as any that I’ve blogged. After all, we have not only roots in the M.I.A. program, but we have scriptural injunctions to seek after anything praiseworthy or of good report, and to learn out of the best books.
Also, of course, I want to talk about jazz. And when I mentioned that to Ardis, she warned me that, maybe, in the early twentieth century, that wouldn’t have been considered appropriate by church leaders.[fn1]
In fact, Michael Hicks’s Mormonism and Music: A History makes that very clear. For example, in 1918, John Tanner
devoted several pages to what [he] called “sinful intonations” in music. Likening jazz to the orgies of Rome, the seductions of the Middle East, and the savagery of Africa, Tanner explained: “There is perhaps no more sinful temptation among our young people today than the insinuating sounds that come from the siren voice of a license-loving age. The thoughtful world is just beginning to realize how far the Jazz and kindred music is carrying us from the moorings of our moral safety (191).
And it didn’t really get better from there, at least not for a long time.[fn2]
But we’re over that now; jazz has become America’s classical music (at least, if you ignore the actual classical music written by U.S. composers), and is certainly part of the pantheon of things that cultured people should be familiar with.
It’s Mutual Night!
Which brings us to my first pick: Delfeayo Marsalis’s Make America Great Again![fn3] [Note: link is to the Spotify album. I’m having trouble embedding the playlist in the post, but the link works.]
Stay with me for just a minute, because I’ll address the political aspects of the album. But first, it’s worth knowing who Delfeayo is.
If the Marsalis name sounds familiar, it should. His brother Wynton is a famous trumpeter, director of Jazz at the Lincoln Center, and the primary source of Ken Burns’s Jazz. His brother Branford is a hot-shot jazz saxophone player who also played on the first couple Sting solo albums. His father Ellis is a jazz pianist, New Orleans educator, and the teacher of, among others, Harry Connick Jr. (His brother Jason is less famous, but is a drummer.)
Delfeayo is the trombonist in the family. And on Make America Great Again!, he leads a 20-ish-person big band.
The album is, naturally, a tongue-in-cheek response to Donald Trump. But, unlike some of the jazz I listen to, it’s not really addressing him; rather, it’s a musical (and sometimes lyrical) look at America through the African American experience.
The album starts with a fairly straight-ahead version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The harmonies are a little tweaked from what we’re used to, but it’s not Jimi Hendrix shredding the melody or Rosanne Barr doing, well, whatever she did in San Diego. It introduces the album with the clear idea that Marsalis and his Uptown Jazz Orchestra are all for the United States.
“Snowball” sounds like a traditionally funky New Orleans piece, starting with a funky baritone sax, then layering clarinet, horns, and a funky symbol over it. (And, ftr, it has an amazingly out sax solo early on.) “Second Line” keeps us squarely in New Orleans, with a clean clarinet line leading to an interplay between the brass and the saxes.
But this album isn’t about New Orleans; it’s about America, and New Orleans is just our starting point. In “Back to Africa,” we get our first vocal. In syncopated unity we hear: “Back! Back! Back! Back! Go! Back! To Africa.” The words come with horn hits. And here we start to expressly get an African American perspective, as the voices sing about trying to make it in a country you didn’t mean to be in. And then, quelle surprise, we have rap, interspersed with interweaving horns, in conversation with and over each other. The thing is, it’s not a song privileging Africa over America, or America over Africa—rather, it’s about the influences that African heritage has had on the way we live here.
And then the song we’ve been waiting for: “Make America Great Again!” Again, Delfeayo’s not here to slam Donald Trump. He’s here to build a fuller picture of the United States, something deeper and more complicated and more accurate than a pithy slogan could ever hope to be. And how does he do it? With perhaps the smoothest, cleverest narration I’ve heard in along time, delivered by Wendell Pierce (an actor on, among other things, Treme). The narration is clever, just fast and intricate enough to be interesting, while still being clear and fun. Under his narrative is a long-short horn refrain, with rising and falling sax riffs. Between Pierce’s verses, various members of the ensemble take solos. And the refrain (“Make America great again!”) is sung in unison by several women (I think I hear three or four), in a style that sounds distinctly 20s or 30s. Although the song speaks of unity and diversity, it also speaks bitingly of the oppression of black Americans and the reverberation of that oppression through today.
I’m not going to talk about every single song, but I do want to fast-forward to “Fanfare for the Common Man.” It starts out with the brass fanfare from the famous Aaron Copland composition, about as American as music gets. It then moves to a funky baritone sax-trombone riff, and the fanfare comes in again over that riff. When the fanfare drops out, the band leaves us with a swinging cymbal, a piano comping, and a solo (clarinet, trumpet, etc.). With Fanfare for the Common Man, Marsalis truly makes America great, integrating white with black, New York with New Orleans.
And, not surprisingly, it turns out that this rich tapestry is pretty great. It’s a beautiful ride through genres, places, and styles, and one which underlines the power that America, with its diversity, brings to the world. The music and musicianship is excellent, and, themes notwithstanding, the album is ultimately lighthearted and legitimately funny.[fn4] And, in spite of (or maybe because of) its humor, this may be one of the most potent message albums I’ve heard in a long time (and note that the message is ultimately one of uplift and positivity).
[fn1] N.b.: she wasn’t trying to discourage my writing about jazz; she just wanted to make sure I understood the historical relationship of jazz and Mormonism.
[fn2] For Nate Oman: “The handbook discouraged playing the banjo, as well as cowbells, rattles, frying pans, and other musical ‘instruments of torture.'”
[fn3] So I’m kind of running against a relevance clock here.
[fn4] When I say it’s funny, I mean musically more than lyrically. Some of the lyrics are funny, too, but the way some of the songs are assembled and performed just cracks me up.