"The Ballad of American Arts"
Wynton Marsalis speech delivered at Lincoln Center on March 30, 2009 - The Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture, one of the most significant
events on the national cultural policy calendar. (He began by thanking Sen. And Mrs. Harkin for their support of the arts,
and Bob Lynch at "Americans for the Arts.)
"I am honored and humbled to have this opportunity to
give this year’s address..
"Before we sang, we spoke. Before we danced, we walked.
Before we wrote, we told stories. Before we told stories, we lived.
Those songs, dances, writings allow us to speak to one
another across generations. They gave us an understanding of our commonality long before the DNA told us we are all part of
one glorious procession.
At any point on the timeline of human history, there
are tales to be told, of love and loss, glory and shame, profundity, and even profound stupidity– tales that deserve
retelling, embellishing, and, if need be, inventing from whole cloth. This is our story. This is our song. If well sung, it
tells us WHO we are and where we belong.
And these people were all kinds of people from everywhere.
Some lived in cities, some on farms. Educated. Ignorant. Religious. Sacrilegious. Enslaved– and not. But even the un-enslaved
And they all wanted to be free. And the frontier represented
freedom. They sang songs and told stories and what was in those stories was their exploits, their humor, and their aspirations.
And some people sang and spoke with such depth the just listening and watching took you to the frontier of your own soul..
Picked you up. Made you more alive.
[Perform: Yankee Doodle]
But this liberty was not free. Patrick Henry said: "Give
me liberty or give me death." Many experienced death in the pursuit of liberty.
And suddenly, all types of people appeared together.
Geniuses– a thing never seen again. Virginian Thomas Jefferson. High-minded New Yorker Alexander Hamilton. Bostonian-turned
Philadelphian Ben Franklin– in the twilight of his brilliance– the living embodiment of down-home sophistication.
Men arguing with epic intensity over money and trade
and the rights of states, money and taxes and political power, and money and slavery and religion and just about everything
you knew or had ever heard of. There was a lot of knowledge in that group. A lot of memory and ALL that comes with knowledge
and memory. Pride, arrogance, stubbornness. But don’t let those wigs fool you. These men possessed a timeless wisdom
and a willingness to act together.
You see, somewhere along the way, they realized
that their freedom was linked to other people’s freedom, and with the art of a pen crafted the most flexible and poetic
political document in history. A sterling example of group improvisation on the grand human theme: "How
can I be me without keeping you from being you?"
That Constitution, the Bill of Rights, taught us how
to negotiate our differences– the same way a good dance band adjusts to find the right tempo for each different room
of dancers. To be effective, our founding fathers had to create a living document that could find the right tempo across the
When the ink dried on the last signature, it was the
Constitution that hold us how to be– but it was left to the American arts to tell us who to be. And the who always affects
the how. And that’s why this Constitution could be amended.
Oh, yes, this freedom had a fine political frame, but
it was in need of cultural engine. This new American way needed homegrown arts– to make US into one people– to
TEACH us who we are. Still revolutionary, the freedom to choose the life of your dreaming– to put yourself in the situation
you wanted to be in or should be in. Man, this liberty was serious stuff. Because once you turn freedom loose, there is no
telling where it might go.
It should us suddenly in Minton’s Playhouse in
1940's Harlem. Geniuses– all together, a thing never seen again. Charlie "Yardbird" Parker from Kansas City– the
living embodiment of down-home sophistication. John "Dizzy" Gillespie from Cheraw, South Carolina– full of rhythmic
fire and intellectual curiosity. Thelonious Monk from Rocky Mount, North Carolina– mathematician of music and master
of thematic improvisation.
Right there were all kinds of knowledge and memory and
all the self-absorption that comes with those attributes. These men were furiously discussing American fundamentals through
a musical style called bebop. And somewhere along the way, they answered questions about individual freedoms and collective
responsibilities in the language of swing. When all was said and done, they did nothing less than create the new school of
American virtuosity. It rose from the bowels of our caste system to demonstrate with sheer brilliance that WHO a person is,
is always more definitive than WHAT a person is.
There’s Bird and Dizzy and Monk creating a community
of people in the service of American objectives detailed by Jefferson, Madison, and Adams more than 150 years earlier. The
urgency and speed of their music declared "Now is the time."
[Perform: ‘Now’s the Time"]
The greatest artists play for history.
Such is their passion, discipline, insight and belief. Ben Franklin so believed in the American experiment
that upon his death in 1790, he bequeathed one thousand pounds sterling to be held in trust for Philadelphia and Boston. The
trust was to be expended over 200 years.
A financial inheritance can be accurately assessed
in dollars, but what is the value of an artistic heritage? Who calculates the value of "Amazing
Grace" or "Yankee Doodle" or "Go Down Moses:? Those spirituals were the first body of identifiable, purely American musical
art– all kinds of people from all over made ONE through tragedy.
And people played drums in Congo Square in New Orleans
and all kinds of people danced to this music because those drums reminded people of who they were– and what they played
told folks this is a new land. And they knew to MIND THE DRUMS BECAUSE THOSE DRUMS ARE MEMORY AND THEY CARRY MEANING.
And Bostonian Ralph Waldo Emerson told you about the
power of individuality. New Yorker Thelonious Monk told you, "A genius is he who is most himself." And John Henry was being
himself when he said "A man is a natural man, and before I let that steam drill beat me down, I’ll fall dead with my
hammer in my hand: I’ll fall dead with a hammer in my hand." And that’s what artists all over America have thought
when extracting the guts of the American soul for those essences that make us one– that awaken us to WHO we are.
And I’m telling you that Edgar Allan Poe sang
the blues before the blues were even born. And Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" and a lot was in it,
and a lot wasn’t. But things are never important or what they AREN’T– especially art. And that book told
people what the constitution knew. Slaves were people and no matter how much it was mocked, it wasn’t funny. And that
book made people AWARE– but oh those stubborn spirituals were Asian, Irish, African– so many things. Those spirituals
told you every man was one man way before DA told you .
Slaves reaching across time to connect the Old Testament
and the New, and Moses and freedom, and Jesus and freedom and made it all be now. And they couldn’t even read.. But
they KNEW. I’m telling you, these songs brought people together because singing gives a community purpose, and they
put everything in those songs– and that music made us believe and called us home. Yes, people wee in chains in the land
of freedom, but would soon be free.
[Perform: "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho]
We all know these songs just as you know them here tonight.
And Count Basie’s Kansas City band was the greatest
community organization to ever leave a city. And they swang and stomped the blues from Bellingham, Washington to Fort Lauderdale,
Florida and his tow greatest bands were called New and Old Testament. And there’s Lester Young holding his Old Testament
saxophone on a 90-degree angle with a leaning port-pie hat echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s "Self Reliance."
"You got to play your own song if you want to join the
throng, baby" as he poured totally original lyricism into song after song.
And all over the country, people argued about life and
love and loss and freedom and god and who they were– or wanted to be– or wanted their kids to be.
And here we are fighting each other over freedom, but
doing it to good music. No two armies on earth ever had better fight songs.. And, Ironically, the music drummed out in Congo
Square in New Orleans was in 6 and 4 together.
I told you– the drums are memory.
The south’s theme ‘Dixie’ is in 4
and the North’s ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ is in 5. I wish I was in de land of cotton. Old times
Dar am not forgotten. Look away Look away. Look away, Dixieland.
And we all still know it.
And "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" becomes "Washington
Post," which becomes the New Orleans parade anthem "Didn‘t He Ramble," and the classic "Mickey Mouse" theme. And when
they finished cursing, blaming, and killing each other, they realized they were still on this land and still together.
We marched in the streets to the tune of "We Shall Overcome"
and "Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody turn Us Around." and Mahalia Jackson sang spirituals and song that sounded like the heavens
with an approach influenced by the earthiest blues singer of them all, the Empress– Bessie Smith. And those songs they
sang, and the way they sang them were all you knew. Those songs were all you needed to know.. And ll the you would ever need
And Martin Luther King was in jail in Birmingham living
Henry David Thoreau’s treatise on Civil Disobedience. "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place
for a just man is also in prison." He was using the constitution and the powerful American art of negotiation to pursue freedom
while Louis Armstrong told President Eisenhower and the nation that "they’ve been breaking the constitution down there
for years." And Dr. King and Louis were not alone.
Americans of all stripes joined the struggle and the
people at last became free legally.
This liberty was serious stuff. Brother
killed brother over it. Churches were bombed and kid’s killed. And John Coltrane with his healing tenor saxophone brought
us together and reminded us of who we are at our best when he recorded "Alabama."
Yes. Once you turned this freedom loose, it could go
anywhere. And the people used their freedom to buy entertainment. And they sat to watch burlesque and a vulgar blackface imitation
of darkeys and coons, and P.T. Barnum said a sucker was born every minute. And those drums were still beating in Conger Square–
but nobody was minding them.
Some Americans hated everything homegrown and thought
everything from Europe was cultured and everything American was unsophisticated. Ask Cole Porter why the Broadway musical
was not sophisticated enough to be art. Ask cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, lyric hero of the jazz age, why his bourgeois Iowa
Family disowned him for playing jazz?
But people still sang and danced and wrote and nurtured
our arts, though it was under-appreciated and thought to reek of snobbery and upper-class airs. And Emily Dickinson stayed
home and focused on the everlasting to sweeten the bitterness of being barely published. And no one read Melville and few
But this art– in all its forms– speaks across
time. It calls us home– even now tonight.
And by the time the first of Franklin’s 1890 money
was given to Philadelphia and Boston, Some proud musicians were marching in the streets of New Orleans inventing a new form
of American music. It brought together marches and minstrelsy, light opera, and society dances, and Catholics and the sanctified
church, and nasty whorehouse songs and spirituals too. It sat all of them in the same room with Mardi Gras revelry to hear
that same sermon again about freedom, and one person, and balance with every person– except now they weren’t talking.
They were playing.
And King Buddy Bolded led the way with his cornet. And
that music was syncopated, so people danced, and it was the blues, so people danced with feeling. And it was jazz, so they
danced with feeling and accuracy. Ant it was improvised, so they danced with feeling, accuracy, and abandon.
[Perform "Buddy Bolded Blues]
Many called it the devil’s music. And jazz and
the blues were reviled by the Black church and eschewed by the education system. Yeah, the American artist has always been
in a type of limbo squeezed between three unsatisfied masters.
The critical expert validated by European taste–
this also influenced the education system– the church– and the court of fickle public opinion.
For the true expert, nothing homegrown was good enough.
Let’s ask Whitman whose eroticism and celebration
of the common man and the common things and insistence on his own meter was wholly American.– but considered unsuitable
be experts, the church, and the court of public opinion. His crime? Telling us who we are. "I hear American singing–
each singing what belongs to him or her and to no one else." America was singing– and nobody thought nothing of it.
Ask all the Negro preachers who railed against the blues
for generations while the blues was coming out of every decent singer in their choir. Ask them and all those who wanted to
save souls. What were the benefits of denying what came from our very souls in search of our true selves? That’s the
Constitution. Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Duke Ellington. August Wilson.
If an artist sings deeply enough, then takes you to
the frontiers of your soul... that frontier is freedom. Freedom to feel– to feel the sensual nature of the "is" and
the is-ness" of things. The "This is what I feel" and "you know you feel it too."
And all over this country, people argued about life
and love and loss and God and freedom and who we are and want our kids to be. And every arts program was cut from every school,
and a machine came in and replaced the drum. Those same drums that you got to mind because they are memory... and we forgot.
"Yankee Doodle keep it up. Yankee Doodle Dandy, mind
the music and the step and with the girls be handy."
Mind the music and the step. W.C. Handy– father
of the blues. His father was a minister and young Handy grew up with a religious tension that went all the way back to Adam
and Eve. Hawthorne had told us about this stuff in the "Scarlet Letter," and Handy understood what Walt Whitman understood.
Living boiled down to love and making love. Here’ s Whitman:
"Hair, bosom, hips, bend of legs, negligent falling
hands, all diffused– mine too diffused. Ebb stung by the flow, and the flow stung by the ebb– love-flesh swelling
and deliciously aching." That’s the story Handy’s music told the congregation when Aunt Hagar interrupted her
preacher in "Aunt Hagar’s Blues."
[Perform "Aunt Hagar’s Blues"]
"Old Deacon Splivin, his flock was givin’ A way of livin’ right. Said he, "No wingin’, no ragtime singin’ tonight." Up jumped aunt all her might. Oh,
‘taint no use to preachin’, Oh, ‘taint
no use to teachin’,Hagar, and shouted with each
modulation of syncopation, Just tells my feet to
dance and I can’t refuse. When I hear the
melody blues! They call the blues, Those
ever ’lovin’ t here. Just Aunt Hagar’s chillum harmonizin’ to that old mournful tune!
It’s like choir from on high broke loose!
If the devil brought it, the good Lord sent it right
down to me. Let the congregation join while I sing
those lovin’ Aunt Hagar’s Blues! Yes.
If the devil brought it, the American artist had the
responsibility of developing our taste for it and putting it before a public opinion that was, as time passed– untutored,
then willing, briefly learned, and then ultimately exploited.
The artist had to walk a tightrope with an audience
whose expectations were first formed by the minstrel show and the novelty performance. But at least those popular entertainments
were assessed with homegrown taste.
Ask the famous German string quartet who came to the
White House to enlighten President John Tyler in 1841. After a couple of movements, the president reportedly chased them out
with his cane and was heard to shout behind them "Don’t ye know any Virginia Reels?"
Ask all those who think a blinking screen or a new computer
program or any other technological advance is in itself artistic substance.
Artists effortlessly speak across time because
the technology of the human soul does not change.
Ask Eugene O’Neill, who absorbed the spirit of
the Greeks through the spirit of Wagner’s acolyte Nietzsche who told him that Whitman said was what Buddy Bolded said
when he opened his horn up in New Orleans and set the slaves free and called all his children home... "Wake up!"
They all spoke the same language– the language
of the soul– and the mind– and of the body and they were out on prairies in the West telling tall tales and playing
tunes for people to gather ‘round– that’s what they were doing, and they kept on doing it.
As Elvin Jones, great drummer with John Coltrane’s
Classic Quartet, once said after being informed by a patron in New York’s Village Vanguard. "A lot of people don’t
like your music," Well, they better start liking it," he said, "Cause we gonna keep on playing it." And they did.
And their hearts broke as the audience they craved,
the audience whose lives they were playing, would rather hear some fresh-faced, well-meaning musicians from another country
sell a watered-down version of the blues,. Not that they were wrong for playing it... but it had to seem strange to somebody.
[Perform some rock]
Behind the masks of poet, musician, playwright, dancer,
painter, those artists will always turn your face to the fire because they speak an undeniable truth about who we are. By
1993– more than 200 years after his death– Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia trust was valued at more than
$2.25 million and his Boston trust at almost $5 million. Sweeping the country at this same time as the return of the minstrel
show under the guise of youth culture... and the new plantation was the inner city.
Let’s sample some of the misogynistic similarities
between the old minstrel routing and the new.
This is from a Christy Minstrel songbook from 1850:
‘One evening at a ball, ha, ha, A thick-lipped wench so rall, ha, ha. She
fell in lub wid me, ha, ha. She fell in lub wid
me. Ha, ha, ha. I danc’d wid her all night, ha, ha. She
did my finger bite, ha, ha. I hit her wid all my
might, ha, ha, And spoil de wench’s sight.
Ha, ha, ha.
It’s 1992 counterpoint: the rap anthem, "Nothing
But a G Thang.""Try to get close and you’re
bound ta’ get smacked, My little home Snoop
Doggy Dogg has got my back, Never let me slip ‘cause
if I slip then I’m slippin, ’But if
I got my nina, then you know I’m straight trippin’. And
I’m a continue to put the rap down, put the mac down, and
if your woman wanna trip, I have ta’ put the smack down.Yeah,
and ya’ don’t stop."
I guess some things are always for sale. And we forgot,
because those drums were now machines and we lost the memory and the meaning. And folks mistakenly thought it had something
to do with being ‘real."
What’s real is the fact that our country has always
been enriched and expanded when the folks who don’t understand one another, or just plain don’t like one another,
figure out how to come together, or are forced together.
And what art came from this glorious tension of slavery
and freedom, and Europe and Africa, and New and Old World and Ol’ Old World. Those American slaves could care less about
European tastes. They were working with basics with what they knew had to be adapted to this new situation. So they transformed
everything they touched through improvisation and because their situation required so much humor to survive, they syncopated.
[Perform Pat Juba]
Now here comes one of the deepest American truths–
the minstrel show. Random black folks on the plantation imitating the ways of white folks are imitated by itinerant white
entertainers who ‘blacken up" and create plantation skits.
Plantation owners then cull through their slaves for
the most talented who then imitate the white entertainers’ imitation of black folks imitating white folks. These selected
blacks are then imitated by professional white performers, and after the Civil War and the rise of black minstrelsy as an
enterprise, white professionals were imitated by black professionals.
It would make Yankee Doodle’s head spin.
He told us "mind the music and the dance"-- And with the music, dance, comedy and other variety show aspects of minstrelsy,
generations of American show people were trained. And the minstrel show also allowed white artists to don a mask behind which
they could speak on issues of sex, politics, race– with unprecedented freedom. And once you
turn freedom loose, there’s no telling where it might go.
So, the first generation of free Afro-Americans were
introduced to America under the divisive lyrics and skits of the minstrel show. It was the blues before the blues.
But when the Fist Jubilee singers toured Europe, they
told no jokes nor did they dance the buck-and-wing. The sang the purest pianissimo anyone had ever heard and where people
came to hear savages recently freed from the plantations, they heard an ancient and modern human cry and yearning for respect
Scott Joplin studied with the German-born Julius Weiss
and gave us the timeless optimism of ragtime. Well, anyway, ragtime was nothing but syncopated marches mixed with banjo figures.
And the March King, John Philip Sousa, lived near the Washington D.C. neighborhood where James Reese Europe grew up, and the
youngster Europe studied the violin with Sousa’s bandmaster, Enrico Hurlei. And Europe, who was Afro-American, played
music for Vernon and Irene Castle, who popularized ballroom dancing for white Americans who had come from the farms to the
city... and together the Castles and Europe came up with the Fox Trot, the Turkey Trot, the quick step, the two-step, the
twist, the slide. The Jazz Age!
And Duke Ellington is right here in D.C. playing social
dance music and he hears Jelly Roll and King Oliver and the Original Dixieland Band– all of them down there in New Orleans
playing scalding hot jazz coming north to Chicago and New York. He hires some New Orleans musicians to combine high-society
with the deep down and dirty.
No one remembers the Jazz Age because now it’s
the Swing Era, and Duke is burnin’ up miles of highway all over the land. And everybody is broke. And what they danced
and sang was all they knew. It was all they needed to know and it was all they would ever need to know.
And after the war, people are running away to the suburbs
and running so hard they’re forgetting all kinds of stuff about who we are. And the people in the cities get lost too.
And People were trying to bring America’s art to schools. And here’s Duke Ellington at Ohio State University.
His tenor sax man Big Al Sears befriends a student trombonist names Alan Freed and they keep in touch. Freed goes into radio
and has a show in Cleveland called "The Moondog Show" and big Al writes a song called Castle Rock.
[Perform Castle Rock]
Big Al goes on Freed’s show and Freed plays the
song seven times and starts calling these blues shuffles "Rock and roll." It wasn’t nothing but what Basie had been
playing and Louis Jordan played and Fats Domino and them down in New Orleans. Pretty soon, Freed started producing rock and
roll shows with integrated bands, and he had Big Al in one of these bands. American Bandstand approaches Freed with a television
spot and says, "You got to lose these colored boys." Freed says "Big Al has been with me since I was in college. I can’t
fire these men." So, they say "too bad" and hired Dick Clark and did away with the band all together to avoid unpleasantry.
Well, that’s marketing.
Anyway, black folks had Soul Train on TV, and funk was
the rage. No one remembered that rock and roll was a merger of gospel, country, and the blues– played by musicians influenced
No one remembered Alan Freed and Big Al Sears. No one
remembered that Louis Armstrong had played with Jimmy Rodgers on Blue Yodel #9 and that the Country, R&B, and Pop charts
all had the same #1 song in 1955– Cal Perkins’ "Blue |Suede Shoes."
No one remembers that a two-beat groove is the same
in all forms of American music. So is the blues. They only remembered slavery and segregation and they put Chuck Berry in
jail for the ‘wrong’ kind of integrating and Rock took on a distinctively different face– only to have musicians
from Britain come here in the 1960's to reintroduce us to our own pre-segregated Rock and Roll. It was called the British
invasion. Ain’t that something? Our own tradition coming back to us as an echo of the blues draped in sexuality without
the black face.
Nobody remembered that the American Arts were integrated
before baseball, but by the time the dust of the rock revolution had cleared, some kind of way, rock ended up being white,
and the definitive national music– and the blacks ended up with the minstrel show again.
This new minstrelsy was complex too– as suburban
whites imitate the inner city blacks who embrace the bourgeois disaffection expressed in heavy metal nihilism fueled by the
white misconception that black people are freer with their emotions and sexuality.Mind the music and the dance...
No one remembers how hard fought the integration of
our arts was– and few cared to remember what any of the dances mean.
And the country was in peril. The stock market crashed
because of greed. And all over the country, people argued about life and love and loss and freedom and God and who they were–
or wanted to be– or wanted their kids to be.
And some people took their own lives, while some people
became more alive. It was at our lowest point that we reached for who we were, instead of what we were. And the classic dimensions
of the American experience as expressed in art flourished.
George Gershwin and Jerome Kern, they kept on writing
shows. And those songs spoke to the aspirations of millions of immigrants who came to this country wanting to participate
in the American experience. And here’s cole Porter and Irving Berlin and Rogers and Hart to tell them who we are with
an enduring body of American popular song that still speaks to matters of the human heart and every type of human circumstance.
And we made films that defined the genre and we listened to bands swing all over the country on radios, and we danced. Dizzy
said "dancing never made anybody cry.'
We danced all over this land to the living room radio
and then we began to fill ballrooms. And what glorious music. In the nation’s most trying economic times, we swang.
This was our thing and we knew how to do it. It was the two-beat fox trot of high society. The four on the floor jump of Kansas
straight from Sousa and those men who sang through horns in the South.
The sweet ballads of singers like Billie Holiday, Frank
Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald fronting impeccably– clad jazz orchestras. The call-and-response of brass and woodwind that
echoed democratic discourse from as far back as the Constitution.
Latin rhythms that put another accent on the beat. Intricate
orchestrations that defied the norms of instrumentation. Duke Ellington. The Dorsey Brothers. Glenn Miller. And they burned
up miles and miles of highway bringing their brand of freedom to a populous in search of true meaning.
And Benny Goodman and his orchestra goes on tour with
a library full of songs arranged by New York bandleader Fletcher Henderson, who was six when his father was freed by General
Sherman. And as the band goes West, fewer and fewer people turn out. And Benny begins to replace the Henderson arrangements
with corny, stock arrangements. Finally, the band reaches Los Angeles... damn-near broke and demoralized.
They are booked for three weeks at the Palomar Ballroom
in Los Angeles, and to their surprise, the room is packed. They play stock arrangements the first set and four-thousand couples
are bored to death. Drummer Gene Krupa convinces Bennie that they should go out swinging. They break out the Henderson charts,
and that night eight thousand people in the heart of the Depression lost their minds, renewed their souls and danced their
feet off launching the Swing Era.
What they heard was Afro-American... it was Jewish...
it was Creole.. It was the blues... it was improvised... it was syncopated... it was jazz. It was the sound of freedom. And
I’m telling you that what they played and the way they played it was all you knew, was all
you needed to know, and it was all you would ever need to know. It was all-American.
In the 1980's, I presented an award to Dizzy Gillespie
and Benny Goodman was presenting Martin Gould with the same award. When I met Benny Goodman, there was absolutely no feeling
of any mutual experience between the two of us. I knew his name and had heard a few of his recordings, but I didn’t
know who he was.
With all my education– I was the perfect product
of a disrespectful American youth culture, a school system segregated by information, and a decade of retrenching under the
mind-numbing philosophies of Black Nationalism and good ol’ boy southern exclusion. I could only respond with distaste
at the fact that he was called the "King of Swing."
I knew nothing of his pioneering integration of American
art. I didn’t understand that I was a part of his legacy. But, coming from New Orleans, I knew I was a part of Louis
Armstrong’s legacy, still... no real understanding of who he was and what he meant to the world. I didn’t understand
what it took for Winslow Homer to paint black people with dignity in the 19th Century. I had never heard of him.
I definitely didn’t understand why any of
this could be important to me. It was old. The funny part is that I was a "star" product of the American education system.
My father is a teacher and a musician, and I went to great high schools with good teachers and made good grades-- and was
still ignorant to the riches of my artistic heritage as an American.
We all were.
I didn’t understand how hard fought the victories
of American culture were. The best of the American arts and the way they’ve been sung and swing provided human meaning
to the questions posed by the founding Fathers more than 150 years earlier. It told you to be yourself and love what made
you you.It told you to listen deeply to others and find the beauty of originality in them. And through swing, the most flexible
rhythm ever played, it told you how to balance your individuality with the desires of the group. It told you we have a history,
a depth, a tradition that required skill and study but demands you apply those skills to search the frontiers of your soul.
It told you that innovation and creativity hold hands with the tried and true.
For thirty years, I have traveled up and down this unpredictable,
unruly country. I have played in elementary schools, high schools, concert halls, parks, malls, colleges, prisons, hospitals,
community centers, in parades, cathedrals, churches, clubs, and dives-- even on a New York City subway.
After almost every performance people wait. Parents,
teachers, kids, grown-up kids. The wait, and enjoying the easy formality of the occasion, they ask questions. And they all
want tot know the same thing: "Are we together? And is everything gonna be alright?"
... and I realize that we all yearn for a new
American mythology. We want to embrace one another, but don’t
The answer is not more education, but more substantive
and more culturally-rooted education. The primary justification for the value of education is not some competition with other
countries for technological jobs, or to win the so-called science race or to beat anyone. Our arts demand and deserve that
we recognize the life we have lived together
In this time, we need to be educated in who we are,
and with the arts, education extends far outside the classroom.
In a paraphrase of the hit 1967 classic, "The Crisis
of the Negro Intellectual," Harold Cruse could just as easily have spoken not just to Blacks, but to all Americans...
"Without a cultural identity that adequately defines
itself, the American cannot even identify with the nation as a whole. He is left in the limbo of social marginality, alienated
and directionless on the landscape of America– in a variegated nation not yet decided on its own identity. The fact
of the matter is that Americans, as a whole, are in doubt about their nationality– ad well as their cultural identity."’‘
Yes, more in doubt because we have forgotten. Forgotten
to embrace the arts we developed over hard fought centuries. American politics and economics are very flexible and can work
in any cultural context. But don’t let those wigs fool you.
If our political and economic system doesn’t serve
out cultural interest, "How do we rebuild those systems when they are in distress or fail?"
We have an embarrassment of artistic riches in
trust. And we’re not collecting our inheritance. You better believe Boston and Philly took Franklin’s money. But
our arts are of no value to us. When you don’t consider the song of yourself, you become
lost. And when you’re lost, you do lost things. If you’re lost long enough, you stop looking to be found.
That’s why we’ve become fearful and uncertain
about our way of life. In this time of redefining the American identity, Who will teach our young the rituals of romance through
dance– liberating them from a culture which separates kids and parents with phony rhetoric, sexual exploitation, and
an amateurish beat?
Who will have the courage to teach the most heroic songs
and stories of what we have done all over this land and demand that the best of who we are be the national story?
Who will teach the music of our country and bring races
of people together– in practice– to share our integrated national identity?
Who will sing the living tale of America to our kids
to counter-state marketing slogans and rescue them from the isolation of technological gadgets?
As we rebuild our dismantled arts education piece by
piece, in response to the lack of culture and integrity we see in our way of life, let us teach our kids how to be free.Lyndon
Johnson, in addressing civil rights, said "So, it is the glorious opportunity of this generation to end the one huge wrongs
of the American Nation and, in so doing, to find America for ourselves, with the same immense thrill of discovery which gripped
those who first began to realize that here, at last, was a home for freedom." And that generation did what it could to make
America the frontier of progressive living in the world.
Now the challenge of this generation is to find
the frontier of our collective souls. And though it is a soul with a history of slavery and injustice
and struggle, it is a soul with freedom and striving and triumph. And you can’t get past the truth of yourself. It’s
always there because it was there and it is there.
And when you acknowledge that truth, you understand
it’s not something you have to hide, but something to proudly show. Because where you come from ain’t where you’re
But if you don’t know where you been, you might
just end up where you started... or further back. And as we go forward with our agendas for our various arts causes, let’s
remember– there is only one cause.
Whether that cause is expressed in artists visiting
schools, or museum trips, or arts curricula, or master classes, or community bands, or artist diplomats, or swing dance competitions...
the agenda is larger than our individual agendas.We need to look in our hand to find the key we’ve been searching for.
It’s what the Constitution started. Congo Square
ratified. The Civil War sealed. The repeal of Reconstruction tested. Ellis Island cosigned. The Depression matured. Two World
Wars proved. The Civil Rights Movement affirmed. Vietnam and Iraq sobered.
Now is the time to realize: This is our story. This
is our song. If well sung, it tells us who we are and where we belong.
What is in those songs and the way we sing them is all
you know. It’s all you need to know, and it’s all you will ever need to know.
Wynton Marsalis is Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln