[JPL] Wynton Marsalis Commentary: "Let's treasure the old along
with the new"
drjazz at drjazz.com
Sun Jan 18 23:01:24 EST 2009
Commentary: Let's treasure the old along with the new
Wynton Marsalis: We need to talk about the role of American culture in
The riches of our heritage can help unify the nation and move us ahead,
Marsalis says too often the young don't recognize what the old can offer
He says Obama's inauguration is a continuation of America's heritage
By Wynton Marsalis
Special to CNN
Editor's note: Grammy winner Wynton Marsalis is artistic director of
Jazz at Lincoln Center. He and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day
O'Connor will lead "A Celebration of America" with the Rockefeller
Foundation on Monday evening at the Kennedy Center featuring Angela
Bassett, Dave Brubeck, and others.
(CNN) -- On the dawn of the most historic inauguration of our time, we
nervously await "change we can believe in."
Politicians and pundits analyze every pre-presidential utterance and
come to quick conclusions about what will happen under the new
A "wait and see" attitude dampens our euphoria. Will we come together or
will even harder times drive us apart?
In the din of expert voices on everything imaginable, what we don't hear
is informed conversation on how central culture is to our national
Our culture provides all the proof we need that we are together, that we
have always been and, in spite of difficulties, will continue to be.
It's time for us to build a new mythology based on our many cultural
triumphs instead of fixating on our never-ending missteps and conflicts.
The best of America was displayed during this election. That America is
in the poetry and promise of the Constitution and the writings of
Hawthorne, Twain and Hemingway, in every Negro spiritual. It sings
through fiddlers' reels, in the lilting interpretations of ragtime, in
the optimistic majesty of John Phillip Sousa.
That America transformed the whole world of music through the horn of
Louis Armstrong and has passed it down through the sound of all jazz
musicians everywhere. It is the well-woven cultural tapestry of America
that will endure and see us through these and other unfortunate times.
At the root of our current national dilemmas is an accepted lack of
integrity. We are assaulted on all sides by corruption of such magnitude
that it's hard to fathom.
Almost everything and everyone seems to be for sale. Value is assessed
solely in terms of dollars. Quality is sacrificed to commerce and
truthful communication is supplanted by marketing.
The type of gamesmanship that separates races, genders and ages by
"preferences" is a most cynical brand. The integrity and dedication
shown by American artists throughout our history provides a most needed
and unequivocal counterstatement.
On the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, let's recognize the
pernicious effects of separating people by generic categories. In the
fields of science and technology, we accept that one generation builds
But in the popular worlds of culture, there's a generation war in which
"young" is considered energetic and good and "old" equals passé and
tired. So inaccurate. Culture provides a stream of forever-fresh ideas.
The generations need one another.
When I was a kid, I was caught up in that same confusion. I met the
great Roy Eldridge when I was in high school in New Orleans. He'd been a
star for more than 40 years by then, and he was ... well ... old. I had
no real idea of who he was. I had a nice big Afro and he made it clear
he didn't like it.
I was playing the flugelhorn that day and he wanted me to know he had
been responsible for bringing that instrument to America. I couldn't
have cared less about what some old man might have done in what seemed
to me like slavery times.
Some years later, at a function for the Louis Armstrong house in Queens
when I was 26, Roy showed me how to play with a plunger mute and then
invited me to visit him at home. I remembered our first acrimonious
meeting and didn't call. He passed away soon after, and his daughter
reminded me, "My father wanted you to come by."
Then I realized he had needed me and I needed him. Later, someone showed
me a film of Roy in a French club playing drums back in the 1930s. He
lit the club up. People were all around him, loving him and his sound.
His presence was electric. I thought, "This is the old man I saw New
Orleans? Hmmph! I may be making stuff happen, but a lot more went on
before I was born."
The most natural revolutionary requires a conservative establishment to
rebel against. The most stilted tradition must have some new vivifying
energy and imagination.
At this delicate time, all of us are called upon to support and
participate in this new administration. The new president cannot cure
all of our ills as if waving a magic wand. But if we focus on who we are
as a nation and the culture that brings us together, we will face the
uncertain future with supreme confidence.
Our artists, from Melville to Coltrane, have told the tale for us and
for all times. Coming together is the American way. The Founding Fathers
came together. We came together after the bloody Civil War. During the
Civil Rights movement, we came together.
After Hurricane Katrina, the nation unified to help the citizens of New
Orleans. Jazz musicians and dancers have come together on bandstands and
in ballrooms for generations. And now, with the election of Barack
Obama, we once again come together on a matter of national survival.
President Obama's inauguration is not a beginning, but the continuation
of a glorious history that is hallmarked by the American people's desire
to be one. Our Constitution demands it. And it forces us to a life much
greater than the Founding Fathers could have possibly imagined. In the
words of Duke Ellington, supreme master of the blues, "The people are my
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Wynton
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