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For Wynton Marsalis, ‘The cause is people’

Jazz great Wynton Marsalis talks about his music, his fundraising for Jazz at Lincoln Center, his philanthropy, and his work to improve arts education in an interview with Contribute magazine.
/ Source: Contribute Magazine

You are from New Orleans; you were born there. American jazz was born there. How did Hurricane Katrina call you personally into action?

Out of sadness, and horror. I guess you feel that towards any person who got hit by a car, but in this case its your hometown, so its as if something happened to your family or your mother. So all of us felt we needed to help. I got publicity because Im known, but so many New Orleanians, even now, are doing what they can and doing everything in their power. A lot of people call me, asking what they can do to help, intelligently, to rebuild the city. We are all still running around trying to figure that out.

On the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 2006, you gave a stirring and provocative speech to students at Tulane University, urging them not only to help rebuild New Orleans but to help shake up what you said is a slumbering nation. What was your message and the reaction to it?

The students enjoyed the speech. I was mainly speaking to them. But it was interesting. I heard from people all over the country saying that it was time to say what I did. I was saying that the younger generation has got to demand more than what we, in our generation, have demandedespecially when it comes to civic awareness.

My daddy thought — no, he expected — that my brothers and I and our generation would make the world a better place. He was correct in his belief because he had lived in an America of continual social progress depression followed by prosperity, segregation by integration, and so on. And though I haven't quite pinpointed it, somewhere between my daddy's youth and mine, generational aspirations for a richer democracy changed to aspirations for a richer me — more wealth and more leisure time for a lower quality of work. And our political process? We didn't keep an eye on how our tax dollars were being squandered or how our interests were being poorly served by our elected officials.

When did we begin to lose faith in our ability to effect change? Perhaps the demoralizing murders of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King scared the civic-minded young people of the 1960s right out of their idealism into despair and then, to in difference. Perhaps it was the 1980s when the opportunity inherent in the American Dream was distorted from the land of "we" to the land of "to hell with anybody else but me." Maybe the preoccupation with technological progress has overshadowed our concern with human progress.

In any case, the result of this social inactivity is that generations are now named simply for the last letters of the alphabet (Generation X, Generation Y, and so forth). And these alphabet-named people are distinguished by their ability to manipulate new technology, buy new things with money they have not earned and be obsessed with the trivial lives of celebrities.

My message to young people is this, that what happened in New Orleans, what is happening around the world, is a signal opportunity to actually start to participate. Throughout the history of America, young people have been a part of change. Its time to seize the day.

In September of 2005, you organized the Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Fund benefit concert in Manhattan for New Orleans. That evening, the actor Danny Glover told the audience: "New Orleans is plunging its remaining population into a carnival of misery. )Katrina) did not turn the region into a Third World Country, as it has been disparaged in the media. It revealed one. It revealed the disaster within the disaster. Grueling poverty rose to the surface like a bruise to our skin. Hurricane Katrina revealed more than anything else, 'a poverty of imagination.'" Do you agree?

Yeah, I agree with it, and it plays out in school systems across the country and cities across the country. There are so many unresolved issues in our country, and now is, I think, a good time for us to begin to understand that racial tensions, poverty, what have you, are national issues, and they're not just going to resolve themselves with inaction. We have to work together to resolve these problems. Some people don't know we have problems but there aren't many. The only way you cannot know is if you just don't look at what's right in front of you. If you don't look at a homeless person, you don't know people are homeless. You can walk down the street and walk past 50 homeless people, and you can say, I don't see them. And they don't. But if you look at them, they're there.

You've always been outspoken, musically.

It's created a lot of bad reviews during my life.

And good ones, as well.


Did this speech mark a turning point, even for you, in terms of speaking out provocatively to a national audience?

Not for me. It may have been perceived that way, but I've been saying the same things to kids in colleges and high schools and have been trying to create change now for many years. I would like for there to be a turning point in terms of the national consciousness about things.

Thanks in large measure to your celebrity and your fundraising clout, of course, jazz got a new house of worship with the opening of the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. What was this about for you, personally? Was it all about energizing the faithful and drumming up new converts to jazz as an art form?

The ultimate goal was to raise the American consciousness to a higher level. Jazz music creates so many phenomenal figures. There's so much spirit of integration and democracy in jazz.

You once said that the very form of jazz, itself, is a democracy.

Well, it's just our way of expressing. We play with each other. As a jazz musician, you have individual power to create the sound. You also have a responsibility to function in the context of other people who have that power also.

There's the concept of New Orleans jazz: group improvisation, cooperative ensemble-playing, which functions exactly like a democracy. Each person has the right to play what he or she wants to play, but the responsibility to play something that makes everybody else sound good. It's the way that these horns relate to the rhythm section, it's like a musical example of how a democracy should work. I mean, it's been said so many times, you know, what I'm saying is like a cliché.

Teaching young people about jazz is so much more than simply teaching them about music. Jazz is designed to teach you things about yourself first. The music teaches you to respect what it is about you that is unique, so that you don't have to fit into a kind of group mentality. For kids who face all sorts of peer pressure, learning jazz can give a kid so much confidence. Jazz also teaches you that other people also are unique and don't have to fit in. And it teaches you to play with them, to listen to them. Most of the time playing jazz, you're listening. You're not playing. And if you're in the rhythm section and you're playing all the time, you're listening all the time because you're inventing the accompaniment to something that someone is making up on the spot. So those are the basic laws, the basic skills you need to learn growing up —one, learning how to be yourself and two, how to respect other people and their individuality and the choices they make, which will — many times — not be your choices. Because jazz really is all about that: accepting what other people are doing and working with it.

We said all of this to people during the fundraising for Jazz at Lincoln Center, people who maybe didn't like jazz but who loved the United States. They could say, hey, maybe I don't like jazz, but I understand what you're saying, and I agree with that, and that's worth me putting some money into it because I want to see our country go in that direction, too.

With Jazz at Lincoln Center, I'm living it. I'm not selling you a line. I don't need a building for myself. It's about whether people want to be a part of something historic. Our board has been very dedicated to jazz, and we raised a lot of money in a very hard time, a difficult time, after 9/11. We had a lot of support, a lot of really faithful people who believe in the art form. The art form created that. I might espouse the message and talk about it, but Duke Ellington, Miles Davis—their music meant something to all of the people who danced to their music, listened to their music, fell in love to their music, used their music as a philosophy. Many of those people are still alive in this country. Maybe they lost touch with it or they're scared of jazz. But jazz means something. I think our donors understand that.

Do you think you've awakened a broader base for this music?

No, I think that will take a lot of education, where our country is in dire need of cultural education. Jazz is tradition, part of American history and culture and life. But we have, as a country, gotten so far away from our whole mythology. American mythology is skewed so much against what the country actually represents. If we were educated in our own grandeur and in the best of the things that we've created, then we'd have never let a lot of things happen.

Like what?

Like we wouldn't denigrate other people. Jazz music doesn't denigrate anybody. There is, for example, the public use of the word "nigger" all the time, or the kind of exploitation of girls and women that goes on constantly in mass culture now. It is so harsh, so crass. It's not a matter of taking away the most fundamental human thing that we all love and enjoy, and some more than others (laughter), but it's a matter of saying, man, is that what we want of our young people, is this what we're giving them? We also would not have a kind of almighty worshipping of money and a lack of integrity that we see in business and in all things. It's in the arts also. I'm not saying that those things wouldn't exist, but they wouldn't be a philosophy, they wouldn't be our primary direction if we were to embrace the best of what our tradition has led us to embrace.

Since 9/11, so many people have opened their wallets to give to causes here and, as never before, abroad. Given your fundraising efforts, how would you size up the state of philanthropy today?

I want to answer that globally, because in the entire world, we really have enough for everybody. There's enough for everybody to eat, there's enough for everybody to be educated. We have enough technology. We have enough. That couldn't be said of many other periods of time. With advances in farming, with advances in communication — we have enough.
So until our consciousness evolves to see how we're all connected to every other person, we'll always have this kind of idea that we have something to be fighting over. We're under the illusion that there's a finite amount of these things, and you'd better get as much of it as you can get.

Philanthropy is not a requirement. But I think that the more that we become aware of other people and how much we can help them — and not just with money but with time and our interests — the more effective we will be.

We need that social fabric. I [gave a music lesson to] a young lady yesterday, and she started to get full of emotion. She wasn't playing like she wanted to play. She told her parents she wanted them to leave the room. She's 16 years old. "You're looking at me," I told her. I was 16 once, I had parents, I've been nervous, I've messed up on stuff, I've done well on stuff, I made good grades on things, bad grades, all the stuff that you experience when you're 16. I told her, "Don't send your support system away. Let your parents stay and help; you will need them."

I told her a story about a famous doctor in New Orleans who choked to death, and he did so when he was at a convention of doctors. He choked to death because he went to the bathroom to be alone; he didn't want them to see him choke. It was that impulse to leave his support system to deal with a tough situation. So for all of the philanthropists, all of the donors, we're all one big support system. Each gesture that goes in that direction creates more philanthropy, more support for everyone.

It's like the more you give, the more you get. It's just how that works. You get what you create. If you create something for other people, you create it for yourself. If I'm kind to a person and his or her daughter, that's my daughter or my son. If I'm kind to you, it's not like I am separate from you. We're all a part of a big circle; it's just a matter of developing the consciousness to realize it.

Have you always felt this way?

As I grew up, I had to deal with a lot of racism. I was very, very angry for a long time. Very angry. It made me so mad. Once I was at CBS Records, and the singer, Bill Weathers, came to me, he said, "Man, I look at you, I understand how angry you are." He said, "I'm going to tell you, that anger will kill you and there's a lot for you to be happy about. Turn your mind onto that." And it made me start to think. I knew he had that vibe, too, of somebody who had been angry for a long time. So I started then, at that moment, to change, to start trying to change. I said, OK, a lot happened I didn't like, but a lot happened that I did like. People did things to me that were unjust and unkind, but people also did a lot of kind things. So it's a matter of adjustment. It's hard to do. I'm not saying it's easy but if you get so used to being that way, you can feel unprotected when you're not like that.

So much of what you're doing now — the music, your fundraising — seems as if some of that adjustment is now a cause.

The cause is people. The lives of people. It's like that's my great-aunt, my great-uncle, my grandmother, my grandfather, my people, that's the cause. The cause is people. That's always the cause.

Let me ask you a bit about jazz, itself. It used to be more community-based, found in clubs in the neighborhoods. How has the music changed since it's shifted to the institutions and the concert halls?

The music has not really shifted to the institutions and the concert halls. People have been playing this music in concert halls for a long time. Benny Goodman played in Carnegie Hall in 1938. Duke Ellington played in Carnegie Hall. Local musicians play in clubs all over the world all the time. We're always in there playing with them. So the music has not shifted.

The popularity of the music has gone down from where it was in the 1930s, but that's been a steady decline because then, a version of it was the most popular music in America. It's natural the popularity would go down.

With any of the arts, not just jazz, your audience will decline if you don't have education. You don't even have to get to whether you can play it well or not. Without education, you cannot maintain an art form.

Now when something is evolving, it goes through many stages, but sometimes things come together to create a Golden Age — like dance and broadcast — and you get a lot of people who are informed. But you don't keep having those moments.

You can't say, man, I sure wish I could get back to when I was weighing 163 pounds and I could eat all day [laughter]. You're not going to stay in that moment. Maybe you had that for four, five years. Now you have to start doing other things to maintain that.

The first thing is to identify jazz, music education as something that you need to maintain. We haven't, as a culture, even identified anything about our dance. What would we like to see our public dance be? What would we like to see our national art sound like? You want it to be lewdness and profanity and the use of expletives? Is that what we want? That's what we have.

Is this art form, jazz, in danger?

All art forms are in danger in a period of no education.

And you mean music education?

All art forms. No, not just music education. Education. All art forms: Art is in danger when there's a lack of education. That's why when the fascists come in, they burn books, they start to destroy art. They understand that if they do that, they destroy all these people's connections to who they are so that then, you can make them be what you want them to be. So it's not jazz. Everybody is in trouble. Look at the records. Look at the books. Look at the symphony orchestras and what they're going through. Look at what types of films get made. Look at the dance companies and what they have to do to survive. So then the question is not jazz, it's our culture. That's what we should be questioning. It's not a question about jazz. People are still playing jazz all over the world. They're doing what they can.

There is a lot of new money out there that wants to be more active.

I would like to see younger people be much more active. I think they're capable of being active and have the wherewithal, the intelligence, the organizational skills and the global awareness. They have all of these things. But the one thing they don't have is a cause. Their own cause.

And yet Americans are seen in the world as being among the most philanthropic.

Privately, yes, but from a government standpoint, not really. We have to remember that many foreign governments support the arts. We, here in this country, must rely on our private philanthropy and our institutions like our businesses because our government does not really support the arts.

Do fundraising strategies for the arts have to change to reflect this?

I don't really know what the strategies are, to be honest with you. I mean, to me, when I talk to people, I don't go with a strategy. I just talk to them like I'm talking to you. And I say this is what our cause is, this is what we are about. I'm not trying to sell them a bill of goods. Because the money's not for me. It's for an art form, and the art form has served me well, and when I'm gone, it will still be here, and so will that institution.