He’s played in elementary schools and prisons, in hospitals and concert halls, in countless jazz clubs and dive bars, and even on the New York subway. And this morning, multitalented trumpeter, author, and nine-time Grammy winner Wynton Marsalis played here, at the Second General Session.
He did much more than play, however. He lectured, rapped, recited poetry, and told stories–the biggest being about how America’s homegrown music, jazz and the blues, have shaped our society and expressed our yearning for unity and freedom, even as we’ve run from its lessons (it’s “the devil’s music, ” not “European” enough) and resisted its dynamic pulse.
We are still resisting today, Marsalis said, when we embrace a crass commercial culture, cut funding for art and music in the public schools, and obsessively compare our test scores with other nations when we should be looking at what we need to nurture in ourselves.
After each of his concerts, regardless of the venue, people approach Marsalis, and “they all want to say the same thing. Bring us together,'” Marsalis said. And then: “Are we going to be all right?'”
“We all yearn for a new American mythology.”
And yet America already has a rich cultural and musical mythology, Marsalis said. He noted the similarities, rhythmically, between two emblematic Civil War tunes–the South’s “Dixie,” and the North’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Then he played the battle hymn, in various renditions, which morphed from war song, to Mardi Gras march, to even the theme from Mickey Mouse.
From its inception, blues was rejected by the arbitrators of culture, among them “black preachers who railed against the blues, when the blues was coming out of every good singer in their choirs,” Marsalis said. Yet when played in places like New Orleans, by people like Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, its power and symbolism could not be denied.
“And it was the blues, so the people danced with feeling,” Marsalis said. “And it was jazz, so they danced with feeling — and accuracy. And it was improvised, so they danced with feeling, accuracy, and abandon. You can’t ask for more than that.”
It was the music of black people, but also the music of Jews, Cajuns, and all others who called America home. “The urgency and speed of their music,” Marsalis said, “was also a declaration of independence, exclaiming, Now is the time.'”
It was co-opted. Black slaves imitated their masters, and the minstrel show was born. Whites imitated black minstrels, and blacks imitated the whites, and on and on in farcical variations far removed from the original. But when the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a young African-American choir from a Southern college, toured Europe, there was neither the expected joking nor the minstrel show–and the people were amazed.
“They sang the purest pianissimo ever heard,” Marsalis said.
When the Beatles came to America in the 1960s in the so-called “British Invasion,” they were actually playing music whose roots and development lay in America. And while it was fine that they were playing this music, Marsalis said, somewhere in the process America had dissociated itself from its past.
To rediscover those roots is akin to looking frantically for your keys and then finding that you had been holding them all along.
“We need only look in our hand to have the keys that we’re seeking,” Marsalis said. “This is our story. This is our story.”