Wynton Marsalis: 22nd Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy from Americans for the Arts on Vimeo. *UPDATE – see details at the end of the post*
Greetings, Blackademics readers. My name is Eric Hirsh and I’m honored to be engaging in a discussion with you in this guest post. I am a jazz pianist and composer living in Durham, NC as well as a member of The Beast with Pierce Freelon. I am writing from Washington, DC where I am an artist-in-residence at The Kennedy Center as a part of their Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program which gathers talented young jazz musicians from around the world for two weeks of workshops, masterclasses, and performances. The artistic experience has been amazing, but the insight into the business and politics of arts administration has been somewhat troubling.
As it so happens, tomorrow (Tuesday, March 31st, 2009) is National Arts Advocacy day. This means that celebrities and lobbyists from Americans for the Arts are going to storm Capitol Hill and talk to their Congressmen about the importance of funding for arts and arts education. As part of our residency, we were required to attend what was effectively a pre-game rally but was actually called “The 22nd Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy.” This lecture was given by none other than the legendary jazz trumpeter, composer, educator, and spokesperson, Wynton Marsalis. We where whisked into the Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center, normally reserved for symphony orchestras, amongst a sea of hundreds of well-dressed arts supporters, politicians, businessmen, and celebrities of all ages. Mr. Marsalis was introduced by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and received with a standing ovation. I was proud to see that a large, national organization could easily select and respect a jazz musician for their keynote speaker: Marsalis has certainly worked, played, and researched hard to bring himself and his music to the stage of understanding and acceptance that it is at.
Marsalis, backed by a band of top-notch Lincoln Center jazz musicians, proceeded to recite an hour-long poem entitled “The Ballad of Arts in America” and it was a piece that would make us all cry. With impassioned delivery, Marsalis effortlessly weaved together images of the artistic process as the full realization of the kind of democracy that our founding fathers sought: “how do I be me while letting you be you?” From Jefferson to Monk, Emerson to Gillespie, it was amazing how many parallel sayings Marsalis could find in writers, artists, and politicians separated by centuries. Most important, he firmly reminded us that the history of “purely” American music is the history of African-American music (and I was proud that he “dared” do so in front of this audience), from spirituals all the way through The Beatles re-introducing us to our own heritage after we lost the blues through white-dominated rock n’ roll.
Wynton was speaking truth. Time and time again, he reminded us that American innovators in art were always met with critics of three varieties: the intellectual establishment, the European cultural superiority, and the finicky opinions of the public. He wanted us to affirm our own music, our own culture, pointing out that when famous jazz drummer Elvin Jones was told “What do you say to the fact that many people do not like your music?” he responded, “That’s too bad, because we’re going to keep on playing it.” Another important recurring theme was that, at the same time that American music is a story of racial [mis]appropriation, it is also a story of racial integration. He noted that minstrel shows, blues, jazz, rock n’ roll all borrowed back and forth between black and white interpretations of each other’s culture that it just ends up being kind of silly to separate it out, and also that American bands integrated long before American sports teams.
But here is the problem: for all of Marsalis’ beautiful insights into art as a source of unification and celebration, especially in hard times, he completely left out hip hop, and even went so far as to condemn it. When vamping on themes of adversity he vaguely stated “and then they cut all arts programs in schools and a machine came in to replace the drums” (referring to sampled beats). Later he compared the lyrics of a 19th century minstrel song to the lyrics of “something from 1993, ‘Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang’” but only in passing. Later still, he basically said that we need a kind of music that teaches our children social values, not how to be hip (and here he alluded to rapping) to the tune of “an amateurish drum beat” (direct quote).
On their own, these statements are small, subtle, and dwarfed by 55 other minutes of beautiful truth. The reason I am furious is more about what Marsalis didn’t say. He offered only romantic images and words of praise for the genres of spirituals, gospel, blues, and jazz. What he said about hip hop (he never ever used the words ‘hip hop’ or ‘rap’ but rather only made allusions) was 100% negative and were the only negative words he had for art through the entire speech. On the one hand, the point he made was valid. It wasn’t necessarily about the genre, but rather about the content. We can agree that minstrelsy is still an issue in hip hop, I know Pierce has written multiple posts on the subject. But of course, of course, of course, it is only one small piece of a vast tapestry of cultural and sociopolitical expression. And Wynton Marsalis absolutely failed to offer even one word that points to the artistry and heritage of hip hop and its lineage back to spirituals and work songs.
If you are already angry, let me offer you a bit of context. Wynton Marsalis is a known jazz iconoclast; he supports a very traditional interpretation of what jazz is and is not and has been intellectually fierce on the subject for years. He is also a known public critic of hip hop; he sees it as minstrelsy and nothing else. I appreciate his concern for African-American cultural representation, and I can even tolerate his opinion (which I wildly disagree with). I can even handle the fact that he has formed his opinion without trying to truly understand the music. I can even handle the bitter irony that he has fought so hard for people to understand and appreciate jazz but he can’t turn around and accept the next big movement.
What is completely unacceptable to me is that he has used his position as a public figure with political influence to promote his personal agenda. It was inappropriate for him to bring up those points at this specific (and highly politically manufactured) event. Marsalis’ job tonight was to inspire the audience of lobbyists and senators to remember the spiritual and cultural importance of the arts in our nation in order that it might continue to be a factor in our political and financial decisions. He did that, but he also planted a seed of misunderstanding where he had an opportunity to usher in a new era. We all know (and we know Marsalis knows too) that he was referring specifically to content questions of gangsta rap, that 1993 was part of an era with Rodney King race riots and Boyz N the Hood, which is only one part of the history and artistry of hip hop. But the audience did not know that, and it was Marsalis’ job as cultural ambassador to make that clear to them. I am afraid that this mostly white (and potentially culturally ignorant) audience is going to think “Oh, here is a respected black cultural leader and even he admitted that hip hop is bad. He must be right.” Now lobbyists could be approaching Capitol Hill with the message “Keep arts in the schools, help these children connected to their roots, but not hip hop, we’ve been told it isn’t a part of that story.” And that makes me profoundly sad. This was the day of arts advocacy, Wynton gave the official send off.
I know that a large part of a social and cultural revolution is fought underground and in the communities. But it is also fought in the mainstream media and in Washington. Marsalis has the crossover credentials to be a national spokesperson for jazz. Who will rise to the challenge of being the eloquent-but-authentic political spokesperson for hip hop? Is that even the appropriate thing to wish for?
Thank you so much for your time in reading this post; I look forward to the discussion. If you are interested, you can read more of my musical and cultural thoughts over at my own blog, www.erichirsh.com/blog.
As you can see, at the top of the post we’ve added video from Wynton’s lecture. You can also check it out at: Vimeo (dot) com.