It has been difficult to write anything this past week. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has left a void in its wake, a void that we as Americans need time to contemplate before we begin to fill. We need to fill the hearts, hopes and minds of New Orleaneans, and the hearts, hopes and minds of all citizens and neighbors of the South. We owe it to our children and for generations beyond, for which we can only see the faint horizon line of destiny. Let this be a turning point in our nation’s modern history that serves as a lesson, however late, in humanity, humility and honesty. One that finally allows the complete promise of a truly democratic society to flourish at home, before it is exported elsewhere, for how can we be a model and a beacon when images flashed instantly across the globe prove the true harsh reality to the rest of the world. Americans are a resilient, patient and optimistic people but the veneer of civilization that is our daily life hangs in precarious balance.
Wynton Marsalis is a child of New Orleans. An eloquent musical artist, thinker, historian and spokesman for the American music we call jazz. He has used his fame and bandstand pulpit to speak out about many things, sometimes inciting controversy among fellow players and music critics alike. But he is a man who feels deeply and cares enough to speak out. His interview this week with Charlie Rose was a beautifully improvised verbal essay that touched on the culture of New Orleans and its people, the blues, the purpose of government, honesty, and it was threaded with a quiet, angry optimism in the face of such immense tragedy. The expression on his face told that he was hurting inside and yet he was able to tell us the truth in a way that no politician or reporter could ever dare to.
On Americans in crisis:
“Americans…we’re good in a crisis. We have a tradition of rising to a crisis. The problem we’re going to have is after that. We rose to the Civil War, we rose in both World Wars, we rose to the Civil Rights Movement and changed a lot of legislation that was destructive. But what we have a tendency to do is, we rise in that moment, but when that moment is past, we fall back again. We need a reminder. Because the heroism of Americans never becomes a part of our national mythology. And that’s why we’re doomed to repeat the same kinds of mistakes.”
On the reaction of government to the crisis:
“The hardest thing for me is the stupidity surrounding the deaths of the people. The hurricane is a catastrophe, there’s nothing you can do about that, we were overwhelmed by it. The fact that we can empty our city in 2 or 3 days, that’s miraculous, ‘cause in our city we move slower. It’s just how we are. We are soulful people, we have a lot together but organization is not our strongest point. But I feel that the type of callousness that was shown toward the people when they were stranded…by our government, by politicians…you see a level of incompetence borne of lack of interest and caring.
It exposes the basic truths of how far we’ve fallen from our fundamental principles. We’ve always had to struggle with our fundamental principles.”
On reaching out to government:
“What we discovered was ‘Don’t lean on us. Don’t trust us, ‘cause when you need us to be there for you, what we are saying in our ideology is we are not really prepared to live up to that with the type of intensity that we would have to live up to…to make our nation congruent with it’s foundational principles.’”
On the soul of the people of New Orleans:
“Our way of life is not something that’s going to perish because of a flood. We are born in hardship, especially of course, black people. We’re blues people and blues never lets tragedy have the last word…we’re not going to just fade away because of a crisis. That’s not in our nature or in our character, it’s also not in our history.”
On his anger at seeing thousands of people homeless:
“Look at where they were, too. The convention center, which is business and the sports arena, the two things our country cares the most about…to see my people herded in, it’s mythic…too much incompetence, bureaucratic indifference and stupidity. The politicians don’t represent the people of this country. America would have to have my type of job to have the opportunity to meet this many types of different people…it has never ceased to amaze me how different the feeling and experience of people around this country and what comes out of politicians’ mouths. They lie, they spin things, they want a photo-op, trying to make money…there’s so much selling out going on. Anything they can do to polarize people, to create fear, to get their vote and rip people off…it’s senseless division. There’s enough wealth in our country for everybody. We have to figure out how to share it. Let’s spend our intellectual energy trying to figure out how to do that.”
On how America doesn’t learn from it’s mistakes:
“The Civil Rights movement now is considered a black movement. It wasn’t a black movement, it was an American movement. When things are over we back away from the essence of what it means to bringing our nation together. There’s no money in that. Let’s take the people apart, let’s break them apart. Make people think that their wealth is threatened by these people over here who are in poverty. Hopefully this experience will open our eyes, but our leadership is on such a poor level. American leadership…for lack of a better term I’ll say white leadership and black leadership is so pathetic most of the time. It’s so self-serving…it just kills me to see people abused in this way by people who lack the culture, the sophistication, the sense of nuance, and the dignity to just speak the truth to people and just be honest.”
“We need to lead the world from a soul standpoint. The blues swept around the world, that came from the United States. Jazz swept around the world, that came from the United States. Let’s deal with some democracy at home. Stop with all this polarization and not caring…not having just a feeling for people, man, just a basic feeling for the nuances of human life.”