Wynton’s interview at Tavis Smiley Show 2005
Tavis: These are trying times for so many people from the great city of New Orleans, including jazz great, Wynton Marsalis. The New Orleans native and Pulitzer Prize winner is now the artistic director of “Jazz at Lincoln Center” in New York City. Tomorrow night, he takes part in a special fundraiser on BET. On September 17th, he hosts a special event for hurricane victims at Lincoln Center. Tonight, though, thankfully, he joins us from New York. It’s always nice to have you on the program.
Wynton Marsalis: Yes, sir. It’s a pleasure, Tavis, to be here.
Tavis: Glad to have you. Let me start by asking about your father and mother and family. Everybody knows you come from a great jazz family. Your father, the patriarch of this jazz family, Ellis Marsalis. How are your parents doing?
Marsalis: Good. Everybody’s good. My parents, my brothers, everybody.
Tavis: So, everybody’s safe.
Marsalis: In my immediate family, yeah, everybody.
Tavis: Yeah. What—do you make of what’s happened to your hometown?
Marsalis: You know, I mean, it’s—everything that everybody’s saying, “It’s an American tragedy” and everything, but I think that it’s also-something that’s forcing all of us in the nation to look at ourselves. And New Orleans has kind of always been a city that has done that for the United States. So even in tragedy, it’s still doing that.
Tavis: Let me ask you, then, to that point, if, in fact, we are honestly and earnestly looking at ourselves, what ought we be seeing. What can we not avoid seeing?
Marsalis: I think that we’re seeing problems in our politics and the political process, just, in terms of just incompetence of our government. In terms of how the politicians try to polarize everybody. And we’re also seeing, of course, the obvious question of race and class that’s always been a problem since slavery. It’s always been discussed, and there’s never been a tremendous national, expenditure of national energy to solve that problem, and to take the steps necessary to conceive of our nation as a whole.
Tavis: That’s more than a mouthful. Let me take at least three parts of what you’ve just suggested, and give you the opportunity to—expound on these three things that you’ve raised. First, government, then we’ll take race, and then we’ll take class. So since you’ve indicted government here, and you ain’t the only one, obviously, who’s done that, yours truly included, what bothers you most about the incompetence, to use your word, of government in this situation?
Marsalis: It’s just spin and—forms. You know, everybody has a lot of forms to fill out. There’s a lot of procedural problems. In this particular case, just a kind of laissez faire attitude toward the lives of American citizens. And then the polarization and the spin. You know, the intellectuals are gonna get it, they’re gonna sit and pick through information, find people to blame. There’s always a lot of people to blame in a catastrophe, chief of which is the catastrophe itself.
And they’re gonna find a way to spin it. And then the truth, which is a combination of all of these things, but the poetic truth of the situation, which is the thing that can be used to add to the national mythology which will build the national character. This truth will be nowhere to be found. Facts will be manipulated and used to present a point of view. And then, over time, we’ll forget the truth of what has happened. The poetic truth won’t remain. And the politicians will steal some more money or do whatever it is that they do, and it’ll just be business as usual.
Tavis: All right. So, since you went philosophical on me, what is then, and I love the way your mind works, what is, then, the poetic truth here that we’re ignoring?
Marsalis: The poetic truth is that Americans are coming together to save lives regardless of race or class. And there’s a big crisis that has affected everyone. We see white people are devastated, too, in Mississippi. They were devastated in Florida, and they had problems getting FEMA to came save—help them. And we see people in helicopters, we see people on the ground, we see doctors, we see young people, we see old people, we see the outpouring of all kinds of money and concern and love. We see all kinds of things that happen in our country, but the crisis is making us really see it.
But this won’t be the national story. The national story is gonna be the 150 people who were looting or, why they didn’t come pick up the black people, or why they didn’t, you know. The national story will always be whatever is the most negative and the most polarizing. A good example would be, if we go in the past, the civil rights movement was an enterprise that involved Americans of all races, class, ages. But in history, it’s remembered as a black movement for the freedom of black folks. And that’s not what it was. So we have to try to take this tragedy and look at it, and put it in the context of our national character and understand it as a national event.
Tavis: Let me ask you, then, to juxtapose for me the poetic truth that you’ve just spoken so passionately about, juxtapose for me, Wynton, the poetic truth with these issues of race and class that the media and so many folk in America, certainly not all, but certainly the media, I think, has been timid to address.
Marsalis: Well, I feel that—let’s go in the past and think about how much discussion there was in the nation over the issue of slavery. How many books were written? How many arguments? How many—in anything you can think of, you know. And let’s think about the Civil War and how many lives were lost and what happened. Now let’s think about the aftermath of the Civil War. All of this to abolish slavery. Then let’s think about reconstruction. Now, we had reconstruction for a short period of time.
Then the laws of the country were changed to renege on reconstruction and cast people back into a virtual slavery. Let’s look at the civil rights movement. All of this energy. Then the aftermath. The expenditure of some money. Then the so-called Republican reclamation, which they recruited the Dixiecrats, and so on and so forth. We all know what happened at that instance. Back to business as usual. The integration of the schools.
We integrated for a little while; a lot of people went through a lot of changes, busing and everything. Then business as usual. When are we gonna understand that we have to come together? It’s not worth the price that we’re paying for us to continue to have to learn this lesson. It’s not worth the price.
Tavis: Let me shift gears somewhat slightly and ask you, since you so love your city, and I understand why. And anybody who’s been there understands why. Tell me whether or not you are at all concerned as an artist, as—a person from New Orleans, as a native. Are you at all concerned that what this city has been known for, its culture, which is largely and obviously in the people, many of whom are scared to go back, don’t want to go back, might not go back, if they do go back, there’s nothing to go back to. Are you concerned that the culture that we’ve come to appreciate New Orleans as, is lost forever?
Marsalis: No, I’m not concerned about that because New Orleans people love being New Orleans people. And wherever they go, they’ll bring their culture with them. And also, our city will be repaired, and we’re gonna come back. That’s what we are. New Orleans burned down in the 1700s. Four fifths of the city was lost. It comes back. We had yellow fever. We’ve had many epidemics. We’ve had floods. We’ve had hurricanes, never to this magnitude. This is just gonna test our fortitude a little more, and it’s gonna allow us to show the world how resilient we are.
We’re blues people. You know, we absorb the pain, but we come back. You know, we accept death in New Orleans. It’s our way of life. We play dirges. We play hymns. We bury people above ground. We’re always close to death. So, you know, this is an unbelievable tragedy. It’s gonna leave a certain type of scar on our psyche, but we’re gonna cover that scar over with something with so much soul and depth that we’re gonna astound people. We will definitely be back, just because that’s what we are about. We are about coming back.
Tavis: Is this the ultimate quintessential example of what it means to be blues people?
Marsalis: What we’re gonna see is the quintessential—this is the quintessential example of the blues.
Marsalis: What we’re about to see is what’s gonna happen when people take the blues and turn it into what happens when you play the blues. And blues people are resilient. You know, we’re gonna—this is a tough time. Believe me, it’s rattled all of us to the very core of who we are. I mean, I always considered myself to be kind of hard or callous. I go from place to place. I’m the type that just travels and doesn’t stop. But, man, it rattled me to see all of our culture, our heritage, all of our memories under water. But, you know, I came to grips.
People started calling me from all over the world, New Orleans people. ‘Man, you know, you see the crib? What we gonna do, man, you know? I’m gonna go back, I want to do this, what can I do to help?’ Hey, you know, we—we love being from New Orleans, we love our culture, we’re not gonna just let it go. Now, I’m worried about our neighborhoods, and I’m worried about all the land scams that are gonna come up and all the different things that could, that are going to arise. But so many people in the United States want to help.
And there’s gonna be such a, I just hope we get a lot of good intellectual help and a lot of head work is done in protecting the properties of the poorer people, and protecting the rights of the poor people. So that the full range of what makes up the cultural gumbo that makes New Orleans the most unique city in the world, I hope that there are people in our country who are saying, “Okay, let me try to focus some of my intellectual expertise on this problem.’
Because it’s really a national problem and there’s no agency to go to that will solve these problems. A lot of it is gonna be up to individual citizenry coming together in groups and saying, “Let’s do this.’
Tavis: I’m glad you raised that issue, of New Orleans and the cultural gumbo that is New Orleans. To your point about protecting the rights of the poor, and so many of the people who make up the culture of New Orleans, I’ve heard people over the past few days, folk from New Orleans, concerned, and expressing this to me, at least, their concern that when this city is razed, when all these houses and neighborhoods are torn down and rebuilt, a lot of folk concerned that they won’t be able to go back to the place they came from.
They won’t be able to—move back into these neighborhoods. And again, the ethnicity and the culture and all the stuff that makes New Orleans what it is might not ever be the same, because the folk can’t afford to go back in there if the wrong people get in front of them in line.
Marsalis: Well, first, don’t sell your land. You know, people are under duress, man. We got people—struggling with no money. A lot of money is being raised in the country, you know, and that’s not gonna help put food on somebody’s table for this next week, or the next two weeks. But if you—can hold out for that three weeks or month, so that all the money that’s coming in can, people can figure out how to distribute the money.
All the communities are coming in to help, churches. There’s so much that we’re seeing about the beauty of the American spirit, let’s let that be the story. That’s really what the story is. Now, if you can hold on, and those who own property, don’t sell your property, because when the government money starts to come down there, if you’ve sold your property to people who bought your property for $10,000, $15,000, they’re gonna make all of that money. They’re gonna develop that land.
So if we can get that in place, that the small homeowner, don’t be quick to sell your land, and then we have to deal with on a political level what to do with the government housing and the other things, to make sure that we don’t get gentrified in a certain way.
Tavis: Yeah. Let me ask in you in 20 seconds right quick here, as an artist, whether or not something has hit you already, or you suspect something might hit you, something artistic will come out of this experience from you?
Marsalis: Man, there ain’t no question. Something is always hitting me. Even before this, it was hitting me, so it’s gonna definitely hit me.
Tavis: Yeah. Well, we look forward to whatever hits you, ‘cause whatever hits Wynton Marsalis usually hits the rest of us. He entertains us and empowers us and enlightens us with his work, as he did in this conversation. I’m always glad to have you on the program. All the best to you and your family. We’ll be praying for you, man.
Marsalis: Amen. Thank you very much for all you’re doing and everybody, you know? Crescent City needs you.
Tavis: Yeah, well, we want to get back to The Big Easy, so we’ll talk to you soon.
Marsalis: Right. Yes, sir.
Tavis: Take care. Wynton Marsalis, jazz great, native, of course, of The Big Easy. Up next on this program, law professor Cass Sunstein on the looming fight over the soul of the Supreme Court. Stay with us.