Marsalis, Clinton and Others Dissect Jazz at Symposium
Wynton Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, has talked for some years about his desire to gather an intellectual community around jazz.
Last night at the Walter Reade Theater at the center, Mr. Marsalis and his organization scored a coup in the name of intellectualism and publicity: a symposium, with an invitation-only audience of about 200, on the subject of jazz and American democracy, including the former president and part-time saxophonist Bill Clinton.
The moderator was Charlie Rose; besides Mr. Marsalis and Mr. Clinton, the panelists included Farah Jasmine Griffin, an author and professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University; Michael Kammen, an author and professor of American history of culture at Cornell; the San Francisco middle-school music educator Jack Martens; Frances Rauscher, an academic at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, who has researched the effect of jazz on cognitive development.
After Mr. Marsalis and his quartet played Dizzy Gillespie’s “Blue ‘n’ Boogie,” there was some opening brickwork about cognition, the measurable effects of jazz at various levels of education (children who learn jazz rhythm score well in arithmetic tests, Ms. Rauscher has found), and the evolution of the idea of democracy since Alexis de Tocqueville. All agreed that jazz and American democracy had in common the concept of creativity within structure.
Then the conversation opened up into personal anecdotes from the raconteurs of the group, proving that democracy and jazz are both concepts that fit the exact experience of the user. Mr. Marsalis talked about jazz as an inclusive process that has helped blacks and whites in America understand one another. He spoke of the need to change the aura around jazz, advocating for its history to better reflect the love that musicians feel for one another in the music’s natural meritocracy. “We need to change our mythology,” he said, “through stories, through what we play and what we say.”
Mr. Clinton displayed what is clearly more than a casual relationship to jazz, mentioning specifics about recordings by Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald with Louis Armstrong, and Coleman Hawkins. And as he did so he kept returning to the theme of jazz as an ambassador for the best of America.
“When I was a teenager,” he said, “I realized that Dexter Gordon went to Scandinavia to find a less racist society. But he also got a whole lot of people interested in America.” He found that the same thing happened in Russia, during his last visit there with President Vladimir V. Putin, when Igor Butman — who he called “my favorite living saxophone player” — performed for him. “All those people liked us that day,” he remarked, “because they saw us through the eyes of jazz.”
“That’s a coincidence,” Mr. Marsalis said. “Igor Butman was in my house till 2 a.m. last night. We were drinking vodka.”
“Why didn’t you call me?” rejoined Mr. Clinton. “I like it better than you do.”
by Ben Ratliff
Source: New York Times