Wynton’s Closing Plenary Address for the Association of Performing Arts Presenters
Wynton Marsalis: Thank y’all very much. Thank you. Thank you very, very much. It’s a pleasure to be here. Now, the hardest thing is gonna be for me to find the right range, so that I can see what I wrote.
I love to watch people enter a concert hall. I like to find some point right before the performance to see everybody coming in. Some on the first date. Some on the last. Some are celebrating some important milestone, anniversary, birthday. I’ve actually been performing long enough to have people come with their 4 kids and say “We actually met at one your concerts and our relationship survived your performance so that we can be here tonight.” I sometimes look at the audience entering and think of the timelessness of it all. Us going to an artistic performance of some kind to remember who we are, or to learn about it, or just to be aware of us in this present moment. I’m sure the human beings have been seeking the nourishment of arts since the very beginning of our consciousness.
Even if it was just some people telling lies around the campfire about something that happened that day with some music and somebody started singing. They’re trying to have a good time and put their experience in some type of context that makes all of the unknown and uncertain things about life much more livable. I think of how many suits have been pressed. How many dresses have been fussed over. Lipstick applied. Make-up. Shoes shined. Hair, when you still have it, directed and re-directed. Flowers bought. Pre-event arguments had. You know, an argument always ensues some big event. I don’t know why we do it, we like to do it. Last minute rushing to be on time. Frantic, searching for tickets that are still in that left coat pocket you had them in when you began with. You see, you come into that concert hall and you’re in someone else’s hands, their taste, their insight. And their skill will determine how the next two and a half hours are gonna go. I realize that this type of community event is seriousness. It mitigates the isolation and boredom of being by yourself. We’re always hearing that everyone wants to be alone, they have all them machines and they put it in and they… Well we
like to be alone, but really, we like to be with each other. That’s what we really like to do. I realize that this type of community event gives us the opportunity to become us through a mutual understanding played out in front of the community on stage.
I like to think about Annette and Randy. Well, they’ve been waiting for this concert for months now. She used to play the saxophone in the jazz band in high school and in college. They’ve gone to concerts together for years, but no one understands what it takes for them to get their three kids out. Those kids just have a sense that it’s gonna be some cultural event and they definitely do not want to go. They are 9, 12 and 14. Whew! Annette and Randy are looking at each other and saying “You know, this evening is going to cost us over $300, so these people better be playin’, because we can get a DVD for $19.99. The movie would cost us $45, but if you throw in the popcorn and the coke, it’s $120.” They’re saying “Hey, we wanna have a good time, but we also want our kids to experience something substantial.” The feeling of community, the grandiosity of the hall, the depth of the experience is something that they really want their kids to know. But no one really understands what that 9-year- old is like. No one understands that it takes Randy forever to get ready because he knows his wife looks so good, what can he possibly do? He’s been fussing over that one little part of his hair, he can’t get it right. He’s also thinking about how heavy that 9-year-old is going to be when she falls asleep because he knows bringing her to a concert is like bringing her to a bed.
Well, that’s all right, because Jeff and Diane, well, they’ve been together for a long time, but this is the first time that they’re meeting. He’s been trying to take her out for 5 months, and finally she agrees. This is an important night. He wants to impress her, so he takes her to some opera by this guy Wagner. He heard that this guy’s operas were the best. Something about a ring, which he hoped, one day, to give her. Well the first sense he had that he was in trouble was they gave him coffee tablets when they walked in. He thought, “Hmm.” Some three hours later, one tries to out-do the other in pretending they like and understand it. Well it becomes a test of endurance and Diane is not about to lose this contest. 35 years later, they have attended 5 complete ring cycles, and even one in Beyreuth. This ritual commemorates their relationship, and they laugh about that first date so many years
ago. Nobody understands exactly how Jeff felt when he realized they were going to be singing in German. He liked Led Zeppelin.
Mr. Caputo has gathered 5 sets of parents to take his 45 students to the concert tonight. Nobody can understand how much of a problem it was to get that bus. Now they are going to drive two and a half hours there and back. Kids have had to have every type of permission slip known to man. He has had to cajole parents of kids with bad grades, who, for some reason, inferably are the best players, and convince these parents that this concert is not just entertainment, but some type of nourishment that will help the kids want to study and want to become more. No one can understand what he and his wife, Colleen, has had to go through to get these kids on this bus on a school night and to a concert on time. Well, when he sees his trombone player surrounding the trombonist they have just heard, and when Colleen sees the saxophone section begging to hold the bus for five more minutes, so they can find out some more about how to take care of those damn reeds they always messin’ and whining about. Those reed players. When those parents see the excitement in their normally disaffected teenager’s demeanor when talking to these professional musicians, you wouldn’t believe this. The whole drive back, two and a half hours, everybody’s talking about how much they’re gonna practice, how good they’re gonna be, what they liked the best, who they didn’t like, who they did like, what song was their favorite.
No one can begin to understand how many hours, how many hours, the artist they have come to hear, have practiced. No way they can understand that that same person they heard was 13 and 12 going to concerts too and leaving with that exact same inspiration. No way they could understand, every day when they want to go out, every night when they want to go out, they’re just in some room ::note noises:: day and night for the opportunity to play for them. To create the feeling of community with a song, with a tune, or with some virtuosic concerto or with some humor or acting in some way. Annette and Randy’s 3 kids couldn’t know that you were just as bored as they are at your age when you had to go to these types of things. They couldn’t understand upon walking into that concert hall that your parents, too, forced you to go to this stuff. And that two hours to a 9 year old, seems
like two weeks. They can’t understand that you know that when you see them after the concert, and they have to pretend like they were awake. Jeff and Diane couldn’t possibly know how long you have to wait to play one crucial trumpet part in Wagner’s opera, 367 measures rest and then one defining fanfare. They’re out there trying to struggle with all that German, and you’re trying to concentrate on that one high G-sharp that you’ve been missing since you were 13.
Now, Mr. Caputo’s students, they can understand that. But no one at that concert really understands why you were 10 minutes, because you have a 1 hour throat of time between 6:30 and 7:30, and if you mess up that 1 hour, oooh you’ve had a bad day! No one can understand what’s difficult about playing when you have to play. It’s fun to play, it’s a great honor to play, but that 47th day without a break. No one can understand that playing on the road is not traveling. They couldn’t understand the energy required to communicate some artistic idea to an audience that you don’t know. Maybe you’re shy. You don’t know if they like it. They couldn’t understand all that goes on in your mind to create insecurity. You’re just somebody they see.
No one could understand the dynamics of the rehearsal. Half the band don’t wanna rehearse. The union rules say you have to stop at 11. Somebody comes out at 10:59 with a watch, like it’s a military operation. All of sudden, there you are, playing your concerto in front of people unrehearsed. No one can understand. No one understands. Your music got lost. Somebody missed their flight. You have a stain on your coat and it’s driving you crazy, nobody can see it. You have vertigo and you hate to stand up on the stage. You don’t want the spotlight in your face. There’s one piece you don’t feel like playing, but you have to play it, because it’s the only piece that one extra person you had to get can play, because somebody who you needed missed the concert because they missed the plane because of “because”. No one understands that you have to play with another mouthpiece. And you needed that mouthpiece. That was your favorite mouthpiece. Now you’re unsure whether you can hit these notes. Now, the kids understand stage freight. They just don’t understand that in a performer, an adult performer, it results in strange behavior. Like, nobody can talk or touch a person around the time of a performance. They must have two chocolate éclairs exactly 45 minutes before the curtain. And the people at this concert, and the artists, they could not possibly understand how many phone calls it took for you to get this disgusting group up here that is aggravating you to death.
If Annette and Randy think that getting their kids to come to a concert is difficult, try booking a season of art in a concert hall. You’ve been trying to get this group for years, and now that you’ve put them on the cover of your brochure, you’re hearing, a month before, they might not be on tour now. No one at that concert tonight can possibly understand all the gamesmanship, all the cajoling, all the bullying and begging and bluffing it took for you to pull this off. As Annette and Randy and their youngsters, and Jeff and Diane walk into the hall, they don’t think about that 10:30 overtime. Many times, the artists are not thinking about it either. “Ooh you just cost me $12,000.” Boom! They’re not thinking about any aspect of the Union deals you have to deal with and consider.
They’re not thinking about whether the catering was on time or not. The hotel reservations, the bags, the artists when the plane lands. Mr. Caputo knows about missing people, he knows about lost music, and kids not wanting to play music of substance instead of just playing what they like on the radio. But he doesn’t know what it’s like to work for them. He couldn’t possibly understand how you have gone to bat for the artistic substance of these programs time and time again to bring more to your community when the demand is always for less. Like Charlie Parker, “Man, why you playin’ all those notes when you can just walk the line and honk a few times.” Like Wagner, “Couldn’t you have just written something that was 10 minutes long.” Like Beethoven, “So many notes.” No one understands the importance of that donor reception. The artists don’t understand. They gotta leave at 6 in the morning. You must have the donor reception. They don’t understand when you don’t get the front page of that weekend paper that you were promised. They don’t understand the importance of those increasingly less read paper. They’re right about not understanding the reviews.
No one understands that you know the cost of dinner for 5, or movies, you know about sporting events, you know all the seasonal events in your territory. You understand the impact of DVDs and all the things that could decimate your precious audience. You know all major and minor holidays, all local festivals, even important high school football games. You even know when the circus is coming to town. And if you’re a trumpet player, you know to never play the circus.
No one could possibly understand that you cannot figure out how to make technology more important than the people you put on the stage. And there is
absolutely no way to stop a performance, press pause, record it later, or choose when you want to experience the rest of it. A presenter must have knowledge of their audience and the sense of their talent. No one, even in their most vivid nightmare, can understand the precious of this present moment. The world has changed all around you and you’re still presenting art. 800 TV channels were added, and maybe one and one half have to do with art. The demographics of your community is changing rapidly creating groups of people who don’t even speak the same language in the same house. You’re still trying to figure out the new ticketing system. And record companies are becoming defunct before your very eyes.
A technology company is now the major distributor for music in the country. And the star system has collapsed. There are stars in genres you’ve never heard of. All of your givens have changed. Nobody can understand that you’re not even sure whether people want to pass a legacy of the arts down to the next generation. The world has turned upside down. The development of taste and value, the value of investment and the long term proposition of the arts now smacks of elitism and old world values. Even the twisted education world has turned away from long term milestones which form some type of canon for short term touchstones which cater to the class at hand. The technology which allows you to provide more choice for those that you serve, envelope your audience with the experience of this event by giving them all kind of back story information. A technology that allows you to build an even larger and more diverse community.
It allows you to extend the excitement of the live event far beyond the stage with a series of pre and post concert offerings. What allows you to create an entire supply chain from your event. Now you can have your CDs, your DVDs, everything, streaming, downloads. You can have parties, you have an education component. All of this stuff. That technology is just a little bit beyond your grasp. You like to talk about it because everybody’s talking about it. You go to seminars and people tell you what you can do and when you listen to them it sounds like you could do it! Your kids are always on the computer doing something. They can get you on to something and you can get on there and you can look around on that. Yeah.
To add insult to injury, the middle class, whose diet consisted of cultural consumption, they are being squeezed right out of existence. Yeah, no one would understand what that 12% unemployment does to your budget. Well, you can always ask Sol Hurak. When he started providing talent during the Great Depression, unemployment was at 28%. It didn’t keep him from bringing jazz to Carnegie Hall. It didn’t keep him from putting on that Benny Goodman concert in 1938, which lives on forever as a classic. Well, you think your audience is segregated by age, it is! And you think it’s impossible to bring young people to anything serious, well, think about Norman Granz. He used his Jazz at the Philharmonic to integrate southern audiences in concert halls when “that kind of thing just ain’t done around here.” It wasn’t a fringe fashion to integrate audiences at that time. He put together integrated bands and he even had every contract have one line for the sheriff to sign, so he could put on a concert that was integrated. “Ok, now I need you to guarantee me that if they tear this concert hall up, you’re gonna be here with your boys on my side.” “Ok, we’re gonna bring these boys here, let me sign that.”
Yes, the world has changed around us. It’s more and more important in this time to know who you are and why you are where you are. You are home base. You are the center. You have to believe in the value of art and the value of your position as your community’s curator. You’re the one to put people on that escalator of discovery. Through your belief, through your belief, an entire community can be inspired. All of these new tools help you communicate your message more effectively. If your kids can get on it, you certainly can do it.
What brings a family of 5 out to see Alvin Ailey? What brings a couple out to experience Puccini? What brings a high school program out to hear 15 men swing through the night? Well, you do. You bring the people out. In normal times, when everything goes the way it usually goes, the usual thing is safe, and there’s a lot of risk involved with leaving home. In times of crisis or profound change, to stay home is to take the ultimate risk. It’s counterintuitive. But now is the time to bring home to your audiences through every possible channel. Like Buddy Bolden in the streets of New Orleans. That’s the good thing about playing the trumpet, we play loud. We don’t have to stay home. We go out in the streets and say “Now, it’s time!” We’re all called upon to be like Bolden, and like they used to say “bring our children home”. If you doubt it, ask George Wein. His Newport festival was the most significant jazz festival in America. He utilized an outdoor venue and he hosted Miles Davis’ comeback in 1955. Duke Ellington’s great concert of ’56 that created a near riot and landed him on the cover of TIME. Mahalia Jackson’s unbelievable 1958 live concert in the rain, and still a masterpiece of a recording came out of it that you can’t believe it. Well, you know what the Woodstock generation did in 1971? They literally and figuratively tore his festival down, knocking the piano off the stage saying “All this music should be free.” The city of Newport told Wein “No more concerts”.
In 1972, George Wein moved to New York City and did everything different. But one thing was not different, the center remained the same. The center remained the same. He went indoors. He took concerts to many venues. The entire city of New York was awash in jazz. He even had a jam session at Radio City Music Hall that had lines around the block. He responded to the challenges of this moment with a more definitive investment in the substance of his choice of art. That is the only true risk that we face, to step away from the values that we’ve spent our entire lives developing and leave the arts out of the discussion. What are you gonna do if you a Swiss watch maker in 1974 and the digital watch craze is hitting the world. You know they went to seminars and meetings about it. Nothing like a good, long meeting. And one of them said “Well, we’re Swiss watch makers. We’re going to keep making better watches” No one understands that we do this because we are that parent, that we are that kid, we are that teacher, we are that artist that wants to communicate something ancient and modern to an audience. We want to communicate that thing with such intensity. We are that presenter. We are the one that wants to extend the ultimate hospitality to an entire community. We want to help shape the taste of our community and put our neighbors on the road of discovery through experience. Shakespeare couldn’t tweet, but he had a lot to say.
No one understands why I love to be the last person leaving the concert hall at night. After meeting Jeff and Diane, and Annette and Randy, and Mr. Caputo and all the students and talking with them. I love to see the clean up crews, the security guards, the sound crews breaking down the stage. I like to stand on the empty stage at 12:07 AM (some prime number) and look out at the empty seats and say “A lot happened up here tonight” and then I walk off ::clip, clop, clip, clop, clip, clop:: And then back to the hotel. Bags at 4, leave at 5. An eight hour drive and then the same thing again. When all is said and done, no one can possibly understand that we did it because that’s what we wanted to do. And we did it well because our art forms and our audiences deserves the best.
But everybody understands that. Thank y’all.