Wynton Marsalis: symbols matter, so you’d better have symbols of big ideas
by Allen Best
ASPEN, Colo. – President Barack ended his eulogy to terrorist victim Clementa Pinckney several weeks ago by leading mourners in Charleston, S.C. in the first verse of “Amazing Grace.” The Aspen Ideas Festival this year ended on the same notes on July 4th, played by Wynton Marsalis and Jon Batiste.
It was a moment of symbolism, a theme that percolated in the final four days of the 10-day conference. It’s a festival devoted to verbal chewing of big ideas, and among the big ideas this year were income inequality, faith in technology, and the future of religion.
Sponsored by the Aspen Institute, a think-tank with roots in Aspen but now primarily based in Washington D.C., the festival had a rich variety of speakers and doers. For example, Biz Stone, a co-founder of Twitter, explained his life’s path to that success. When trying to make a decision, he said, disregard money, as it clouds your judgment. He also talked about his next big idea, a social medium that better captures empathy. A college drop-out himself, he advised that staying in school might be the more sure path to success for others. And then Stone provided this intriguing factoid: just .014 percent of the world’s knowledge is on the Internet.
David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, was quizzed by Katie Couric about his new book, “The Road to Character,” which explores personal virtues and honesty in an age of materialism.
And Mexico’s Ricardo Salinas, the founder and chief mentor of Grupo Salinas, a company that has 90,000 employees in nine countries, explained why he thinks the North American Free Trade Agreement didn’t go nearly far enough. Borders between the nations of North America need to be more flexible, he said. But he also argued that the Mexican economy continues to improve and will do so even more as Mexico becomes more known for value-added industries.
Given the long shadow of the mass murder in Charleston, however, it was probably inevitable that discussions at the Ideas Festival several times veered toward symbols. The 21-year-old gunman had posted photos of himself with the Confederate battle flag, which. had been adopted by armies in the Civil War defending the institution of human slavery. In the wake of the shootings, several notable politicians in southern states have called for the removal of the flag from public places.
In her appearance on July 1, Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to Obama, called the Confederate battle flag “a terrible, terrible symbol that is deeply offensive not just to African-Americans, but to many people who understand its history. And yet for so many people they thought it was benign and its existence in communities wasn’t doing any harm.”
Jarrett identified a pivotal opportunity for “an honest look, not just at our history, but what kind of a future we want to have, what are our values, what is our mutual obligation to one another? What kind of a society do we want to be known as the people all over the world look to the United States to lead?”
“Symbolism counts,” she added. “But the question is, what you do beyond the symbolism?”
Symbolism also came up four days later, on the afternoon of July 4th, when historian and CEO of the Aspen Institute, Walter Isaacson talked with the cornet-playing Marsalis, one of America’s most accomplished musicians and educators, and the 28-year-old Batiste about the evolution of jazz and its connection to race.
Both musicians were nattily dressed. Marsalis wore gold-and-black suspenders and a blue shirt of fine linen. Batiste was electrifying in a hot-pink blazer and slacks, a dark blue button-down shirt, and white Nike shoes trimmed in red and white. His white socks were sprinkled with black. In September, he will gain new prominence as the band leader for the Late Night Show when Stephen Colbert takes over the reins from David Letterman.
A graduate of the Juilliard School of Music (master’s degree), Batiste opened the session with a thunderous version of “The Star Spangled Banner” on the piano and was then joined for a bluesy version of “America the Beautiful” with Marsalis. Then they explained the roots of jazz in New Orleans, — where both men grew up — in the decades after the Civil War, with the stages of bebop, swing and other innovations, illustrating the melodies and rhythms of each style.
Marsalis also shared his view of the American past and future. “In our country, the greatest challenge is for all of us to be together in spite of our history, and not only in spite of it, but because of our history. Our history is of both things, a history of terrible things and of wonderful things.”
Symbols matter, he went on to explain, because they reflect “what aspect of your personality you choose to embody. We’re all capable of doing little things. The thing we have to ask ourselves is not how do we not do these little things, but how can we do big things.”
This is true, he went on to suggest, of nations as well as individuals.
“When all of our symbols are a celebration of small things, they will lead us to doing things that are small. When our symbols are of big things, they will lead us to doing things that are big.”
Isaacson asked Batiste his thoughts about the legacy of Charleston.
“It’s very hard to love. It’s very difficult to love our neighbor,” Batiste responded. “Something happens when people get hurt, they are resentful and they build barriers with other people.”
Now, in the aftermath of Charleston, he said he believes that there’s an opportunity to act on a deeper level of consciousness and love. ”I think now is a seminal time,” he explained. Golden eras of opportunity are brief, lasting just three to five years, “and I think one is happening now.”
And with that, the two musicians launched into a bluesy version of “Amazing Grace.” The hymn of forgiveness and redemption was written by a British sailor who had survived a violent storm off the Irish coast in 1748. He was involved in the slave trade at the time, and he continued as such for several more years before turning his attention more fully to his new Christian faith.
On that hot afternoon in Aspen, as in Charleston several weeks before, people rose to their feet and joined in, perhaps a concession that all of us have blood on our hands, all of us are capable of being small, but hope remains for bigger things, for our better selves.
To watch the 69-minute Isaacson session with Marsalis and Batiste, go here.