Jazz Musician Marsalis Touts the Power of the Arts

Posted March 24, 2009 at 3:03pm

Jazz great Wynton Marsalis has a simple suggestion for lawmakers who want to promote the arts: swing dance.

“One thing I think would make a difference is if we were to have all our kids learn to swing dance,— he said in a phone interview last week.

Marsalis will be at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts at 6:30 p.m. Monday to deliver the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy as part of the Americans for the Arts’ annual advocacy day. The trumpeter, who serves as artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, has been known to describe a group of people who work together as having “swing.— When the group of more than 400 advocates come to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Americans for the Arts hopes they’ll give his term some meaning.

The group will lobby Members on behalf of arts-related issues, including appropriations, tax policy, international issues and the reauthorization of the national service and education laws. Reps. Todd Platts (R-Pa.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who co-chair the Congressional Arts Caucus, will join them. Along with Marsalis, singers Josh Groban and Linda Ronstadt will testify at a hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.

This is not Marsalis’ first time speaking on matters of public policy. In 2007, Marsalis attended the Congressional Arts Breakfast and testified at the corresponding hearing.

His involvement in the District has come through policy and music. When he met former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at a dinner benefiting the Rockefeller Foundation, he discovered they have some similar interests. They paired up to make three short videos for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Web site. Each explains the correlation between music and democracy. At one point, Marsalis breaks down the three branches of government.

“The drummer is like the president,— he told the jurist. “It’s the loudest instrument.—

“What’s the bass there?— O’Connor asked. “That’s pretty loud, too.—

“The judiciary,— he replied, adding that the keyboard is the legislature.

As he knows the way government works, so Marsalis knows the District’s music scene. He said his first performance at the Kennedy Center came in the early 1980s, and since then he has developed a “familiar relationship— with the Washington Performing Arts Society.

“It’s like coming home,— he said. With the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Marsalis has already performed at the Kennedy Center twice in 2009: on Jan. 19, prior to his private Inauguration Day concert for the new president, and on March 16, about a week before the release of Marsalis’ new album, “He and She.—

In this trip, Marsalis’ work has less to do with entertainment and more to do with affecting change, but that’s nothing new either. Marsalis spoke out effectively when he returned to New Orleans, his hometown, after Hurricane Katrina. The jazz man organized an eclectic group of musicians whose concert and CD raised $2.8 million for local interests.

He addressed students at Tulane University when they returned to campus in January 2006.

“Don’t wish for someone else to do later what you can do now,— he told them. “When you perceive a problem, instead of speaking about it in dorm rooms or in hushed corners of bars or even loudly in bars, put together a group of friends and be loud and public in your dissent.—

Marsalis could say the same thing in his Monday night lecture. Or he might just advise them to get a little swing.