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The Crossroad Between Music and Rhetoric

Marsalis calls for musicians to rediscover root music

By Claire P. Tan, Crimson Staff Writer

“There is only one Wynton, and his presence is both refined and sublime,” said Henry L. Gates Jr. as he introduced Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on Thursday night at Sanders Theatre. The program, “Meet Me at the Crossroad,” was part of a two-year lecture series given by Marsalis entitled “Hidden in Plain View: Meanings in American Music.” In his three-hour lecture, Marsalis expansively mapped out the evolution of American identity through an articulate exploration of root American music featuring blues, folk, gospel, bluegrass, and jazz. With various musical illustrations played by Marsalis and other distinguished musicians, the lecture charmed a packed Sanders Theater and provided a rich history of the American root genres and the musicians who explored them.

“Identifying the blues should be part of any American citizenship test,” Marsalis jokingly said as he explained the significance of the blues towards the progression of American music.

“It was interesting to see how the blues and different genres come together and how he disaggregated jazz into its various components,” Michael O’Leary ’12 said. According to Marsalis, the blues, a quintessentially American genre, transcends socio-economic and racial divisions. With its universal themes and simple song structure, blues “spoke deeply on issues without too much artifice and provided a structural simplicity that enabled all other musicians to easily play together,” Marsalis said. Whereas the music of traditional European countries was an aristocratic privilege, the blues instead sought “cross-pollination as an important step in achieving a more inclusive and complex musical language.” Its combination of Anglo-Celtic and Afro-American cultures aptly symbolized the American melting pot.

Marsalis progressed from analyzing musical forms to paying homage to various legendary American musicians. Through his lecture, he touched upon many revolutionary artists, from Thomas Dorsey, who “wrote the nastiest secular songs ever written”, to Bessie Smith, “the master of metaphor.” Marsalis narrated how these musicians paved the way for unity during a time of segregation through harmony, melody, and rhythm. One artist who struggled to break past the hypocritical bonds on American freedom was Benny Goodman, who integrated his bandstand in the 1930s. “At that time, it was an incredibly bold move, but Benny chose to respond to what he heard in American music ... It was obvious to him, it was obvious because those root styles bespoke a unified America,” Marsalis said. And while the 1950s were shadowed with the strife and suspicion of McCarthyism, the advent of rock and roll connected youths all over the country. “It exposed black teenagers to the Anglo foundations of all American root music,” Marsalis elaborated. Rock and roll, spearheaded by a fiery young Mississippian named Elvis Presley, introduced “white kids to music and dance and all kids to the meaning of the American experience.” When the nation grappled with the question of civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s, musicians had already paved the way.

However, towards the end of the lecture, it became apparent that Marsalis was critical of the way music has progressed since the late 1950s. Music became “more about the personality and charisma of the star, more about spectacular action, more about movies and drugs and being in power, than the identity of any music,” he said. He attributed this decline in part to the current lack of music education in public schools and the commercialization of music. Newer genres, according to Marsalis, have strayed too far from American root music and lack an organic rhythm, which is the democratic heart and soul of all music. “Our music, genetically engineered to bring us together, became the principal tool to keep us apart,” he lamented.

At its heart, the lecture resonated as a call for musicians to turn back to their cultural roots. “In American culture, we often come to think of the crossroads as a place of crucial determining, of even fatal choices, a place ridden with separation,” Professor Gates said while explaining the lecture’s title. Yet Gates argues that in some African, neo-African, and African-American narratives, the crossroads signifies the opposite: “It is the site of the exploration of unlimited possibilities, not of predetermination or predestination.” Marsalis’s lecture aspired to prove that countless musicians have met at the crossroads of American root music, pioneered brilliant artistic creations, and taken the path toward greater social change.

—Staff writer Claire P. Tan can be reached at clairetan@college.harvard.edu.

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