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Wynton & Katrina

AAJ Staff By

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Wynton Marsalis was born on October 18, 1961 in New Orleans, Louisiana, the birthplace of jazz. Neighboring Mississippi is the home of the blues. On August 29, 2005, the coastal Gulf states were slammed by Hurricane Katrina.
Passing through Florida, Katrina was a Category One hurricane. By the time it hit the warm Gulf of Mexico waters, she had turned into a Category Four monster. As unpredictable as an out-of-control truck, the killer storm turned east, avoiding a direct hit on New Orleans, but blasting Biloxi, Mississippi.
At first it seemed, New Orleans had been spared the brunt of Hurricane Katrina. Then the levees broke. A city built below sea level soon flooded with catastrophic effect and contaminated waters. Those that didn't evacuate were at the mercy of Mother Nature. And she was in a damned bad mood that day.
Those that stayed behind to weather the storm were predominately poor and black. How do you evacuate when you have $10 in your pocket and several children in tow? Where was the Army? Where was the National Guard? Where were the school buses? The rest is now history. History never to be forgotten. History that hopefully taught a lesson.

Having the opportunity to work personally with Jazz at Lincoln Center Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis has been a blessing. Promoting jazz in New York City is a dream come true. Working with this man in this organization is a life-changing experience.

Yes, Wynton is an incredible trumpet player. Yes, he's at the top of his game. Yes, he's an outspoken advocate for jazz music, education and racial equality. Yes, he's impeccably dressed. Yes, he's got an unstoppable outside jump shot on the basketball court. And yes, Wynton Marsalis is a compassionate human being.

Critics like to take pot-shots at him because he's so successful. Everybody's after the Super Bowl Champ every year. Everybody wants to knock-out the World Heavyweight Champ. Such is life when you put yourself out there in the public eye. Critics get paid to criticize.

Wynton stepped up to the plate, again. He used his power and influence not to promote jazz music this time. He used his notoriety to set the record straight and get life-saving help for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Back-to-back interviews all day long, day after day, from CNN to the New York Times and everything in-between.

His official initial statement cut to the bone. Here's what Wynton Marsalis had to say:

New Orleans is the most unique of American cities because it is the only city in the world that created its own full culture—architecture, music and festive ceremonies. It's of singular importance to the United States of America because it was the original melting pot with a mixture of Spanish, French, British, West African and American people living in the same city. The collision of these cultures created jazz and jazz is important because it's the only art form that objectifies the fundamental principals of American democracy. That's why it swept the country and the world representing the best of the United States.

New Orleanians are blues people. We are resilient, so we are sure that our city will come back. This tragedy, however, provides an opportunity for the American people to demonstrate to ourselves and to the world that we are one nation determined to overcome our legacies of injustices based on race and class. At this time all New Orleanians need the nation to unite in a deafening crescendo of affirmation to silence that desperate cry that is this disaster.

We need people with their prayers, their pocketbooks, and above all their sense of purpose to show the world just who the modern American is and then we'll put our city back together in even greater fashion. This is gut check time for all of us as Americans.

In a country with the most incredible resources in the world we need the ingenuity of our best engineers to put the cultural heart of our nation back together. To put it together with 2005 technical expertise and with 2005 social consciousness, which means without accommodating the ignorance of racism and the deplorable conditions of poverty, and lack of education that have been allowed to fester in many great American cities since slavery.

We're only as civilized as our level of hospitality. Let's demonstrate to the world that what actually makes America the most powerful nation on earth is not guns, pornography and material wealth but transcendent and abiding soul, something perhaps we have lost a grip on, and this catastrophe gives us a great opportunity to handle up.


The Battle of New Orleans has begun. This time we are fighting to save lives, not take them. Saving lives takes money. How can Wynton help? Do what he does best: play music. Thus, the creation of the massive September 17, 2005 benefit concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center called the Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert and Auction. Wynton made some phone calls and a concept became a crusade.


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