Wynton Marsalis calls on New Orleans to take down Lee Circle statue
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis called on the city of New Orleans to take down its prominent statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Saturday during the closing session of the Aspen Ideas Festival.
The jazz great and New Orleans native, who performs with the Lincoln Center Orchestra at the Benedict Music Tent on Monday, said he’s been lobbying City Hall to tear down the statue on St. Charles Avenue since Marc Morial was mayor of the city in the 1990s.
Since a white supremacist allegedly murdered nine black parishioners in a South Carolina church last month, national debate about Confederate symbols in public places has come to the fore, with many – including Aspen Institute and New Orleanian Walter Isaacson – calling for bringing down the statue in Lee Circle, which has stood since 1884.
“I’ve always wanted that statue to come down,” Marsalis said. “It puts a curse over the city. How are you going to put up a statue of somebody who didn’t defend you? … A question of symbols is important. When our symbols are a celebration of smallness, they’ll lead us to small things.”
Marsalis said he supports Americans’ right to keep Confederate flags and symbols in their own homes, but that they don’t have a place of honor in the public square.
“I do believe a public statue in the center of your city that celebrates what you are about, that stands over your city, should not be of a Confederate general,” he said. “First, they lost the war.”
Marsalis joined Isaacson and pianist Jon Batiste in a wide-ranging conversation Saturday about the history of jazz and its role in race relations in the U.S. from drum circles in Congo Square through the eras of Buddy Bolden, Thelonious Monk, swing and be-bop. The Independence Day conversation opened with Marsalis and Batiste playing a ragtime-inflected take on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was peppered with musical interludes throughout, and closed with a moving rendition of “Amazing Grace,” inspired by President Obama’s recent invocation of it in his eulogy for victims of the church massacre in Charleston.
Marsalis also outlined what he describes as two primary and enduring strains of African-American music – one emphasizing skill and talent, the other a demeaning descendent of 18th century minstrel shows that persists in gangster rap.
“One form, which the country has the greatest appetite for, and still does, is the minstrel show,” he said. “The more a fool a black person can be, the more ignorance that can be ascribed to us, the more we can be shown as debased and dehumanized, the bigger the audience and the more the amount of money. It’s still that way with rap music. … We still remain a country enamored with the minstrel show.”
Marsalis surprised the capacity crowd at the Greenwald Pavilion in describing how long it took him to embrace jazz icon and trumpeter Louis Armstrong. His father, the pianist Ellis Marsalis, had long attempted to get his son into Armstrong, but it wasn’t until he was in his late teens at the Juilliard School in New York that he came around.
“I didn’t like Louis Armstrong,” he said with a laugh. “Like many people coming up after the civil rights movement, we had our afros, [we had] our platform shoes, we were listening to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Somebody with a handkerchief singing ‘Hello Dolly,’ we didn’t want to hear about that. …But my father used to always say, ‘You’ve got to check out Pops.”
In the late ‘70s, while Marsalis was a student at Juilliard, his father sent him a tape of Armstrong playing “Jubilee.” Marsalis attempted to play Armstrong’s solo on the song, found he couldn’t, and found a new respect for Armstrong. He called his father to tell him the news.
“I said ‘I didn’t understand about Pops!’ and he just started laughing.”
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