Jazz great Wynton Marsalis had a two-word message for the audience gathered at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Phoenix on Saturday for the 10th annual Delivering Democracy event put on by Arizona State University’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.
“Our systems suffer from not enough participation,” said Marsalis, the Grammy Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning artist who was the event’s distinguished speaker. “I think what each of us can do is participate more, agitate, write things, show up for stuff like PTA meetings.
“That might seem like a small thing, but it’s not. It’s important for all of us to say, ‘OK, we have to cast a light on things,’ not just give money to something that bothers us. You need to participate.”
Marsalis’ remarks came during a conversation with Center for the Study of Race and Democracy Director Lois Brown, who opened the event by saying, “delivering democracy has been a hallmark of consistent joy and exploration for our communities.”
Marsalis told stories about growing up in New Orleans, his favorite performers, how his parents influenced him — “if I had a question about integrity, I would always ask my mom” — and why he believes society has come a long way in his lifetime in regard to justice and equity but still has a long way to go.
“I tend to think of it as a long human struggle, which continues and is going on and on,” said Marsalis, whose band, the Wynton Marsalis Septet, performed for about an hour to conclude the event. “This is the furthest we’ve been, but we’ve always been on the precipice. There’s always a fight.”
Marsalis also addressed what he believes is a mental health crisis among today’s youth, in part, he said, because damaging images, words and music are easily accessible. He told the story of his younger brother, who was severely autistic, and how it made him acutely aware of the “health of young people.”
“We’re in the midst of an extreme mental health crisis that affects kids everywhere,” he said. “We have to put constraints on stuff. For some reason, we have misread what freedom means. It’s a tragic mistake to make, and our kids are paying for it."
The event included pre-recorded remarks from ASU President Michael Crow, who noted how the university strives toward equity for all.
“We’re still bending the arc, as Dr. (Martin Luther) King said, toward justice,” Crow said. “Central to all of that is to make certain that as we evolve as a country, as we evolve as a democracy, that we have created an institution in the form of a public university that is available to everyone. Period. Full stop.
“That means making sure that people aren’t left out because they didn’t find the right path along the way. That means making certain there’s no financial barrier to being a part of the great public university.”
Colleen Jennings Roggensack, ASU’s vice president for cultural affairs and executive director of ASU Gammage, received a Champions of Democracy award along with Carole Coles Henry, chair of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy's advisory board, and Richard Yarbough, president of the Pilgrim Rest Foundation.
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego also spoke briefly at the event, and Alberto Ríos, Arizona’s poet laureate and director of ASU’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, performed his poem “We Are the Story Together.”
It reads, in part:
This, too: a rogue and hard police baton swung,
Coming down with brute, blood force, a child
Whose lullaby is hunger’s rattle, the unbelievable
World symphony of cruelties, heartbreaks, illnesses,
Sorrows. Still, even after bombs, we get up,
Decade after decade, generation after generation.
We get up and we find the third way,
Not yours, not mine, but ours together.
We find it, we see it, we feel it, we smile,
More than seven billion of us – though every day
We somehow lose track of what we learn. Every day
The characters in this book have to go out and do
The hard work of writing its next pages and new plot
All over again.
Top photo: ASU Center for the Study of Race and Democracy Director Lois Brown and American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis have a conversation during the 10th annual Delivering Democracy event on April 1 at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church. Photo by Samantha Chow
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