Critical Lessons & Educational Change

Laura’s letter to Wynton Marsalis

Laura Reeder

December 11, 2010

Wynton L. Marsalis
Artistic Director
Jazz at Lincoln Center
33 West 60 Street, Floor 11
New York, New York 10023

Dear Mr. Marsalis,

You have been on my mind these days.

A few things have changed since we were last together in Washington, D.C., and I thought it might be helpful to do some catching up. You have been so very busy out there! Brilliantly blowing jazz and democracy through your horn and changing the lives of young musicians, children, families, and worlds.  I have been pretty busy up here too. But it is probably a bit quieter where I am. I bet you might still recognize the schools and spaces in Syracuse that you worked in with your dad and brothers when you came here in 2007 to help us with violence prevention. We still have important memories from that visit.

Last time I saw you it was 2009, and we were at that House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the arts in the morning and the Kennedy Center the night before. We were studying and standing up for the arts, education, democracy, and so many other big ideas. We laughed and we cried, and we asked some pretty hard questions about the future. Now that we are a couple of years into that future, I have some new questions and I am hoping that you might be able to help me to figure them out.

In the past year, I have taken a path to formalize my life as a teacher of teachers. Yes, I know that I was doing that very thing when we first met here in central New York. But, it was a kind of teaching that involved teachers who were already chest-deep in the limiting spaces of public education. It involved teaching-artists whose ideas would briefly explode the box-shapes of the classrooms and community centers, offering a peek at the world beyond the disconnected and standardized activities. When I climbed onto the shoulders of these hard working artists and educators to do advocacy work on their behalf, I spoke and thought in bulleted lists with an urgency that said, “I only have only two minutes with this megaphone to change the minds of exhausted and soul-broken policymakers, it better be good!” It was good, but short-lived work.

The resulting dollars and inspirational ideas that I brought home were spread thin amongst so many caring folks. It made me cynical and I began to doubt the importance of the arts in learning, and in democracy. Art began to look like sugar-coating on an already bad meal, or like the cheap plastic prize that I would find after eating a box full of over-processed cereal. So I decided to learn even more about the dialogue that shapes the arts and education in our country by pursuing my doctoral research here at Syracuse University.

You have been doing similar advocacy work, with shared urgency and much greater grace all of these years and I wonder if you have any advice. If the teachers and artists of the next generation are to endure and transcend the challenges of a bigger and more exhausting world, then how can we convince them that the arts are of greater value as a main course, rather than a special treat or reward? How can we model the notion that the arts provide real tools for changing lives when our own messages are often so big and so beautiful that they cannot squeeze through the little doors at Lincoln Center, or the Landmark Theater, and spill onto the streets to do more long-lived work? How can you and I and our colleague artist-educators divide the human need for imagination, empathy, and invention into bite-sized pieces for the tiniest and the most disenchanted citizens?

When you played jazz last year, and transformed the cavernous concert hall of the Kennedy Center into an intimate living room and you wept about the sadness and beauty of people, and you let us pull you back when you tried to hide your grief backstage, you invited so many privileged, powerful, and caring people into the everyday work of art. Yes, a bunch of them were already sold on the idea, but they may not have embraced the idea. In music that night, you said,

“We want to embrace one another, but don’t know how.  And the answer is not more education, but more substantive and more culturally-rooted education. The primary  justification for the value of education is not some competition with other countries for  technological jobs, or to win the so-called science race, or to beat anyone.  Our arts  demand and deserve that we recognize the life we have lived together.”

Mr. Marsalis, if ” the life we have lived together” is so filled with war and separation and greed, then how do we convince the caring and potent voices in that glamorous room to face our own shame and grief and spend more time at the table with people who may not have been invited to join us that night? How do we convince them that the goal of creativity and of learning should be designed not to ” beat anyone”? Do you get shivers when you hear that our latest national educational goal requires us to “Race to the Top” (2009) of something? How lonely will we be if and when we finally get there? That same night, with your music, you also said,

“Now the challenge of this generation is to find the frontier of our collective souls.  And  though it is a soul with a history of slavery and injustice and struggle, it is a soul with  freedom and striving and triumph.  And you can’t get past the truth of yourself.”

How do we model our own sincerity to find the “frontier of our collective souls” beyond the concert hall or studio? I know that you do it with your hard work, with your commitment to learning not just about music, but about learning, and citizenship, and resistance. You use the instrument of jazz and sing of a history so jam-packed with voices, originality, and the improvisation of human relationships that we will be humming it in our own heads for centuries to come. Your music is accessible to every mind. Isn’t that what democracy can look like too?

I want more than anything to own and transmit the belief that teachers and artists in this new century can get past the truths of ourselves and find each other. Yet, I return to the campus that extends to me the privilege of thinking whole, un-bulleted thoughts for a while. I find that the teachers and the artists that I am learning with there acknowledge that we are boxed into environments that are very separate from the gritty truths of the children and the citizens who exist “out there” (Reeder, 2010). We project the sad and joyous stories of others onto the walls of our well-appointed classrooms and we study at arms-length the issues and concepts that make learning and co-existing so difficult in the real world. How can we do this differently?

We listen to the voice of bell hooks (1994, p.177) when she says things like, “From grade school on, we are all encouraged to cross the threshold of the classroom believing we are entering into a democratic space – a free zone where the desire to study and learn makes us all equal.” We smile knowingly and agree that we would never make such careless assumptions. We know what happens when you assume. Then we ask our new artist-teachers to spend seven short weeks in a classroom gaining the experience of a ” real” teacher and we bring them back to our seminars and complain about the biases and injustices that those real teachers reproduce even though we know for certain that they have been working longer hours than we could imagine, chest-deep in limited spaces while we return to the infinite “universe” (Sellars, 2010) of the university.

When I open closed doors in my institution of higher learning, I hear intelligent voices echoing out into the hallways about the power of personal experience, of our own rich imagination, and our freedom of choice, but didn’t you say that, “freedom lives in structure” when you (Marsalis, 2004, p. 34) were speaking to Anthony, that young musician? How can I be better equipped to teach new artists and teachers to move beyond the dream-state and misty-eyed romance that drives us deeper inside of our beautiful minds and closed-door classrooms when we discuss the arts and move toward action and interaction that gets something done on the outside when we listen to others and engage through the arts? How can I exercise patience and get things done?

Does it do a disservice to the creative mind to require it to listen to and think with others? What would happen if a student of education or the arts did spend an extra month at her student teaching site? What would happen if a professor of civic engagement required her students to think and work beyond the semester or academic year with the artists, learners, and teachers who live beyond our ivory tower? What if the majority of our artist-educator learning experiences provided life-changing experience, but did not provide great copy for a brochure or website?

These years back at school are a time of great opportunity for me and I appreciate the rare gift that I have been given. I am beyond grateful. This is my chance to listen and to learn in complete sentences, with the relief of not being required to perform out loud. You expressed similar gratitude in your letter to Anthony (p.11) when you shared your understanding of humility. You said, “Humility engenders learning because it beats back the arrogance that puts blinders on.” You also said that, “…the humble consistently observe and listen, the humble improve.”

It is true, these are questions that probably create more complex questions and that you alone are not going to answer them for me. But, if you could, please do me a favor. When you are “out there” on the road, playing stories with your music to bridge worlds and differences, take an extra moment to ask these questions of the leaders and the grownups in the room, who  have so much to say about creativity and learning. Perhaps you can encourage them to say one less thing and to do one more thing that will bring them closer to real understanding. Charles Payne (2009, p. 6) once said, “Reform after reform fails because of nothing more complicated than the sheer inability of adults to cooperate with one another.” Can you help those important people to understand the difference between speaking about harmony and acting in harmony?

Please keep practicing your wide-open conversations of music. Please keep proving that the unique voice and potential that comes from a responsive ear, a descriptive eye, a selective voice, and an intentional action belongs not just to the arts, and in special places, but to the human spaces that we all inhabit in a better world. On the morning of that congressional hearing (2009) you also said,

“An essential role of the artistic endeavor is to create models that teach and mold through  their rhetorical power – through the stories that tell and the things we learn about  ourselves and teach ourselves in their telling. That is the task of the artist in society – to  tell the truths that are otherwise and in ways that compel their audience to understand.”

I understand my task. You have proven that you understand yours. Now let’s see if we can stretch our understanding to empower a new generation of artist-learner-educators.

Thanks for listening.




hooks, b. (1994). Confronting class in the classroom. In Teaching to Transgress: Education as the practice of freedom (pp. 177-189). NY: Routledge.

Marsalis, W. (2004) To a Young Jazz Musician: Letters from the Road. Random House, U.S.

Marsalis, W. (2009) Congressional Testimony, Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. March, 31, 2009. U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC.

Marsalis, W. (2009) The Ballad of the American Arts. Performed at the 22 nd Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts & Public Policy. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC.

Payne, C. (2008)  So Much Reform, S Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools, (p. 6).   Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, MA.

Reeder, L. (2010) “Art & Civic Dialogue” unpublished data from interviews with MFA students. Syracuse, NY.

Sellars, P. (2010) Direct quote from a talk on “Art & Civic Dialogue”. Archbold Theater, Syracuse Stage. Syracuse, NY.