Like so many other children of New Orleans, Wynton Marsalis could only watch on television as his city slipped under water and his people stood on rooftops calling for rescuers who took days to arrive.
“Sure, you get angry,” says Marsalis. “But no angrier than you get all your life about a system that uses race, class and politics to keep us polarized.”
So, like millions of others, Marsalis instead wondered how he could help.
That answer came a lot faster than the rescue boats: He could put on a show.
And what a show. This Saturday at Lincoln Center, where he is artistic director of jazz, Marsalis will join a Katrina benefit concert hosted by Laurence Fishburne and featuring, among others, Paul Simon, Terence Blanchard, Bette Midler, James Taylor, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Diana Krall, Norah Jones, Abbey Lincoln and Buckwheat Zydeco.
The mix-and-match program — which will offer live performances and non-musical celebrities encouraging donations — will start at 7 p.m. and be simulcast on WNET/Ch. 13 (8 p.m.-11 p.m.), WBGO (88.3 FM) and XM Satellite Radio.
An event like this “reminds us of our best side,” says Marsalis of how the country comes together occasionally to do the right thing. “It’s what we should be doing.
“The trouble with our country has been that we do this for a while, like in the Civil War or the civil rights movement, then we stop and retrench.”
At the moment with Katrina, he says, we’re still so stunned that we’ve only begun to absorb what has happened and what lies ahead.
Marsalis returned to New Orleans this past weekend with two specific projects: to help call attention to critical cultural landmarks and to campaign against the scams that poorer residents are sure to face.
“There should be a moratorium on selling land in flooded areas,” he says. “Otherwise, you’ll have people coming in offering folks $10,000 for their homes. That’s far less than they’re worth, but when you have nothing, it’s hard not to take it.
“Then the speculators will ‘rebuild’ New Orleans as a bunch of theme malls.”
Marsalis talks about all this from a spacious 29th-floor apartment that overlooks the Hudson River, with a living room that includes a stylish grand piano.
But he’s never lost touch, he says, with the less fortunate.
“My great-uncle was born in 1883,” he muses of his New Orleans heritage. “He lived in a shotgun shack on Governor St. He was a stonecutter for a cemetery, and he never had much.
“But I learned a lot from him.”
As the waters rose, Marsalis thought about that shack.
“My great-uncle had a fan,” he says. “I’m sure it’s gone now. The whole house has to be gone. But it’s funny what you think about. I remember that fan. You think about the big things, and then you think about all the little things that were part of all those people’s lives. Gone. All gone.”
What frustrates him about the government’s tragically slow response to Katrina, he says, is that “polarization and division” triumphed over our “natural instinct” to help.
“Unfortunately, that’s nothing new,” he says, shaking his head. “And the sad part is that we can all live together.
That’s what New Orleans and New Orleans culture have shown us. New Orleans isn’t about getting drunk with 6,000 people on Bourbon St. at Mardi Gras. It’s about all different cultures getting along.”
Marsalis personifies that spirit, says Josh Jackson of WBGO, a New Orleans native who is coordinating Saturday’s NPR and WBGO simulcasts.
“You hear New Orleans in everything he plays,” says Jackson. “And the way he loves the music, loves sharing it with other musicians and kids. He got that where he grew up.”
Marsalis says he’s talked with probably a thousand New Orleans people in the last two weeks, and the first question they exchange is, “You got everybody?,” meaning, “Is your whole family safe and accounted for?”
The next question, maybe, is whether New Orleans will come back. Marsalis says that’s easy.
“Absolutely,” he says. “Just look at the culture. The music, the food. The physical structure may be gone, but the core, that cultural spirit, is strong as ever.”
Long-term, he hopes all Americans will ask if it’s finally time to rise above corrosive polarization and “embrace each other.”
“Left on our own,” he says, “we will. Our politics is so nonrepresentative of our people.”