The following speeches were made during the PBS/BET-televised Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Benefit concert on Saturday, September 17, 2005
John Coltrane once said “the main thing a musician would like to do, is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe.” When Miles Davis asked him why he played so long, Coltrane answered, “It took that long to get it all in.”
New Orleans is the site of so many “wonderful things”, the city being a great crossroads of diverse peoples, languages, architectures, cuisines, and rhythms through the centuries. But it has also been the site of shameful things – slavery, exploitation and neglect.
It is a tribute to jazz musicians that they sought to “get it all in”. The music itself – vital, transformative, seductive, subversive and often improvised – provided the record that tied each generation to the next. Out of suffering and hardship, we have heard time and again jazz artists rediscover possibility. Such is the power of imagination. And hence, the critical importance of this evening’s effort.
When the hurricane struck the Gulf and the floodwaters rose and tore through New Orleans, plunging its remaining population into a carnival of misery, it did not turn the region into a Third World country – as it has been disparagingly implied in the media – it revealed one. It revealed the disaster within the disaster: grueling poverty rose to the surface like a bruise to our skin.
But the storm not only revealed the poverty of those most vulnerable, those left behind. It revealed the poverty of skewed priorities that put the shoulder of technology to the wheel of death rather than life, creating killing machines that are now called “smart” and surveillance systems that, in the words of the great Guyanese poet Martin Carter, “are watching you sleep and aiming at your dreams.”
Mother Nature revealed the poverty of a mindset that narrowly views security as a military issue. That is blind to the role of culture in sustaining the mental health and social wellness of people, which is also the basis for economic productivity. Blind to the role of culture in education, through which we are prepared for our responsibilities in a democracy. And hostile to the role of culture in the search for truth.
Hurricane Katrina revealed, more than anything else, a poverty of imagination.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “True compassion is more than throwing a coin to a beggar. It demands of our humanity that if we live in a society that produces beggars, we are morally commanded to restructure that society.”
Let us challenge what we have been told was inevitable: Katrina was not “unforeseeable”, the loss of life and suffering was not “unavoidable”. It was the result of a political authority that sub-contracts its responsibility to the private sector and abdicates responsibility altogether when it comes to housing, health care, education and even evacuation.
As New Orleans rebuilds, let us also ensure that reconstruction does not result in further victimization. Let us support the efforts of those people in the Delta who have stated that they “will not go quietly into the night, scattering across this country to become homeless shadows in countless other cities while federal relief funds are funneled into rebuilding casinos, hotels and chemical plants…” Let us ensure that those victimized by this tragedy will be empowered to actively participate in the reclaiming, rebuilding and improvement of their communities.
The gift of music is to bring people together, to create not only a shared identity, but to embrace a shared humanity. To truly know ourselves is to realize how we are connected to each other.
Many people this evening have described the beauty, the Creole and spice, the gumbo that is New Orleans; the African roots, blues, gospel and many other musical traditions that have come together to create that uniquely American art form: jazz.
And the meaning of jazz, is life. Whether we receive it as a blend of many notes reflecting diverse traditions, or as John Coltrane might have it: as one note, played in endless variations.
Let us commit ourselves to the service of life.
The Vanguard Public Foundation, which Danny Glover and I serve, has a long history of social justice philanthropy and activism, and has established a People’s Hurricane Relief Fund. And tonight, on the occasion of this inspiring benefit convened by Wynton Marsalis, the Vanguard Foundation is making a donation of $200,000 to the Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Fund.