Creativity and Innovation-Core American Principles

Posted on January 3, 2011


Wynton Marsalis and Ellis Marsalis on the cove...

Image via Wikipedia

I was watching 60 Minutes last night and treated to a two-part story about American Jazz great, Wynton Marsalis. It was a story that followed Wynton from New York to London to Havana as he traveled with his band to share the uniquely American art form of  Jazz. He not only performed, but also made great strides to get with music students to give them an incredible generous opportunity to work with him and his band to learn from the best. I have followed Wynton’s career as he has grown in his musicianship and into arguably my generation’s greatest classical and jazz musician and ambassador.

All along the way, this ambassador has expressed that without knowledge of our arts, without that appreciation and understanding-we will know nothing of our uniqueness, our heritage and our history as a people. I share in that belief as our children are looking at an educational landscape that is bleak. It is bleak because it has been hijacked by teachers unions who are more interested in their pensions than in providing the highest level of education for our kids-and that education needs to include the arts. Many arts programs are now being ripped out of schools as we focus just on test scores instead of providing well-rounded educational opportunities. Now I did not say teachers are responsible for the back-slide-it is the unions with the stranglehold on the funds that could be made available for such arts and music programs. Art is as important as math-it teaches one how to think. And Art history is part of American history. Art defines a culture.

There are bright spots out there-where public and the very necessary private funds come together to provide a rich experience for kids that will prepare them for not only a career in the arts such as dance, vocal and instrumental music, creative writing and the visual arts, but also to think creatively, to problem solve, to innovate, and to start their own businesses. There is a program that teaches a student to think beyond the commonplace, beyond the expected, beyond the norm. This school also has produced the likes of Wynton Marsalis-that school is the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. It started in the 70’s with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and lots of private funds. Not only did Wynton and his equally talented brother, Branford attend and graduate from there-their dad and mentor Ellis Marsalis-already an established artist, taught there. (He is also a Marine veteran!) The spirit of this school is embodied in the artist/teachers who instilled the core belief that all great accomplishments in the arts and of life, start with very hard work and sacrifice. There is no room for divas at this school. You had to earn your place there by trying out to gain entrance and prove you had that work ethic. (I know this first hand as I too graduated from this school in 1978 in the Visual Arts program. I had the good fortune to learn these principles and even graduated “highly recommended” along with Branford Marsalis, one year ahead of Wynton.) Even back then, Wynton was a star. He and his brother performed at NOCCA festivals to help raise money for the school with the likes of Al Hirt. Another very key component that is an American principle is the importance of giving back-helping to educate the next generation. We cannot rely on our government to excellently educate our kids, nor should we.

Students and teachers at NOCCA in 1978

So I relished in that 60 Minutes piece. I loved that this country has produced such a favorite son that not only portrays the excellence that is uniquely American-but that this American understands how important it is to teach, share, mentor and provide understanding of the greatness that is our American heritage. I try to emulate him in my own small way. I have a fiber arts business and I teach knitting in an after school program at the local middle school. This program also teaches violin, dance, flower arranging, and much more. It is not NOCCA but the teachers are local people who want to share what they know with students in their community. Taking responsibility for our children’s education is Being American.

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