Did the people on the Mall, at Dr. King's feet in 1963 know that they were witnessing one of the most important moments in modern oratory? Ineffectual as it was in swaying the election, can we call Obama's 2004 Democratic National Convention address a truly great speech? Were the troops at Tilbury as moved by Elizabth I's words as history has them? Maybe. Or maybe history sweetens the memory of speeches. Perhaps hindsight can sweeten the words of speeches themselves. Accounts of reactions to the Gettysburg Address are conflicted, but many say that Lincoln's words met dispassionate, indifferent, and bored ears (remember that the crowd at Gettysburg had, before Lincoln's brief address, just suffered through a two hour oration by former Congressman Edward Everett). But eventually, if not immediately, the Gettysburg Address became the standard -- a compassionate and lofty tract of idealistic political philosophy, expressed through unpretentious, direct language.
On March 30th, 2009, Wynton Marsalis gave a speech at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Far from the brevity of Lincoln's meditation, but not quite the dirge of Everett's two hours, it is easily the most moving and profound piece of oration I have heard since July of 2004. The occasion was Arts Advocacy Day, and Marsalis gave the prestigious Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture. This is not a predictable battle cry in support of arts funding. Nor is it a sermon in promotion of one cultural agenda over another (although, granted, his personal tastes and biases inevitably shine through). There is something grander, yet simpler, at work here. This is a philosophical rumination (a "ballad," as Marsalis labels it) on the interconnected nature and indivisible oneness of all artistic expression, and, more to the point, on that phenomenon as the defining basis for what makes us "who we are." The "who" in this case is all of us, but most specifically, Americans.
We do not yet have the benefit of hindsight to tell us if this speech will be remembered or replayed in perpetuity. Nor is there likely to be any quantifiable effect of this speech on American cultural policy and arts patronage. But I suspect that this speech will have a lasting, formative effect on me, and if it reaches a few more, then it's certainly doing some good. This blogger's parents were in the audience, and my mother described it as "one of the great events of [her] life."
Now that I've built it up, and heightened your expectations, how could it possibly live up? Well, relax. Is it a perfect speech? I doubt such a thing exists. You may or may not care about the issues Marsalis covers. His tour through American history and arts may do nothing for you. You may disagree with some of his implications about contemporary art. I certainly did now and then. Then again, he's the lauded, world-renowned musician, educator, and impressario, whereas I'm a fanboy blogger. So I defer to Wynton in the end. The full -- and rather long -- speech is below. Double-click for fullscreen with playback controls.