Wynton Marsalis Awarded French Legion of Honor in NYC

New York, N.Y. Wynton Marsalis received France’s highest distinction last week in New York – the insignia of chevalier of the Legion of Honor, an honor that was first awarded by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Sitting literally at his feet during the performance of the Wynton Marsalis Quintet which followed the ceremony, I witnessed why Wynton Marsalis is one of the most acclaimed jazz musicians of our generation.  I shot my video from only a few feet away.

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Wynton Marsalis received France’s highest distinction last week in New York.  French
dignitaries, including French Embassy Cultural Counselor Kareen Rispal, participated.
Wynton was joined by his father Ellis on piano.  I spoke with Ellis who is a proud dad.

The French Ambassador, H.E. Pierre Vimont, captured the evening best with his introduction:

We are gathered here tonight to express the French government’s recognition of one of the most influential figures in American music, an outstanding artist.  In one word: a visionary.

This ceremony has only one purpose: to thank you, Wynton, on behalf of the French people for your contribution to the history of music, the strength of your vision, and your achievements in the fields of art and education.

I want to stress how important your work has been for both the American and the French.  I want to put the emphasis on the main values and concerns that we all share: the importance of education and transmission of culture from one generation to the other, and a true commitment to the profoundly democratic idea that lies in jazz music.

I strongly believe that, for you, jazz is more than just a musical form.  It is tradition, it is part of American history and culture and life.  To you, “Jazz is the sound of democracy.”  And from this democratic nature of jazz derives openness, generosity, and universality.

In your music, in your life, you are dealing with the myths and legends of America. Y our music itself is an education, a celebration of your national history. With you, history and music meet for the remembrance of the past.

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I sat literally at his feet during the performance of the Wynton Marsalis Quintet.

We all have in mind the exemplary Blood on the Fields, your epic oratorio about slavery which earned you a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1997 (which made you the first jazz musician ever to win this prestigious award).  You put forward art as an imperative necessity of transmitting memory.

To make it short, your philosophy could be summarized very simply:  If you know where you come from, you know where you are going.

I think we can say tonight, dear Wynton, that we share many values, and I strongly believe that it is not a coincidence if you are such a good friend of France.

You have performed on a regular yearly basis in France since 1991 and have a particular affection for the town and festival of Marciac.  The City of Marciac considers you the godfather of the festival, they even erected a life-sized bronze statue in your honor.

France has recognized your talent and celebrated your spectacular achievements for a very long time.  You won the French Grand Prix du Disque and, among many distinctions, you weremade Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 1997.

Let me add to that list of awards the most prestigious decoration offered by the French Republic:la Légion d’Honneur.

Wynton Marsalis, je vous fais Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur!

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The French Ambassador, H.E. Pierre Vimont, presented la Légion d’Honneur.

Wynton is more than the world’s best trumpet player.  He is also a celebrated composer of both jazz and classical music, an inspiring educator, and a tireless advocate for many charitable and humanitarian causes. He has paved the way for jazz to be fully recognized as a sophisticated art in its own right.

Wynton co-founded Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1987, the first cultural institution solely devoted to jazz. Under his leadership, Jazz at Lincoln Center produces up to 2,000 events annually in 15 countries.

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Philippe Camus, partner of Lagardère, Evercore, and chairman of Alcatel-Lucent, spoke.

Wynton himself performs annually in France and has been a headliner at the world famous Jazz Festival in Marciac since 1991.  This French city has adopted him as its own and erected a statue in his honor in 1997.

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Bill Cosby with his wife Camille Hanks attended the event at of the French Embassy.

Among the dozens of celebrities there, I spoke with Bill Cosby about the evening.  “During my trips to Europe – especially France – I have always been happy with the way the French embraced jazz.  I am delighted to witness this presentation bestowed upon such a deserving educator, musician, ambassador in the truest sense,” Bill told me.

Bernadine Restaurant’s celebrity chief Eric Ripert also attended the event.

Born in 1961, Wynton Marsalis started playing the trumpet at the age of 6 and by the time he was 14, he was performing Haydn’s Concerto for trumpet with the New Orleans Philharmonic.

Talented and hard working, he is one of the few trumpeters who excel in both jazz and classical music. In 1983 he earned the distinction of being the only artist ever to win Grammy Awards for both jazz and classical records (an accomplishment he repeated the following year).

In all, Wynton has won nine Grammy Awards and is the only artist to have won in five consecutive years (1983-1987). He is also the first jazz musician and composer to have received the Pulitzer Prize for Music (Blood on the Fields, 1997).

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In addition to playing, Wynton Marsalis is a prolific composer.  Commissions have included pieces for Garth Fagan Dance, the New York City Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, and the New York Philharmonic.

His latest composing projects include new symphonies for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (November 2009 premiere) and Berlin Philharmonic (June 2010 premiere).

Eager to share his knowledge and support new generations of musicians, Marsalis is a tireless teacher and lecturer. Honorary degrees from more than 30 universities, including Harvard, Yale and Howard have been bestowed upon him in recognition of his efforts in education.

According to Wynton Marsalis, what one hears in a great jazz band is the sound of democracy: “The jazz band works best when participation is shaped by intelligent communication.”

Through his music and life, Wynton represents this universal ideal throughout the world, a philosophy that was reinforced in 2001, when he was named a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador and Messenger of Peace by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

In an effort to revitalize his native New Orleans, Wynton organized major fund-raising efforts to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina and preserve the city’s cultural base and jazz community. Thanks to his ties to France, he played a key role in helping Louisiana jazz musicians obtain residencies across the Atlantic to continue their craft after the disaster.

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With Wynton Marsalis at Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York.

The highest award bestowed by the French government, the National Order of the Legion of Honor was recognizes outstanding achievement in the military as well as in the public and private sectors.  The Order is made up of five ranks: chevalier, officer, commandeer, grand officer, and grand croix.  Recipients are named by decree signed by the President of the Republic.

The Legion of Honor may be awarded to foreign citizens, though such recognition is relatively rare. American honorees include John Ashbery, Renée Fleming, Barbara Streisand, and Elie Wiesel – as well as hundreds of World War II veterans.

The ceremony took place at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York and was co-hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Philippe Camus, partner of Lagardère, Evercore, and chairman of Alcatel-Lucent.  Philippe has agreed to a sit-down interview with me about French-American relations.

As Barry Kula, one of the many guests, commented to me afterwards, “It as an historic and fun night, combining Wynton, his father Ellis, and the ensemble – as well as Wynton’s usual magnanimity, warmth, and references to music education and cultural connectivity.

Barry expressed what had crossed my own mind: “Music is indeed the universal language and I couldn’t help thinking that if governments spent more on music education and schools in general rather than war and arms, what a more wonderful world it could be.”

Photos courtesy of John Lee, New York.

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The Editors
The Stewardship Report on Connecting Goodness is the communications platform of The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation (www.lucefoundation.org). There are now more than 100 contributors around the world to this publication.

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