By Betsy Rothstein - 01/20/09 05:55 PM EST
“I felt that he was going to win.”
That was jazz musician Wynton Marsalis’s thought late last week as he drove from Wilmington, N.C., to Washington, contemplating all the while President Obama’s victory.
“Sometimes you vote and you don’t think your candidate is going to win,” Marsalis, a trumpeter and composer, told The Hill in a phone interview from the road. “I felt that he was the most qualified. I didn’t vote for him as a black president. His platform was American.”
What does it mean, though, that we elected a black president?
“I think it means we voted for the most qualified candidate,” Marsalis said. “The last two elections have had some suspicion with voter machine problems and voter problems, so I feel this election was the American people taking the electoral system back more than the color of the man’s skin.”
Marsalis was in town this week not only to attend Inauguration but also to host “A Celebration of America” at the Kennedy Center on the evening of Martin Luther King Day. He co-hosted the jazz event, sponsored by The Rockefeller Center, with retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. During the event, in between numbers, they engaged in an interchange about jazz and politics.
“ ’Course I love the justice and the conversation about jazz and the Constitution,” he said. “It’s always important for us to express our belief in the American way of life through dance and song.”
Marsalis, who lives in midtown Manhattan, has been consistently political. After Hurricane Katrina, he performed benefits to raise money for the people of New Orleans. “Katrina was a tragic circumstance, but it was a joy to perform and feel like you were doing something about it. I felt the country did a great job. I think the federal, state and local governments let the people down.”
The famed jazz musician surrounds himself with friends who talk politics. He watches CNN, primarily. Fox News? “No.”
Marsalis has many favorite politicians. “I love Bill Clinton,” he says, explaining that he has campaigned for him. He also mentions Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton. He’s also a fan of Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), his congressman. “I’ve seen him speak,” he says. “He has a sense of the largeness of things when he addresses people.”
But when it comes to Obama, he can’t really contain himself.
“I love Obama’s jump shot,” he says. “He has invigorated our political process. His message is the same message as jazz music — that we are together.”
Marsalis explains that Obama is the culmination of a country that has finally learned something. “It’s the price you pay when you don’t learn about yourself,” he says. “You have to learn and learn all over again. We are one nation, although it’s more than a slogan. There is a history of art that supports that.”