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Wynton Marsalis Awarded French Legion of Honor in NYC

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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.

2009-11-13-Wynton_Marsalis_A_4.0.jpg
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.

2009-11-13-Wynton_Marsalis_B_4.0.jpg
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 were made 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!

2009-11-13-Wynton_Marsalis_C_4.0.jpg
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).

2009-11-13-Wynton_Marsalis_F_4.0.jpg  

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.