Wynton Marsalis, "60 minutes" and the Case for People-to-People Travel to Cuba

For those who missed it, 60 Minutes aired a segment on last October's visit to Havana by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra earlier this week. It's a must-watch for jazz, Marsalis, Cuba and New Orleans enthusiasts alike. (View the entire 13-minute segment here) I hope someone in the White House caught this segment because it's a deeply moving reminder of why promoting broad people-to-people contacts between the U.S. and Cuba is the right, sane and humane policy.

Photo available at: this: Wynton Marsalis and members of the Orchestra leading a New Orleans style street parade with Cuban music students and passersby joining in. Or the joyful grin on one Cuban man, who, with their baby in tow, accompanied his wife - and her horn - to the band's hotel in hopes of getting a pointer or two from saxophonist Ted Nash (she did, and they jammed together). And, of course, there's a magic in seeing Cuban piano legend Chucho Valdes make some music with Marsalis at the home of U.S. Interests Section Chief Jonathan Farrar, which 60 Minutes' Morley Safer notes was home to the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba - 50 years ago when we still had one.

"Cuba, that's like your cousins," New Orleans native Marsalis says. And you can hear that closeness he's talking about as he and a colleague mark the distinctive and incredibly similar New Orleans and Cuban clave beats.

When asked, Marsalis declined to offer his opinion on the troubled US-Cuba political relationship. He figures that's not what he's there to do. Instead, he traveled to Cuba to "bring people together."

You can't blame him for not wanting to enter the hornets' nest on that one, but maybe he wasn't evading at all. Afterall, so many of us who argue for engagement with Cuba do so not because we've got a political axe to grind, but precisely because we feel robbed of that exquisite human connectivity with our cousins. Our political leaders' differences shouldn't be getting in the way of people-to-people relationships. (Can anyone explain to me why Marsalis had to get permission from the U.S. government to visit a Cuban music school to teach and inspire those lucky kids for a day?)

Connecting with people in another land feeds us socially, culturally, artistically, spiritually and intellectually. When people put politics aside, they realize how much they have in common, and they incorporate new and positive influences into their lives.

You don't have to denounce the U.S. embargo or the Cuban government to be able to catch the beat and enjoy the music together. And as Morley Safer put it, for at least the five nights Marsalis and the Orchestra were in Havana, "Cuba and the United States were speaking the same language."

A version of this post appeared at The Havana Note.