01/16/2009 11:51 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

America's Moment for Improvisation

At the start of Ken Burns' extraordinary documentary on baseball, essayist Gerald Early mused that, in 2,000 years, American civilization will be known for only three things: the Constitution, baseball, and jazz. Early's point, Burns later wrote, was that "the genius of America is improvisation."

This week, as millions gather in Washington D.C. for Barack Obama's inauguration, we will be well served to remember this: America is not great exclusively because of our storied traditions, though the strength, substance, and significance of our traditions are unparalleled. America is great because its people have chops: we are intrepid and imaginative, making it up as we go along, constantly adapting tradition -- reinventing ourselves -- to master the challenges of changing times.

For precisely this reason, the Rockefeller Foundation and Jazz at Lincoln Center are thrilled to celebrate the power of innovation in a unique program at the Kennedy Center on Monday night. Commemorating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and rejoicing in a moment of American renewal, the Honorable Sandra Day O'Connor, Wynton Marsalis, and a bevy of elite performers will explore the deep and abiding connections between American democracy and American music. In the process, they will not only recount the history of our nation, its soul, and its soundtrack -- "no America, no jazz," drummer Art Blakey famously said -- but also remind us of jazz's particular relevance today.

Jazz embodies America's distinctive ethos of ingenuity, the ability to recognize and reach for a more perfect tomorrow. In choosing to mark this season of rebirth with a jazz concert, we make more than an intellectual statement. At the Rockefeller Foundation, we ardently believe that we can only address seemingly intractable challenges with a sustained, shared commitment to nurture innovation. This conviction guides our work informing equitable and sustainable transportation policy and developing novel financial products and services to shore up American workers' savings, health care, and retirements -- just two issue-areas calling out for new ideas from the new administration and Congress.

And to this end, the drumbeat of creative expression serves another crucial function. It is the pulse of creativity. Take the case of Albert Einstein, who was once asked how he devised the theory of relativity. "It occurred to me by intuition," he said in response, "and music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception."

Never before in American history have we so desperately needed to marry left-brain problem solving with right-brain ingenuity -- to inspire new thinking and energies across the many fields of human endeavor and enterprise.

In New Orleans, where the Rockefeller Foundation helped the community draft its blueprint for recovery from Katrina, jazz tradition dictates that the low, grieving, soulful dirge gives way to the double-time rhythms of a second-lining , of new hope, and new beginnings. This week, let us devote ourselves anew to summoning this most American creed: to stave off stagnation, think and act boldly, and -- like the most talented musicians -- embrace the improvisational genius that sets us apart.