The Thing You Have to Do for the Kingdom to Be Well

Wynton Marsalis says, at the end of episode 1 of Ken Burns’s documentary Jazz:

Race for this country is like the thing in the story, in the mythology, that you have to do for the kingdom to be well. And it’s always something that you don’t want to do. And it’s always that thing that’s so much about you confronting yourself, that is tailor-made for you to fail dealing with it. And the question of your heroism, and of your courage, and of your success with this trial [of race] is, “Can you confront it with honesty, and do you have the energy to sustain an attack on it?” And since jazz music is at the center of the American mythology, it necessarily deals with race. The more we run from it, the more we run into it. It’s an age-old story, and if it’s not race, it’s something else. But in this particular instance, in this nation, it is race.

Marsalis’s quote comes at 56:47 of the video.

What do you think he means?

Some context: keep in mind that the first jazz recording ever made was by cornetist Nick La Rocca’s Original Dixieland Jass Band, “Livery Stable Blues” (and note the neighing and whinnying sounds of the clarinet and trumpet, imitating the horses in the livery stable):

La Rocca, who as a son of New Orleans ought to have known better, is quoted as saying:

Our music is strictly white man’s music . . . My contention is that the Negroes learned to play this rhythm and music from the whites . . . The Negro did not play any kind of music equal to white men at any time.

Is Marsalis responding to La Rocca many decades later?

Do you think that Marsalis’s “thing you have to do for the kingdom to be well” bears any similarities to what Ursula K. Le Guin describes in the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”? (Read it here, it’s short.) In Marsalis’s “kingdom,” who or what stands in for the child in Le Guin’s story?

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