Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performed the music of Thelonious Monk on Friday; the concert reminded me how fortunate we can be, usually just a few times in our lives, to witness artistic genius first hand. I felt the same way while sitting in the open-air Delacorte Theater in Central Park, experiencing a live performance of King Lear, with James Earl Jones in the title role; the same as well seeing Zero Mostel as Tevye in the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Master performers have an ability to take current models and conventions and work them into new forms. They challenge themselves and others – and they motivate others to challenge them. (Marsalis and his colleagues try to “arrange music too hard for one another to perform”.) Top performers have an ability to work with others. They seek ideas from others. They search constantly, both by themselves and in collaboration with others, for new ways of doing things.
We can learn a lot from observing brilliant people. I’m always struck by the combination of intellectual assertiveness and intellectual humility – groundbreaking efforts to achieve new ways to understand and to act, yet with great awe and all-encompassing appreciation for how little any of us, even geniuses, can really know and do.
As we face the issues our communities and our nations currently face, I hope we can develop our collective genius in a way that incorporates the traits of great performers like Marsalis. For example, we desperately need to change our system of health care. Will we just produce more of the same, bogged down by old ways of thinking and stymied by the baggage of the past? Or can we rearrange some old parts and create some new ones, to redesign an accessible, effective, equitable system? Can we arrange something “too hard to perform” and then accomplish the work and preparation that enables us to perform?
If and when “stimulus money” flows into our communities, will we seek to plug holes and maintain the past? Or will we creatively identify opportunities that will leverage the effect of the money, building on the energy and genius of our residents?
Top performers make difficult, complex efforts look simple. We can’t deceive ourselves. As Marsalis pointed out, sometimes practicing “18 or 19 hours in a day” is necessary. Similarly, to get our communities and economies back on track, we will need to work diligently. Quick, simple, and “politically correct” approaches will fall far short of what we need. We must challenge one another, give up turf, compromise and orchestrate some new music.