Jazz Diplomacy with Famed Musicians Wynton Marsalis and Igor Butman

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Written by Hannah Bergstrom

The Sustained Dialogue Institute has been committed to transforming diplomatic relationships through thoughtful and honest dialogue since 2002. SDI works around the globe with governments, campuses, and communities to help people overcome their differences and reform relationships. Accordingly, at a time when relations between the United States and Russia have been on shaky ground, there is no better time for such a transformative experience than now.

This year, SDI celebrated the prestigious National Dialogue Awards Gala by honoring legendary jazz greats Wynton Marsalis and Igor Butman. Aside from their musical legacies, the two have made great efforts to promote cultural understanding and cooperation between the United States and Russia. At the Gala, the renowned musicians accepted their awards, remarked on the importance of sustaining a cultural dialogue, and put on a flawless musical performance. The night was an incredible demonstration of cultural diplomacy between the two nations, during a time when dialogue is so vital.

The first recipient of the National Dialogue Award was internationally-acclaimed musician Wynton Marsalis, who has been awarded nine Grammys, the National Humanities Medal, and a Pulitzer Prize. Marsalis has also used his extraordinary talents to give back to the community. Notably, he has co-founded Jazz at Lincoln Center, and has donated much of his time to fundraising efforts for numerous non-profit organizations and charities. Marsalis expressed that “Jazz is the sound of freedom, born of the quest for harmonious dialogue through the resolution of conflicting perspectives—under the pressure of time.”

Igor Butman was also honored by receiving the National Dialogue Award. Butman is famed for being a “jazz bridge between Moscow and New York” and has been a beloved jazz musician in both Russia and the United States since the 1980s. He has performed on talk shows, at festivals, and concert halls around the world, where he has delighted listeners with his soulful musical talents. According to Butman, “Art and especially music itself has no borders, and our mission as musicians is to build new humanitarian bridges between nations and countries. Jazz diplomacy and musical education is our tool to help people all over the world to overcome boundaries and erase barriers.”

Gala Chair Susan Carmel has dedicated much of her career to overcoming such barriers between the United States and Russia through culture and the arts. Carmel founded the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History at American University, which hosts events and exchange programs that allow students to experience Russian culture and arts first-hand. For Carmel, the arts have been a way to make connections, overcome stereotypes, and form relationships.

The artistic and cultural influence Russia has had on the United States is not hard to see. Everything from classical music, literature and architecture, to ballet, film, and of course jazz has been influenced by Russian artists and thinkers. Recognizing these connections can enable people to break free from stereotypes, judgement, and hate. “You have to take the time to see people and find ways to relate”, according to Carmel, “to form those cultural bonds where you can say, I’m like this person…I understand how this person feels.”

As a diplomat, religious leader, and humanitarian, Rev. Mark Farr also identified with this need to overcome stereotypes and foster authentic relationships. Farr expressed that genuine change comes from forming relationships before talking about the issues, and that these conversations cannot only happen when relationships are at their best. In fact, according to Farr, “When relationships are at their lowest, that’s not when you need to avoid talking, that’s the moment you need to talk.”

Although almost every issue is politicized and polarized to some degree, when people engage in thoughtful dialogue it can pull them from the extreme ends of the spectrum toward common ground. In these conversations, what’s more important than trying to convince people to take sides on a certain issue, is ensuring that each person has a voice and feels heard. “What we have”, Farr explained, “is a multiplicity of different inputs and outputs, which need to be threaded in such a way that you come to a successful conclusion that everyone feels…that their voice has had some effect.”

The Sustained Dialogue Institute describes dialogue as “listening deeply enough to be changed by what you learn.” This sentiment was certainly felt at this year’s National Dialogue Awards, through both the words and music of Marsalis and Butman. By bringing humanity to the forefront of the conversation, we can begin to mend relationships and have a productive, meaningful dialogue.