Lessons for journalists from a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer

Beena Sarwar

Notes from the Nieman Pulitzer 100 event in Cambridge MA, “POWER: Accountability and Abuse,” presented by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Sanders Theatre, Harvard University 

Sep. 9, 2016

Cambridge, MA: The thousand-seater Sanders Theatre filled up fast in anticipation of the Wynton Marsalis concert that was kicking off the Nieman Pulitzer 100 event, a few days before my first journalism class at Princeton University. No photography or videos of the performance were allowed but I figured the rule didn’t apply before they started playing so I sneaked a quick photo.

In between mesmerizing musical performances with his quintet, Marsalis addressed the rapt audience, reflecting on themes ranging from race, justice, diversity, compassion, and the power of music. His epic three-hour long oratorio “Blood on the Fields” based on one couple’s journey from slavery to freedom epitomizes the political power of creative forces, in this case music, to resist and counter oppression and injustice. In 1997 it became the first jazz composition to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

I found Marsalis’ words also compellingly relevant to my own work and wanted to note down what he said for my students. I didn’t have a notepad on me but remembered a tiny pocket calendar in my purse. I scribbled in the dark on top of my appointments. It is a wonder I could read my own handwriting later. Below, some takeaways and quotes from that memorable evening.

Marsalis recalled his initial frustration while playing with a South American player. Somehow he couldn’t get it right. The other player got him to see that he was being self-absorbed and too attuned to his own kind of music. To Marsalis’ credit, he was able to hear this critique and self-correct. He realized he “was too busy complaining to hear the rhythm.”

“The search for knowing is the hallmark of consciousness…”

“The greatest artists are perpetual seekers…”

He recalled a phase his younger brother went through as a little boy, using the refrain “But what does it matter?” in answer to everything. Years later, Marsalis said he can think of some things that do matter. One of these is the Constitution of the United States of America. “Our Constitution matters”.

Talking about the history of the music he plays: “Jazz developed as an opposition to imbalance…”

“To recall the past is to make it present…”

It is important for journalists to have a sense of history and political context. Marsalis’ words reminded me of something that my father’s friend, former journalist Eric Rahim and Communist Party of Pakistan member from Karachi had said: “We need to look back to look forward.” We were planning to commemorate the Democratic Students Federation‘s movement for students’ rights that my late father Dr M. Sarwar had led as a medical student in the early 1950s in Pakistan and gone to prison for. “Looking Back to Look Forward” became the title of the event we organized in remembrance of that activism and the booklet we published for the occasion.

Another piece of Marsalis wisdom: What someone does to you happens externally – and internally is what you do to yourself.

“Most of the fighting is over ideology or taking other people’s stuff…”

Marsalis talked about the difference between self-projection and genuine immersion in your work and striving for excellence.

The importance of being able to play individually in a collective, and to make space for others while remaining true to your core.

The importance of preparation: “The unprepared can feel the bitter lash of failure.”

This reminded me of what classical dancer Nahid Siddiqui had said when I interviewed her for my first documentary (2001). When I expressed my amazement at the long hours of practice (riyaz) she put in every day even when there was no upcoming performance she looked up while tying on her ankle bells and replied: “Preparation hi art hai iski” (The preparation is what is the art).

Marsalis also talked about the importance of “keeping morale” versus “false optimism.”

And finally: “We must always endeavor to pursue.”

As the thunderous applause following the concert and talk faded, Brent Walth from Seattle, my friend and fellow Nieman ’06 seated next to me said, “Oh man. I wish I’d taken notes.”

I am glad I did. I typed them up and shared them with him later.

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