Mountain News: Aspen festival chews on the big ideas 

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK PHOTO - Idea city The Aspen Ideas Festival brings together a wide range of speakers and thinkers to tackle the big issues of the day. The town of Aspen is pictured above.
  • Shutterstock photo
  • Idea city The Aspen Ideas Festival brings together a wide range of speakers and thinkers to tackle the big issues of the day. The town of Aspen is pictured above.

ASPEN, Colo. — President Barack Obama ended his eulogy to terrorist victim Clementa Pinckney several weeks ago by leading mourners in Charleston, S.C. in the first verse of "Amazing Grace." The Aspen Ideas Festival this year ended on the same notes on July 4, played by Wynton Marsalis and Jon Batiste.

It was a moment of symbolism, a theme that percolated in the final four days of the 10-day conference. It's a festival devoted to verbal chewing of big ideas, and among the big ideas this year were income inequality, faith in technology, and the future of religion.

Sponsored by the Aspen Institute, a think-tank with roots in Aspen but now primarily based in Washington, D.C., the festival had a rich variety of speakers and doers. For example, Biz Stone, a co-founder of Twitter, explained his life's path to that success. When trying to make a decision, he said, disregard money, as it clouds your judgment. He also talked about his next big idea, a social medium that better captures empathy. A college drop-out himself, he advised that staying in school might be the more sure path to success for others. And then Stone provided this intriguing factoid: just .014 per cent of the world's knowledge is on the Internet.

David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, was quizzed by Katie Couric about his new book, The Road to Character, which explores personal virtues and honesty in an age of materialism.

And Mexico's Ricardo Salinas, the founder and chief mentor of Grupo Salinas, a company that has 90,000 employees in nine countries, explained why he thinks the North American Free Trade Agreement didn't go nearly far enough. Borders between the nations of North America need to be more flexible, he said. But he also argued that the Mexican economy continues to improve and will do so even more as Mexico becomes more known for value-added industries.

Given the long shadow of the mass murder in Charleston, however, it was probably inevitable that discussions at the Ideas Festival several times veered toward symbols. The 21-year-old gunman had posted photos of himself with the Confederate battle flag, which. had been adopted by armies in the Civil War defending the institution of human slavery. In the wake of the shootings, several notable politicians in southern states have called for the removal of the flag from public places.

In her appearance on July 1, Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to Obama, called the Confederate battle flag "a terrible, terrible symbol that is deeply offensive not just to African-Americans, but to many people who understand its history. And yet for so many people they thought it was benign and its existence in communities wasn't doing any harm."

Jarrett identified a pivotal opportunity for "an honest look, not just at our history, but what kind of a future we want to have, what are our values, what is our mutual obligation to one another? What kind of a society do we want to be known as the people all over the world look to the United States to lead?"

"Symbolism counts," she added. "But the question is, what do you do beyond the symbolism?"

Symbolism also came up four days later, on the afternoon of July 4, when historian and CEO of the Aspen Institute, Walter Isaacson, talked with the cornet-playing Marsalis, one of America's most accomplished musicians and educators, and the 28-year-old Batiste about the evolution of jazz and its connection to race.

Both musicians were nattily dressed. Marsalis wore gold-and-black suspenders and a blue shirt of fine linen. Batiste was electrifying in a hot-pink blazer and slacks, a dark blue button-down shirt, and white Nike shoes trimmed in red and white. His white socks were sprinkled with black. In September, he will gain new prominence as the band leader for the Late Night Show when Stephen Colbert takes over the reins from David Letterman.

A graduate of the Julliard School of Music (Master's degree), Batiste opened the session with a thunderous version of "The Star Spangled Banner" on the piano and was then joined for a bluesy version of "America the Beautiful" with Marsalis. Then they explained the roots of jazz in New Orleans — where both men grew up — in the decades after the Civil War, with the stages of bebop, swing and other innovations, illustrating the melodies and rhythms of each style.

Marsalis also shared his view of the American past and future. "In our country, the greatest challenge is for all of us to be together in spite of our history, and not only in spite of it, but because of our history. Our history is of both things, a history of terrible things and of wonderful things."

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