Americans have turned away from an awareness of the revelatory powers of art. We deny its sacred character–and I don’t mean what’s heard in church on Sunday, but the exalting sounds from concert halls and nightclubs on Saturday night.
Albert Murray, the great Harlem connoisseur of black music, taught me that art is how people react to life. Jazz and the blues, the most American of all musical forms, are made by history’s savage gales blowing hard on African people in the Diaspora. The storm-tossed reeds may be humble, but the reeds are thinking, the reeds are feeling–the reeds are resilient. In my speech to the first class out of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts after Katrina, I asked the students, Don’t you remember the first time after the storm that we heard Louis Armstrong sing “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans”?
Great art speaks across time. American abolitionists read Dante’s Divine Comedy for inspiration. Five hundred years from now, people will be listening to Satchmo’s “West End Blues” for the same reason.
Pierce is an actor and the author of The Wind in the Reeds, from which this piece was adapted
Read next: New Orleans, Here & Now
This appears in the August 31, 2015 issue of TIME.