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Stanley Crouch: Satchmo, Tony Soprano and our humanity

Last week, I went to Washington and saw "The Heart of the Matter," a short film about the pressing need to enrich the nation by strengthening our common understanding of the humanities and social sciences. Ken Burns, George Lucas and John Lithgow were among the most eloquent of those speaking on film with the depth and intensity the subject demands, but is too rarely given in contemporary American life.

Before the evening was over, it was announced that James Gandolfini had just died in Italy at 51 years old. And somehow it made sense to learn of that particular tragedy on that particular night.

The event in Washington, organized in conjunction with the release of a new report, focused on the importance of arts, culture and education to the American experience. It was a production of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, which was organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The commission itself is a heartening expression of bipartisanship; it got its money from a Congress that’s perpetually divided on core national priorities. Democrats and Republicans were both well-represented in the program, and they are united on the report’s core message.

The report begins by asking a basic question: "Who will lead America into a bright future?"

It then answers:

"Citizens who are educated in the broadest possible sense, so that they can participate in their own governance and engage with the world. An adaptable and creative workforce. Experts in national security, equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics and proficiency to lead our foreign service and military through complex global conflicts.

"Elected officials and a broader public who exercise civil political discourse, founded on an appreciation of the ways our differences and commonalities have shaped our rich history. We must prepare ourselves and invest in the next generation to be these enlightened leaders."

That was a heartful as much as it was a mouthful. I was there as president of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, which made sense. Because Armstrong embodied so much of the spirit of the celebration that undergirds the empathetic human will fundamental to jazz. His impact came through the new technology of recording and film, giving fresh lanes to the sound and the power of the moving image — quite touching and unprecedented alone but far more important when combined.

Armstrong and other Americans were somehow able to contribute through the arts something that was revolutionary in aesthetic terms, in feeling and in humanity. That art form, jazz, took its place in our national memory and in our soul, and it contributed to cultures around the world. The trumpeter was essential to the creation of the only form begun and still improvised at digital speed. It proves a still-new possibility of the perceptive power of the brain. He stood tall during the civil-rights struggle when few were willing to come out against segregation and was always a humanitarian who knew the importance of education to our unbiased development here and abroad.

And this is what brings me to Gandolfini, whose life we continue to remember and whose death we continue to mourn.

I knew Gandolfini before the role of Tony Soprano made him famous — and brought an unexpected brightness to what had been commonly — and correctly — described as the boob tube. Because of "The Sopranos," he became internationally famous and, like Armstrong, was neither intimidated nor changed by worldwide recognition.

Long ago, I met the actor one evening at a dinner. We were at the Rainbow Room in a small party. Gandolfini was unaware that great fame was aiming at him. He was a warm guy, a man with a sense of humor and a very astute perception of others.

He would go on to give heft to one of the greatest and most complex monsters ever conceived. As James Lipton of "Inside the Actors Studio" pointed out, writer and creator David Chase’s decision to have Tony’s sessions with a therapist parallel Shakespearean monologues was not only a supremely original decision, but one that was met by the enormity of the actor’s talent.

Tony Soprano lived by Richard Pryor’s performance observation about some gangsters who used to take him out for dinner but always snatched the check. When asked by the comedian why he was never allowed to handle the bill, one gangster’s face took on an ominous look.

"We’re crime," the mobster said. "And crime don’t pay."

It had been said about a great jazz musician at his memorial, "You all may have known him better, but you could not have loved him more than we did."

That’s how people felt about Armstrong, all over the world, because of his ability to communicate his inner life, and thereby change music.

Big James did the same thing to acting in his television world. Both of those men rose from humble beginnings and became American sunbeams. That’s the heart of the matter.

Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at

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