Sometimes the simplest words are the most powerful. So it was Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, for “An Evening of Remembrance and Reflection” to mark the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.

Yes, there were soaring vocals from Denyce Graves and Raul Esparza, and there was a humble but eloquent song — “Hard Times Come Again No More” — from Emmylou Harris. And yes, there was the muted jazz trumpet of the remarkable Wynton Marsalis. Also, Melissa Leo, the Oscar-winning actress, read verse that was as solemn and sober and dour as the soaking rain outside.

But the most affecting moments might have come from three former secretaries of state, who evoked the horror and heroism of that terrible day through the most elemental means: Newspaper stories from Sept. 12.

Madeleine Albright, chief diplomat for President Bill Clinton, quoted one account of a “hellish storm of ash, black smoke and leaping victims. . . . Finally, the mighty towers themselves were reduced to nothing.”

Colin L. Powell, President George W. Bush’s first secretary of state, read from an article that recounted many of the day’s traumatic moments, from the first alarms at the Pentagon and World Trade Center to the crash of United Flight 93 near Shanksville, Pa., to the “unfathomable” horror and confusion that gripped Washington and Lower Manhattan and spread across America.

Powell’s successor, Condoleezza Rice, found a smaller and more intimate moment to quote. It was the reported reaction of a New York taxi driver, an immigrant from Egypt, who said: “I wanted to pull over and cry. I love this country. America tried to help everybody. God bless America.”

Somehow the collective memory of the day seemed more vivid in words than in the ubiquitous video images of towers falling and fires burning.

Marsalis offered the evening’s one ray of sunshine with his second number, an upbeat, almost playful tune with piano accompaniment. It was a kind of musical metaphor for what ABC News anchor Christiane Amanpour, the evening’s host, called “the new normal” after Sept. 11, as wary but hopeful Americans pulled together and regrouped.

In his remarks, Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic — which sponsored the event with the Kennedy Center — offered a blunt but hopeful assessment. He called the years after Sept. 11 “a wounding decade” that left Americans in disagreement and in some disarray.

But among the lessons from the attacks are “that we will defend ourselves, resolutely and even ferociously, because self-defense is an ethical responsibility, and that our debates about the proper use of our power in our defense should not be construed as an infirmity in our will. . . .

“The obscenities of September 11th, 2001,” he concluded, “exposed the difference between builders and destroyers. We are builders. Let us agree on this anniversary that it is an honor to be Americans and it is an honor to be free.”

The invited guests included military, fire and other rescue personnel from across the Washington area and survivors of the Pentagon attack, as well as kin of those killed.

One first responder in attendance was Rick Triplett, from Maryland Task Force One, an urban search-and-rescue team based in Rockville. Triplett said his unit was first dispatched to New York but was quickly rerouted to the Pentagon on the morning of Sept. 11.

Asked to describe his initial reaction to the scene that day, Triplett paused and then offered a one-word reaction: “Shocking.” He and his unit spent a week on site, digging through the rubble. They found no survivors.