From the White House South Lawn, An Expansive View of Jazz

Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding and Joey Alexander perform during "Jazz at the White House"/photo Steve Mundinger
Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding and Joey Alexander perform during “Jazz at the White House”/photo Steve Mundinger

More than halfway through a gala star-studded jazz concert at the White House on Friday came one stirring performance. Wayne Shorter, who at 82 is an elder statesman and perhaps jazz’s greatest living composer, dug into “Footprints,” a composition he first recorded a half-century ago. He played in trio: with bassist Esperanza Spalding, who at 30 is a star in ascent in her own right and among Shorter’s closest disciples; and with Joey Alexander, who was raised in Indonesia and will soon turn 13. Shorter played in quick flurries and bright bursts of sound, stating his music’s theme only obliquely. It was he, not Alexander, that exuded a child’s sense of playfulness. Alexander played piano with mature restraint and implied wisdom, not just regarding the tune itself but also what Shorter wanted done with it, which was less about reverence or history than possibilities in the moment.
That performance, as it played out on the stage within an elaborate tent on the South Lawn of the White House, didn’t appear within “Jazz at the White House,” the primetime ABC-TV special that aired on Saturday night and can be streamed online through May.
Instead, the network used taped segment, played inside the White House’s East Wing, under a portrait of Bill Clinton. The sound was likely better in there, the visual intimacy heightened by closer quarters. Even so, perhaps it was all too intense, or maybe such instrumental abstraction tries a TV audience: The cameras cut away before the trio was through.
Even in abbreviated form, the scene communicated a great deal about what jazz musicians reach for when they make music as well as the music’s reach—across generations, geographic borders and audience demographics.
“Jazz at the White House” was the centerpiece for International Jazz Day, an event coordinated each year by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Washington, DC-based Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. According to its organizers,  Jazz Day “highlights the power of jazz as a force for freedom and creativity, promotes intercultural dialogue through respect and understanding, and unites people from all corners of the globe.”
Jazz doesn’t often get a primetime network showcase. The last one I recall coincided with the Monk Institute’s tenth anniversary, in 1997. That program, also on ABC, was titled, “Nissan Celebrates American Music,” honoring the sponsor but treating the word “jazz” as if it were among the four-letter words prohibited by network brass. That overriding notion of propriety—“American music”—was expressed in curiously contrasting ways. A banner—“Jazz—America’s Classical Music” stretched above the stage. During one monologue, Singer Billy Dee Williams explained that jazz was “America’s only indigenous art form.” So jazz was both our indigenous and our classical music, which would be a neat trick to turn. The televised hour also demonstrated a disconnection between the American mainstream (or at least the TV folks) and the jazz world. At each turn, dancers who looked to have stepped of a Las Vegas revue cavorted, suggesting little but the idea of suggestiveness. Cameramen seemed to struggle to find each next shot—thrown off by the subtle, organic musical interaction that doesn’t make for a firm cue sheet.
Last weekend also wasn’t the first time that jazz had visited the seat of American political power. Nearly every president since John F. Kennedy, who invited Paul Winter’s sextet to perform a children’s concert in 1962, has hosted jazz musicians. Bill Clinton celebrated his first inauguration with a jam session on the White House lawn in 1993; he even joined in on saxophone. Jimmy Carter honored the 25th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival with a veritable South Lawn festival of his own in 1978; the dozens of performers included Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. In 1969, the Nixon White House hosted a star-studded black-tie dinner and concert in honor of Duke Ellington, to celebrate Ellington’s 70th birthday and award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom (and perhaps to soften the snub after Ellington was denied a Pulitzer in 1965). The lineup was astounding—the pianists alone included Ellington, Earl Hines, Billy Taylor, Dave Brubeck and Hank Jones. (Much of that event, worthy listening, is available on “Duke Ellington 1969: All-Star White House Tribute”).
At that 1969 event, after the planned performances, Ellington played a short blues-based improvisation dedicated to the president’s wife Pat. Vice President Spiro Agnew sat down at the Marine band piano to play his favorite Ellington tunes, “In a Sentimental Mood” and “Sophisticated Lady.” Duke danced with presidential secretary Rosemary Woods, who was not yet a household name.
Jazz and American identity have been engaged in a strange dance of metaphor, patriotism, aesthetics and politics for the better part of the past century. Jazz at the White House, set in motion by remarks by President Obama, added graceful steps, full of inviting nuance, to that embrace.
photo/ Steve Mundinger
photo/ Steve Mundinger

Obama didn’t pick up a saxophone Friday night, as Clinton once did. But during his opening remarks he recalled his own indoctrination into jazz, when, during a visit, his father took him to him to his first jazz concert—to see Dave Brubeck in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1971. “I didn’t realize at the time that it had, but the world that that concert opened up for a 10-year-old boy was spectacular. And I was hooked.” Obama focused less on the facts of jazz’s history than it spiritual promise—“the unspoken bond of musicians who take that leap of faith together. There is something fearless and real about jazz,” he said. “This is truth-telling music.” He made reference to trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s 1964 campaign as a write-in candidate, and recalled a Gillespie campaign pledge: to change the name of the White House to the Blues House.
The list of musicians who played at the White House on Friday included at least two alumni of Gillespie’s final band, which the trumpeter pointedly named United Nation Orchestra: pianist Danilo Pérez, who is a native of Panama, and tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico. The concert’s most emphatic message seemed to be, as Irina Bokova, Unesco’s director-general said from a podium at one point, that jazz is a “global music of freedom and dignity” and that it is “now owned by people all over the world.”
Obama expressed much the same. “Perhaps more than any other form of art, jazz is driven by an unmistakably American spirit,” he said. “It is, in so many ways, the story of our nation’s progress. Born out of the struggle of African Americans yearning for freedom. Forged in a crucible of cultures—a product of the diversity that would forever define our nation’s greatness.”
If all that sounds cloaked in patriotism it is loosely and expansively so. And it sounds like a break from the ways that jazz typically gets wrapped within notions of American Exceptionalism, and even imperialism. This concert and TV show, not to mention the hundreds of events that spilled forth on Saturday, International Jazz Day, in more than 190 nations, advanced the claim that jazz shed its borders, as Dizzy suggested decades ago.
If this campaign—and as a campaign, it was a relief from the usual hand-wringing efforts to save jazz from extinction or irrelevance—has a face, it is Herbie Hancock’s. The pianist, who is a Unesco good-will ambassador and chairman of the Thenlonious Monk Institute of Jazz, spoke from the podium of jazz as “standing for hope in a world that doesn’t always make things easy.” As a player, he stuck mostly to being an accompanist and facilitator: playing knowing keyboard obbligati to Aretha Franklin’s piano during her riveting opening performance of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” which she began rubato, as if in prayer, and the kicked into subtle swing; playing piano, switching up the chords with near-sinister mastery to “Sister Moon,” which Sting handled impressively; and anchoring a medley as memorial for Prince, which featured the rapper Rapsody.
This being TV, the proceedings included a heavy rotation of singers. Dee Dee Bridgewater and Kurt Elling turned “St. James Infirmary” into too much of a nightclub revue, though the tune began in lovely fashion, with a fanfare from the United States Army Herald Trumpets giving way to the Rebirth Brass Band, and included the witty blare of Trombone Shorty’s solo. Al Jarreau, the least slick in a bill that included Dianne Reeves, Jamie Cullum and Diana Krall, was the most creative and endearing. And Hugh Masekela, the South African fluegelhorn player, was the most stirring, leading a singalong of his apartheid-era protest song, “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela), with Bridgewater harmonizing in the style of Miriam Makeba.
“Jazz at the White House” didn’t allow for the longer form that jazz often takes or even the organic developments one hears on, say, that 1969 album from the White House Ellington celebration. There was no way that “Spanish Key” could have lasted the more than 17 minutes it did on Miles Davis’ recording, “Bitches Brew.” Yet even under four minutes it delivered some satisfactions, not least a hard-edged guitar solo from John McLaughlin, who played on the original version. So did Wayne Shorter and pianist Chick Corea, both included here.
Corea anchored another musical bright spot, and another sequence I wish could have gone longer, leading “Straight Up and Down,” which was on his own 1968 debut recording. Here, trumpeter Terence Blanchard asserted himself with a bold and wily solo; it was a rare televised showcase of a jazz musician, in his prime, being his accomplished self, and not mugging for the camera. For Blanchard, who born and raised, and still lives, in New Orleans, the chance to perform at the Obama White House brought redemptive promise. He’d turned down an invitation from the Monk Institute to appear at the Bush White House several years ago. Then, in the wake of the floods that resulted from the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina, and in light of the federal government’s slow and weak response to the tragedy, “I just couldn’t show up and smile as if it was okay,” he told me then.
Jazz often gets entangled with politics, and this concert had some interesting subthemes. None more so than, early on in “Jazz at the White House,” when pianist Chucho Valdés dug commandingly into “Con Poco Coco,” a descarga first recorded in the 1950s by his father, pianist Bebo Valdés. Paquito D’Rivera played a gorgeous clarinet solo as he stood next to the piano. D’Rivera was a founding member and saxophonist in Irakere, a group Valdés created, and that ignited a musical revolution in the 1970s in their native Cuba. (Irakere’s blend of jazz, rock and Afro-Cuban roots music was both a subversive response to Cuba’s postrevolution rejection of American culture and a seed for the Cuban dance music later known as timbá.) But by 1980, D’Rivera had resettled in the United States, and has since been an outspoken critic of the Castro regime. Valdés (who lived in Cuba until several years ago, when he moved to Spain) has remained one of Cuba’s proudest cultural exports. Save for an impromptu performance at a French festival in 2008, the two hadn’t shared a stage in more than 30 years.
The moment also highlighted President Obama’s recent and historic efforts to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba, which holds the promise to restore a cross-cultural relationship that speaks to very origins of jazz as well as its future. Valdés was among the cultural treasures denied to U.S. audiences for much of the Bush administration. Following a memorable December 2003 engagement by Valdés at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard, no other musician living in Cuba played in the U.S. until 2009, when the Obama administration began loosening travel restrictions.
The group that performed “Con Poco Coco” embodied the ambitions of “Jazz at the White House” and the message of International Jazz Day. Along with Valdes and D’Rivera, from Cuba, and bassist Ben Williams, a Washington DC native, it included: Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain; Australian trumpeter James Morrison, and guitarist Lionel Loueke, who grew up in Cotonou, Benin.
The most forgettable and regrettable moment of “Jazz at the White House” came at the concert’s end—a full-cast rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” in the style of “We Are the World.” It was as unnecessary as it was awkward. The sentiment—of global connection, interdependence and compassion—was much clearer in the swirl of Jazz Day activities throughout Washington DC; when Dianne Reeves, who performed elegantly on the South Lawn, gave a concert at a church for the clients of Thrive DC, a homeless services organization for women, and sang: “I am a poster girl with no poster…. I sing no victim’s song”; and when, during a performance by the Duke Ellington School of the Arts at Dupont Circle, Herbie Hancock sat down alongside 16-year-old pianist Sequoia Snyder and supported her daring and accomplished solo.
Later in the day, at a panel discussion about Jazz Human Rights and Cultural Diplomacy at the National Museum of American History, Masekela recalled “how jazz drew people like me to come to this country” and how improvised music has “always been a weapon by which African people put the fear of god in oppressors.” He talked about jazz as more than a musical style but also a force that forever changed the way people listen to one another, even how they walk.
On Friday night, following his opening remarks, President Obama gave some illustration of that last point, descending the stairs from the stage with palpably swinging attitude. That part didn’t make the TV broadcast. But the musicians took note.

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