Happy International Jazz Day!

The scene at Congo Square, in New Orleans, during International Jazz Day festivities in 2012.

Happy International Jazz Day!

I had suspicions and reservations about that greeting six years ago, when UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and pianist Herbie Hancock (who is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador) announced the global initiative.
After the years of Ken Burns-inspired jazz nationalism and so many wrong-headed jazz boosterism programs, well, I’ve grown defensive…
But I’ve come to like and admire the International Jazz Day program, which picks one city for an all-star concert and educational programs, streamed online, and links jazz’s figurative arms around the globe through hundreds of events.
This year’s main concert, from Havana, Cuba—at 9pm tonight EST, live-streamed (and archived) here—will feature stars from the U.S. including Hancock, bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding, violinist Regina Carter, bassist Marcus Miller, and from Cuba, including pianist Chucho Valdés, along with musicians from several other nations, all gathered at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso.
I’m in New Orleans now at the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, which this year hosts its own contingent of Cuban musicians, including Valdés.
Here, five years ago, International Jazz Day had its main event at Congo Square (see the picture I took, above): I suspect that this year, in Havana, hand drums will again be prominent. This is less a sign of jazz’s globalism that a return to its deepest roots.
Five years ago, I wrote in the Village Voice, Continue reading “Happy International Jazz Day!”

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. Continue reading “From the White House South Lawn, An Expansive View of Jazz”

Pianist Danilo Pérez Opens a Jazz Club, and a Conversation About Culture

Danilo Pérez Jr. (left) in performance with Danilo, Sr. (right) at the opening of Danilo's Jazz Club in Panama City. image courtesy of American Trade Hotel by Doug Bruce, 2014.

Were he not a brilliant pianist and composer, an insightful educator and a forceful advocate for culture as a primary means of transnational relations and economic development, Danilo Pérez would still be the kind of guy you’d want to hang around—for his charm, positivity and seriousness of purpose. He looks you squarely in the eye while conversing—to engage, not to challenge—yet is willing to talk about challenging things.
Read the full article here.