Field Notes: Jazz at the White House

The Obamas host jazz greats to celebrate International Jazz Day

Joey Alexander, Esperanza Spalding and Wayne Shorter (from left) take part in the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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Christian McBride, Sadao Watanabe, Al Jarreau and Lee Ritenour (from left) perform in the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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Herbie Hancock and Aretha Franklin perform in the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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Buddy Guy performs in the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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Diana Krall performs in the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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Esperanza Spalding (with Zakir Hussain at back) takes part in the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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As Dee Dee Bridgewater and Chick Corea look on, Esperanza Spalding embraces Al Jarreau at the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016.
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Al Jarreau, Kurt Elling, Jamie Cullum, Dianne Reeves and Sting (from left) sing John Lennon's "Imagine," to close the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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President Obama closes the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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President Obama thanks Herbie Hancock to close the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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Herbie Hancock (far left) and Aretha Franklin (far right), along with an all-star assemblage of musicians, pay tribute to Prince at the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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Sting, Herbie Hancock and Robert Glasper (at back) perform in the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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Jamie Cullum performs in the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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Dee Dee Bridgewater and Kurt Elling (with Trombone Shorty at back) perform in the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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Hugh Masekela (far left) and an all-star band perform in the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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Morgan Freeman emcees the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard, Marcus Miller, John McLaughlin, Kendrick Scott and Zakir Hussain (from left) perform Miles' "Spanish Key" at the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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Bebo Valdés, Paquito D'Rivera, Ben Williams, James Morrison and Lionel Loueke (from left) perform in the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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Dianne Reeves, with bassist James King and drummer Nasar Abadey, performs at a D.C. church as part of International Jazz Day 2016
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Dianne Reeves, with pianist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist James King and drummer Nasar Abadey, performs at a D.C. church as part of International Jazz Day 2016
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Dianne Reeves, Danilo Pérez and (at back) John Beasley perform in the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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Helen Mirren introduces Sting at the International Jazz Day Global Concert at the White House; April 29, 2016
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Before we get to the message, let us praise the logistics management. What poor, sleep-deprived soul was tasked with editing down Friday evening’s White House jazz concert, hosted by the Obamas, which stretched toward two and a half resourcefully efficient hours, into the single hour that aired on network television Saturday night? It was a necessary duty, sure, but also an absurd one. This was already an all-star bonanza engineered like a Swiss watch. Headliner-caliber musicians from around the globe rotated in and out with enough ease to suggest an oldies roadshow. Individual performances were kept to pop length but didn’t feel truncated.

Well, with some exceptions. Chick Corea, on keys, guitarist John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, on soprano saxophone, tabla master Zakir Hussain, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, electric bassist Marcus Miller, drummer Kendrick Scott and second keyboardist John Beasley performed Miles’ “Spanish Key,” to a three-minute countdown projected onto the house teleprompter. With a harder-grooving backbeat than the headlong surge of the Bitches Brew version, and more emphasis on the themes, it was a jazz-rock moment worth savoring. As a colleague to my right chuckled, he could have used plenty more of that. I felt the same way, about the program on the whole.

Practice is making perfect for UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Herbie Hancock and musical director Beasley. The show was the centerpiece of this year’s International Jazz Day, a celebration launched by UNESCO and the Thelonious Monk Institute in 2012, and bookended that year by concerts in New Orleans and New York. It has since been centralized in Istanbul, Osaka and Paris, with satellite events in nearly all of the world’s nations. Its goal, explicated in many earnest speeches, is to hold up jazz as an allegory for the kind of global democracy and dynamic interdependence that human civilization should strive for. Which might seem a quixotic aim in the age of ISIS and total-loser! tweets, but that doesn’t make it any less honest or real.

In opening remarks so deft you might have wondered what professional cultural critic was called in for the assist, the President outlined jazz as an American art form generated by the black American experience and gifted to the world. “It speaks to something universal about our humanity-the restlessness that stirs in every soul, the desire to create with no boundaries,” he said. The concert, hosted by Morgan Freeman and held in a soundstage-equipped tent on the South Lawn, bore those sentiments out while also reflecting the multicultural reality of the current jazz-festival scene-pop and R&B concessions included. It was a generous, engaging representation of the music tailored for TV, with a blind spot for the avant-garde-understandable given the circumstances, until you recall that George Wein booked Cecil Taylor at the White House in 1978, to Jimmy Carter’s eventual delight. Some sort of acknowledgement of recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Henry Threadgill would also have been welcome.

If you’ve watched or attended any of the previous Jazz Day shows, or the gala concerts that close each year’s Thelonious Monk competition, the cast and flow would have been familiar; there, musicians end up in sometimes head-scratching combinations, but things tend to work, with enough solo space to understand where a given player is coming from. A few of jazz’s contemporary marquee artists were surprisingly absent-say, Jon Batiste, Gregory Porter, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Kamasi Washington and the trumpeter who is arguably the most famous living jazz musician, Wynton Marsalis-but the music’s celebrities overflowed still.

There were also celebrities, period. Aretha Franklin, singing and playing piano, accompanied by Hancock on keyboard, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade, offered an oddly bittersweet opener with “A Song for You,” and turned up later during a Prince tribute, taking her still-striking vocal instrument to “Purple Rain.” That medley homage also featured Hancock, keyboardist Robert Glasper, saxophonist Terrace Martin, guitarist Lionel Loueke, bassist Ben Williams, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and, driving home a smartly chosen nod to jazz and hip-hop’s abiding kinship, the MC Rapsody. Sting, introduced by Helen Mirren and backed by guitarist Pat Metheny, Hancock, Glasper, Loueke, Miller and Carrington, crooned through his spiritual-noir groover “Sister Moon.” He gravitated toward the grand piano and Hancock, whose solos were daring given the context, forcing aggressive, etude-like lines atop seductive R&B.

In all, and not unexpectedly, this was a vocal-heavy program. Al Jarreau, with Corea, McBride, Blade, guitarist Lee Ritenour and saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, acted as ambassador for jazz’s more intellectual and idiomatic voice traditions, giving a tutorial in vocalese and scat on “Take Five.” Dianne Reeves also made her mastery of wordless singing known, on Metheny’s “Minuano,” alongside the guitarist, pianist Danilo Pérez, Beasley, Hussain, McBride and Scott. Reeves’ athleticism also came to the fore during the tongue-twisting climax to her “Nine,” where her band included bassist Esperanza Spalding, who didn’t sing until the evening’s finale, an all-hands-on-deck take on John Lennon’s “Imagine”-a requisite “We Are the World” moment.

Two pop-jazz marvels delivered their respective gifts. Jamie Cullum, per usual a ball of barely contained energy, sang “Just One of Those Things,” fronting the band of German trumpeter Till Brönner, saxophonist Bobby Watson, Williams and Blade. Diana Krall, in duo with Christian McBride, swung slyly through “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon).” Pointing up how effectively jazz can serve as hammy, humor-soaked entertainment, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Kurt Elling dueted on “St. James Infirmary,” with proper New Orleanian backing from Trombone Shorty and the Rebirth horns, plus pianist Kris Bowers, Williams and Blade.

Latin-jazz was showcased via a performance of Bebo Valdés’ “Con Poco Coco,” by an ensemble boasting the composer’s son, pianist Chucho Valdés, saxophonist and clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera (invoking “Tequila” liberally), Hussain, Loueke, Williams and the Australian trumpet virtuoso James Morrison, who wasted no time before flaunting his high-note technique. Hard blues got its due in the scrappy and stinging licks of Buddy Guy, performing his “Meet Me in Chicago.” Postbop was underscored twice, first with a steamrolling rendition of Corea’s “Straight Up and Down,” charged through by the pianist plus saxophonist David Sánchez, Blanchard, McBride and Blade. Later, pianist Joey Alexander, Spalding and Shorter, again on soprano, played Shorter’s “Footprints,” in a way that allowed 12-year-old Alexander to impress the core jazz audience deeply, perhaps at the expense of the laypeople. In plainer language, he played with all of the harmonic artfulness, clever use of space and dynamic nuance you’d expect from a veteran professional who is sincerely seeking out the essence of the music at hand. This was not the Joey Alexander Prodigy Show; he wasn’t cute or circuslike, just excellent.

Illustrating jazz that is conceptually self-contained, that exists for its own sake, was an essential and wise programming decision. But time was also reserved for music that directly engaged with International Jazz Day’s credos. No performance spoke truth to power more pointedly than when Hugh Masekela, on flugelhorn, sang and played his “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela),” along with Bridgewater, Bowers, Ritenour, Brönner, Watson, Miller, Scott and the Israeli saxophonist Eli Degibri. Composed three decades ago, when Masekela was in exile from apartheid-torn South Africa, it was a reminder of the tangential social might of music, and how it can act as a force of human influence to transcend all manner of speechifying.

The program mostly did the jazz tradition proud, as well as the tradition of hosting jazz in the White House, a narrative that includes the Nixon, Carter and Clinton administrations. Most important, it served as one component of a bigger picture. To say nothing of the Jazz Day satellite events happening the world over, Washington hosted a dense map of special events on the following Saturday, including workshops, panel discussions, film screenings and performances by local and national musicians. In the case of Reeves’ early-afternoon quartet gig at an area church, sponsored by the shelter organization Thrive DC, that meant a mix of both. Fronting the combo of pianist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist James King and drummer Nasar Abadey, Reeves used the cavernous, sloppily resonant acoustics to her advantage in stunning ways. Summits during the brief set came early and often; to open, she sang and scatted “All Blues” off-mic, and to absorb her crystalline vocal gymnastics in that low-key setting was akin to watching LeBron James shoot around a local high school gymnasium. Another Saturday highlight was a conversation on human rights featuring UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova, former Minister of Justice of France Christiane Taubira, Hancock and Masekela. In these settings, the South African icon tends to steal the show, albeit unintentionally; his brilliantly patient sense of humor-a necessary buffer for the gravity of the experiences he describes-is irresistible. But he’d already made his most salient points the night prior.