Monday, January 12, 2009

Letter to Obama: Let Great Jazz Into Your Inauguration Festivities

(This note is cross-posted, with links intact, at Between the Grooves)

Dear President-Elect Obama:

The word on the street is that you like jazz, you really like jazz.

You became hip to the music, African-Americans' great gift to the world's arts culture, back in junior high school, when you still wanted to be called "Barry."

In fact, once when you visited a record store with a friend from your Honolulu prep school, you stayed close to the jazz bins. "Barry was into things that other kids our age weren't into. He went through the entire jazz section while we were there," said your old pal Dean Ando, according to one newspaper feature."That affects me to this day -- he's the one who introduced me to jazz."

Did you dig real jazz, with genuine musical content, by creative players with an understanding of the tradition but with eyes on the future? Or were you keen on some variety of jazz lite? Who knows? But I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Your iPod playlist, which may or may not have been assembled by your staff to appeal to the Baby Boomers whose support you needed during the general election (hence Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, etc.), even includes tracks by jazz geniuses Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.

Miles and Coltrane, too, lead the artists named under the category of "favorite music" on your Facebook page.

Yes, those are pretty obvious jazz picks, and they're all dead. Still, listing those artists is far more impressive than, you know, listing Kenny G. or the Rippingtons or some other such wallpaper-jazz nonsense.

I've not heard whether you ever visited the Green Mill, Chicago's jazz mecca, while you were based in the Windy City.

Still, there are other signs that you may well support jazz during your White House residency.

On NBC's "Meet the Press," you had this to say: "Thinking about the diversity of our culture and inviting jazz musicians, and classical musicians, and poetry readings in the White House so that once again we appreciate this incredible tapestry that's America, you know, that, I think, is going to be incredibly important, particularly because we're going through hard times."

While, as far as I can tell, you've not recently given props to any important living jazz artists -- not even trumpeter Wynton Marsalis or pianist Herbie Hancock? -- many major figures in the jazz community have gone out of their way to support you.

Did you hear about the "Jazz for Obama" concert in New York on Oct. 1? Did you attend?

A long list of front-rank jazz artists, black and white, opted to wear their politics on their shirtsleeves for a night in the name of helping you win the election. The performers: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Joe Lovano, Roy Haynes, Brad Mehldau, Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride, Stanley Jordan, Kurt Elling, Hank Jones, Charlie Hunter/Doug Wamble, Bilal/Robert Glasper, Stefon Harris, Jeff “Tain" Watts, Roberta Gambarini.

Thanks to a column by Ottawa Citizen music writer Peter Hum, I was reminded of the following examples of major jazz musicians' overt support of you:

* Hancock lent his name and musical cred to the "Yes We Can" video supporting your candidacy
* Pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Dave Douglas, at last year's Chicago Jazz Festival, dedicated new works to you.
* Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and many other prominent jazzers have displayed your face and message on t-shirts they've worn on stage.
* Hundreds, if not thousands, of jazz musicians, have used their Facebook and MySpace pages to demonstrate support for you.

Yes, all these jazzers were for you, and presumably still are. But are you really for jazz?

I'm asking, because of some rather disappointing news.

So far, the only notable musical artists reportedly invited to play your 10 official inaugural balls are, you know, big-name folks.

Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand and Bruce "Super Bowl Half-Time Show" Springsteen are said to have been asked to appear at official inauguration events on Jan. 20, and the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus are expected to headline an official kids-oriented show on Jan. 19.

Some of these are inspired choices; others, not so much.

Yes, your associates have coordinated a Jan. 20 event called " 'A Time For Hope' 2009 Presidential Inaugural Jazz Gala."

But the musicians selected for the event, despite being described as "global jazz artists," are not well-known players. What's up with that?

Since you self-identify as African-American, and since jazz is rooted in black culture, may I suggest that you use your great power to include MAJOR jazz musicians -- black, white and Hispanic -- in your inauguration festivities?

After you move into the White House, you ought to regularly invite jazzers over to your place, too.

Any of the above-mentioned artists, including Marsalis and Hancock, and pianist Hank Jones (part of that "Jazz for Obama" concert), a brilliant elder statesman of jazz, would make great choices.

So would veteran saxophonist Sonny Rollins, arguably the greatest living jazz performer, and now enjoying critical plaudits for his recent concerts and latest CDs, including last year's Road Shows, Vol. 1. Or how about other great, still-thriving saxophonists, like Wayne Shorter, James Moody, or Phil Woods, to name just a few other older players of that instrument?

Why not Terence Blanchard? In addition to his superb work as a trumpeter and bandleader, he is a gifted composer of film scores, and he serves as artistic director of the college program at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, now based in his hometown, New Orleans. Hancock is the institute's chairman.

This is a very short list of jazz artists who would make great assets to your forthcoming festivities. Choosing any of these musicians to play your inauguration concerts would demonstrate that your support for jazz is more than just lip service.

For more good ideas, you can turn to the two polls -- readers and critics -- annually published in Down Beat magazine, or the awards annually bestowed by the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA).

So, President-Elect Obama, or, if I may, Barry: There's still time to invite world-class jazz musicians to play your inauguration concerts.

Need help programming great jazz, or booking some of these artists? If you can't rely on your own team, you know, give me a call.

Better yet, contact some of the great jazz musicians I've mentioned. Or make a connection with the editors of Down Beat or Jazz Times or Jazziz. Or consult the great jazz and civil-rights writer Stanley Crouch, who made some similar points in a Dec. 21 column.

Yes, you can. Yes, you can make this happen - you're the next leader of the free world.

What's stopping you?

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