Howard ReichArts critic12:16 p.m. CST, December 11, 2012
Any president’s second term offers another shot at fulfilling dreams that got away the first time around.
So while President Barack Obama is strategizing on immigration, unemployment, the deficit and, oh yes, the fiscal cliff, I’d like to add one more little item to his to-do list: teaching the White House to swing again.
Four years ago, when Obama was elected, jazz lovers hoped that he might end an eight-year jazz drought at the executive mansion and, in so doing, send a message to the world about the value of America’s homegrown art form. Not since Bill Clinton lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue had the country’s most famous residence honored the music so robustly.
Clinton invited jazz veterans such as singer Joe Williams, pianist Dorothy Donegan and saxophonist Illinois Jacquet to share the spotlight with ascending stars such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, saxophonist Joshua Redman and vocalist Bobby McFerrin. They convened on the White House South Lawn on June 18, 1993, to play music and hear Clinton lift the presidential megaphone to trumpet the beauty and significance of this art.
“It’s especially important that we should be together here in America’s house to celebrate that most American of all forms of musical expression, jazz,” Clinton told the gathering, which was later broadcast on PBS. “Jazz is really America’s classical music. Like our country itself, and especially like the people who created it, jazz is a music born of struggle but played in celebration.”
Well said, but Clinton wasn’t the first chief executive to take to the bully pulpit on behalf of jazz. Fifteen years earlier to the day, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter presided over one of the greatest jazz gatherings anywhere, bringing to the South Lawn no less than pianist Eubie Blake (who was 95), trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, singer Pearl Bailey, drummers Max Roach and Louie Bellson, and bassist Charles Mingus, among other luminaries, for an event also broadcast on PBS and covered around the world.
“That was the best jazz concert the White House has ever seen,” Carter told Time magazine in 2007, and no one disputed it.
During the event, Carter, a peanut farmer-turned president, vocalized with Gillespie on — what else? — “Salt Peanuts.” When Carter finished riffing, Gillespie asked if the president could come out on the road.
To which Carter quipped, “After tonight, I may have to!”
But the gathering had its serious moments, too. Mingus, seated in his wheelchair, famously wept as Carter sang his praises, and the president spoke eloquently about what jazz, and the musicians who sacrifice so much to play it, means to this country.
“What you have given America is as important as the White House and the Capitol building,” Carter said, affording a noble art form a degree of official respect it rarely receives in the nation that created it.
Nothing remotely like the Carter and Clinton jazz marathons occurred during the presidency of George W. Bush, though clearly every president has a right to indulge his own musical tastes. What’s the fun of being leader of the free world if you can’t invite to the White House the musicians who mean the most to you?
But the prospect of an Obama presidency stoked hope among jazz aficionados, and not only because of his African-American heritage. More important, Obama’s mixed-race lineage echoed the autobiography of jazz, which emerged at the dawn of the previous century when black and Creole cultures intermingled in the hothouse known as New Orleans. Only by merging the musical practices of self-taught black artists and their formally trained Creole colleagues could a music as sophisticated yet accessible, as complex yet freewheeling as jazz come to life.
Like America itself, jazz emerged as the most democratic of the arts, a language that gave each player a chance to stand up and solo — to speak out — as well as a requirement to work within the larger group for the greater good: musical democracy in action. If the aesthetic and technical demands in jazz were quite high from the outset, that only coaxed players to work that much harder and strive for something better, another all-American ideal.
Had Obama initiated a jazz summit at the White House, its power might have superseded the Carter and Clinton events, for it would have resonated with America’s larger breakthrough in electing its first African-American president. Moreover, a jazz event in an Obama White House could have featured American-based players with international roots, such as the Panamanian piano wizard Danilo Perez, the Puerto Rican tenor saxophone giants David Sanchez and Miguel Zenon, the Chilean vocalist Claudia Acuna, the Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen, and others.
More than ever, jazz has become a global language, but America remains its sacred ground, the arena where all jazz musicians want to play. An Obama jazz event would have projected America’s best face at a time of global strife and recession.
Now Obama has a second chance. Let’s concede that he had his hands full navigating a potential economic meltdown, health care legislation, two wars, the Arab Spring and the recent election season. Perhaps a case even could have been made that a jazz celebration on the South Lawn would have struck the wrong note at a time of economic distress (though I would have argued that music stands as a powerful, uplifting antidote to hard times).
With Obama entering his second term, however, there are no more reasons to delay. If, as Obama often says, the economy is improving, if our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are indeed winding down, Obama should set an optimistic tone for the next four years with a music that, as Clinton said, is “born of struggle but played in celebration.”
Surely the time has come for Obama to make a major cultural statement. As a president who has said he loves John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra, as a chief executive from Chicago — a city that has been defining and redefining jazz since at least 1910, when Jelly Roll Morton arrived here from New Orleans — Obama needs to convene his own jazz gathering on White House South Lawn.
Four years ago, shortly after Obama was elected, I wrote in these pages that “if Obama hopes to bring the sound of Chicago and the spirit of cooperation to Washington, he could start with jazz,” adding that he also should expand jazz programs at the National Endowment for the Arts and persuade the Kennedy Center Honors to pay greater heed to the music.
With both the sound of Chicago and the spirit of cooperation in short supply in the capital, Obama should try to start resetting the tone with a jazz gathering that he’s uniquely positioned to present.
As the Charlie Parker tune proclaims, “Now’s the Time.”