A Red, White and Blues Evening at the White House

WASHINGTON — “There is no greater jazz fan in the country,” said Hillary Rodham Clinton, “than the President of the United States.”

Her’s was the opening salvo Friday evening at the White House in a heady two-hour mix of entertainment and artistry. It was one of those magic evenings when the blues in the night met the green of the lawn—specifically the South Lawn, where a large area was covered with a canopy, under which 30 artists tried to encapsulate much of the music’s history.

In an opening speech, President Clinton called jazz “a music of inclusion, of diversity—America’s classical music, created in struggle but played in celebration.” He paid tribute to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz—he and Monk Jr., who hosted the show, have become friends—and to impresario George Wein, who put the program together.

A question on everyone’s mind had been: Will he take part? The answer: Well, yes and no.

The show ended. Clinton thanked the cast and said good night, but the musicians were still onstage, so Joe Williams eased into another chorus of the blues. Unable to resist, Clinton borrowed Illinois Jacquet’s horn and joined the other sax players, soloing briefly, then riffing subliminally under Williams’ plaints on “Ev’ry Day I Have the Blues.”

As symbolism, it transcended Jimmy Carter’s hesitant “Salt Peanuts” vocal duet with Dizzy Gillespie, which happened on this same lawn 15 years ago to the day. To quote singer Jon Hendricks (here as a spectator), “If ever we needed a friend in the White House, we sure as heck have one now.”

Some 400 guests sat at tables under the tent; a few small fans whirred vainly overhead in the humid evening.

Nobody seemed fazed—least of all the President, listening intently to every act and particularly taken with pianist Dorothy Donegan. Donegan had only one number, but she whipped through it like a tornado, ranging from Rachmaninoff to “I Can’t Get Started,” then free-associating surrealistically into “Tea for Two” and “The Trolley Song.”

Aside from the youthful Wynton Marsalis septet, heard in a long and finely crafted tone poem, most of the players were veterans. However, when the 70-year-old Jacquet and the 24-year-old tenor sax prodigy Joshua Redman met in another group, it was Redman whose ideas were fresh and spontaneous while Jacquet’s 50-year-old “Flyin’ Home” licks seemed a bit superannuated.

The so-called swing rhythm team comprised pianist Dick Hyman, drummer Elvin Jones and Los Angeles bassist Charlie Haden, accomplished boppers all. A second group found Red Rodney, once Charlie Parker’s trumpeter, alongside the young, brashly stratospheric hornman Jon Faddis, with a rhythm team that boasted bassist Christian McBride, who just turned 20.

Though excitement was a keynote, lyricism was not neglected. Singer Bobby McFerrin, after expressing his fervent belief in the President, sang a Horace Silver song called “Peace” with a strong brotherhood message, then moved offstage to where the Clintons were seated front and center and embraced them both amid a standing ovation.

Herbie Hancock, who had backed McFerrin, stayed onstage to team with Joe Henderson, whose supple tenor sax on “Lush Life” brought out all the world-weary essence of the Billy Strayhorn composition. Grover Washington Jr., on soprano sax, didn’t quite sustain the level of subtlety Henderson had established.

Michel Camilo, a pianist from the Dominican Republic, banged away noisily at a pompous, overwrought original entitled “Caribe.” Clinton, however, was the first to stand and applaud.

Rosemary Clooney, the 1950s pop star who made a transition into jazz, seemed to reach the President with a line from a Gershwin song: “The more I read the papers, the less I comprehend.” (Or were we imagining his rueful smile?)

Whatever its few faults, this unique concert is due to be aired Sept. 12 on public television, judiciously cut from two hours to one.

by Leonard Feather
Source: Los Angeles Times

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