Jazz at the White House

To judge by the historic television program to be broadcast Sunday, America’s recently rekindled love affair with its own music, jazz, is going strong.

The season-opening installment of “In Performance at the White House,” to be shown at 7 p.m. on WTTW-Ch. 11, will not be devoted to European symphonic music, Russian ballet stars or foreign-tongued opera singers, as such official cultural events often are.

Instead, the nationally telecast show, subtitled “A Salute to the Newport Jazz Festival,” features several American treasures who have helped define the art form, including trumpeters Clark Terry and Red Rodney, saxophonists Illinois Jacquet and Joe Henderson, pianists Dorothy Donegan and John Lewis, singers Rosemary Clooney and Joe Williams.

In addition, the program spotlights younger artists who are following their lead, including trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman and singer Bobby McFerrin.

These and several other jazz virtuosos came together June 18 for a marathon performance that was videotaped under a tent on the South Lawn of the White House. The resultant footage was subsequently boiled down for this hourlong program, which moves briskly from one musical performance to the next. Along the way, there are brief video vignettes on the Newport Jazz Festival, which the concert honors on the eve of the festival’s 40th anniversary.

The new administration sent an important message by choosing jazz as the focal point of its first major White House performance.

“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,” President Clinton tells the White House audience before the music begins. “Jazz is really America’s classical music. Like the country itself, and especially like the people who created it, jazz is a music born of struggle but played in celebration.”

Indeed, the concert carries a feeling of celebration, from the exuberant, opening piano solo by Michel Camilo to the closing segment, in which Clinton picks up a saxophone and joins in.

Between these bookends, the program features some substantial, ensemble improvisations. Marsalis and his Septet offer an extended excerpt from Duke Ellington’s “Play the Blues and Go,” the trumpeter coaxing unusual, blues-steeped effects from his horn. Clooney is in superb voice, turning Dave Frishberg’s comic “Sweet Kentucky Ham” into a soft-spoken, bittersweet lament. And McFerrin, who invents new sounds nearly every time he opens his mouth to sing, lives up to expectations in a contrapuntal treatment of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere.”

The most touching moments of this program, however, are in the screening of videotape from another celebrated event on the White House South Lawn. The year was 1978, the president was Jimmy Carter, and several of that era’s jazz legends gathered to mark the 25th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival. Eubie Blake, Dizzy Gillespie, Pearl Bailey, Mary Lou Williams, Teddy Wilson-all performed. All have since died.

To see them again is to be reminded of how much has been lost with their deaths. To see Charlie Mingus wheelchair-ridden and weeping when Carter pays homage to him is to understand the symbolic value of a White House tribute to America’s jazz artists.

The only significant flaw in the program, jointly produced by WTTW in Chicago and WETA in Washington, is that an hour proves to be too little time to cover the subject. Terry and Jacquet especially receive too little camera time. Still, one hour is better than none, and the program does capture the majesty of the event and of the music it honors.

by Howard Reich
Source: Chicago Tribune

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