Jazz at the White House (Home of a Serious Fan)

It had to happen, and when it did, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. After President Clinton gave his final remarks tonight at the White House jazz festival, the saxophonist Illinois Jacquet handed him a saxophone, and off the band went into Miles Davis’s blues waltz, “All Blues.” Happy to say, the President (who in his early career as a saxophonist had committed Mr. Jacquet’s landmark improvisation on “Flying Home” to memory), didn’t equivocate, change his mind or buckle to pressure, though he did look a bit uncomfortable.

Then he unfurled a nicely formed improvisation that wasn’t half bad, at least before it fizzled into silence. Deep in the dark recesses of the Presidential mind is clearly the knowledge, albeit a bit rusty, of what it takes to be an improvising musician. “Well, tunes in 3/4 time have a built-in rhythmic excitement,” President Clinton said afterwards, casually. “You just have to ride them.”

The festival, the first since the Ronald Reagan Administration and 15 years to the day after Jimmy Carter’s now-famous jazz party, offered the political and the musical, and for the most part the political was the more exciting of the two. It’s even kind of shocking: a President of the United States can actually play in the American vernacular, and his opinion about music might actually be interesting (the Presidential influence on the selection of musicians for the show was a closely guarded secret, so as to spare the feelings of those not on his list). The President had spent the afternoon hanging around talking music with them. He even gave the singer Joe Williams a soul handshake.

“Jazz is really America’s classical music,” the President read from a prompter. “Like our country itself and especially the people who created it, jazz is a music of struggle, but played in celebration.” The importance of the event wasn’t lost on the musicians, who were to a person proud of the event. Nor was it lost on the guests.

“I think it’s really important for the President of the United States to make this sort of a statement,” said Sidney Barthelemy, the Mayor of New Orleans, who should know something about jazz. “Jazz is taken for granted here, and this sort of thing helps change public perception of one of the most important art forms of the 20th century.”

So in front of an audience of 400 or so politicians, members of the jazz and business worlds and just plain friends, a whole host of musicians — including Wynton Marsalis, Jimmy Heath, Clark Terry, Dorothy Donegan, Jon Faddis, John Lewis and many more — performed in the sweltering heat under a tent on the White House lawn. The President, sitting directly in front of the stage, spent the two hours looking like a kid just handed the keys to a particularly fine toy store.

Surprisingly, the music wasn’t always up to the occasion. There had been only limited rehearsal time, which seemed odd, as the festival was being taped for the premiere performance of public television’s “In Performance at the White House,” which had been started under Jimmy Carter and canceled by the George Bush Administration. Because of the feuding between various backstage factions, the stage managing wasn’t as smooth as it might have been. And with both the President and the show’s host, Thelonious Monk Jr., reading from a prompter, the show felt a bit rigid.

But some of the music was beautiful. The concert started with a moody performance by Wynton Marsalis and his young musicians, who looked a bit cowed; even Mr. Marsalis flubbed a few notes, a mathematical improbability. But by the end of their performance, a blues by Duke Ellington called “Play the Blues and Go,” the audience and the musicians had loosened up some.

One of the strangest jazz groups ever convened appeared shortly afterwards, with Elvin Jones on drums and Charlie Haden on bass supporting Dick Hyman on piano, Clark Terry on fluegelhorn along with Mr. Jacquet and Josh Redman on saxophones. Driven by Mr. Jones’s deeply grooving backbeat — Mr. Haden, who set up his bass far from the drums, was nowhere to be found in the music — the band went into “One More for Dizzy,” with Mr. Jacquet giving a reprise of his improvisation on “Flying Home.” Mr. Terry let his solo flutter like a flag, lazy in the wind, and relaxed.

The pianist Dorothy Donegan came out, and as usual she tore the place apart with a gloriously strange improvisation that mixed “I Can’t Get Started” with classical flourishes, ominous movie-music chords and boogie woogie. She had the crowd on its feet.

Then the show plunged momentarily into boredom. The singer Bobby McFerrin came out and sang by himself; he told the President that “there are no sitcom, 30-minute solutions to problems.” Then the pianist Herbie Hancock came out to play three ballad duets in a row, with Mr. McFerrin (“Peace”), then with the saxophonists Joe Henderson (“Lush Life”) and Grover Washington Jr., who performed a listless Herbie Hancock original, “Just Enough,” which at least drew the crack from Mr. Washington, “I guess if you live in D.C. you can say ‘Just Enough Votes to Pass.’ “

And then it pulled itself back together again. A be-bop jam session, though clearly under-rehearsed — Mr. Monk sounded out of place on “Night in Tunisia,” chosen by the President as a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie — moved along quickly, with the pianist John Lewis putting together what may have been the high point of the the show, a joyously bouncing solo that dipped into blues ideas, and spanked clusters that sounded like Thelonious Monk and used space and dynamics to create real drama. Jimmy Heath on tenor saxophone, along with Joe Henderson, created little pearl-like masterpieces, rolling through the appropriately chosen tune, “Confirmation”; it all received a standing ovation.

Joe Williams came out to sing “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Everyday I Have the Blues.” Most of the show’s musicians hit the stage, Mr. Clinton electrified the crowd with his impromptu performance, and then it was over. The President and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had a few moments of public privacy during the show, were securely back in their roles, shaking hands on a receiving line for the audience, frozen smiles right back where they had been for the last five months.

by Peter Watrous
Source: The New York Times

« Previous Entry

Next Entry »