Jazz for Obama: A Concert for America's Future

Greg Thomas By

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Jazz for Obama
92nd Street Y
New York, NY
October 1, 2008

Jazz, to some, is apolitical, a refuge of artistic purity in the midst of a cultural and commercial wasteland. To these persons, art is hermetically sealed from world affairs. Yet there comes a time in the affairs of men and women that standing on the sidelines is no longer tenable. Now is such a time in the United States of America as we face the most important presidential election in a generation.

Jazz fans and artists made a pact at the 92nd Street Y in New York City on the side of political engagement called "Jazz for Obama: A Concert for America's Future." The fundraiser concert, held on October 1, 2008, was spearheaded by pianist Aaron Goldberg, with a supporting cast (Pavani Thagirisa, Anurima Bhargava, Kim Smith and Mabel Tso) comprising a group called Jazz for America's Future. The concert brought in $60,000 for Senator Barack Obama's campaign for the presidency of the United States.

An array of band leaders and sidemen gathered on the stage, from senior grandmasters such as Roy Haynes and Hank Jones to younger wizards of jazz music as Christian McBride, Jeff "Tain" Watts, Roy Hargrove, Robert Glasper, Stefon Harris, Brad Mehldau, Joe Lovano, Stanley Jordan and vocal divas Dee Dee Bridgewater and Dianne Reeves. The music performed was powerfully uplifting, a testament to the progressive spirit of change felt in the hall. But music—the art of the invisible—often gave way to words which were probing, visionary, humorous, hopeful and inspirational.

After Goldberg and Thagirisa opened the evening, the poet/playwright/spoken word performance artist Sarah Jones got laughs when she transformed herself into an elder Jewish woman and young Dominican in support of Obama. (She's like a Gen X version of Anna Deavere Smith.)

The vocalist Kurt Elling served as emcee. In addition to prepared and impromptu remarks, he recited lines from the Sufi poet Rumi and Robert Bly's book of verse, The Insanity of Empire: A Book of Poems Against the Iraq War. After the concert, Elling explained why he got involved: "It's a natural hook-up because jazz is about the future. And even apart from any conceptual tie like that, anything I can do to help Barack get into the White House is fine with me; if I can manage to be a part, be it large or small." The bassist Christian McBride: "There are a lot of people on the planet that know that what we're supporting tonight is the right thing, but to actively go out and do it [is what's important]. Tonight people are putting their money where their mouth is, and acting upon what they are thinking... It's time for a change, it's time for a new regime!"

Dee Dee Bridgewater joined Elling as co-emcee after intermission. Off-stage, she said that, "It's important that the jazz community be recognized as having a political mindset, concerned about who's governing our country. I thought that to combine jazz, our original American music form, with the historical moment of an African-American man about to win the presidency—it's nothing but beautiful. I had to be a part. I believe that he and [Senator Joe] Biden are the team to make the change."

After stating that the "music does all right on its own, but politics can use some good music," jazz author Ashley Khan reflected on the significance of having a presidential candidate with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane on his iPod: "Just imagine the image of the White House resonating with 'Blue Train' in sustained listening." Referring to Obama again, Khan asserted that "No candidate can better speak and he listens to all. We've suffered through eight years of people making decisions for us. Let's make the future swing again."

Roberta Gambarini, a young Italian jazz singer, thought the event was "fantastic. I'm so happy to be here. My parents still live in Italy, and I get to talk with a lot of my friends there. Everybody's very excited about Obama." This feeling is certainly true for trombonist Steve Turre: "Barack is about positive energy. My momma used to always tell me when I was a little boy that 'actions speak louder than words.' I think a lot of us are tired of a bunch of empty words. 'Cause all I've been hearing for eight years are lies. So... it's time for a change."

Goldberg isn't new to organizing jazz events in presidential campaigns; in 2004 Goldberg put together a fundraiser on behalf of John Kerry in his race against incumbent President George Bush. "I couldn't believe that there was a chance that the American people we going to re-elect him. I knew that all my jazz musician friends felt exactly the same way I did. Politically aware, but none of us were politically active. I felt that it was important for the jazz community to express our beliefs, the stuff they talk about in private. Everybody had this pent-up frustration, but there was a bit of apathy.

"It's a much different situation with Obama. The level of enthusiasm for Barack Obama is extremely high among jazz musicians. We're a diverse group of people. Jazz being an African-American music, we're very aware of the history of race in this country. It would be particularly meaningful to have a black President. But, also, we're extremely impressed with his qualifications, his personal qualities. It's easy to get pumped about him. I knew that if I just made some calls that people would come out of the woodwork to play for Barack Obama."

And come out they did, as more musicians contacted Goldberg to participate than were able to be booked. Those that did play came to swing, hard.

L-R: Aaron Goldberg, Brad Mehldau, Steve Turre, Stanley Jordan, Roberta Gambarini, Christian McBride, Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Jeff "Tain" Watts, Kurt Elling

Some highlights: for the opening tune of the evening Goldberg (piano), McBride (bass), Haynes (drums), Lovano (tenor sax), and Roy Hargrove (trumpet) lit into McCoy Tyner's "Passion Dance" like there would be no tomorrow, anchored by Haynes' astounding poly-rhythmic prowess and McBride's booming walking bass. Lovano snaked his absorption of early Rollins, Shorter, Coltrane, Jimmy Giuffre and Joe Henderson with pride and intensity whereas Hargrove blew rapid fire passages ending in high note crescendos.

The vibraphonist Stefon Harris was joined by Goldberg on piano, drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, and bassist Derrick Hodge for an energetic romp on Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You." Subtle shifts in dynamics played peek-a-boo with echoes of rhythm generated by the three percussion instruments, evoking an experimental attitude akin to the mid-'60s Miles Davis quintet. The guitar duo of Charlie Hunter and Doug Wamble, on the introspective "A Change Is Gonna Come," brought us back to earth, and later Stanley Jordan's solo guitar rendition of Mozart's Piano Concerto #21 (Andante in F major) spell-bound us with pointillist virtuosity.

The pianist Brad Mehldau, joined by bassist Matt Penman and Watts on drums, delved into "Besame Mucho." Winding lines cascaded from his right to left hand and back, as Mehldau summoned a seemingly endless stream of ideas. Dianne Reeves, the preeminent jazz singer on the scene today—Elling called her the "Renee Fleming of Jazz"—conjured the spirit of the earth mother, while Dee Dee Bridgewater played the foxy temptress, on "Afro Blue."

Monk's "Straight No Chaser" brought Elling, Gambarini, Bridgewater and Reeves onstage together to scat the night away. Elling's boppish phrases were countered by Bridgewater's playfulness, as Reeves leaned back confidently in the cut, gently giving Gambarini a lesson in behind-the-beat groove, a master class on scat timing, and a primer on stage presence. As the horn players took their solo turns, the vocalists riffed, "Vote for Obama," "The Audacity of Hope," and "Yes We Can, Yes We Can!"

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