Letter to Obama: Let Great Jazz Into Your Inauguration Festivities

jazz-for-obamaDear President-Elect Obama:

The word on the street is that you like jazz, you really like jazz.

You became hip to the music, African-Americans’ great gift to the world’s arts culture, back in junior high school, when you still wanted to be called “Barry.”

In fact, once when you visited a record store with a friend from your Honolulu prep school, you stayed close to the jazz bins. “Barry was into things that other kids our age weren’t into. He went through the entire jazz section while we were there,” said your old pal Dean Ando, according to one newspaper feature.”That affects me to this day — he’s the one who introduced me to jazz.”

Did you dig real jazz, with genuine musical content, by creative players with an understanding of the tradition but with eyes on the future? Or were you keen on some variety of jazz lite? Who knows? But I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Your iPod playlist, which may or may not have been assembled by your staff to appeal to the Baby Boomers whose support you needed during the general election (hence Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, etc.), even includes tracks by jazz geniuses Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.

Miles and Coltrane, too, lead the artists named under the category of “favorite music” on your Facebook page.

Yes, those are pretty obvious jazz picks, and they’re all dead. Still, listing those artists is far more impressive than, you know, listing Kenny G. or the Rippingtons or some other such wallpaper-jazz nonsense.

I’ve not heard whether you ever visited the Green Mill, Chicago’s jazz mecca, while you were based in the Windy City.

Still, there are other signs that you may well support jazz during your White House residency.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” you had this to say: “Thinking about the diversity of our culture and inviting jazz musicians, and classical musicians, and poetry readings in the White House so that once again we appreciate this incredible tapestry that’s America, you know, that, I think, is going to be incredibly important, particularly because we’re going through hard times.”

While, as far as I can tell, you’ve not recently given props to any important living jazz artists — not even trumpeter Wynton Marsalis or pianist Herbie Hancock? — many major figures in the jazz community have gone out of their way to support you.

Did you hear about the “Jazz for Obama” concert in New York on Oct. 1? Did you attend?

A long list of front-rank jazz artists, black and white, opted to wear their politics on their shirtsleeves for a night in the name of helping you win the election. The performers: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Joe Lovano, Roy Haynes, Brad Mehldau, Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride, Stanley Jordan, Kurt Elling, Hank Jones, Charlie Hunter/Doug Wamble, Bilal/Robert Glasper, Stefon Harris, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Roberta Gambarini.

Thanks to a column by Ottawa Citizen music writer Peter Hum, I was reminded of the following examples of major jazz musicians’ overt support of you:

  • Hancock lent his name and musical cred to the “Yes We Can” video supporting your candidacy
  • Pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Dave Douglas, at last year’s Chicago Jazz Festival, dedicated new works to you.
  • Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and many other prominent jazzers have displayed your face and message on t-shirts they’ve worn on stage.
  • Hundreds, if not thousands, of jazz musicians, have used their Facebook and MySpace pages to demonstrate support for you.

Yes, all these jazzers were for you, and presumably still are. But are you really for jazz?

I’m asking, because of some rather disappointing news.

So far, the only notable musical artists reportedly invited to play your 10 official inaugural balls are, you know, big-name folks.

Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand and Bruce “Super Bowl Half-Time Show” Springsteen are said to have been asked to appear at official inauguration events on Jan. 20, and the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus are expected to headline an official kids-oriented show on Jan. 19.

Some of these are inspired choices; others, not so much.

Yes, your associates have coordinated a Jan. 20 event called ” ‘A Time For Hope’ 2009 Presidential Inaugural Jazz Gala.”

But the musicians selected for the event, despite being described as “global jazz artists,” are not well-known players. What’s up with that?

Since you self-identify as African-American, and since jazz is rooted in black culture, may I suggest that you use your great power to include MAJOR jazz musicians — black, white and Hispanic — in your inauguration festivities?

After you move into the White House, you ought to regularly invite jazzers over to your place, too.

Any of the above-mentioned artists, including Marsalis and Hancock, and pianist Hank Jones (part of that “Jazz for Obama” concert), a brilliant elder statesman of jazz, would make great choices.

So would veteran saxophonist Sonny Rollins, arguably the greatest living jazz performer, and now enjoying critical plaudits for his recent concerts and latest CDs, including last year’s Road Shows, Vol. 1. Or how about other great, still-thriving saxophonists, like Wayne Shorter, James Moody, or Phil Woods, to name just a few other older players of that instrument?

Why not Terence Blanchard? In addition to his superb work as a trumpeter and bandleader, he is a gifted composer of film scores, and he serves as artistic director of the college program at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, now based in his hometown, New Orleans. Hancock is the institute’s chairman.

This is a very short list of jazz artists who would make great assets to your forthcoming festivities. Choosing any of these musicians to play your inauguration concerts  would demonstrate that your support for jazz is more than just lip service.

For more good ideas, you can turn to the two polls — readers and critics — annually published in Down Beat magazine, or the awards annually bestowed by the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA).

So, President-Elect Obama, or, if I may, Barry: There’s still time to invite world-class jazz musicians to play your inauguration concerts.

Need help programming great jazz, or booking some of these artists? If you can’t rely on your own team, you know, give me a call.

Better yet, contact some of the great jazz musicians I’ve mentioned. Or make a connection with the editors of Down Beat or Jazz Times or Jazziz. Or consult the jazz writer Stanley Crouch, who made some similar points in a Dec. 21 column.

Yes, you can. Yes, you can make this happen – you’re the next leader of the free world.

What’s stopping you?

Roger Ebert: The Perils of the CelebCult Virus

Roger Ebert, in a Nov. 26 column, wrote, “The CelebCult virus is eating our culture alive, and newspapers voluntarily expose themselves to it.”

He’s referring to the loss of film critics, and the death of film criticism, but the same lamentation applies to music critics and music criticism, particularly at daily newspapers (yes, there are exceptions to the rule, starting with the New York Times).

Classical critics, of course, are disappearing as fast as the unemployed ranks of former Clinton Administration staffers. That’s a sad enough story.

But at the moment, I’m talking about music whose beats typically include — or should include, in the name of diversity of coverage — rock, pop, rap and country, as well as jazz, blues, Americana, world music and other genres.

Pop music critics, thus far, aren’t being eliminated en masse, although the space given to music coverage has shrunk substantially.

But too many of them over-emphasize celeb-centric coverage and teenypop, writing endlessly about “American Idol” claptrap and the Jonas Brothers and Cyrus Miley; the latest “comebacks” of Madonna and Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey; the fates of various boy-band reunions; and whether Amy Winehouse, Scott Weiland, Axl Rose, etc., are still losing the war with their personal demons.

Who cares about that stuff? Yes, go ahead, label me a music snob. I’ve been called worse.

The guilty parties at some newspapers around the country tend to treat everything in a snarky, showbizzy fashion — think the “Hit List” in Entertainment Weekly — and give actual musical analysis, even the most basic analysis, the status of second-class citizen. For these writers, musical criticism is an afterthought, at best; irrelevant, at worst.

Call it another sign of the literate-culture Apocalypse.

Even worse for the financial health of music critics, they take the gossip-driven approach at the risk to their own livelihoods: the more that they and their newspapers emphasize celebrity news and de-emphasize information and analysis of substance, the less they appeal to the people who still care about reading newspapers in print.

So they’re trying to appeal to the folks who have already abandoned print newspapers for online sources of information, and simultaneously pissing off the newspaper loyalists.

News operations can, and probably do, attract millions of readers to newspaper-affiliated web sites. But so far, newspapers have yet to figure out how to fund a news operation solely on revenues made online.

So turning the whole thing into celeb/gossip central isn’t quite the smartest strategy, huh?