Written by Patrick Jarenwattananon from National Public Radio
While voting returns trickled in early last night, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts held what was billed as an Election Night Jam. While an overhead screen flashed captioned coverage from CNN, jazz and bluegrass musicians performed classic American songs. Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor for Jazz Jason Moran expanded his Bandwagon trio with area musicians, and the event also saw operatically trained singers and local string-band musicians. You can watch the first hour here.
Though not packed, the free concert — held in the Kennedy Center’s massive foyer — was well-attended by a somewhat older crowd, which applauded politely when projected Democratic wins were announced. They were also treated to a soundtrack of indigenous American improvised music: American standard repertoire from Copland to “Soul Man,” as well as songs used in campaigns from “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” to the present day. Moran, bedecked in a blue-and-white star sweater, was a presence throughout, leading his expanded band in two abbreviated sets and coordinating opera singers to appear with bluegrass guitarists and jazz horns.
Washington, D.C., being a politically charged town, the concert let out at 9 p.m. ET, just as polls were closing in the Midwest — enough time to allow attendees to scurry out to election-watching parties in bars or home to laptop computers and remote controls.
Jazz For Obama
You wouldn’t be blamed if you interpreted a bit of a Democrat-leaning tinge to the proceedings. The event was nonpartisan, but musicians — and especially jazz musicians — have historically supported liberal candidates and progressive causes.
Many jazz musicians were vocal in support of Barack Obama’s re-election. For example, a campaign fundraising concert produced by pianist Aaron Goldberg attracted big names like Roy Haynes, Geri Allen, Jimmy Heath, Jim Hall and Ron Carter. Many others have proclaimed their support on blogs and social media.
Certainly, administrators at the Kennedy Center might have been nervous at the thought of a Romney administration: The Kennedy Center receives part of its operations and maintenance budget from the federal government. Romney pledged to halve the National Endowment for the Arts subsidy, among other federally funded cultural programs.
Further hints may have also come in the repertoire chosen by Moran and company. Aaron Copland’s most popular themes were heard often, and while his style of music has become anthemic in the American popular imagination, classical fans might point out that Copland was ideologically very liberal. And Moran’s sets ended with Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” (really), used by Al Gore’s campaign, and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” used by the Obama campaign — including before Tuesday night’s acceptance speech.
Might a jazz musician himself make a good president? President Bill Clinton’s saxophone playing aside, several improvisers have been associated with the gig.
Notably, the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie started issuing “Dizzy Gillespie for President” buttons as a publicity stunt in 1963. (He also nominated Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus for cabinet positions.) But as the joke took on its own life, sales from his buttons went toward civil rights causes, and the media platform allowed him to speak on political issues of the day. At the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival, his “Salt Peanuts” — a song performed by Moran’s expanded Bandwagon last night — was transformed into a campaign song of sorts by lyricist Jon Hendricks.
Drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath has played with Gillespie. Earlier this year, he was treated to a presidential campaign of his own when a fan brought 800 “Tootie For President” buttons to the Tootie Heath/Ben Street/Ethan Iverson residency at the Village Vanguard. (NPR Music and WBGO recorded Wednesday night’s early set.) Heath has actually said he had no presidential aspirations, but he did give away the pins.
And, of course, there’s a musician who was so magisterial that he was nicknamed “The President,” or “Pres”: tenor saxophonist Lester Young. So influential was Young’s vision of tenor playing in his day that a fellow tenor player named Paul Quinichette, whose sound was remarkably similar to Young’s, was dubbed “Vice President.” (See.) They did record together, but as far as I know, Young and Quinichette never mounted a campaign — except in the world of Twitter jokes.