"There is something fearless and true about jazz," President Barack Obama said in his opening remarks Friday (April 29) at the White House concert celebrating the fifth annual International Jazz Day — and despite the fact that the show was being recorded for broadcast on national television (it aired the following day on ABC), that spirit prevailed during the evening's performances.
Though emceed by Morgan Freeman and featuring celebrity guests from Shonda Rhimes to Wolf Blitzer to Gabrielle Union (also, most concerts don't feature seats reserved for "Cabinet Members" and "Congress"), the evening's focused remained on the music — audible even before you got through security, as the Rebirth Brass Band held a last-minute rehearsal outside the grand tent set up on the South Lawn for the occasion.
Small ensembles, including both military musicians in full dress uniforms and jazz students, were interspersed throughout the East Wing for the pre-concert cocktail hour for an audience of both A-listers and portraits of First Families past (an oil painting of Hillary Clinton from her tenure as First Lady had guests pulling out their phones). Kerry Washington and Al Sharpton mingled with jazz world glitterati (obscure to many, but still influential) before the crowd was shepherded to their seats.
After all the guests (including Malia Obama and a friend) were seated, the President and Mrs. Obama entered, and he gave a pitch-perfect speech on the importance of jazz to American culture, even recalling his first jazz concert: Dave Brubeck in Honolulu in 1971. Thanks to the event, helmed by "all-around cool cat" Herbie Hancock (President Obama's words), "we're gonna do right by Dizzy [Gillespie, who ran for President on a jazz platform in 1964, promising to make Miles Davis head of the CIA] and tonight, call this ‘the blues house.'"
What followed was a roughly chronological summary of jazz history through performance — Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling and Rebirth paid homage to jazz's hometown, New Orleans, with "St. James Infirmary," Chucho Valdes, Paquito D'Rivera, and Zakir Hussein provided a cross-culture tribute to Latin America's relationship with jazz in "Con Poco Coco," and Al Jarreau led a performance of "Take 5," the Dave Brubeck standard President Obama likely heard performed by the man himself all those years ago.
As often happens, the evening's highlights came from the performances that hadn't yet been polished into inoffensiveness. A trio performance of "Footprints" featuring the legendary Wayne Shorter (who wrote the tune), Esperanza Spalding, and prodigy Joey Alexander (who is just 12 years old) found the artists easily traversing their 70-plus year gap in ages to find something off-kilter and yet enviably balanced. Members of Miles Davis's band throughout the years — Chick Corea, Marcus Miller, Wayne Shorter and John McLaughlin — reunited to perform the icon's "Spanish Key." It wasn't as out as Miles probably would have preferred, but how could it be?
The emotional peak came, though, with the most impromptu performance: Herbie Hancock, who had invited artists from Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly (artists with whom he is also preparing his next album), led a Prince tribute. Rapsody shared a verse over "When Doves Cry," Hancock mimicked one of the Purple One's legendary guitar solos, and then the audience's jaws dropped: Aretha Franklin walked out, all in sequins, to sing "Purple Rain."
"God sent down a rainbow to Prince's house so he could walk up to heaven," the legendary singer said, beginning a brief sermon and eventually compelling people to join in as she sang — but the crowd remained hushed. When Aretha speaks — and especially when Aretha sings — it's hard to do anything but listen.