Arriving at the White House today was a dream come true. I was invited to participate in the launch of the White House Music Series: Jazz Studio. It was the first ever jazz education event at the White House and we were given the run of the East Wing. 150 young people from DC schools came with their instruments along with a class from New Orleans Center for the Arts and a few students from LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts in New York City. Workshops were given in 3 rooms. Ellis, Wynton, Branford, Delfayo and Jason Marsalis worked with high schoolers in the East Room. Stephen Massey and Sean Jones worked with other high schoolers in the State Dining Room and I teamed up with Todd Williams to lead a workshop on the blues for middle schoolers in the Diplomatic Reception Room. First Lady Michelle Obama was our gracious host. She, her staff and all the White House personnel made us all feel incredibly welcome. We arrived a little early and were invited to wander around a bit and explore the “People’s House.” It felt like home!
In the Diplomatic Reception Room, 45 students from Capital Jazz, Sitar Arts Center and the Levine School of Music, joined Todd Williams and I for an exploration of the blues. While we were setting up a very familiar looking young lady walked through the room with a friend and her dog. I said, “Are you Malia?” She said, “yes,” and of course I introduced myself. I didn’t meet the dog.
We asked students: “What gives YOU the blues?” and got student responses such as, “meaness, frustration, sickness, loss, failing.” Then we played Hop Wilson’s classic blues shuffle, “I Feel So Glad.” We explained that music was a tool African Americans used to survive the horror of American Slavery. Next we started stomp/clappin’ and singing the great African American spiritual “Wade In the Water.” After singing for some time, diving deep into the healing power of the music, we pointed out that the melody notes of Wade In the Water form a scale known as the minor pentatonic–C, Eb, F, G, Bb. This is a great scale to use as a jumping off point for improvising on the blues. At this point, the students busted out their instruments and started to play call and response with Todd. Can you see George Washington smiling?
After the workshop, Todd and I were invited to meet the First Lady and have a photo with her. She could not have been more gracious and welcoming. My heart was overflowing and I thanked her for bringing jazz and jazz people to the White House. She said, “Thank-YOU for coming. As a matter of fact, I’m so happy you are here that I brought my mother.” Then I got to meet Marian Robinson who struck me as the pinnacle of dignity, duty and grace.
After this, we all gathered in the East Room for Michelle Obama’s speech on jazz…
Finally, Paquito D’Rivera took the stage with his inimitable wit and charm. He filled the room with magic once again…
It was a truly magical day. It almost feels like a dream. Could our country change, really change this fast? From the time I entered the White House today until I left, I was brimming with emotion. I felt so proud of our nation. I looked around and saw old portraits of presidents and first ladies and then saw life size photos of the Obamas and many events they have hosted in the past 6 months. They are constantly bringing children here. Children of all colors, from all backgrounds. It feels that the real America has taken residence in our most esteemed estate. We don’t have a king and queen in the U.S. We fought a war over that. The reality of our unique arrangement of leadership descended on me with such force today. The people’s house. A nation of nations. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The challenges we face, we face them together.
Thank-you Michelle Obama, President Obama and your incredible team. Thank-you for looking out for all of us and welcoming jazz people to the White House today. You give us strength and inspiration to return to our communities with renewed commitment and enthusiasm for touching people with our music. Jazz unites, inspires, awakens, surprises and heals. May jazz musicians across this nation feel the power of our lineage and find more opportunities to work and share our talents and skills with people of all ages, step by step helping form a more PERFECT UNION!