We had a great quartet gig at Blues Alley on June 15 with Todd Williams on saxophone, LaFrae Sci on drums and Amy Shook on bass. As it turned out, the performance was exactly one year after my first trip to the White House for the White House Jazz Studio Event. It’s been an incredible year and I thought I’d share my reflections excerpted from a piece I wrote for Maja Popovic’s Jazz Bulletin at the Cultural Center in Podgorica, Montenegro. Most of the events I mention are covered elsewhere in the blog with photos and all…
….As I write this I am returning home from a one-month tour of Brazil and Chile with my blues band. Like last May in the Balkans, we spent the month giving concerts and workshops, sharing our love of the blues, and passing along the great healing power of the music. This year we met students from a favella in Brazil studying percussion and soon found ourselves collaborating with them in performance on an old ballad from the United States called “John Henry.” The song had terrific power with the traditional “maracatou” drums played by focused and talented youngsters. In Chile, we visited 3 towns most impacted by the great Earthquake of 2010. In Talca, Chillan and Curico, we saw homes passed down for generations in heaps of rubble. And whereas thousands are still homeless, we couldn’t help but be incredibly inspired by the will and determination of the people to rebuild. These places have evidence of the earthquakes devastating power everywhere, and at the same time are engaged in constant human movement towards regeneration and renewal. We played blues by Robert Johnson, Taj Mahal and Elizabeth Cotten and played a song in Spanish by the Cuban composer Silvio Rodriguez called “Rabo de Nube,” which means “Tail of the Tornado.” It is a song about new beginnings and people sang it with us.
Of course, we always close our show with the song I wrote with Clifford Carlson, “Healing Song. By the end everyone sings the chorus together, “It’s not just a song for me. Take a breath…and you will see. Why the blues has the power to be. A healing song. A healing song.” I remember when we sang that song in the workshop at the Cultural Center in Podgorica last May. I remember the young people coming up to the microphone one by one to share their interpretation. I loved how each voice was unique. I loved the enthusiasm. I loved the expression. I remember how we all stood in the pit and did the “stomp/clap.” It’s a tool from African American culture that has been used to get through very hard times and times of celebration. I remember how quickly everyone made it their own and this became the basis of the rest of the work we did together. I remember the smiles and enthusiasm of the young people at the end of the workshop. This is the best attitude to embark on study. Serious enthusiasm leads to serious inquiry and application. Enthusiasm is a supreme motivator to face obstacles. Joy is a great friend of true discipline.
It’s extraordinary to me how music unites us all over the world and especially blues and jazz. In Santiago I befriended a 79-year old pianist named Giovanni Cultrera. He told me “jazz is the most important cultural contribution to the world.” I asked why and he replied, “Because it is universal expression.” “It came from the human pain of the slaves. And everyone experiences this pain sometimes. Jazz offers a way to let it out and express it.” I think Giovanni is correct and I saw it in Montenegro at the Cultural Theatre in Niksic. When we performed “John Henry” there, I said, “John Henry represents man against the machine. John Henry was a strong man. Like a Montenegrin man.” Sure enough I found a willing volunteer seated in the front row. As he stood and unraveled himself upward we were quite a sight. His stature about twice mine, together we led the audience to pick up their imaginary hammer and strike it with a deep sound from our center. “Ugh.” Before long the whole room was vibrating. This pulse, this heartbeat, ever present in the work songs, the spirituals and the blues has become great comfort to people all over the world, rich and poor, all colors, all religions, and undergoing many different varieties of stress. When we tune into the pulse of each other with feeling, we have a basis for continuity. Everything that is perplexing, overwhelming, unsettling, may not have an immediate answer. But when you put it in a song supported by this pulse and then expanded by a wail and a moan, before long, you have alchemy. The atmosphere is changed. Your body feels different. You have new found hope and you feel it all around you.
Last June I was invited to the first White House Jazz Studio hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama. In the Diplomatic Reception Room where our President hosts foreign heads of state, I conducted a 1-hour workshop with 45 students from several community music schools from Washington DC. Again, we focused on the shuffle, the communal and personal expression of the blues. We were all so blown away to have this experience in the home of the President of the United States and his family.
In December, I was invited back to the White House to perform in the East Room for several holiday parties. It was the first time a jazz quintet such as mine was invited to play for these occasions. You could see the look of delighted surprise as people came into the room. We played Silent Night with a New Orleans beat, Duke Ellington Songs, my swing and bebop tunes and a whole lot of blues. I was thrilled to see how well the music resonated in there. One of the waiters, Ramses, was working his last week after 50 plus years of service. He smiled ear to ear as we honored him with an original blues created in the moment with his name sung as swinging riff. “Ramses, Ramses, Ram (tu-tun) BAM.” We met the President, First Lady, and many other honored guests. In this White House, there is a clear sense that it’s all us that make our country what it is. We make the most of the opportunities and challenges that come our way.
In college I learned about Duke Ellington and how after 10 bands declined the job, he happily accepted the “opportunity” to bring his band into the Cotton Club in Harlem to play for dancers in funny costumes. Other bands didn’t want to be relegated to such a role. Duke found the opportunity in it, created his so-called “jungle music” sound combining vulgar sounds with sublime, and ended up with weekly national radio broadcasts which later enabled him to tour and become a world renown composer and bandleader.
In my late 20’s I had my Cotton Club moment. I was playing jazz gigs and musically directing the spring musical at the Louis Armstrong Middle School in Queens, NY, near the historic adult home of Louis Armstrong. We did classic musicals like Guys and Dolls, Snoopy and Pajama Game. It was fun, but something was missing. These stories were from a different time and not relevant to our students. And, even though it was the Louis Armstrong Middle School, the students didn’t know very much about jazz. A teacher at the school named Clifford Carlson and I found the opportunity in this and started writing original jazz musicals for the kids to perform. We wrote stories the kids could relate to and all the music was blues, bebop and swing. The kids loved it and we mounted 9 original musical productions in 9 years. With 50 kids on the stage dancing, singing and acting, and pit orchestras of students and adults playing together-sometimes as many as 19 strong, it was an extraordinary run. Now we have a non-profit company to support the work called The Jazz Drama Program (www.thejazzdramaprogram.org), using the language of jazz to tell stories relevant to children’s lives. So far we’ve had over 18 productions around the U.S. of our musicals and we just recorded our show, Nora’s Ark, with singers from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, New York City’s leading training choir.
I can see it. I can feel it. I can hear it. Young people all over the world singing the blues, sharing jazz language with each other. They are singing, dancing, acting, playing instruments, writing songs, and challenging each other and themselves to go deeper. Creating music of the moment. Creating music that heals. Creating music and experiences that bond us together. These efforts eradicate loneliness, activate the imagination and create long lasting friendships. Jazz is precious language of the spirit and non-denominational. It is timeless and it is for all human beings everywhere. When we feel that swinging, shuffling beat. When we let out a cry and a moan in a song we are connected again. Connected to each other. Connected to our history and to the promise of the future.