White House Hosts Concert for International Jazz Day

Photo: John Beasley. Credit: Eric Wolfinger

An event to “exemplify global kinship without borders”

By A.D. McKenzie

PARIS | WASHINGTON DC – The fifth annual International Jazz Day will be celebrated around the world on April 30, with U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle hosting the main event – an “All-Star Global Concert” – at the White House a day ahead of time, on April 29.

According to the United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO, which first designated the day in 2012, the concert will be broadcast as a one-hour prime-time television special on April 30 evening, and streamed on the websites of the UN, UNESCO, U.S. State Department and the White House.

The concert will feature a range of artists from around the world, paying tribute to what the organisers call the “truly American art form of jazz”.

Participating performers include acclaimed musicians Herbie Hancock, Aretha Franklin, Chick Corea, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Sting, Terri Lyne Carrington, Al Jarreau, Marcus Miller, Hugh Masekela and a host of other stars. Pianist, arranger and composer John Beasley will serve as the evening’s musical director. 

“We’ll probably be reaching more people this year than ever,” Beasley told International Press Syndicate’s flagship agency IDN in an interview.  He said that the concert will see some interesting artistic link-ups that will bring musicians together “across musical genres and geography”. For instance, R&B legend Franklin will be performing with Hancock, and English singer and bassist Sting with vocalist Jarreau and other artists.

In response to a question about the main issue of directing such a concert, Beasley said the key challenge was “dreaming up scenarios” for people to play collectively.

“I try to be creative and think of people that haven’t normally played together – something that takes them out of their comfort zone – and also adding the international element, to put people from all over the world together,” he said. “That’s the beauty of jazz; it’s a conversation. We can talk without words and find commonality.”

Last year’s concert at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris – one of 80 events in the French capital – saw Scottish singer Annie Lennox, more known for rock music, belting out jazz standards from a recent album, accompanied by Hancock on piano. It also placed the talented young bassist Ben Williams alongside veteran saxophonist Wayne Shorter, for one of the high points of a concert that had audience members dancing at the end.

According to Beasley, the event can “exemplify global kinship without borders, regardless of race, ethnicity, socio-economic background, or political affiliations.” 

Since the first Jazz Day, the international audience has grown to 2 billion people participating in many varieties of jazz-themed events, Beasley told IDN.

Presented by UNESCO in partnership with the US-based Thelonious Monk Institute, International Jazz Day was conceived by Hancock and launched at UNESCO headquarters in Paris as well as at venues in New Orleans and New York in 2012. The aim was to highlight the power of jazz as a force for freedom and creativity, and to use the music to promote intercultural dialogue and respect.

Tom Carter, president of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, told IDN that the 2016 edition was shaping up to be most successful one so far. “Our country is the birthplace of jazz, from its origins in New Orleans … and we’re proud that it has been embraced in all corners of the globe,” he said.

The first International Jazz Day comprised events in 80 countries and has now grown to 195 countries – “all the UN and UNESCO member states”, Carter added.

As part of the celebration, the Thelonious Monk Institute launched “Math, Science & Music” on April 26, an education platform with free curricula, games, apps and other online elements “that use music as a tool to teach maths and science to students”.

The platform will address the growing need for students to gain skills and knowledge in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and learn to think creatively, the Institute said

In a statement, Hancock – who also serves as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador – said “we are thrilled that President Obama and Michelle Obama are hosting the International Jazz Day All-Star Global Concert at the White House, and are truly grateful for their commitment to jazz and its role in building bridges and uniting people around the world.”

The Day will also see musicians and educators participating in a series of free jazz performances, master classes, improvisational workshops, and other events, he said. Additional key activities will include community outreach initiatives at schools, embassies, arts centres, hospitals, and other venues. These will be taking place all over the world, but with a focus on Washington, D.C. this year.

Note: This article first appeared on April 29, 2016 in SWAN – Southern World Arts News – an online cultural magazine devoted to the arts of the global South – and is being reproduced by arrangement with the writer. Follow her on Twitter @mckenzie_ale [International Press Syndicate – 3 February 2016]

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