Last night I had the honor of attending the First Annual International Jazz Day Concert held at the United Nations hosted by Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas and Morgan Freeman, with ensemble performances by 32 legendary musicians old and new. Jazz greats such as Candido, Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, came together with world musical luminaries Dee Dee Bridgewater, Angelique Kidjo, international musicians Tarek Yamani, Lang Lang and Hiromi Uehara, American superstars Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Quincy Jones, and Tony Bennett to celebrate the importance and culture of jazz both in America and worldwide.
International Jazz Day is the brainchild of Herbie Hancock, a 14 time Grammy Award winner and the Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Educational Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Chairman of The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. Hancock said it was “my dream to have a day, 24 hours where jazz would be celebrated, studied and performed around the world for 24 hours straight. UNESCO’s member states unanimously agreed that jazz and its rich history must be honored and preserved.”
The resounding theme of last night’s performances at the United Nations was to celebrate jazz and its cross cultural influences of an “American legacy that the world has made its own”, said Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations. UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova touted jazz’s importance “from its roots in slavery, jazz has raised a passionate voice against all forms of oppression, it speaks a language of freedom that is meaningful to all cultures. It was created here [in America], but it is owned by the world.” Ms. Bokova continued, “Jazz music represented a struggle for dignity and human rights…but it is now used to enhance human relations and enhance peace.”
As celebrated as jazz is now, Quincy Jones floored the audience by reading a document that was written by the United States government as recently as 1943, deriding jazz music a fleeting musical influence, marked by “brevity, repetitiveness, lack of sustained development…[and] entirely useless.” Never mind the fact that jazz’s roots date back to the civil war. But even then, Jones noted, jazz was a combination of musical fusion born out of our people’s roots, “a music that merged slaves’ rhythms with that of house servants’ trained conservators’ perfected musical techniques, further fused with Europeans’ instrumentation, think Belgian born Adolph Sax.” Hancock concurred, jazz was the slaves’ escapism, “a creative way to elevate and lift the hearts of slaves.”
Quincy Jones noted the irony of jazz as an American art form, “yet every culture around the world knows more about jazz…our music, than our own children!” With such powerful roots in our history, UNESCO and Hancock’s 32 different musical artists who performed last night for 3 hours on the stage at the United Nations Assembly Hall are determined to keep jazz relevant for today’s youth by shining a light on this important art form, and merging talents old and new. Think Jimmy Heath at 85, performing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” side by side with Esperanza Spalding, 27.
At rehearsals, I sat down with Jazz Day’s musical director George Duke to pick his brain about jazz’s cultural relevance, then and now. Duke noted the importance of jazz in our community, mandating that International Jazz Day is important “because it must remain viable. It must not be put into a museum, this is not like classical music, it is a living, breathing art form that must be preserved.” Duke noted that although many hip hop artists have sampled his music, and continue to do so, this is not enough. “We must find that young talent, nurture that young talent, expose them to the music, the culture of jazz”. It is important to note that although many people declare jazz as a dying art form, replaced by hip hop and popular music, Duke was quick to point out that that is not true. “Go to places like New Orleans, Chicago, look right here in New York, we have some of the best and brightest young musicians keeping this music alive, it is an art form.”
Esperanza Spalding, the first jazz musician to win a Grammy for Best New Artist, was quick to agree. At 27, Spaulding is passionate about jazz as an art form, even among artists of her generation. “Jazz is not a dead or removed art form,” she told me. “It is an evolving art form, that must be preserved, and it is preserved and remains relevant, even for artists of my generation, this music is everywhere.” Spalding was quick to point out that it is not just incumbent on musicians to preserve this music, “Listen,” she said leaning in closely to me, “I want you to please quote me on this”, she continued with a smile, “the media has just as much responsibility as we, the artists do to keep this music alive. The media must report on this culture, the media largely ignores this. Yes mainstream media likes me, but they think that I am some exception, I am not. There are very talented young musical people just like me, all over the United States, but the media doesn’t shine a spotlight on them. I was fortunate enough to win a Grammy out of the gate, which raised my profile, but what if that hadn’t happened? Sure, I do it, Robert Glasper does it, many of us do it, but what about all the young musical talent that is keeping this music alive that is largely ignored by the media? We’re doing our part, I need the media to do their part.” She smiled and quickly added. “Please!”
As I sat charmed by this young, talented phenom, I could not agree more. We as a media continue to shine a spotlight on the likes of Kim Kardashian, the most famous person famous for doing nothing, yet we have such talent in our midst that goes largely ignored. Is the Media to blame? Yes partially so, because the media sets the agenda, that is Journalism 101. If we, as an audience continue to support the table tossing, wig snatching, fist fighting among black women that is featured on nearly every reality show currently on TV, then that is what media will continue report. Hollywood says that is what we, as an urban culture want; we as a culture must come together to show them that we want and we deserve better.
As we were walking into the Assembly Hall, Robert De Niro, told, “I am glad you’re here, this is an important moment in music, in culture that must be preserved, must be reported on.” He continued, “I just don’t know why this event isn’t supported by more urban media, it’s a shame. We have to do something about this.” And we do.
The 32 artists last night did their part, UNESCO did theirs, The Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz is doing their part. Now we, as culture, and as media must do ours.
Lisa Bonner is an entertainment lawyer with offices in New York City. Follow her on twitter: @lisabonner