Seven years ago, when an Illinois senator was elected president of the United States, jazz lovers hoped he might bring their music to the White House.
It had been a long time – 15 years, to be exact – since President Bill Clinton had convened a jazz marathon on the South Lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Legends such as singer Joe Williams, saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and pianist Dorothy Donegan shared the spotlight with younger masters, including trumpeters Wynton Marsalis and Jon Faddis, on June 18, 1993.
That great event took place 15 years to the day after President Jimmy Carter had invited a galaxy of jazz stars to the White House, among them 95-year-old pianist-composer Eubie Blake, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, singer Pearl Bailey and her husband, drummer Louie Bellson, bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach.
Jazz was not similarly celebrated during the tenure of President George W. Bush, and one hoped that Barack Obama might return to center stage a music born of the African-American experience but, like Obama himself, of mixed parentage. It was black and Creole musicians in New Orleans at the turn of the previous century, after all, who had invented America's original art form. Who better to remind the world of that fact – and, in so doing, of America's multicultural makeup – than a president-elect from Chicago? Obama's adopted hometown had been inventing and rewriting the rules of jazz since at least 1910, when Jelly Roll Morton first arrived here from the Crescent City, followed by generations of Louisiana artists.
Granted, Obama's first term was turbulent, with plenty of international and domestic concerns to keep him occupied. So when was he re-elected, in 2012, I wrote that "now Obama has a second chance. Let's concede that he had his hands full navigating a potential economic meltdown, health care legislation, two wars, the Arab Spring and the recent election season. Perhaps a case even could have been made that a jazz celebration on the South Lawn would have struck the wrong note at a time of economic distress (though I would have argued that music stands as a powerful, uplifting antidote to hard times). With Obama entering his second term, however, there are no more reasons to delay."
Obama's second term, as we all now know, hasn't been any easier, with the Middle East fracturing, Russia stirring trouble in Eastern Ukraine and China become increasingly aggressive in its region and, according to the U.S. government, in cyberspace. Within our borders, too, America has faced strife, not least in the form of urban riots in the aftermath of killings of unarmed black men by police and the tragic, ever-rising toll of innocents in inner-city Chicago and elsewhere.
But presidential events carry tremendous symbolic and emotional power, and the sight and sound of America's jazz titans – black, white and all shades in between – making music together at the White House would serve as nothing but a balm in troubled times.
"It's especially important that we should be together here in America's house to celebrate that most American of all forms of musical expression, jazz," Clinton told the crowd during his great jazz summit. "Jazz is really America's classical music. Like the country itself, and especially like the people who created it, jazz is a music born of struggle but played in celebration."
Carter's groundbreaking event was still more historic, in part because so many jazz deities still were alive in 1978. The image of Carter vocalizing with Gillespie in – what else? – "Salt Peanuts" (the ideal anthem for a former peanut-farmer-turned-president) sent a powerful message: a black musician and a white president speaking a shared language: jazz. You have to wonder how many kids saw that on TV and deduced that if a self-taught jazzman born into poverty in Cheraw, S.C., could play his way to the White House, then maybe they could get somewhere in life, too.
Similarly, the sight of a wheelchair-bound Mingus weeping openly as Carter praised his achievements must have moved millions, as only a presidential spotlight can. The art of Mingus and his peers, in other words, was worthy of admiration from the leader of the free world, a kind of vindication for all the suffering and deprivation Mingus and others had endured in the name of jazz.
The difficult times we find ourselves in do not mean that we should refrain from cultural celebration but, rather, that we need it all the more. It inspires us, and when it comes to jazz, it reminds us of who we are as Americans. For jazz long has been revered, adopted and transformed by cultures around the world, the rare American export that faces nearly universal acceptance.
Better still, since the 1950s the U.S. State Department has used jazz as a way of opening doors in hostile lands, sending American jazz giants such as Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and others as representatives of what freedom and democracy sound like.
As recently as February, jazz saxophonist Bob Belden became the first American musician to play Iran since 1979, perhaps a harbinger of a diplomatic thaw yet to come. Though Belden (who died in May at age 58) wasn't officially representing anyone but himself, the mere fact that both U.S. and Iranian governments allowed the saxophonist to bring all-American jazz to a sold-out house in Tehran surely said something about the global force of this music.
If jazz can be important enough to serve as a bridge between battling nations, surely it deserves a major White House concert of its own, more than two decades after Clinton's unforgettable event.
To have such a gathering presented by the first African-American president might make the occasion even more significant than the ones that came before. Combine the expressive power of jazz with the famed poetry of Obama's rhetoric, and the world might see a moment of transcendent eloquence on the American experience.
But time is running out.
"Portraits in Jazz": Howard Reich's e-book collects his exclusive interviews with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and others, as well as profiles of early masters such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. Get "Portraits in Jazz" at chicagotribune.com/ebooks.