By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music
From Herbie Hancock to Robert DeNiro, artists join in UN celebration of jazz
For Herbie Hancock, Monday was a long day. It started in New Orleans, where the pianist played a sunrise concert in Congo Square with a band of Crescent City all-stars and a group of student musicians. It ended with an ambitious, wide-ranging musical celebration in the hallowed halls of the United Nations General Assembly Hall, featuring dozens of artists from around the world, including Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett, Wynton Marsalis, and too many more to count. And that's aside from the fact that he had just flown back from a series of events in Paris over the weekend.
Stevie Wonder and Esperanza Spalding (©AP)
But at the end of the almost-three-hour long concert at the UN, Hancock didn't look the least bit tired. The marathon he had put himself through was, he said, "the culmination of a career-long dream" -- the creation of the First Annual International Jazz Day, which he conceived and initiated in his role as Goodwill Ambassador for UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). In addition to the star-studded signature events, jazz-related activities were conducted throughout the day in more than 100 countries.
The UN "Sunset Concert" ran smoothly given its scale, with sixteen different combinations of musicians taking the stage over the course of the evening. The "co-hosts" for the show were three members of Hollywood royalty -- Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas and Morgan Freeman -- along with Quincy Jones, who gave an endearing, sometimes rambling speech full of history and reminiscence, and warned that "every country in the world knows more about our music than our kids do."
The program took an expansive view of jazz, with performances representing Latin and international jazz, the music's roots in blues and African music, and songs that leaned more toward classical and pop. A thrilling early moment was the reunion of the surviving members of Miles Davis' groundbreaking quintet from the 1960s -- Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and bassist Ron Carter -- along with former Davis drummer Jack DeJohnette subbing for the late Tony Williams, playing the classic "Milestones." Some of the other song selections, like Thelonious Monk's "Think of One" and John Coltrane's "India," may be at or near the half-century mark, but still sounded pretty avant-garde for the floor of the UN.
Several of the most memorable appearances came from the global musicians. One song was a collaboration between players from Australia, the Netherlands, Cameroon, Lebanon, India and the US. Pianist Hiromi Uehara turned in a sweeping and physical solo, and vocalist Shankar Mahadevan was a compelling vocal foil for Dee Dee Bridgewater on a version of Duke Ellington's "Cottontail," scatting in Indian scales for an unsettling, riveting effect. And the sight of 91-year-old conga player Candido in a percussion duet with Sheila E. was pure delight.
The actors' introductions to these numbers were sometimes relevant (Michael Douglas explaining that Hugh Masakela was inspired to pick up the trumpet by "Young Man with a Horn," a film starring his father, Kirk Douglas), sometimes not at all (tough to find a connection between De Niro and Louis Armstrong). But it was the kind of night when Susan Rice, the US Representative to the UN, quoted the words of Charlie Parker, and Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, invoked the wisdom of Ella Fitzgerald.
A few times through the evening, the audience -- seated at the familiar curved tables with little microphones in front of each chair -- simply had no choice but to sit back and be awed by virtuosity. Chaka Khan delivered a powerhouse performance of "Them There Eyes;" her vocal may have reached some of the more far-flung countries in the United Nations.
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Stevie Wonder's chromatic harmonica, which he played in a duet with Masakela on "Grazing in the Grass" and in a solo during a performance of "Midnight Sun" with young bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding, is simply a miracle, identifiable in a single note. Wynton Marsalis played a hard-driving version of Armstrong's "St. James Infirmary" with perfect, superhuman control: no need for themes or high concepts, just musicianship that brings you to your knees.
Several speakers referred to the similarity between jazz and democracy, or the music's power as "the sound of freedom." But jazz and the United Nations have other similarities, as well. They are both sometimes considered a little past their prime, and struggling for contemporary relevance. Hearing these musicians come together for a night, honoring Hancock's accomplishment of an ongoing and formalized celebration of America's greatest musical achievement, was enough to give a little more hope for the future of jazz, and the future of the world.
Alan Light is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN, and was co-founder and editor-in-chief of Tracks. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.