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Correction to This Article
This article on first lady Michelle Obama's arts advocacy described a group of students who participated in a Broadway workshop at the White House as being from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. The group included students from both the Ellington school and the Joy of Motion Dance Center.
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To showcase nation's arts, first lady isn't afraid to spotlight the unexpected

The White House Music Series celebrated Broadway on Monday with performances by theater royalty, including Idina Menzel, Nathan Lane and Audra McDonald. The event is to be broadcast on PBS in October.

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So in mid-February 2009, Reed sent an e-mail to Desirée Rogers, the White House social secretary at the time, inviting her to an ELEW concert at D.C. jazz haunt HR-57. Rogers, not quite a month into her new job, responded with a promise to attend the show and to bring along a couple of East Wing staffers, including her deputy Ebs Burnough.

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As it would happen, Rogers would hear Lewis perform again a couple of days later when she attended the Donna Karan fashion show in New York.

A month passed. Then, as a scathing review in the New York Times was describing a recent Lewis performance as "grandiose" and "facile," Rogers booked him for the poetry event. Old-guard criticism be damned! Reed also sent the first lady a YouTube video of ELEW reaching into the piano to pluck the keys -- a technique that has churned up little love from the kind of jazz fans who shush neophyte listeners during sets.

When Lewis arrived at the White House, he expected formality and was planning to play with restraint. He most certainly was not going to go poking around inside a piano in the East Room. Then he met Obama. "She had me off balance from the beginning, honestly," Lewis said from his hotel room in Ischia, Italy, where he was performing and where the media have been referring to him as "Barack's piano player." "As soon as I set my foot down in the room, she said, 'Oh, Eric, come over here, man.' "

"She wanted to make sure I was going to go inside the piano and do some of the special effects that I do. I was totally surprised she had that kind of candor and sheer taste for something edgy, fast and hip," Lewis recalled. "That particular effect has gotten me negative criticism."

But Obama wasn't finished giving Lewis his marching orders. This was a first lady whose maternal grandfather blasted jazz from every room of his South Side Chicago house; her father collected jazz recordings; aunts played for the church choir; an uncle played in a band; she dabbled at piano. (The president took guitar lessons. And Malia is, according to the first lady, keen on being an accomplished pianist.) "She said, 'Kill it! Kill it!' She was talking shop talk. That's a big compliment. It means you totally understand the complete package, the subtle nuances to the radical stuff. She might have even said, 'Break it to bits.' "

Regardless, he did just that.

'You carry that with you'

Creating those juxtapositions is part of the Obama mythology. Mixing students with professionals. Introducing neighborhood kids to international stars. Putting unorthodox performers in historical settings. Browning, who remains an antiwar activist, points out that giving folks access doesn't equal influence. "It would be harsh to say 'window dressing,' but the arts are at risk of being used to make them look more connected to social change than they really are."

For now, however, countless artists are pleased with the access the first lady has provided. They're excited that she's talked economics. And for Eric Lewis -- a.k.a. ELEW -- performing at her behest was transforming.

"You carry that with you. In situations where I'm worried about how I'll be accepted, in New York or by conservative jazz fans, it's at that time the nudge and chumminess the first lady gave to me, that shatters the timidity," Lewis said.

"It allows me to move forward like a gladiator."


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