At night's end, the First Saxophonist contributed a cool solo to what could be a signature tune for a president -- "Every Day I Have the Blues." Luckily, it's already the signature tune of jazz vocalist Joe Williams, and while a poll-conscious Bill Clinton clearly might empathize with lyrics like "nobody seems to love me," his presence last night on a stage with several dozen jazz greats was not weary confession but jubilant confirmation of his regard for the form.
"It's particularly appropriate that we should be here in America's house to celebrate that most American of all forms of musical expression: jazz," Clinton told a crowd of 400 gathered in a huge tent on the lawn behind the White House. He paid homage to both producer George Wein and the Newport Jazz Festival -- this is the 40th anniversary of the festival that launched a thousand imitators -- as well as to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, which pulled together the talent.
"Jazz is really America's classical music," Clinton added. "Like our country itself and especially the people who created it, jazz is a music of struggle, but played in celebration." Last night there were minor struggles with heat and timetables, but the accent was clearly on celebration. Once the music started, the president sat front and center, putting politics aside for these few hours in which he could become the First Fan. And maybe even the First Student, a role he said was favored by his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. "When she's listening to my jazz, she wishes I would practice more," he admitted.
After watching some masterly performances, the president is likely to be inspired to do just that (luckily, it's a big House).
Among the transcendent moments: veteran tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson rendering a pastel-toned "Lush Live," breathing into beauty one gorgeous note after another until Billy Strayhorn's classic stood in elegant completeness. Pianist Herbie Hancock provided the subtle frame for Henderson and then did the same for soprano saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., who navigated through a lustrous "Just Enough." Or, as Washington noted, "I guess if you live in D.C., you can say 'Just Enough Votes to Pass.' "
For the most part, though, musicians passed on opportunities to politicize -- playfully or seriously -- on song titles, even though a later jam session turned out to be "Confirmation." Rosemary Clooney declined to change a key line in the Gershwins' classic "Our Love Is Here to Stay" to "not for four more years but forever and a day," though that seemed to be the general sentiment inside the tent.
Last night's concert fell 15 years to the day after the last White House salute, when Jimmy Carter honored the 25th anniversary of Newport. The last Democrat in that House had also been a participant -- hesitantly but bravely joining Dizzy Gillespie on the chorus to "Salt Peanuts." The spirit of Gillespie was clearly in the House (or the lawn, actually), not only through the raucous "Night in Tunisia" that powered a be-bop jam, but in the stratospheric flights of trumpeter Jon Faddis,
a Gillespie disciple.
In a more subtle way, Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Duke Ellington and the other giants of jazz were present in "Modern Vistas as Far as the Eye Can See," the opener from the Wynton Marsalis Septet. A beautifully crafted tone poem, it featured supple swing, assured solos, an admirable ensemble pulse and consistent invention made sweeter by the relative youth of the players, all of whom seem so well grounded in the rich history of the music that they ensure its future.
But the night also belonged to the veterans who had come together for jams likened by host Thelonious Monk Jr. to "town meetings with lively voices demanding to be heard." And they were when trumpeter Clark Terry, saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and trombonist Al Grey (with young lion Joshua Redman) raced through the genial invention of "One More for Dizzy" and the gutbucket stomp of "Now's the Time," and later when saxophonists Henderson and Jimmy Heath fueled the be-bop tribute.
As Joe Williams brought the affair to a close, the big question was whether the president would step to the stage to blow a few choruses. Maybe the question should have been when. He wisely waited until the stage was crowded and then worked his way into the saxophone section, bravely stepping into "Every Day I Have the Blues" and Miles Davis's "All Blues." One more song in that vein and they'd have had to change 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to the Blue House. But after Jacquet led a hand for President Clinton and His Big Band, the music was over.
However, the performances were taped by WETA for telecast on PBS stations nationwide Sept. 12. The evening also marked the return of "In Performance at the White House," a public television series that made its debut in the Carter era but was canceled by the Bush administration.
Still, jazz legend and "Vibes President" Lionel Hampton, a longtime member of the Republican Party's Golden Eagles, was there (without his pin). Hampton has also been honored at the White House, but he saw last night's affair in a larger bipartisan context crucial to both jazz and America.
"We all got to mix together because we got to run this big old country of ours," Hampton said. "And when the president says let's all get together, that's what we should do. I came for friendship and it was wonderful the president invited us."
Last night, the joint was jumpin' and it felt good.