Obama-Be, Obama-Bop

Celebrating a historic night with once-cynical jazz heavyweights

Why not hit a jazz club or two on Election Day, especially when you're rooting for the first black man to make a serious run at the presidency—a guy who still puts up a worthy jump shot, by the way—against a white man born before bebop was even a word?

At least two Manhattan clubs served up politics with their jazz Tuesday night. At the Jazz Standard, beneath Danny Meyer's upscale BBQ joint, Blue Smoke, the dinner menu had been dressed up with all manner of corny puns (depending on your chicken-sauce preference, there were "leftwings" or "right"). The Standard's plan was for bassist Ben Allison to lead his Medicine Wheel band, along with "special election coverage," in the form of between-song updates, from NPR commentator Brooke Gladstone and Slate staffer Fred Kaplan, who writes with equal passion about suicide bombers and saxophone solos. Hell, that sounded a lot better than a night of nail-biting in front of a TV, staring at Anderson Cooper's furrowed brow and Wolf Blitzer's beard.

Seth Abramson, who books the Standard, had long been intrigued by the not-too-coded messages embedded in Allison's musical life: His 2006 CD, Cowboy Justice, contains the track "Tricky Dick," a Cheney allusion that Allison took still further by naming another band Man Sized Safe, in honor of the one in the VP's office, as revealed in a Washington Post profile. Allison must have taken particular offense at Sarah Palin's convention-speech derogation of the term "community organizer": Back in the Clinton years, he'd formed the Jazz Composers Collective, a musician-run nonprofit dedicated to creative freedom and a sense of, um, community.

As vote tallies trickled in, Medicine Wheel shifted rhythms, textures, and musical styles with remarkable fluidity. Moving through two original tunes, "Spy" and "Roll Credits," the band seemed not unlike Obama himself: exciting mostly through competence and intelligence, liberal-minded but not truly radical. Kaplan and Gladstone sat stage left, heads buried in their laptops, awaiting Allison's signal to chime in.

7:50 p.m.—First update. The pair, a husband-and-wife team less amusing than James Carville and Mary Matalin (in part because they're on the same page), was nonetheless disunited: he optimistic, she wary. The facts: Kentucky for McCain, Vermont for Obama; Florida leaning blue, Virginia tinting red.

Allison's band offered a tender version of Herbie Nichols's "Love Is Proximity," with violinist Jenny Scheinman thoughtfully underscoring Michael Blake's tenor-sax solo.

8:11 p.m., more facts—Pennsylvania closing for Obama. Mark Warner wins a Senate seat in Virginia. Gladstone, grinning: "Elizabeth Dole is going down!"

Drummer Michael Sarin dug a deep groove into Allison's "Blabbermouth." 8:32 p.m.—Set's end. Electoral-vote count: Obama, 103; McCain, 34. Gladstone held her pensive air, but Kaplan waved her off: "Looks good, folks."

From there, I cabbed down to the Blue Note to check in with Charlie Haden. Now 71, the bassist has long voiced anti-establishment ideas, both through his music—most overtly with his Liberation Music Orchestra, formed in 1968 and reconvened during each Republican administration—and simply by speaking out, as he did a few years back in a good, long interview on Democracy Now. I'd caught Haden's Orchestra at the Village Vanguard on the eve of the 2004 election. After an ominous run through Pat Metheny's "This Is Not America," Carla Bley's minor-key arrangement of "America, the Beautiful," and a gripping version of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" scored for horns, Haden grabbed the mic: "I'm Charlie Haden, and I approve this message." He seemed tense.

"It was as if I wasn't even there," he recalled now, sitting at an empty table in the Blue Note, between sets. "There's a person inside of me that wants to believe things can be different, the way I wish it to be, but I was scared to let that person out. I just knew. The next day, I cried."

A guy with an iPhone poked a head in. It was 9:35. Obama was up, 200 to 87. "I want to relax," Haden said. "But, you know, they can do anything." Haden and his wife, singer Ruth Cameron, wore identical sterling-silver pins shaped like Obama's rising-sun logo. We headed up to the green room. Drummer Matt Wilson and guitarist Steve Cardenas were already there, watching returns on TV. Tuba player Joe Daley asked: "Hey Charlie, if we win, that means the band retires, right?"

10:04 p.m.—Ohio and Pennsylvania both called for Obama.

Not long into Haden's second set, I was reminded how subversive this music is, especially in its close-voiced, often-dissonant harmonies. During "This Is Not America," tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby's modal solo slithered through the tune like a snake in grass. Just after Carla Bley's "Blue Anthem," Allen Broadbent (subbing for Bley) jumped up from the piano bench, shouting, "Obama has won!" Someone had whispered the news in his ear, along with the Democratic electoral vote total: 297. It was 11:20.

"Are you sure?" Haden asked, clutching his bass.

Broadbent nodded.

"Man!" Haden sighed boyishly. He stood silent a few moments. "I guess it's time to play 'Amazing Grace.' " And they did.

I hopped into a cab. Over its radio, I caught a snatch of McCain's concession speech, suddenly drowned out by a black man, head out the window of another cab, issuing a scream of pure joy. Like Haden, I have this person inside of me that wants to believe in better things—long ago lost, now found.

 
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