Before the presidential campaign devolved into a Sarah Palin literacy course, there was this idea, promoted by McCain’s handlers and stolen in fact from Hillary Clinton’s campaign, that we were to choose between experience and change. Eighty-two-year-old drummer Roy Haynes exposed that false choice musically on Wednesday, laying down an authoritative, old-school rhythm and then changing it up thrice to start the Jazz for Obama benefit at the 92nd Street Y. His beats set up a blistering take on McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance,” during which trumpeter Roy Hargrove established, through deeply considered and physically demanding solos, his willingness to work for his candidate.
Political activism through jazz—think Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” and Sonny Rollins’s pointed liner notes to “Freedom Suite”—has been largely in response to racial injustice, but has also on occasion voiced justifiable outrage at senseless war and dishonest government. Still, that was another time. Haynes’s time. “My generation of musicians fell in love with all the music that was a product of that outspoken consciousness,” says Aaron Goldberg, the 34-year-old pianist who organized Jazz for Obama. “Yet, in some ways, we had divorced ourselves from that instinct. The climate we make music in was less politicized and safer—until Bush.”
More even than Obama’s righteous and historic presence, the wrongness of the Bush administration (and McCain’s complicity with such) has rekindled the spirit of resistance and protest within jazz’s ranks. Louis Armstrong once rebuffed President Dwight D. Eisenhower, canceling a State Department tour. Just shy of a half-century later, another New Orleans trumpeter, Terence Blanchard, stood up Bush’s 2006 White House invitation for a celebration of the Monk Institute of Jazz, of which Blanchard is an artistic director. (“I couldn’t pretend. I made my statement with my absence,” he later told me.) Charlie Haden reconvened his Liberation Music Orchestra shortly after the Iraq invasion, and began playing “America the Beautiful” in a minor key.
Political fundraisers make for meaningful outreach—Jazz for Obama drew 750 people and raised more than $60,000—but rarely work as concert productions. But this one was a well-paced, multi-artist affair studded with distinctive performances: Lovano’s duet with Hank Jones, Stanley Jordan’s masterful transposition of a Mozart adagio to electric guitar, and Bilal’s segue from an original tune into a deconstructed “Body and Soul” stand out.
At such affairs, it’s easy to read intent into every choice: Though I doubt pianist Brad Mehdau offered “Besame Mucho,” a standard of Mexican origin, as a statement on NAFTA, vibist Stefon Harris may well have been sounding a get-out-the-vote challenge with his fluid rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You.” And I’d bet Dianne Reeves, pure-voiced and soulful as ever, consciously appropriated a Reagan theme when she sang Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken.” There could be no mistaking Dee Dee Bridgewater’s purpose, grinding her hips and snarling her way through the Vietnam-era, coulda-been-written-yesterday protest song “Compared to What?”
Other jazz-related Obama fundraisers have popped up in New York City: Tuesday’s event at S.O.B.’s featured, among others, pianist Arturo O’Farrill and singer Claudia Acuña in duet, and the proceeds from this Friday’s Wordless Music event at (Le) Poisson Rouge, which presents Mehldau’s first-ever classical recital, will feed the Obama war chest. Last week at the 92nd Street Y, Goldberg was inventive and adaptive within several ensembles, displaying his continued artistic development. He’s grown as a producer, too: His first fundraiser, for John Kerry, was—like the candidate—tentative and unfocused. This one was winning and decidedly on-message. When the full cast assembled for Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser,” Kurt Elling, the night’s emcee, made more sense through scat than the Alaskan governor does with real words. Then he grabbed back the mic: “Straight, no Palin.”