Swinging the Vote: Jazz Inspired by the Presidential Race

 

By NATE CHINEN. NY Times. Nov. 2, 2016

Nine months ago, when the term “election fatigue” had a much more hypothetical ring, the jazz pianist Marcus Roberts released a digital EP titled “Race for the White House.” It consisted of a handful of compositions inspired by the presidential field, each a character portrait in brief.

The first track, with a frisky vamp that vaguely evokes the old “Batman” TV theme, was “Making America Great Again (All by Myself),” a brisk distillation of brand identity for the candidate who would later declare, of an ostensibly broken system: “I alone can fix it.”

The second song shifted between Latin and swinging rhythm, in both major and minor keys. Its ringing gospel tone conveyed a touch more solemnity of purpose, but with an implied note of critique embedded in the title, “It’s My Turn.”

Mr. Roberts was first out of the gate, but he hasn’t been alone among jazz artists engaging with this year’s presidential race. The trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis has a new album called “Make America Great Again!” — not an endorsement of a particular campaign, though you’d have to listen to know that for sure. Ted Nash, a saxophonist, takes a loftier and less topical approach on “Presidential Suite: Eight Variations on Freedom,” which he’ll perform next Tuesday and Wednesday at Jazz Standard, with live updates on election night.

 Ted Nash, who will perform his “Presidential Suite: Eight Variations on Freedom” at Jazz Standard next week. Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

These examples stand slightly apart from the typical show of political affiliation in jazz, which brought us “Jazz for America’s Future,” a benefit concert for the Hillary Clinton campaign at Symphony Space on Wednesday. Nor are they viral stunts, like the fragment of a Donald J. Trump speech transposed to the tenor saxophone by Dan Felix.

Instead, a work like Mr. Nash’s “Presidential Suite” attempts to soar above the fray. The suite is his response to eight famous passages of political oratory, like Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” speech in West Berlin. On the album, each passage is read by a celebrity guest, and then a big band plays a movement patterned after the speech’s inflections and cadences. Mr. Nash knows how to work this device to his favor, moving beyond gimmickry while preserving flashes of folksiness and wit. (He brackets “The American Promise,” based on a 1965 speech by Lyndon B. Johnson, with a moseying-cowboy riff.)

Marcus Roberts, who released a digital EP titled “Race for the White House” nine months ago. Credit Adrian Ruiz De Hierro/EFE, via European Pressphoto Agency

Still, it’s hard to hear the many calls for unity in this rhetoric — speeches not only by American presidents, but also by figures like Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill — without reflecting on current divisions. The album begins, after a brief overture, with an excerpt from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, recited by Joseph I. Lieberman, the former senator. “So let us begin anew,” Mr. Lieberman says, “remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.” Civility, sincerity: By the light of this year’s bitter slog, the sentiment feels cruelly satirical.

Satire is more of a stated objective for Mr. Marsalis and his Uptown Jazz Orchestra. “Make America Great Again!” features spit-and-polish big-band arrangements played with jostling flair, from the rhythm section up. The album includes social commentary, notably on the title track, delivered in an arched-eyebrow patter by the actor Wendell Pierce. “A melting pot of diversity fighting a juggernaut of adversity,” he says over a gutbucket two-step, summing up the song’s moral worldview.

 From Left: Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis and Delfeayo Marsalis, in 2011. Delfeayo Marsalis has a new album called “Make America Great Again!” Credit Chad Batka for The New York Times

In addition to being a presidential election year, 2016 happens to be the centennial of Albert Murray, a critic and scholar who wrote vibrantly about jazz as an expression of the democratic ideal. It hardly seems an accident that the musicians in this discussion all have formal or familial ties to Jazz at Lincoln Center, an institution Mr. Murray helped create, and one that still bears his stamp.

Mr. Nash is a longtime member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Mr. Roberts is an alumnus. The organization is led by Delfeayo Marsalis’s older brother Wynton Marsalis, who has editorialized on jazz as a metaphor for the American experiment. (Wynton Marsalis plays a trumpet solo, garrulous and breezy, on “Presidential Suite.” Branford Marsalis — the eldest brother, a saxophonist — similarly pops up on Delfeayo Marsalis’s album as a guest.)

Tellingly, none of the orations in “Presidential Suite” can be traced to the campaign trail. And despite some efforts to strive for bipartisanship, there’s a liberal undercurrent to Mr. Nash’s album, just as there’s a foundation in African-American protest literature in Mr. Marsalis’s.

What’s left unspoken on both albums, and on “Race for the White House,” is the reluctance with which a jazz constituency approaches the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. The music has had an unusually hospitable reception from his administration, up to and beyond a glittery concert at the White House, the marquee event of International Jazz Day this spring.

“Jazz is perhaps the most honest reflection of who we are as a nation,” President Obama said that evening. “Because after all, has there ever been any greater improvisation than America itself?”

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