Obama, Blackness, and Al Green

Wow! Did you hear President Barack Obama at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre sing Reverend Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”?  It was a little taste of his crooning ability, which I thought was surprisingly remarkable.

White House photo by Pete Souza

My thought was seconded when my wife called from work after hearing TMZ play the now viral video of Obama singing.  Excitedly, she explained Obama sounded like Marvin Gaye singing an Al Green song.  She then ended our conversation with a scream reserved for front row seats at a Maxwell concert as TMZ played the Obama video again.  Other bloggers and journalist around the web described his voice as cool, controlled, golden, smooth, a buttery falsetto, and one writer explained American Idol’s Randy Jackson would have said “wow it was NOT pitchy dogg!”

Kudos to Obama and his voice!

However, there is more to this impromptu performance than how great Barack Obama sounded.  To a certain extent, his imitation of Al Green was, for a brief moment, revealing.  He exposed his African-American experience.  His Blackness. With high-level vocal inflection and convincing Al Green mimickery, he was able to show us where he comes from and who he really is, which is a black man in America.  I know he is biracial with a caucasian mother who hails from Kansas and a Kenyan father from a town near Lake Victoria, Kenya.  I know he was reared in the tropics of Hawai’i and Jakarta. Certainly, these people and places in his early life combined don’t exactly scream the African-American experience or imbue him with Blackness.  His African-American experience and Blackness developed when he left home to attend college.  Admittedly, it was at Occidental College where he truly confronted the issue of an African-American identity (see his book Dreams From My Father).  Regardless of the image he had in his mind about himself or his undeniable DNA mix, he was seen as a black man in late 70s Los Angeles society.  It was in college where he began to socialize with mostly African-American students, joined African-American clubs, and took on the plight of the African-American struggle.  At this point he was absorbing Blackness through friendships, songs, food, and love.  His childhood and adolescent years, which were not without problems due to the color of his skin, were discarded and as a young adult as he took on the exclusive identity of a black man.

From this point on he began to experience life as an African-American and in turn expressed a black phenotype or Blackness.  His smooth walk, his talk, which is pronounced and curiously Southern when he speaks at Black Churches, and his swag are all undoubtedly a glimpse into his acquired Blackness.

Let's Stay Together album released Feb. 1972

Obama sang and delivered, albeit short in duration, “Let’s Stay Together” with a confidence deeply rooted in Black culture.  He performed the song from what an Atlanta professor of mine called the “temple of his familiar”–essentially meaning: coming from an individuals unique life experience.  This past Thursday Obama, through song, reminded us of his African-American experience.

Having sang on stage of the legendary Apollo Theater Obama’s brief performance crushed the possibility of a booing crowd and thwarted the slick dance moves of the dreaded Sand Man thus truly authenticating, validating, and vindicating his African American experience and Blackness.  I only wish he had sang more!

Dr. King Was A Jazz Head!

On January 16th, this nation will celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  His sermons will no doubt be re-examined, certain individuals will rehash the time they met him, and others with long memories, will recount the time they marched with Dr. King.  Many more,  will express, with deep emotion, what his life’s work has meant to them.  The media will again flood the public with a collage of iconic images of Dr. King (including this blog); from his birth to his death all while his sermons of “I have a Dream” and “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” provide the sonic tapestry of verse and chorus in the background.

The Obamas visit the MLK Monument in D.C.

I imagine droves of people will visit King’s burial site at the King Center in Atlanta.  I also imagine an unprecedented amount of people will visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in D.C. . . . if it’s open . . . ???  After all, it is a national holiday.  No matter, Dr. King’s holiday is indeed a great American cultural event and one we Americans are proud to celebrate.

To celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his day, I want to write something cool on my blog.  I didn’t want to write just anything. I want to somehow connect Dr. King directly to music.  I’ve seen videos and listened to plenty audio of events, which were lead by Dr. King or featured Dr. King inundated with music; gospel music to be specific.  We’ve all heard emotional renditions of “We Shall Overcome” and jubilant versions of  “This Little Light of Mine,” as Dr. King readied himself and made his way to the pulpits, stages, and across bridges during the struggle for Civil Rights.  But did he demand songs such as these to be part of his sermons, lectures, and oratory performances?  No, this was a fundamental music element rooted in the Black church meant to ready ones soul to receive the “good news”; a culture from which Dr. King comes.  I wanted to find that perfect blend of music, King, and purpose.

I perused the Internet for that elusive music connection to Dr. King.  After some time, I was ready to end it when I came upon a quote from Dr. King concerning the importance of Jazz.  Jazz? Yes, Jazz.  I was reinvigorated! I searched for the source of this quote and soon found it. Now, I thought, I can write something really cool for my blog.  Turns out this quote came from a forward written by Dr. King for the first annual Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964. (IKR) His speech was included in the program for the event.  People thought Dr. King personally delivered the speech at the opening of the festival, which began September 24th and ended on the 27th of 1964 however, he did not attend the opening of the festival.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy at the Berlin Wall in West Berlin in September 1964.

[Did you know he was in East and West Berlin from the 12th to the 14th of September 1964? You can read all about it here. It’s amazing!]

How did Dr. King come to write the forward for the first annual Berlin Jazz Festival? Here is the short of it: essentially the director of the event asked Dr. King in July of 1964 if he could, in his spare time, take a moment and write a few words about Jazz to be included in the program.  Dr. King obliged!  Why would he ask Dr. King to do this?  Well, I believe the director of the festival may have asked him for the following reasons: Dr. King was in fact, Times Magazine “Man Of The Year” in 1964; he was instrumental in getting the Civil Rights Act passed and was there when it was signed: he was a finalist for the Nobel Peace Prize in July ‘64, which was awarded to him later that year. In 1964, Dr. King was the global symbol for peace.  In much the same way as Jazz, Dr. King life’s work had transcended far beyond the boundaries of the South to take root on fertile ground elsewhere.  For this very reason I can understand why the director of the festival appealed to Dr. King.  Still, to be asked to write something specifically on Jazz for the first annual Berlin Jazz Festival is peculiar.  Did the director of the event know something more about King than the rest of us?  Was Dr. King a Jazz head?!!!  Would he come home from his long marches and fiery speeches, fix himself a scotch on the rocks, light a cigarette (yes he did), plop down on the couch, and ask Coretta to hold all calls while he mellowed out to Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” or would he hype himself up to go out on the road by listening to Max Roach’s “Freedom Now Suite.”  Yep, I think Dr. King was a Jazz head!  I believe he listened to jazz all the time, snapping his fingers and bobbing his head.  Moreover, Dr. King not only listened to it but he connected Jazz to the struggles and victories of Black folk as well as similar human experiences throughout the world.  So when asked if he could take a few moments of his time to write some words about Jazz, he went all in . . . deep!

This is what Dr. King wrote:

 God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.

Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.

This is triumphant music.

Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.

It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.

Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.

And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.

In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.

It’s too bad Dr. King didn’t make it to the festival because the line up was off the chain.  Amid the mostly European talent were giants of the jazz genre, i.e.: Miles Davis’ quintet, George Russell, Coleman Hawkins, Roland Kirk, Dave Brubeck, Joe Turner and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and all their accompanying band members. Wow! What a show!

Dr. King and Jazz in 1964 came together to further the cause of peace and acceptance on a global stage.  Combined, they voiced the struggle of the oppressed with penetrating melody, harmony, riffs, glissando, tempo changes, solos, and vamps. On MLK day I plan on listening to some of my favorite Jazz recordings, most likely some ‘Trane and Kirk in memory and in celebration of Dr. King’s birthday and life’s work.  I think, however, Dr. King if he were alive today, may not be so nostalgic in his Jazz selection, I feel he’d rather listen to new cats like trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, or bassist Esperanza Spalding, and certainly any recording with drummer Brian Blade.

So, did Dr. King have a direct connection to music? Yep! And it was Jazz.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Jazz head! LOL! Nice!

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had he survived, would have reached his 83rd year of life on this day.

Meet The Kennedy Center’s New Jazz Man

For my Jazz Heads!

After experiencing pianist Jason Moran a few weeks ago at the Hammer Museum, I am convinced he is the perfect person to guide the Kennedy Center in new and bold directions!

Written by Keli Goff                     Original post at Loop21.com

“Genius” Jason Moran talks Jay-Z, President Obama and The Roots with The Loop
For many, watching The Kennedy Center Honors, the annual celebration of the world’s greatest artists hosted by the President and First Lady, has become a holiday staple, right up there with relaxing and watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” While Jason Moran was among those who enjoyed this year’s Honors he was not among those relaxing and taking it easy.

Instead Moran was gearing up for his greatest professional challenge, what one might call his very own Kennedy Center “honor.” He was recently named the new artistic adviser for jazz for the Kennedy Center, one of the world’s leading artistic institutions. The designation caps off a stellar few years for Moran, who was awarded a coveted MacArthur fellowship in 2010. The awards are known colloquially as “Genius Awards” because of how competitive the $500,000 fellowships are to receive.

Both honors have firmly established Moran as one of the most influential jazz musicians in the world. His accomplishments — all before the age of 40 — mean it is quite possible that Moran will find himself seated alongside the President and First Lady as a Kennedy Center honoree one day. The 36-year-old Houston native spoke with Loop 21 about his favorite musicians and what he would suggest President Obama add to his iPod. [Also read about Moran’s wife “Broadway’s Next Big Star: Alicia Hall Moran”]

Loop 21: What was the last song you added to your ipod?

Jason Moran: The Roots record that I got yesterday, “Undun” their conceptual album about the life and death of someone.

Loop 21: Who are some of your favorite artists?

Moran: If I started within my own genre, Thelonious Monk is at the top of that pile. In classical music, it would probably be Leontyne Price and there’s this guy from the Congo who does this popular music from there called soukous. His name is Koffi Olomide and that music is transforming for me.

Loop 21: Jazz is not perceived as popular among younger people. Why has it struggled to remain popular with that particular audience?

Moran: That’s an accurate perception but sometimes I try to make this a broader answer which is this: I think culture is not popular among young people. Pop Culture yes. But are they well versed in dance, choreography? Are they well versed in literature? Are they well versed in contemporary art? No. Are they well versed in classical music and opera? No. So it’s a problem for me in that it’s a question of how come culture and the arts are not important to the fabric of America [anymore] considering American culture has helped create the global sound.

So much of music history has been affected by what has happened in America. Jazz is one thing. It’s a very complicated form of music. A jazz band sounds one-way one night and another way another night. Pop music is not like that Jay-Z will sound like Jay-Z all the time. People know what to expect. It’s challenging when people don’t know what to expect. I liken jazz to those makeover shows where they give someone a new wardrobe then they put the guy in a suit but he’s not accustomed to wearing a suit but he’s not comfortable in a suit so he walks strange. So when people listen to jazz they don’t know what the context for it is so what I’m aiming to do at the Kennedy Center is refocus the context of music.

Loop 21: Do you think in your tenure at the Kennedy Center we will see more artistic efforts aimed at appealing to younger audiences?

Moran: Considering my age it kind of dictates how I think about things anyway. I’m a kid who grew up in the 80s. It’s impossible for me to think like a person who’s 60 years old. It’s impossible for me to contextualize music that way. That is an aim. I want to have good audiences and I think a good audience is extremely mixed, people from their teens all the way up to their 80s And I think they all enjoy the same thing.

Loop 21: I know that you performed at the Kennedy Center when you were younger. Did you ever dream you’d have a role like this there?

Moran: Never. [Laughs.]

Loop 21: Is it a dream come true?

Moran: It’s a dream but I never dreamed it! So it didn’t come true. It came out of nowhere. I was really pushing my own envelope when I performed there. I remember the first time playing there at their jazz piano Christmas concert but the first time I did it I was very ambitious and wanted to play this huge classical piece that had ten pages of music and I played it awfully. [He laughs] I don’t know if the audience thought it was okay but I was disappointed. But I was happy to use a performance at a place as prestigious as the Kennedy Center to test ideas and I like to think that they continued to call me back because I’m the kind of person who will experiment.

Loop 21: What are some of your dream projects to execute at the Kennedy center in your new role?

Moran: I can’t give a way my program! [He laughs.] What I will say is what I dream for them is if there is a way to contextualize jazz again that will be extremely fun but extremely serious, that’s my goal for them.

Loop 21: What was it like to win a MacArthur Genius Award?

Moran: Well, one there’s a sigh of relief that happens and then two a recognition that there’s so much work to do. The sigh of relief is that the family can maintain itself. My wife is also a musician and we are parents of twins here in the city [New York City.] So the sigh of relief is that the family can sustain itself here in the city and I can get to some of these artistic things out. It helps sustain my family which helps sustain me as an artist and then helps me sustain projects that I want to create as well.

Loop 21: If someone doesn’t know anything about jazz, and you want to introduce them to it, what three cds would you give them to get started?

Moran: If they don’t know anything and they’re talking to me I’m going to say, “Let’s start with one of my records.” [He laughs.] With that I would start with my last record TAN. Then I would say John Coltrane “Giant Steps” and then there’s another record. I don’t know the name of it but it’s a Redd Foxx record where he’s just doing standup comedy and this pianist is playing behind him and I consider that a great jazz recording.

Loop 21: President Obama has said that in addition to Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z. He also has Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane on his ipod. Who would you recommend he add to his play list beside yourself?

Moran: Thelonious Monk! Because he contextualizes John Coltrane and Miles Davis His artistic practice served as inspiration for John Coltrane. He called himself the high priest of bebop and I think given jazz history we can look at him as a titan in that sense. He’s an artistic icon, one who is both brilliant at being complex and brilliant at being simple.