April 30 — yesterday — was celebrated as the sixth annual International Jazz Day with a global webcast from Havana, hosted by Will Smith, headlined by pianist Herbie Hancock and including a couple of dozen top notch musicians from the U.S., Russia, Cameroon, France and Korea as well as Cuba. Did you know?
Advance publicity and followup coverage has been but a dot on the attention focused on IJD last year, when President Barack Obama hosted a splendiferous Jazz Day in the White House. Considering the leader of the regime replacing Obama’s administration, it’s no surprise our government did not note the event — though after all, it represents one of the most successful exports, cultural or otherwise, ever coming from America.
As explained by Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO which produces IJD in organizational collaboration with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, “Jazz is great music because it carries strong values. Jazz is about freedom, about dignity and civil rights. . . Through jazz, we improvise with others, we live better together, in dialogue, in respect.” So maybe it’s better to keep the music at arms length from the current political heavies. After all, the U.S. no longer has voting rights in UNESCO, since we are $300 million in arrears for our dues since 2011, though Obama and John Kerry, his Secretary of State, in 2015 urged Congress to restore funding the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture, now 70 years old.
Regardless of political issues, the music performed in the beautiful Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso (billed as the oldest theater in Latin America) exemplified jazz’s virtues and reinforced the importance of Afro-Cuban influences on jazz, which we commonly think of as born in that Caribbean capital, New Orleans. Opening with a renditions of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca” (co-written by Cuban conguero Chano Pozo and big band arranger Gil Fuller), the concert had multiple highlights including Esperanza Spalding’s bass obbligato to Youn Sun
Nah’s smoldering vocal on
“Besame Mucho” (which also featured an affecting solo by violinist Regina Carter), electric bassist-vocalist-bandleader Richard Bona’s lively number, Cuban vocalist Bobby Carcasses’s scat chorus, a tribute to Cuba’s native changui style (from the province of Guantanamo), electric bassist Marcus Miller’s role in diverse combos, and the extraordinary Cuban pianists Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba duetting on and beyond “Blue Monk.” Congrats to music director John Beasley, who sat with me in 2013 for an NPR interview about what’s involved putting this all together.
IJD events were this year held in 190-some countries on all seven continents. The star-studded global webcast has been, of course, the most prominent event right along, though its advance planning is evidently so complex that announcement of where it’s taking place seems to come later and later. This year the information that Havana was the site didn’t come until April 10 — short lead time for many news organizations. As I write this post, neither DownBeat nor JazzTimes has a report from yesterday. Nothing in the New York Times, Washington Post, the LA Times or the Guardian. There’s bit from the PRNewswire published by Market Watch, a note on the blog of KNKX (Seattle) and an overview on eNews Channel Africa which mentions the attendance at the concert of Miguel Diaz-Canel, Cuba’s vice president of Cuba’s State Council and a rumored potential successor to President Raul Castro, scheduled to leave office in February 2018
With Irina Bokova’s second term as UNESCO director-general coming to an end and our federal support (even by lip service) of the initiative dim compared to Obama’s warm welcome of it in 2016, one might worry that IJD will lose crucial support. Let’s hope not, as it has indeed been a beacon of enlightened international creativity and collaboration. Herbie Hancock, in his closing remarks, vowed we will see an IJD again next April 30. Eager for details! Tell us where sufficiently in advance and we’ll spread the word.