Mandel Reports a “First” As UN Swings Our Global Heritage

The United Nation’s General Assembly never before hosted an event like the International Jazz Day (IJD) concert staged under its high, vast dome on April 30.

Pianist Herbie Hancock, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) cultural ambassador and Jazz Day instigator, played Miles Davis’ “Milestones” with three other veterans of Davis bands. Stevie Wonder, inspired, harmonized with Esperanza Spalding on the standard “Midnight Sun,” blowing a harmonica solo while guitarist Romero Lubambo made the tune a samba. Zakir Hussain added tabla to Duke Ellington’s “Cottontail,” scatted by Dee Dee Bridgewater and Hindustani film star Shankar Mahadevan. Robert Cray and Susan Tedesco wailed on Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years,” Derek Trucks’ electric guitar ringing through.

Howlin’ Wolf in the UN? Chaka Khan with a huge smile, in full control, swinging Billie Holiday’s “Them There Eyes”? Wayne Shorter leading Dutch and Australian saxists in a jam on Coltrane’s “India”?

The world has never before so celebrated jazz – defined by UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon “an American invention, which has become part of the world’s global artistic heritage.” Irana Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO (sponsor with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz of IJD) sharpened the point: “Jazz is the music that makes the most of the humanity’s diversity, that crosses all borders and brings people together. Jazz is not something that you only hear, it is something you feel deep inside that bursts forth in joyous expression. . . For UNESCO, ‘jazz’ is another word for ‘life.’”

Speeches continued, from U.S. permanent representative to the UN Susan Rice, film stars Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas and Robert DeNiro, music activists Quincy Jones and Thelonious Monk, Jr. If the concepts they alluded to were ideals, the players realized them as true. Tradition and innovation; African roots and American shoots embraced and transformed by musicians of six continents; melodic improvisation and rhythmic momentum uniting people regardless of age, gender and ethnic background. The music showcased all that.

Tony Bennett voiced our existential drama with Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars.” Angelique Kidjo stomped into the audience to energize a highlife sing-along. Drummer Bobby Sanabria, conguero Candido Camero and timbalero Sheila E. slammed home the fundamentals of jazz’s “Latin Tinge.” Lang Lang and Hancock performed an ineffably pretty two-piano version of Leonard Bernstein’s “Tonight” from West Side Story.

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis growled and mourned through “St. James Infirmary.” Tenor saxist Joe Lovano paraphrased Thelonious Monk’s “Ask Me Now” as a freely ranging intro to Monk’s “Think of One.” Bassists Richard Bona and Christian McBride lent virtuosic support; trumpeters Hugh Masekela and Terrence Blanchard made clarion calls; pianists Hiromi, George Duke, Danilo Perez and Lebanese Tarek Yamani demonstrated personal approaches to a common instrument; drummer Vinnie Colaiuta hit hard behind all. Jazz elder Jimmy Heath slipped tenor sax obligatti around Esperanza cooing “What a Wonderful World.”

The finale, a full-cast rendition of Wonder’s “As,” put jazz at the heart of American pop, rock and soul. Jazz is there, and everywhere – some 200 nations celebrated International Jazz Day. It was the first, we hope.

Contact Howard Mandel at jazzmandel@gmail.com