Obama-Be, Obama-Bop: Pianist Aaron Goldberg on Jazz in Politics

Guitarist Stanley Jordan had his candidate on his mind (and his shirt) at Jazz for Obama, 2008/photo: Fuji

I remember sitting in the Blue Note jazz club with bassist Charlie Haden four years ago, on the night of the presidential election. It was 9:35 p.m. Obama was up, 200 to 87, in the delegate count. Haden and his wife, singer Ruth Cameron, wore identical sterling-silver pins shaped like Obama’s rising-sun logo. “I want to relax,” Haden said. “But, you know, they can do anything.”

I feel sort of like that now. Forget the polls of likely voters. Anything can happen. Haden, now 75, came of age at a time when jazz culture was inseparable from issues of social justice and politics. Haden extended the tradition of jazz as commentary and even protest. He convened his Liberation Music Orchestra, founded in 1968, whenever a Republican was in the White House; his 2005 CD, “Not in Our Name,” was, he told me, “an expression of the anger and alienation of living in George Bush’s America.”

Aaron Goldberg, a New York-based jazz pianist roughly half Haden’s age, came up in a different moment. “My generation of musicians fell in love with all the music that was a product of that outspoken consciousness,” he said. “Yet, in some ways, we had divorced ourselves from that instinct. The climate we make music in was less politicized and safer — until Bush that is.”

When Goldberg mounted a “Jazz for Obama” fundraising concert at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y four years ago — (I covered it here) — he ran into some resistance. “I received some emails — not from anyone well known, but from at least two jazz musicians who said that they were offended that I had politicized the music,” he recalled. “I think they were in denial that the jazz world might be nonpartisan because nobody had come out publicly in quite some time supporting anyone or anything.” In 2008, Jazz for Obama featured a star-studded cast representing more than one generation and style gathered around a common purpose. It was both a serious-minded call-to-arms and a celebratory concert.

Goldberg has organized a 2012 Jazz for Obama fundraising concert — Tuesday, October 9th at Manhattan’s Symphony Space — with a lineup that includes, among a few dozen notable names: drummer Roy Haynes, bassist Ron Carter, guitarist Jim Hall, pianists Kenny Barron and Geri Allen, saxophonists Jimmy Heath and Ravi Coltrane, and singers Dee Dee Bridgewater and Gretchen Parlato.

I connected with Goldberg over the weekend about his inspiration for and experience with such events.

What prompted you to create this concert four years ago?

My first adventure with the idea took place in 2004, when we planned a fundraiser for John Kerry’s presidential campaign. I was familiar with Kerry’s work as senator from my home state (Mass.) and, although he had some obvious shortcomings as a campaigner, I was confident he would make a fine president. After the debacle with Gore/Bush in 2000, and having long debated many of my peers on the left of the political spectrum about why it’s so important not to dismiss both political parties’ candidates as “the same” (and vote for Nader, for example, or simply disengage from electoral politics altogether), I felt that I needed to try to do something. I didn’t know a single jazz musician who supported Bush: All wanted to see him lose the election. But few were very enthusiastic about Kerry, and for sure none of us were putting our instruments where our mouths were. As I had a broad range of musical contacts having played with a diverse lot of people on the scene, and as I was from Mass. (I also knew Kerry’s daughter from high school), I basically figured that the job had fallen in my lap to put something together. It was an experiment: I didn’t know if artists would agree to do an overtly partisan political fundraiser. Some didn’t. But once a few key people signed on (Christian McBride, Joshua Redman, Joe Lovano…) the ball got rolling faster. I just learned on the fly how to produce an all-star concert, and even a little bit about how to raise money for a cause. It was half about personal and musical relationships, and half about personal and musical values — just like jazz music itself.

In ’08, everything was much easier. The entire jazz scene was very enthusiastic about Obama, at least once the primary was over. Also logistically speaking as a producer I knew more of what I was doing the second time around. A few people, such as Wynton Marsalis, had been strong Hillary Clinton supporters, and didn’t think Obama could actually win. Could America elect a black president? I really didn’t know myself. Even if we did elect him, would he survive long? The history of race in this country had been so pointed and volatile for so long, and the conspiracy theories of the Bush years so fierce, that I wasn’t supremely confident that we would be speaking today nonchalantly about our President Barack Obama. But in any case it was an easy call to put together Jazz for Obama, and it simply had to be done. Enthusiasm was very high, and the concert was historic and (if I may say so) musically magnificent. I won’t soon forget the backstage conversations between Roy Haynes and Hank Jones — nor the interplay between Dianne Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater, nor the electricity when Roy took the stage at the beginning of the show.

When we talked four years ago, you said that your generation of jazz musicians didn’t seem as connected to political and social activism as prior ones, and that there was a ‘chilling effect’ about speaking out or being political. Can you explain more about that?

In retrospect it’s clear that the election of Obama did re-energize people, especially African-Americans and those of us in the jazz world, also the young more generally. At least temporarily. The figure of Barack Obama really did rekindle hope (some of which remains) in a disillusioned segment of the country, less from his policies (although I think those have been underrated) and more from his person — i.e. what he symbolized about the possibility of change in our nation. If we could elect a black president, perhaps anything was possible after all. Of course this symbolic victory was limited in its later effects, as the financial crisis, the administration’s response, and the subsequent Congressional elections revealed quickly. But I will remember for life the unbelievable feeling of ‘engagement’ being on the Mall for his inauguration with a million of my fellow citizens, freezing cold but huddling happily for warmth, also at the “Neighborhood Ball,” listening to Stevie Wonder and Sting and Beyonce and others, and smiling in a mixture of semi-disbelief and relief watching Barack and Michelle dance to “At Last”. I felt politically represented perhaps for the first time..

Having grown up in the ’80’s, I didn’t even properly learn about the ’60s — I never got the feeling of being part of a politically engaged populace. I remember watching the film “Black Power Mixtape” recently and thinking “was this my country”? Yet it wasn’t so long ago. Obviously I knew about the activism of mainstream jazz heroes like Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, and the sociopolitical consciousness of Coltrane that’s so palpable in the music itself, even Bird and Diz in their subtle, way-beyond-hip way. But I didn’t see any examples of this in the jazz scene I grew up with, even though almost all the jazz musicians I knew well and worked with — Joshua Redman, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, and on — were politically aware and talked about politics regularly. I basically realized that we had to manufacture a bit of activism out of the jazz scene — we needed leaders to get people up on their feet to do things they already wanted to do deep down

I think the chilling effect was more prevalent in ’04. I think it was based on yet another unreasonable fear, similar to the fear that the New York music economy would dry up if smoking were forbidden in jazz clubs. In ’04 there were several artist managers who told me that their prominent artists were personally supportive but didn’t feel comfortable performing at a partisan event for fear of losing part of their audience. After we went public with that concert I received several verbally abusive emails from disillusioned Republican jazz fans and even a few putatively Republican (or at least pro-Bush) musicians who were basically just very upset and insecure about seeing their musical heroes taking a pro-Kerry stance. In 2008 there was a little bit of the same, but it was a much quieter response, probably because after eight years of Bush even many Republicans viewed the call for change as at least justified. Also because we took the flak the first time around; and yes, also because Obama was an African-American.

This time, I have received just one or two angry emails. But I’m not surprised by this anymore. They don’t bother me. Actually I enjoy them. It’s just so obvious now, especially given the rightward drift of the Republican Party over the past 20 years, that a Bush or even a Romney so does not represent my values as a citizen (or jazz values, as a musician) that any protest against our concert is increasingly hard to take seriously. Also the type of people that complain that music/jazz shouldn’t be “political” seem to me so profoundly misinformed that I almost don’t even see the need to respond to them anymore.

What was the reaction like in 2008? Do you think it had a real impact?

The 2008 concert had a beautiful impact on the jazz community itself. It helped to rekindle some of the feeling I got when I first came to New York City in the early 1990s, when people like James Williams and places like Bradley’s and the Village Gate spread a sense of family among all the generations of jazz musicians regardless of race or background. Realistically speaking, the concert had a tiny political impact, in that the $65,000 we raised was such a drop in the bucket compared to contemporary campaign finance needs, and because New York was always in Obama’s pocket. But everyone that participated and attended was elated both during and afterward, and from the artists themselves (as well as most of the jazz industry more generally) I received only consistent congratulations and gratitude. We don’t know how the campaign spent the money: We know only that they spent it.

Who are your role models in terms of jazz citizenry?

I can’t say that I have one in particular. But all my musical heroes up through the ’60’s, including those I mentioned early, inspire me with their examples. In terms of contemporaries and peers, I greatly admire the extraordinary hard work and dedication that Wynton Marsalis has put in to the promotion of his socio-cultural goals, in addition to his musical ambitions, regardless of whether I always agree with everything he says. And I got to see this up close during the six months I spent working with his quartet and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Also of course, Terence Blanchard and the work he’s done to raise consciousness about New Orleans, and Herbie Hancock through his attempts to promote jazz with the United Nations. And all the jazz educators that go around tirelessly teaching and exposing this music to young people and the next generations of artists. Also musician-statesmen more generally, Bono being the most visible example. Finally I have to single out Sean Penn, although he is not a musician, for his unbelievable work in Haiti with the JP-HRO relief organization. I spent some time there, playing free concerts and teaching master classes after the earthquake, and got to spend some time with him and watch how his organization works. He is living proof that even a single dedicated, self-educating person can have an enormous positive effect, and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

At “Jazz for Obama,” are musicians free to play and say whatever they want?

Everyone is free of course, and in general all musical ensembles and repertoire are discussed ahead of time with the artists’ input. At this point we have no committed speakers on the program, but I’m discussing our options. If any of the musicians want to speak, indeed they are welcome to. Our only limitation is that the event has a time limit due, to venue rental costs. My primary objective (as last time) is simply to make the music as inspiring and magical as possible. But in principle I’m open to all forms of both musical and self-expression by any of the participating artists.

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