Happy International Jazz Day!

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The scene at Congo Square, in New Orleans, during International Jazz Day festivities in 2012.

Happy International Jazz Day!

I had suspicions and reservations about that greeting six years ago, when UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and pianist Herbie Hancock (who is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador) announced the global initiative.

After the years of Ken Burns-inspired jazz nationalism and so many wrong-headed jazz boosterism programs, well, I’ve grown defensive…

But I’ve come to like and admire the International Jazz Day program, which picks one city for an all-star concert and educational programs, streamed online, and links jazz’s figurative arms around the globe through hundreds of events.

This year’s main concert, from Havana, Cuba—at 9pm tonight EST, live-streamed (and archived) here—will feature stars from the U.S. including Hancock, bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding, violinist Regina Carter, bassist Marcus Miller, and from Cuba, including pianist Chucho Valdés, along with musicians from several other nations, all gathered at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso.

I’m in New Orleans now at the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, which this year hosts its own contingent of Cuban musicians, including Valdés.

Here, five years ago, International Jazz Day had its main event at Congo Square (see the picture I took, above): I suspect that this year, in Havana, hand drums will again be prominent. This is less a sign of jazz’s globalism that a return to its deepest roots.

Five years ago, I wrote in the Village Voice,

….Herbie Hancock had instigated this event to mark April 30th as “International Jazz Day,” a worldwide celebration of jazz as “a universal music of freedom and creativity,” as he put it.

“Jazz was born here,” Irina Bokova, the former Bulgarian minister of foreign affairs who is now UNESCO’s director, said from a podium with disarming sincerity. ” But now it belongs to the world.” New Orleans, which has seen periods of Spanish and French rule, was once a thriving international port, and which doubled in population in the early 19th century when Haitians fled to it, has always belonged to the world, and so has its music.

If this was a moment to revel in jazz’s place in the world, it was also a moment to consider New Orleans’ place within that.

And so it’s now a moment to consider Cuba’s place within that, too.

A moment made all the more poignant by the recent relaxation of restrictions on travel and cultural exchange between the U.S. and Cuba.

It’s worth noting that when jazz was a nascent idea, New Orleans and Havana were connected by thriving commercial and cultural exchange, and that direct flights between New Orleans and Havana have recently been made available.

It’s worth noting, too, that for several years during the George W. Bush administration, Valdés and other Cuban musicians couldn’t perform here.

I recall quoting a widely distributed 2007 letter from Alicia Alonso, director of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, for whom the theater hosting tonight’s concert is named.  “Let us work together so that Cuban artists can take their talent to the United States,” she wrote, “so that a song, a book, a scientific study, or a choreographic work are not considered, in an irrational way, a crime.”

In a moment of talk about borders and walls, with foreigners often spoken of as criminals, International Jazz Day reminds us that, in a rational way, a song can instead be a gift—a bridge toward connecting, perhaps embracing, each other. And that jazz has always invited, even required, fluid borders and open minds.

I just heard Abdullah Ibrahim and the Jazz Epistles at jazzfest yesterday, rekindling the spark jazz lit in South Africa decades ago during a time of protest against apartheid. Just before that, trumpeter Terence Blanchard mixed it up with a quartet led by Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez, bringing to mind an even earlier historic connection between trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and percussionist Chano Pozo.

A couple of nights ago, I heard the Preservation Hall Jazz Band play tunes from the group’s new release, “So It Is”—a smart and wily extension of New Orleans jazz tradition that was most clearly inspired by a trip to Cuba.

I’ll write more soon in Daily Beast about this Cuban connection—at jazzfest, and through Jazz Day.

For now, enjoy tonight’s event online here.

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