December 21, 2012
At age 80, David Baker has slowed his pace but still has the jazz lean and look of musicians from an earlier era. Proving that old beboppers don’t grow stale, they just change rhythm and keep swinging, the elegantly dressed, Baker recently braced himself with a loose, bemused expression on his face, as if enjoying a private joke, while fans, friends, and musicians buzzed excitedly around him, taking photos, offering platitudes and congratulating him for his two decades of service as the director and artistic advisor of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra (SJMO).
Baker recently stepped down to become SJMO’s Maestro Emeritus.
“They’re wonderful! I can’t believe I’ve just found them just as I’m leaving the area,” gushed a woman who had brought several family members to the Baker Tribute and SJMO Holiday Concert at Church of the Epiphany earlier this month. “Now I don’t want to move to Florida!”
Another fan, education consultant Anne Saunders raved: “I’ve been coming to these concerts 20 years. David brought us this! Washington didn’t have anything this wonderful before we got this from David Baker.”
The orchestra was taking a break. They’d just delivered a swinging, hot concert of cool jazz featuring only Baker compositions. Tunes with titles like To Dizzy with Love, Screamin’ Meemies and Some Links for Brother Ted were rich fodder for musicians who played their beloved maestros music with fun and fervor under the direction of the orchestra’s longtime lead alto sax player Charlie Young. An educator at Howard University, Young has been named SJMO conductor.
“I won’t try to fill David Baker’s shoes. No one can,” said Young, who has his own impeccable credentials as a performer and recording artist with organizations such as the National Symphony Orchestra, the Count Basie Orchestra, and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.
“David has built an institution that will last like so much at the Smithsonian—beyond us,” said Cedric Hendricks, who worked with Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) to successfully pass public law in 1987, recognizing jazz as an original American art form. ”That’s the beauty of the Smithsonian. It is the nation’s treasure chest.”
Baker is a living Smithsonian treasure. He is recipient of the Institution’s coveted James Smithson Medal, named in honor of its founding benefactor. His tenure with SJMO began in 1991 as co-director of the orchestra after he invited Gunther Schuller, a mentor and friend, to join him (Schuller stayed with the orchestra five years) in building a body of world-class work. Baker’s achievements include: The development of a SJMO music library of more than 1,200 pieces; he saw the then newly acquired Duke Ellington Collection come off the archive shelves and become the centerpiece of SJMO performances, education, and public events worldwide. Transcending performances took place at the White House Jazz Festival, Harlem’s Apollo Theater, the Kennedy Center, the National Cathedral, the Cultural Olympiad at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, as well as across the nation and several countries, including in Egypt at the Pyramids.
Baker’s ever present wit and playfulness became his signature. Nationally syndicated columnist David Broder once noted that Baker energized a museum crowd telling them: “We’re in a museum, but John (Hasse, the museum’s music curator) has got clearance for head nodding, foot stomping and butt-shaking. So go ahead! And they did.”
A new book, David Baker: A Legacy in Music, celebrating his life, tells the story and countless others that illuminate the Maestro’s extraordinary career, talent and geneorsity of spirit.
With musical gifts that extend from the classical world to all that’s jazz, Baker is a virtuoso performer on multiple instruments. He is a veteran of the bands of George Russell, longtime friend Quincy Jones, Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, and Lionel Hampton. Included among his many honors is an Emmy for his musical score for the PBS documentary “For Gold and Glory“, “Living Jazz Legend” recognition from the Kennedy Center, the NEA Jazz Master’s Award, Sonneborn Award, and the Indiana Historical Society’s Living Legends Award.
Currently he is Distinguished Professor of Music and Chairman of the Jazz Department at the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington. He has taught and performed throughout the USA, Canada, Europe, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. And his compositions total more than 2,000, and include jazz and symphonic works, chamber music, ballets, and film scores. His credentials don’t stop there. He has served as Chair of the Jazz Faculty of the Steans Institute for Young Artists at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, and numerous times on the Pulitzer Prize Music Jury, where he was instrumental in bestowing that coveted prize on jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman in 2007.
“It has been a supreme honor playing under David Baker,” said SJMO trombonist, Jen Krupa, who said she studied Baker’s work and books before joining the orchestra. ”It’s a dream come true.”
To play in SJMO was “To be in the university of David Baker,” added SJMO trumpeter Tom Williams.
Catch the next SJMO performance February 23, 2013. Tickets here.
Joann Stevens is program manager of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), an initiative to advance appreciation and recognition of jazz as America’s original music, a global cultural treasure. JAM is celebrated in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia and some 40 countries every April. Recent posts include Hawai`i’s Troubadour of Aloha and Remembering Dave Brubeck, Goodwill Ambassador.
December 19, 2012
Watch Night Service 2012 might make history as well as commemorate it. Guess we’ll have to watch and see.
The roots of Watch Night Service celebrated in many African American communities nationwide are founded in American slave and liberation history. Lore has it that on midnight, December 31, 1862, the New Year was ushered in by slaves watching and praying for news that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had become law. At the time more than three million African Americans in the U.S. were in bondage, primarily in the south.
The document penned by President Lincoln in 1862 during a critical juncture in the Civil War declared that on Jan. 1 all slaves in confederate states would be legally free and that “such persons of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”
After the proclamation became law, nearly 200,000 former slaves (joined by 10,000 freedmen) entered the Union Army along with 19,000 who joined the Navy to fight for their freedom.
In the painting above, slaves and an apparent lone white woman congregate on Watch Night to await a dramatic shift in American history as the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in confederate states, is about to take effect. The watch held by the old man in white shirt and red vest is set at five minutes before midnight…or freedom. The 1863 painting by William Tolman Carlton is sometimes known by the abbreviated title, “Waiting for the Hour.”
The 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation is being commemorated at the Smithsonian with the exhibition Changing America, among other events. And serving as preamble is a show at the American Art Museum where a host of works tell the story of how Americans, and particularly American artists, perceived the anxieties of a nation divided and at war. The National Archives will celebrate with Watch Night and New Year’s Day events that include their exhibition of an original copy of the proclamation, music and a dramatic reading of the proclamation by scholar andactivist artist Bernice Reagon.
End of year worries, whether mythical or fiscal has everyone on edge. Should we stay up late on December 20, watching to see if we make it past December 21? That’s the date that the Mayan Calendar allegedly signals the end of the world. (The Smithsonian National Museum of American Indian has created the Mayan calendar project to alleviate your fears.)
Once over the Mayan Calendar hurdle, we have to watch that we don’t “Fall Off the Cliff” as the government scrambles to determine and pass fiscal policies to replace those on a countdown to expire Jan. 1.
Lots of watch nights to watch for.
Joann Stevens is program manager of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), an initiative to advance appreciation and recognition of jazz as America’s original music, a global cultural treasure. JAM is celebrated in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia and some 40 countries every April. Recent posts include Hawai`i’s Troubadour of Aloha and Remembering Dave Brubeck, Goodwill Ambassador
December 10, 2012
Six years ago, Jake Shimabukuro and his music were largely unknown on the American mainland. He was popular in his native Hawai`i and in Japan where he’d spent a decade touring and convincing music industry leaders there to accept a solo performing, ukulele player. His life is secret no more.
Today Shimabukuro’s solo concerts fill symphony halls. Fans range from cutting edge hipsters to high-brow arts patrons. An impromptu solo performance on YouTube of the musician playing a Beatles song sitting atop a rock in New York’s Central Park has received more than 11 million views. Youth from pre-schoolers to grad students are awed by his artistry and eclectic mix of music which includes traditional Hawaiian songs, jazz standards, classical music, pop tunes, and so on. Music critics have compared his originality to that of rock legend Jimi Hendrix and jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, citing Shimabukuro’s explosive energy onstage and his ability to coax unheard of musical sounds and performances from the ukulele.
Yet the most engaging characteristic of Shimabukuro’s propulsion to rock star-like status is perhaps his spirit of Aloha —the expression of Hawaiian principles of life, love and human interaction that guide his world view. Aloha has made him a recognized troubadour of culturally-influenced music that people find healing and inspirational.
“A decade ago I was watching Jake,” Konrad Ng, director of the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center, told a capacity crowd at a recent event that featured a Shimabukuro performance and the screening of a documentary about the musician by filmmaker Tadashi Nakamura, who postponed graduate school to travel with the artist. “Jake Shimabukuro exemplifies the meaning of Aloha with his humility and grace,” said Ng, who is from Hawaii. “He is our Ambassador of Aloha.”
This night, the mostly young audience was diverse by age, race and cultural background, with a healthy representation of Asian Americans. The auditorium fell dark, a spotlight trained on the lone performer. Occasionally cell phone lights popped up like fire flies, but the intrusions were minor. The focus was intensely tuned to the music and Shimabukuro’s commentary.
Hawaiian music and culture, he told the audience, have shaped his life and guided his values. Ukulele was his comfort when his parents divorced, and during the long hours that his mother worked to provide for him and a younger brother. ”My family is everything to me,” he said, citing his mother as his first music teacher, when he was four. “I always consider myself a traditional Hawaiian musician first. That’s the music I was raised with.”
He played a traditional Hawaiian song, followed by an original composition that he wrote as a tribute to Japanese American soldiers—like Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inouye—who fought for the U.S. during World War II, demonstrating their unswerving allegiance to a nation that doubted their loyalty.
“They made life better for me,” he said of the soldiers. “I named this song Go for Broke.” Respecting and recognizing ancestral pioneers, family members and supporters, is important to him. He said that NEA National Heritage Fellow Eddie Kamae is a role model and source of inspiration. The makers of Kamaka ukuleles believed in his music from his teen years, providing instruments for him long before his global fame. He is passionate about bringing Hawaiian music and culture to new generations. While in Washington, DC, he visited Eastern Senior High School.
On May 10, 2013, the PBS network will air Tadashi Nakamura‘s documentary, Life on Four Strings, a deeply moving, honest portrait of the people, places and events that created and re-shaped Shimabukuro over his 30-plus years. Working with Nakamura on the documentary in tsunami ravaged Sendai, Japan, the hometown of Kasuza Flanagan, the manager who devoted her life to building his career, was the hardest. Shimabukuro says that he was overcome by what he saw and was unable to speak much while there. The film’s images of Shimabukuro with Flanagan in Japan tell the story, showing the despair that surrounded them, but also the hope as he played his ukulele in schools that had been turned into refugee camps and in nursing homes. His music, he says, was his voice, bringing a bit of love and inspiration.
The documentary Life on Four Strings was co-produced by the Center for Asian American Media and Pacific Islanders in Communications. Joann Stevens is program manager of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), an initiative to advance appreciation and recognition of jazz as America’s original music, a global cultural treasure. JAM is celebrated in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia and some 40 countries every April. Recent posts include Remembering Dave Brubeck, Goodwill Ambassador and Playlist: Eight Tracks to Get Your Holiday Groove On.
December 6, 2012
Dave Brubeck, who died Wednesday at age 91, was a quintessential jazz artist of the 20th and 21st centuries. He didn’t just perform music, he embodied it, taking us to outer stratospheres with compositions like Take Five included in “Time Out,” the first jazz album to sell a million copies. Tributes are sure to highlight Brubeck’s tours, music milestones, awards, complex rhythms and honors like making the cover of Time magazine in 1954.
I’ve loved Brubeck’s music since hearing Take Five at age 10. But it was only after joining the Smithsonian’s Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) initiative in 2008 that I met him, saw him perform live and experienced his lifelong commitment to social justice and unity in the U.S. and worldwide. Brubeck said “freedom and inclusion” were core principles of jazz. This was a creed he lived by and the legacy he leaves. The National Museum of American History has supported that legacy in its JAM programming. These are some of the remembrances that I wish to share of our relationship with Dave Brubeck, Goodwill Ambassador of music around the world.
Every year, JAM creates a jazz poster that is distributed, free worldwide with help from the U.S. State Department, the Department of Education and other collaborators. When the then 88-year-old artist LeRoy Neiman learned that Brubeck was to be a 2009 Kennedy Center honoree, he created a playful portrait of a white-haired Brubeck as elder statesmen, in recognition of his lifetime achievements. That lasting image became a grace note to American jazz, and was distributed to every U.S. middle school, to every U.S. embassy, to 70,000 music educators and to some 200,000 people, worldwide, who wrote us and requested copies. A framed copy, autographed by Brubeck, hangs in the museum director’s office. Brubeck’s message reads “Jazz Lives! Keep Playing!”
At a White House reception for the 2009 Kennedy Center honorees, President Barack Obama introduced Brubeck with these words: “You can’t understand America without understanding jazz. And you can’t understand jazz without understanding Dave Brubeck.” The president shared a cherished childhood memory.
The President then recalled the few precious days he’d spent with his absentee father: “One of the things he did was to take me to my first jazz concert.” That was 1971, in Honolulu. “It was a Dave Brubeck concert and I’ve been a jazz fan ever since.”
First concert, a concept that introduces children to jazz, is carried on today by an elite corps of jazz students, selected annually, for the Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet. They have performed regularly at the Smithsonian’s free JAM music programs. But even free can be costly to schools serving low income, immigrant neighborhoods, where travel budgets are small or non-existent. Unable to bear the travel expense, an area elementary school music teacher asked JAM’s help to deliver jazz programming to the classroom instead. The Quintet and Brubeck program leaders responded, first holding chat sessions and then playing two sets for 800 students and invited area teachers. The air was electric with the joy of children, most of them immigrants from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, hearing Blue Rondo A La Turk and other Brubeck tunes. Later the children created art and poetry about the band and how the music made them feel. The arc of Brubeck’s Jazz legacy was in full swing that day. Teachers marveled at the Quintet’s performance, admitting ”we didn’t think they’d be that good.”
April 2008 marked the 50th anniversary of Dave Brubeck’s State Department Tour as the first U.S. jazz musician to perform behind The Iron Curtain. Meridian International, a JAM collaborator, presented a series of panel discussions and concerts. Jam sessions, a traveling exhibition, featured images of Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and other jazz legends from the Archives Center’s jazz collections. John Hasse, curator of American music, joined Brubeck and others on the program.
“Dave Brubeck was a pioneer and brillant master of jazz cultural diplomacy,” Hasse said. “Serving on a program with him was a privilege I shall always cherish.”
Especially poignant during the anniversary was to have Brubeck at the Smithsonian for an onstage oral history. He talked candidly about his life, music and vision for a united humanity. He recalled the days of Jim Crow when tours with an integrated band proved challenging in the U.S. and abroad. Still, Brubeck rarely backed down about having African American bassist Eugene Wright in the band. He faced many challenges with a courageous, wry humor.
In the early 1960s, just before Brubeck was to perform before a crowd of boisterous students in a college gymnasium in the south, the school’s president told the band it couldn’t perform with Wright on the stage. The band packed up to leave. With the crowd cheering impatiently for Brubeck to perform, the administrator and the state governor, who had been called, caved on the condition that Wright take a place in the shadows at the back of the stage. With a firm grace, Brubeck placed a standing mic next to his piano and told his bassist ”Your microphone is broken. Use this one.” With Wright at center stage, the band performed to an exuberant, capacity crowd.
A friendship with jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong produced a collaboration with Brubeck and his wife, Iola, that created the Real Ambassadors, a cutting-edge, jazz musical that faced the nation’s race issues with lyrics like those in the song They Say I Look Like God, that had Armstrong sing: “If both are made in the image of thee, could thou perchance a zebra be?”
A concert in South Africa with Brubeck and his sons was mired by the shadow of death threats that the musicians received, if the integrated band performed.
“What did you do?” the interviewer asked.
Flashing his characteristic toothy grin, Brubeck said he told his sons. ”Spread out on stage. They can’t get us all.”
Joann Stevens is program manager of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), an initiative to advance appreciation and recognition of jazz as America’s original music, a global cultural treasure. JAM is celebrated in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia and some 40 countries every April. Recent posts include Playlist: Eight Tracks to Get Your Holiday Groove On and Danilo Pérez: Creator of Musical Guardians of Peace.
December 4, 2012
It’s that time of year again when the airwaves jingle with a potpourri of holiday music, performances and mashups, featuring songs and artists with jazz, pop culture, film, classical and sacred music roots. Some of the chestnut classics are playing 24/7 on radio stations (for those of you who still listen to radio) across the land.
Speaking of chestnut classics, during his 29-year career, jazz vocalist and pianist Nat King Cole recorded four versions of his chestnuts roasting by open fire “The Christmas Song” before arriving at the 1961 version that became the perennial favorite. Surprisingly, the tune was composed on a hot summer day in 1944 by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells. Whitney Houston released her stellar version in 2003. Two years later, the music licensing organization ASCAP noted that the song was number one among the ten most performed holiday tunes during the first five years of the 21st century. Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, were two and three, respectively.
I always keep my ear out for Eartha Kitt. The original Cat Woman purrs for holiday furs, cars and jewels in Santa Baby, a satirical tune co-written in 1953 by Philip Springer and Joan Javits, niece of U.S. Senator Jacob Javits.
Whether your tastes veer towards the traditional or something a little funkier, here’s an eclectic mix of jazz and other music by seasoned and emerging artists to explore this season, along with some interesting bedtime stories you probably didn’t know. So curl up with your hot cocoa and click through some of my holiday favorites.
Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Nutcracker Suite. Tchaikovysky swings in the hands of these classically trained jazz masters. In 1960 the duo reinvented the ballet classic, mixing rhythms and musical styles. These two selections bring sass to the Nutcracker Overture and make the Sugar Plum Fairies sound like they’re hung over from too much partying at the Sugar Rum Cherry Dance.
Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. At four foot nine, country music-rock star Brenda Lee was known as Little Miss Dynamite. She was 13 when she recorded this classic in 1958. Her version became a chart buster in 1960 and reigns as the all time favorite, played by radio formats from Top 40 to Country Music to Adult Contemporary and Adult Standards. Nielsen Sound Scan rated digital track sales at 679,000 downloads. Miley Cyrus also had fun with the song .
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Composed by Hugh Martin Jr., who also wrote “The Trolley Song” and “The Boy Next Door” for the film Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland. This song from the film might have become the most depressing holiday song ever written. Luckily studio executives and Garland intervened, requesting rewrites to give the public a more hopeful classic. Compare the original lyrics to the holiday friendly versions sung by Frank Sinatra and Luther Vandross.
The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late). What more can I say? Gotta love Alvin and the Chipmunks in this song composed by Rostom Sipan “Ross” Bagdasarian, who had a knack with novelty music. The son of Armenian immigrants, Bagdasarian was a bit stage and film actor whose first musical success, ”Come-on-a-My House,” was a dialect song that became a hit for Rosemary Clooney, the aunt of actor George Clooney. The song was co-written with Bagdasarian’s cousin, the famous writer William Saroyan. Go ahead, do your best impersonation. ALLLLLVIN!
Oh Chanukah. This traditional song commemorating the Jewish Festival of Lights was standard fare in the New York City school programs when music appreciation and performances were used to explore cultural diversity and heritage. Enjoy the traditional song by this young choir and an offering of Klezmer holiday music by a high school sax quartet. Klezmer Jazz a fusion of the rhythms and traditional music of the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe with American jazz, evolved in the U.S. in the 1880s.
Carol of the Bells. One rarely hears jazz played on the Hawaiian ukelele or such performances compared with Miles Davis, unless you’re Jake Shimabukuro — a largely self-taught virtuoso who was introduced to the instrument by his mother. Listen to his take of the classic Carol of the Bells, a song based on a traditional Ukranian folk chant, followed by a rocking jazz performance .
Yagibushi. Okay it’s not a holiday carol but if music by jazz performer Chichiro Yamanaka, a standout at the 2012 Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival, doesn’t rouse you for the holidays, nothing will.
Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is observed from December 26 to January 1 in Canada and the U.S. to honor African and African American cultural traditions that teach valuable life principles.
And Now for Something Completely Different. Jazz pianist/composer and NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston has made African and world culture the core of his creative process. Blue Moses is a composition influenced by time Weston spent in Morocco learning the traditions and musical culture of the Gnawa people—West Africans taken to North Africa as slaves and soldiers around the 16th century. In an interview with Jo Reed, Weston said that within the Gnawa music ”I heard the blues, I heard Black jazz, I heard the music of the Caribbean, I heard the foundation which proved to me that the rhythms of Africa, they remained alive, but disguised in different forms, whether in Honduras, or Haiti, or Jamaica, or Trinidad, or Brazil, or Mississippi. ”
Happy Musical Holidays!
Joann Stevens is program manager of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), an initiative to advance appreciation and recognition of jazz as America’s original music, a global cultural treasure. JAM is celebrated in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia and some 40 countries every April. Recent posts include Danilo Pérez: Creator of Musical Guardians of Peace and Jason Moran: Making Jazz Personal.
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here