If President-elect Barack Obama wants to make a bold cultural statement—one that resonates deeply with his autobiography and with the legacy of his adopted hometown, Chicago—there’s a compelling way to do it:
Teach the White House to swing (again).
That’s what President Jimmy Carter did in spring 1978, casting the unique brilliance of a presidential spotlight on a distinctly American art form. Carter convened a galaxy of jazz luminaries at the White House, to spectacular effect. Eubie Blake (at 95), Dizzy Gillespie, Pearl Bailey, Teddy Wilson, Max Roach, Louie Bellson and other giants performed jubilantly on the White House South Lawn, basking in the kind of official recognition jazz richly deserves but rarely receives. Anyone who follows jazz never will forget the sight of a wheelchair-bound Charles Mingus, a musical icon then and now, weeping openly as President Carter praised him at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“That was the best jazz concert the White House has ever seen,” Carter told Time magazine last year, and he could be believed because he wasn’t running for anything and already had his Nobel Prize.
Even if Carter were looking for votes, he surely had sewn up the global jazz constituency that sweltering June night, when he vocalized with the great Gillespie. The tune? What else? Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts,” the ideal jazz anthem for a former peanut farmer.
After the last riffs, Gillespie leaned toward Carter and said, “Mr. President, I have one question. Could you take it on the road?”
By Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune
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