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A Stunning Finish to International Jazz Day at the United Nations

“Jazz … that’s America’s only true indigenous art form. It’s our classical music, you’ve got to remember that…It’s the heart and soul of American music and we can’t afford to let it slip into obscurity.” – Quincy Jones at International Jazz Day at the United Nations.

Co-host Quincy Jones’ comments set the tone for the closing concert of International Music Day, a musical extravaganza on the floor of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York. The show, featuring many of jazz’s top talent, was the culmination of a day long musical marathon that began in Congo Square in New Orleans earlier that morning.

The concert, the brainchild of UNESCO ambassador Herbie Hancock, stressed the roots of jazz and the blues as American music, while showing that the music had become an international language. Performers from more than three dozen countries participated in the New York concert, from Africa (Angelique Kidjo, Richard Bona, Hugh Masakela) to the Middle East (Eli Degibri, Tarek Yamani) to Asia and beyond (Lang Lang, Hiromi, Zakir Hussain, Shankar Mahadavan).

The concert kicked off with a three song min-set by the ageless Tony Bennett and his group. Bennett still looks and sounds great, and if he reached a bit on an impassioned version of Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” (from a musical about Apartheid), he can be forgiven. Long may he sing.

The first collective “shiver down the spine” came when Hancock joined with former Miles Davis Quintet members Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter to honor their former boss with “Milestones”. Jack DeJohnette filled in admirably for the late Tony Williams, and it seemed only appropriate that no trumpet player graced the stage to fill in for Miles.

A core rhythm section of George Duke on piano, Christian McBride on bass and Vinnie Colaiuto on drums backed most of the performers, as jazz legends Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk were name checked. Chaka Khan dazzled on “Them There Eyes”, while the perpetual motion machine that is Dee Dee Bridgewater paired with Indian singer  Mahadavan for a scat-happy version of “Cottontail”. Joe Lovano added fiery flourishes on sax as the pair traded bars.

Danilo Perez turned in the first of two star turns paying tribute to Monk with an energetic version of “Think of One”. Perez, a Panamanian native, later joined Wynton Marsalis to pay tribute to Louis Armstrong with a growling “St. James Infirmary”. Esperanza Spalding showed her vocal chops on a rhythmic take on Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”, laying down fluid bass lines as she sang.

The crowd roared their approval when Michael Douglas introduced surprise guest Stevie Wonder to join Hugh Masakela and Jimmy Heath on “Grazin’ in the Grass”. Wonder’s harmonica was a foil for Masakela’s flugelhorn, with Heath getting his licks in as well. Wonder would return later in the evening for a moving duet with Esperanza Spalding.

The blues was given its due with the pairing of Robert Cray with husband and wife tandem Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi on Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years”.  Trucks whipped out a few of his now patented slide guitar solos, urging Cray on to match riffs. Similarly hot was the tribute to Latin Jazz, with legendary conga player Candido, a veteran of the 1940’s bands of Machito and Charlie Parker, dueling with percussionists Sheila E. and Bobby Sanabria.  Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo supplied the tasty fills.

The evening’s theme of the world-wide embrace of jazz was brought to a peak with Angelique Kidjo dancing and singing in the aisles of the General Assembly, urging the crowd to sing along with “Africa”. Another international high point was the matching of tabla genius Hussain with a trio of foreign born saxophonists including Troy Roberts (Australia) on John Coltrane’s “India”.

Clearly the company was there to celebrate the classic, while showing new talent and world-wide approaches to the vintage. When twenty-seven year old Esperanza Spalding plays with eighty-six year old Jimmy Heath, the passing of the torch is clear. The sole disappointment of the evening was the failure of the musical selections to reverse that theme, perhaps allowing septuagenarian stars to tackle 21st century compositions. Similarly, the absence of any nod to hip-hop’s debt to jazz, perhaps by including a hip-hop stylist like Robert Glasper or Courtney Pine, or a jazz-influenced rapper like Common  was noted.

But this is nitpicking in the face of a stage full of true legends, celebrating on a scale previously unimagined for a jazz concert. Audiences all over the world were able to watch the show on the internet and listen on radio, and even play along with Hancock earlier that morning on a planet-wide version of “Watermelon Man” that allowed the New Orleans-bound composer to share solos with horns in South Africa and Asia via You Tube.

The evening ended with Stevie Wonder leading an enthusiastic company sing-along to his song “As” from Songs in the Key of Life. That album title could have served as the title for the show, which resonated with a power of positive energy. Bringing old and young performers from across the world was an unparalleled event, and one that will be remembered long after the music ended Monday evening. One can only hope that the General Assembly can see this kind of harmony, joy and love on its floor when the world’s representatives return for business in the near future. We’ll all be the better for it.