International Jazz Day at UN

A Who’s Who of Musical Greats Come Together at Inaugural International Jazz Day at U.N.

New York Daily News
Greg Thomas

Photograph by JC McIlwane/Getty Images
Photograph by JC McIlwane/Getty Images

Photograph by JC McIlwane/Getty Images
Photograph by JC McIlwane/Getty Images

Stars include Stevie Wonder, Hugh Masekela, Tony Bennett, Joe Lovano, Hiromi Uehara and more

The audience for the inaugural concert of International Jazz Day at the United Nations on Monday was kissed, time and time again, by moments of sheer musical bliss.

There was a headspinning roster of talent inside the U.N. General Assembly Hall — and an A-list of celebrity hosts, including Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro and Quincy Jones.

Compositions by George Gershwin, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington, among others, became democratic platforms for fluid ensemble cooperation and heartfelt individual expression.

Tony Bennett’s rendition of Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” was musical story-telling at its best.

Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Jac k DeJohnette and Wayne Shorter (all Miles Davis alumni) elaborated the tension and release of Davis’ “Milestones.”

After Freeman described the blues as “the emotional and spiritual touchstone of jazz musicians around the world,” musical director George Duke was joined by guitarist Derek Trucks, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, and guitar-playing vocalists Robert Cray and Susan Tedeschi to blow the blues away on Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years.”

Flaunting her close familiarity with jazz styling, a svelte, sexy Chaka Khan sang a swingin’ version of “Them There Eyes,” with tenor sax man Joe Lovano uncoiling a solo, in honor of Ella Fitzgerald.

Jazz embracing peoples and musical forms around the world was a major theme.

African roots were honored via Angelique Kidjo and Lionel Loueke (both from Benin), Richard Bona (Cameroon), and the South African jazz icon Hugh Masekela. He was joined by Stevie Wonder on harmonica and elder statesman saxophonist Jimmy Heath on Masekela’s 1968 hit, “Grazing in the Grass.”

Sheila E. and Candido, 91, lit up the hall with lilting Latin jazz in a group led by drummer Bobby Sanabria. A duo of Hancock and Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang performing “Tonight” from “West Side Story” brought a breathtaking hush to the great hall.

Japanese piano wonder Hiromi Uehara, joined by trumpeter Terence Blanchard and Israeli saxophonist Eli Degibri, began the folk song “Sakura, Sakura” with a gentle touch that blossomed into two-handed fury.

East Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain leavened several songs, taking a thrilling solo on “Cottontail” after Dee Dee Bridgewater and Shankar Mahadevan — scatting over fast changes in an Indian vocal style — traded choruses.

Pianist Danilo Perez, from Panama, performed with special sensitivity to the blues accompanying an inspired Wynton Marsalis on “St. James Infirmary,” a folk song made famous by Louis Armstrong in 1928.

Perhaps the most stunning highlight among many was a glorious interpretation of Lionel Hampton’s “Midnight Sun” by Wonder and Esperanza Spalding, who sang with plaintive joy while plucking bass lines. Wonder followed his masterly harmonica improvisation with signature melisma, as the Brazilian guitar great Romero Lubambo strummed a cosmos.

At the post-event soiree, U.S. Ambassador Susan E. Rice said the “General Assembly Hall has never been so cool.”

Right she was.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said afterwards that “jazz is another word for life” in explaining why the agency created International Jazz Day. “It carries meaning for all societies, on all continents. Jazz renews itself every time it is played. It is the sound of freedom.”

For UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Hancock, who, with the Thelonious Monk Institute, originated the jazz day idea, it was all a dream come to life.

“I am so pleased that each year on April 30th millions of people in hundreds of countries will pay tribute to jazz and its role of uniting humanity,” Hancock declared.

Grammy-winning bassist Christian McBride, who performed on both electric and acoustic basses throughout this special night, praised Hancock.

“International Jazz Day is a great example of the good guy winning. His heart is in the right place, and he wants the best for everybody, not just his own little crew. That just makes me happy, man.

“Out of all of the big gala events that we’ve seen, this is the one that will likely go down in the annals of world history.”