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Herbie Hancock Celebrates International Jazz Day at U.N. With Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett, Morgan Freeman & Many More
- Posted on May 1st 2012 12:40PM by Dan Reilly
Charles Sykes, AP
On Monday, April 30, Hancock and dozens of jazz luminaries began the festivities with a sunrise concert in New Orleans' Congo Square, the birthplace of the genre, and ended it at the United Nations' General Assembly with a nearly three-hour, star-studded celebration that aimed to reinforce why jazz matters and preserve its legacy in the United States.
Hosted by Morgan Freeman, Quincy Jones, Michael Douglas and Robert De Niro, kicked off with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addressing the packed hall with a video message that noted the international scope of jazz. "After all, the U.N. flag is kind of blue," he joked, referencing Miles Davis's landmark album, and peppering his speech with at least eight more famed song titles, including "A Night in Tunisia" and "April in Paris." It set the tone for the rest of the evening: Diversity, humor, hope and, overall, passion for the art form.
Tony Bennett kicked things off with a three-song set -- "Watch What Happens," "Who Cares?" and "Lost in the Stars" -- that solidified his position as the elder statesmen of crooners. He might not be able to sustain the notes like he once did, but the 85 year old more than makes up for it with his charm, joy and class. Quincy Jones followed with a forceful speech, admitting that jazz helped him avoid becoming a gangster and that it was a John Coltrane melody that inspired Michael Jackson's "Baby Be Mine."
Hancock -- referred to by Jones as my "brother from another mother" -- finally took the stage next alongside the surviving members of Miles Davis' second great quintet, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Ron Carter, to perform the trumpet master's "Milestones." Hancock returned later in the night for a speech about the day's events and to announce a global initiative where children would use music to enhance their education in math and science while learning about technology.
The rest of the evening was a blur of highlights:
-- Robert Cray, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks paid homage to the blues with a performance of Howlin' Wolf's "How Many More Years."
-- Angelique Kidjo running up and down the aisles and enticing the dressed-up crowd to dance.
-- Michael Douglas mentioning his father's role in "Man With a Horn" inspired Hugh Masekela to pick up the cornet, followed by the South African jazz pioneer performing "Grazing in the Grass" with Stevie Wonder.
-- Esperanza Spalding giving a moving speech about "the first lady of jazz," Ella Fitzgerald, who was then covered by a scat-happy Chaka Khan.
-- Robert De Niro quoting Tony Bennett -- "The bottom line of any country in the world is what did we contribute to the world? We contributed Louis Armstrong" -- then introducing Winton Marsalis, who performed a perfect, silence-inducing rendition of Satchmo's "St. James Infirmary."
-- Spalding turning "What a Wonderful World" into an R&B groove alongside saxophonist Jimmy Heath that added more romantic, smoky vibe to Armstrong's signature track.
-- Hancock and Chinese pianist Lang Lang taking seats at opposite pianos for a virtuoso take on "Tonight" from "West Side Story."
-- A Latin jazz set featuring the impressive percussion work of Sheila E. and Cuba's legendary Candido Camero, who at 91 years old was described by drummer Bobby Sanabria as "the youngest man in the room."
-- Wonder and Spalding duetting on the standard "Midnight S tun."
Finally, Hancock returned to the stage to thanks the audience, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and all the performers for such a memorable night. He then invited everyone back onstage for a version of Wonder's "As," which was about as amazing as you could imagine given all the talent assembled.
According to an AFP headline, the concerts were designed to "take on rap," but the vibe in the room was nothing like that. During his speech, Jones said that American kids need to be reminded that without jazz, there is no rock 'n' roll, R&B or hip-hop, but that doesn't mean other genres are any less worthy. Rather, the night was about the preservation and education of an important part of global history, one that began in America as the melding of displaced cultures, spread around the world and now sees less appreciation among younger generations in its home country. But as Hancock and the rest of this legendary ensembles assured us, it won't stay that way long: After all, the next International Jazz Day is only 364 days away.