Hancock, U.N. Enlist Global Musicians to Celebrate International Jazz Day
In November 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) formally recognized jazz as a dynamic force for promoting peace, embracing diversity to foster unity, eliciting cultural dialogue and nurturing enhanced cooperation among people through music. This year, the organization officially proclaimed April 30 as International Jazz Day.
When the day arrived, the vision was manifest in a magnificent global event that celebrated jazz in seven continents in disparate communities from South Africa and Brazil to France and the United States.
The consummate finale—an International Jazz Day sunset concert at the 1,800-seat United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York—was spearheaded by UNESCO goodwill ambassador Herbie Hancock, who was clearly the motivating factor behind the star-studded concert’s success. On that same day, Hancock and several artists had jump-started the festivities with a sunrise outdoors concert at Congo Square in New Orleans.
The evening featured noteworthy emcees, including Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, Quincy Jones, Thelonious Monk Jr. and a mysteriously dour Robert De Niro. Also present were numerous U.N. officials, including U.S. ambassador Susan E. Rice, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and—by video—U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, all of whom heralded the music and its impact worldwide.
“I guarantee that you will never forget this monumental evening commemorating America’s greatest musical contribution to the world,” Freeman said at the onset of the show.
Hancock—who at one interlude said, “This is the culmination of my career dream for people all over the world to celebrate on one day the music that has shaped my life”—enlisted an array of more than 40 top-flight musicians from around the globe. The evening’s roster included renowned artists from Benin, Brazil, Cameroon, China, Cuba, India, Israel, Japan, Lebanon, Panama, South Africa and the United States. Previously unannounced guest Stevie Wonder, in jazz-harmonica mode, was an enthralling surprise.
Musically directed by George Duke, the nearly three-hour evening show embraced all of jazz’s stripes, including a Latin jam by Bobby Sanabria, timbales ace Sheila E. and conguero master Candido, and a blues blast featuring a triple-guitar attack from Robert Cray, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks. On the side of South African smooth, Hugh Masakela harmonized on flügelhorn with Wonder through “Grazing In The Grass.”
Other performances included classic jazz from Wynton Marsalis, who blew into Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary” with growling plunger trumpet lines. Hancock also assembled a post-bop lineup of fellow Miles Davis alumni Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette to deliver a sublime version of “Milestones.”
Vocal sensation Tony Bennett gracefully delivered a three-song set of tunes, sparkplug Angelique Kidjo whooped it up through “Mama Africa” and Esperanza Spalding joined tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath for a blues swing through “What A Wonderful World.” During the rousing close of the show, Wonder led a full stage of singers and musicians into “As,” the hit from his masterwork 1976 album Songs In The Key Of Life.
“As the sun sets on the first annual Jazz Day, tonight’s concert will go down in history,” Hancock said to the crowd. “It’s a prime example of how embracing the magic in music crosses cultural boundaries. I look forward to celebrating Jazz Day again next year.”
Earlier in the evening, Quincy Jones also spoke powerfully and potently about the significance of the event. “Celebrate the miracle: jazz,” Jones said. “It’s our classical music, it’s the meeting of the left and the right brain, it’s a powerful word.”
Given that all 193 member states of the United Nations meet at the General Assembly Hall from September to December to discuss and debate international issues, it proved to be the perfect setting for showcasing the role of jazz as a universal-language peacemaker.