Jazz comes to the White House

First Lady Michelle Obama hosts the first in a series of White House music classes. This one celebrated jazz.

By Mike Madden

Published June 15, 2009 11:16PM (EDT)

WASHINGTON -- File this remark by Michelle Obama today as yet another in a series of lines you hadn't heard from the First Lady before Barack Obama became president: "I brought my own family with me today because I want to keep them alive and aware of all kinds of music other than hip hop." If Laura Bush (or Hillary Clinton) was concerned that her daughters were letting hip hop crowd out other genres in their personal music libraries, she certainly didn't say so at the time.

The afternoon that the First Lady hosted today must have helped show Sasha and Malia Obama that jazz is at least worth checking out. The White House threw open the doors Monday for about 150 young musicians, and then a performance in the East Room by Paquito D'Rivera and an ensemble of up-and-coming young artists. Aides to Michelle Obama had invited Salon to be a member of the First Lady's press pool for the day, so I got to tag along to several classes and the concert in exchange for writing up a summary that my colleagues in the press could lift from as if they were there. Pool duty can often be boring; a few weeks ago, I spent Memorial Day sitting in the cafeteria at the Fort Belvoir PX while President Obama played golf nearby. But the jazz event -- the first of what the White House says will be three musical education sessions this summer -- wasn't a bad day to pass a workday.

If anyone at the White House hadn't already known the jazz session was going on, they would have as soon as they walked in this afternoon. The building was ringing with instruments tuning up in three different rooms. The highlight was in the East Room, where a band of Marsalises -- trumpeter Wynton, saxophonist Branford, trombonist Delfeayo, drummer Jason and their dad, pianist Ellis -- was teaching a lesson for high school-aged musicians from New Orleans. Fourteen students from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz had come to Washington for the event. Paquito D'Rivera sat in on clarinet and saxophone with the Marsalis family. Leading the session, Wynton Marsalis had the students come up on stage and play a chorus each with the band. Some of the kids had dejected looks on their faces after they finished playing, possibly because they missed notes. But Marsalis told them afterwards they had to keep a positive attitude. "You played good," he said. "Sometimes the people who played the best had the worst attitude."

Then Marsalis started playing riffs on his trumpet, which he had Branford Marsalis repeat on his sax; Delfeayo Marsalis and D'Rivera did the same thing, with Branford Marsalis copying them note for note each time. The students then came up and tried the same thing, with the sax players following Branford Marsalis and D'Rivera, the trumpet players following Wynton Marsalis and the trombonists following Delfeayo Marsalis. If any of them were intimidated, they didn't show it -- instead, they ripped through the jam session with confidence, smiling more than they had the first time they played.

The class wrapped up, and students from the other classes came into the East Room to hear D'Rivera's performance. Welcoming the group, Obama talked about the importance of jazz in her life and how proud she was to hold the event in the White House. "At Christmas, birthdays, Easter, it didn't matter, there was jazz playing in my household" when she was growing up, she told the students. "So it means so much to me to be able to bring that music here to the White House and to have you all celebrating with us. So have a good time." And with that, she sat in the front row to listen to the band.

"Jazz at the White House -- mmm, mmm," D'Rivera said. He played alto sax and a beautiful wooden clarinet, and a combo of young jazz musicians -- pianist Tony Madruga, bassist Zach Brown, drummer Kush Abadey and tenor saxophonist Elijah Easton -- played with him. They did two songs, and then D'Rivera started playing little snippets of famous jazz tunes. When he played the chorus to Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts," the whole room called out, "Salt peanuts" -- including Obama.

"Ahh, Michelle knows it!" D'Rivera shouted out.

A couple of minutes later, Wynton Marsalis came back to the stage to join them for the closing number, Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia." Just like that, the concert was over. The next music lesson, sometime in July or August, will focus on country music.

Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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