Saturday 28 April 2012


South African musician Hugh Masekela (photo: McKenzie)
PARIS - Hugh Masekela teaching an audience how to sing a South African song. Herbie Hancock reminiscing about how he came to compose “Watermelon Man”, one of his most famous hits. Gospel-jazz singer Nicole Slack Jones rocking the house with her version of “God Bless the Child”. George Benson getting everyone to stand up and dance to a thumping “On Broadway”.

It was a music fest like no other in Paris yesterday, as renowned jazz musicians and their fans flocked to the city to celebrate the first International Jazz Day, which from now on will be marked annually on April 30.

Festivities began in the morning at the headquarters of the United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO, and continued late into the night. The musicians gave master classes, discussed the history of the genre and its impact, and performed to a worldwide audience via Internet streaming.

“What we’re celebrating is dialogue, tolerance and the exchange of ideas,” Hancock told SWAN at a post-concert reception hosted by the U.S. ambassador to UNESCO David Killion.

“Jazz brings people together. It’s a music for peace, for opening minds,” he added.

Giving jazz its own day has long been a dream of the legendary pianist. When he was appointed a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador last July, Hancock proposed the idea to the organization, and UNESCO’s governing bodies adopted it unanimously.

The banner at UNESCO headquarters
“We’re absolutely proud of this day,” said UNESCO’s director-general Irina Bokova. “Throughout its history, jazz has been an engine for positive social change and it is still playing that role.

“Jazz has meant so much to our multicultural society, and this kind of recognition will help to take the music even further,” she told SWAN.

Melissa James, a singer-songwriter who travelled to Paris from London for the event, said: “It’s such a fantastic idea to grab a whole load of great artists like Herbie Hancock and Barbara Hendricks and to have them all in this one venue for a day talking about what they do. And it’s free as well!”

A highlight of the morning events was the master classes and interviews with the performers. Masekela, the South African trumpeter and singer, thrilled spectators as he paid homage to the late Miriam Makeba and taught the audience how to sing a traditional song about healing.

“We’re singing this song to try to heal some of the sickness of the human race,” he said to applause.
Masekela checks out the audience.
(Photo: McKenzie)
Masekela told SWAN that he didn’t care much for specially designated days. “The issues that have to do with the betterment of life for human beings should be every day,” he said, adding however that any tribute to jazz and to African musicians had to be appreciated.

Masekela himself produced a musical tribute to Makeba in South Africa last month (see SWAN article below). “I don’t think anyone has done more for Africa than Makeba,” he said. “She sacrificed a very lucrative career to dedicate her life to the freedom of African peoples.”

Coincidentally, Friday also saw the commemoration of apartheid’s end in South Africa, and this was being cheered even as Masekela spoke.

Herbie Hancock talks about jazz
Hancock, recalling the origins of "Watermelon Man", said he based the composition on a part of the African-American experience in which a watermelon man would pass through the neighbourhood. The wheels of the vendor’s truck would create a certain rhythm, which Hancock tried to portray in music.

He wrote the song 50 years ago, “sometime in April or May of 1962”, and since then it has been recorded more than 200 times by various artists.

Friday’s talks also included a spirited discussion of “Jazz as a Voice of Liberty – It’s Role in the Struggle for Democracy” as experts looked at how musicians used their art to push for change during the civil rights and other eras.

Regarding jazz and film, French director Bernard Tavernier was there for the screening of “Round Midnight”, and Claude Nobs, the founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival, presented a video of the late Nina Simone in a 1976 concert at the festival. Fabien Ruiz, choreographer for the award-winning film “The Artist”, gave a jazz and dance demonstration that viewers enjoyed.

Then there was the concert in the evening, organized by UNESCO and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. The global cast of musicians performed as if they fully appreciated how historic an occasion this was. Tania Maria, the Brazilian diva, sang and played piano in a manic and infectious manner, as her red hair blazed in the lights.

Marcus Miller, the award-winning bassist from New York, did a fusion jam that had echoes of the Middle East. He slapped and pounded the bass in his unique style, causing people to sway in their seats.

Dee Dee Bridgewater and her daughter China Moses
(photo: McKenzie)
Singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and her daughter China Moses added glamour and soaring vocals to the evening, as they performed individually and together. Opera star Barbara Hendricks, for her part, mixed classical music, jazz and blues and probably hit the highest and lowest notes of the evening.

Nicole Slack Jones, hailing from New Orleans, brought a gospel flavour (and the spirit of Billie Holiday) when she performed “God Bless the Child”, a song first recorded in 1941. As she belted out the words, some in the audience waved their arms in the air, moved by her rich, powerful voice.

And true to his political spirit, Masekela reminded the audience that injustice still needed to be fought. The South African musician told a story of poor workers travelling to Johannesburg to work deep in the gold mines. He used his voice and trumpet to recreate the sounds of the train as it transported the men away from their loved ones.

The concert ended on a high note, with Hancock and singer-guitarist George Benson jamming on an extended version of “On Broadway”.  Most of the other musicians joined them on stage, including Terri Lynne Carrington and Manu Katché on drums .

“Get up and dance,” China Moses instructed the audience. Everyone obeyed.

The party now moves to New Orleans for a sunrise concert and to New York for a star-studded evening show at the U.N. General Assembly, both on Monday, April 30. - A.M.