So, that happened. [Update: Ben Ratliff's NYT coverage.] And you can carp all you like about the Marsalis Monopoly on Jazz in High Places, but the fact remains that this worked. In choosing a “jazz studio” to kick off her White House music series, Michelle Obama reinvigorated a cultural assumption of jazz as the quintessential American product. It’s a viewpoint that Wynton, as much as anyone out there, has kept in mainstream circulation.
Much has been said about the idea that jazz mirrors an ideal of democracy. When we talk about jazz as a fundamentally “American” product, those sociopolitical assumptions are always somewhere in play. Marsalis can speak eloquently and impassionedly on this subject, and he often does, to great effect. A few years ago I mulled this over in the context of a larger profile, about his role in Jazz at Lincoln Center:
Which brings us to the institutionalization of jazz. Today’s event in the East Room (to which I was graciously invited but could not attend) came about with the cooperation of JALC, the NEA and the D.C.-based Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. It was cast as an education initiative more than a performance, though Paquito D’Rivera did some playing (with youngsters on hand). This is to be expected, and perhaps it’s exactly as it should be. But I do hope we can look forward to more informal jazz incursions. Hey, if it’s good enough for Nixon...
I’ll add that the first official jazz event at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was tied to yet another jazz institution, the Newport Jazz Festival, on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. (During that jam, Jimmy Carter joined Dizzy Gillespie for “Salt Peanuts.” The president also marveled at the pianism of Cecil Taylor. Who wouldn’t?)
Another thought: the Marsalises were a natural choice here not only for Wynton’s prominence but also for its stature of the First Family of Jazz. That's family, as in: stability, wholesomeness, bedrock of society, etc. And it’s not cynical to observe that these bonds were publicly tested and strengthened after Hurricane Katrina -- another administration’s folly (ahem).
The First Lady’s office has said the White House music series will subsequently branch out into classical and country music. While I would not recommend this, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that they’ll try to tackle both at once.