by Charles Gans
NEW YORK (AP)—Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is ready, if invited, to sit down at the drums next month when she will be honored for her “jazz diplomacy” at a gala concert at the Kennedy Center.
Last year, she met trumpeter Chris Botti at a White House dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao. A few weeks later, Botti invited her on stage at the end of his Valentine’s Day concert at the Kennedy Center to play the drums during his rendition of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” and cellphone videos popped up on YouTube.
“I had a fabulous time and it was so much fun,” said Albright, who had never had any drum lessons. “They gave me the drumsticks and the nickname ‘Sticks.’
“There are parts of me that people don’t understand, which is my spontaneous love of having a good time and loving music,” said the 75-year-old Albright, interviewed by telephone from the office of her international consulting firm in Washington, D.C.
America’s first female secretary of state is game to give it another go on drums on Sept. 23 when she returns to the Kennedy Center to receive a Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz award in honor of her longtime support for jazz, music education and the institute’s programs.
The gala coincides with the finals of the institute’s international jazz competition, the world’s most prestigious jazz contest, which this year is celebrating its 25th anniversary. It has helped launch the careers of such stars as pianist Marcus Roberts, saxophonist Joshua Redman, vocalist Gretchen Parlato and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.
Tom Carter, the Monk Institute’s president, felt it was appropriate to honor Albright and “highlight the role of jazz as a diplomatic tool” in the same year that the institute worked with UNESCO to establish the first International Jazz Day.
“Madeleine understands the importance of jazz not only as an art form but as a means of bringing people together around the world,” Carter said in a telephone interview.
The evening will include a star-studded “Women, Music and Diplomacy” gala concert featuring some of today’s top female jazz artists, including singers Patti Austin and Nnenna Freelon, pianist Geri Allen, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom. They’ll pay tribute to female jazz legends such as Mary Lou Williams, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. Aretha Franklin, Herbie Hancock and Botti are scheduled to perform a special tribute to Albright.
Albright says her interest in jazz was sparked in the 1980s when as a university professor she traveled to her native Czechoslovakia and met clandestinely with members of the Jazz Section of the Czech Musicians’ Union.
“They started literally as a group of musicians playing jazz because that was a way to oppose the system, and then they actually became a political force,” Albright said. “I visibly saw the role of American music, jazz specifically, in terms of revolting against the regime…It was a way of expressing support and wanting to be part of the West without going out there and marching.”
In 1994, while serving as U.N. ambassador, she practiced some “jazz diplomacy” on a trip to Prague when she helped arrange for Czech President Vaclav Havel, a former dissident, to present a saxophone as a gift to President Bill Clinton at a jazz club. Clinton played “My Funny Valentine” on his new sax while Havel played maracas “but had no rhythm,” she recalled.
Albright’s relationship with the Monk Institute began in 1997 when as secretary of state she began hosting a reception for the diplomatic corps and jazz community at the State Department during the jazz competition finals. Since leaving office, she has hosted its annual gala and helped facilitate its programs abroad.
Fortuitously, this year’s Monk competition is the first for jazz drummers since 1992. Five of the 12 semifinalists are from outside the U.S.—two each from Germany and Israel and one from Slovenia — reflecting what Carter says is “the globalness of jazz music.”
If she needs any last-minute drum pointers, Albright can turn to the all-star panel of judges that includes Roy Haynes, Brian Blade, Terri Lyne Carrington and Ben Riley.
Carter says past recipients of the Maria Fisher Founder’s Award, including Hancock, Stevie Wonder, George Benson and B.B. King, have all performed at the gala, and the organizers would be honored to have Albright play drums.
“Secretary Albright has been a tremendous supporter and a real trooper through it all, so we’re hopeful that she will perform that evening,” Carter said.