There is something special about seeing American jazz played in Africa: The audience responds in a unique way -- as do the musicians performing the music.
Such was the case at the recent St. Louis Jazz Festival: St. Louis, Senegal, that is. The former capital of French Africa and a UNESCO world heritage site, the city is known for its crumbling but still-captivating architecture on the mile-long island on the border of Mauritania. The festival, the most important of its kind in Africa, celebrated its 20th year last week. The brand-new Minister of Culture, Youssou Ndour, otherwise known as one of Africa's leading artists, declared for the first time that the festival's tickets would be free.
During the opening ceremony, Ndour handed the U.S. Embassy an award to show the appreciation for our contributions to jazz over the years. In years past, jazz greats, such as Herbie Hancock, performed under the U.S. banner. Our Public Affairs Section has tried to support the festival in various collaborations over past years; this year, we brought over a wonderful quartet from Portland: The Devin Phillips Quartet.
Devin, an amazing and charismatic saxophone player, has his own remarkable story to tell; he was welcomed by the city of Portland after Hurricane Katrina devastated his hometown of New Orleans. In Portland, Devin plays regularly with Andrew, Eric, and Mark -- the three other members of the group who came to Senegal. Andrew, the pianist, speaks terrific French, and was well-received by the Senegalese audience.
Together, the Quartet lit up the stage on Friday night at midnight to a crowd of several hundred -- and thousands more who either heard the music from outside or caught it on radio or TV. Highlights were the Quartet's own unique rendition of "Wade In the Water" and a spiritual sung by our embassy colleague, Ms. Anita Beamon-Freeman, who performed with the group. The Devin Phillips Quartet finished to a standing ovation at 1:30 a.m., and then we rounded out the night Senegalese-style with an all-night after-festival jam session at the cultural center up the road.
Despite the late hours, the Quartet also held a series of workshops for professional and aspiring Senegalese musicians, who used the opportunity to learn more about the group's traditional jazz style. And, on Sunday, May 28, the Quartet appeared at the U.S. Embassy's jazz festival booth, where visitors could meet the musicians and find out about academic studies in the United States. It was great to be part of the festival and workshops, and to have an opportunity to share a form of American music that brings so many people together -- jazz.
The world recently celebrated the first-ever International Jazz Day, and it's easy to see why this art form has touched so many. In his recent blog posting, Ambassador David Killion reminded us of what jazz great Wynton Marsalis once said:
"As long as there is democracy, there will be people wanting to play jazz, because nothing else will ever so perfectly capture the democratic process in sound. Jazz means working things out musically with other people. You have to listen to other musicians and play with them even if you don't agree with what they're playing. It teaches you the very opposite of racism and anti-Semitism. It teaches you that the world is big enough to accommodate us all."