Saxophones Sound from the UN to Celebrate the Unifying Power of Jazz

Stevie Wonder performs at the International Jazz Day Concert. Photo credit: UN/JC McIlwaine

“What is jazz?” asked legendary trumpeter Quincy Jones at Monday night’s all-star concert in the General Assembly Hall of the UN. The occasion marked the first annual International Jazz Day designated by UNESCO, and conceived by it its newest Goodwill Ambassador, Herbie Hancock, in collaboration with the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz.

Every dignitary and music and film-world luminary present –including co-hosts Morgan Freeman and Herbie Hancock, Tony Bennett, Michael Douglas, Robert DeNiro, Thelonius Monk Jr., and more — had their own answer for Jones, because jazz penetrates the human spirit and resonates in one’s core. It is this quality that earns jazz its reputation for bringing people together, making it an art form worthy of UN recognition as a vehicle for promoting peace and tolerance.

Sharing his own reflections, Jones described jazz as “a beautiful mistress who makes you do whatever you have to do to be with her!” On a more serious note, he added, “I’ve seen her power first hand – the power to make men forget their differences and come together…From the bottom of my heart I say jazz is the personification of transforming overwhelmingly negative circumstances into freedom, friendship, hope, and dignity.”

Jazz’s association with freedom ironically stems from its dark origins in the period following the American Civil War. “It was a marriage of two seemingly different cultures thrust together by the laws of Jim Crow,” Jones explained. The African vocal power and drum beats retained by the newly freed slaves, fused with European sounds coming from the mixed-race house servants, who introduced them to saxophones, clarinets, trumpets, and trombones. Thus born in the context of oppression, jazz transcended barriers of race and geography, not only becoming a universal language, but playing a role in various human rights struggles around the world.

As Herbie Hancock noted, “Gathering in this esteemed hall, where countries put aside their differences and unite for the betterment of humankind, symbolizes the power of all music to cross boundaries, making our world more equitable, secure, and peaceful.”

Delivering the opening remarks, Ambassador Susan Rice commented on jazz’s quintessentially American origins and early development. Whenever the U.S. wanted to show its best face abroad, it sent jazz musicians as cultural ambassadors, and jazz has since been adopted by all cultures. “Like democracy itself, jazz has structure, but within it you can say almost anything,” she added.

The global reach of jazz was reflected in the line-up of musicians, such as Hugh Masekala, known for his protest music against South Africa’s apartheid regime, and Hiromi Uehara from Japan, who was so engrossed in playing the piano that she was jumping up and down while her fingers never missed a beat on the keys. Grammy award winners hailing from Australia, Benin, Brazil, Cameroon, China, Cuba, India, Japan, and the Netherlands played alongside Stevie Wonder, Wynton Marsalis, and other American masters.

During an earlier panel discussion on the theme “Unlearning Intolerance: Jazz as a Force for Education and Dialogue,” young musicians recounted personal stories about growing up listening to jazz with their foreign-born parents. “When I was three, my father would play Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald for me and take me to jazz clubs in Chicago to hear the same jazz tunes he had loved listening to growing up in Iraq,” explained Amir ElSaffar, an Iraqi-American who plays the trumpet and an ancient Babylonian instrument.

Following the discussion, a screening of the film “Finding Carlton” by the Indian filmmaker Susheel Kurien, chronicled the little-known history of Calcutta’s (and to a lesser extent Bombay’s) swinging jazz scene. Catching on while American soldiers were stationed in India during the First World War, jazz became the cultural epicenter of India’s English-speaking population. Eventually it spawned great Indian jazz musicians, some of whom uncannily captured the sounds of American legends, and some of whom fused it with traditional Indian sounds. This too, exemplifies the universality of jazz.

Stevie Wonder may have aroused the loudest applause of the night, but it was the enthusiasm of the Beninoise singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo that got the audience up dancing and singing (in an African dialect, no less). “Jazz has its roots in Africa… and tonight we are all Africans,” she told the audience to thunderous applause.


Striving for ‘near zero’ malaria deaths

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with Awa Marie Coll-Seck, Executive Director of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, at the opening of the “Champions against Malaria” exhibit celebrating World Malaria Day, at UN Headquarters. Photo credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

UNITED NATIONS – In advance of World Malaria Day today, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Malaria, Ray Chambers, hosted a working lunch on Monday to discuss the status of international efforts to reach “near-zero” malaria-related deaths.

Executive Director of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, Thomas Teuscher, moderated a conversation among representatives from The Global Fund, The Gates Foundation, UNICEF, and the US Global Malaria Coordinator. They reported on the tremendous progress made over the past decade – child mortality has decreased from 1 million per year, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa in 2000, to 500,000 today, according to Chamber’s estimates. More and longer-lasting mosquito nets, more effective medications, and new diagnostic methods are among the tools that helped achieve these results.

Cause for celebration is tempered though, by the grim reality that the improved numbers still represent an average of one death per minute.

Jeffery Sachs, who did not sit on the panel but shared his expertise on the subject, warned that malaria rebounds quickly, so unless we reach “near-zero” deaths, all progress to-date can be suddenly reversed. Sachs analogized the situation to war, saying “we are in the midst of a ferocious battle” against a “wily enemy,” adding that “we can’t progress further without working with local communities.”

Specifically, Sachs emphasized the need for governments to realize the importance of increasing funding for anti-malaria initiatives led by local communities. Referring to the African Leaders Malaria Alliance, Chambers noted, “we have the political will,” but funding remains a crucial obstacle.

To that end, The Global Fund General Manager, Gabriel Jaramillo, pledged to step up efforts to raise the shortfall of $3.2 billion needed to achieve near-zero deaths. Boasting that The Global Fund could publish a list of individual lives saved by its anti-malaria funding, he observed that no other institution sees such a direct correlation between their investments and lives saved. Consequently, he spoke about the possibility of leveraging those funds to raise more money from national governments and local initiatives.

Malaria is a disease transmitted to humans through bites by mosquitoes carrying the parasite. Halting and reversing the incidence of malaria by 2015 is one of the Millennium Development Goals.

Spearheaded by the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, World Malaria Day is observed annually to raise awareness about the dangers of the disease and attract funding for its eradication. This year’s theme “Sustain Gains, Save Lives: Invest in Malaria” aims to ensure the momentum that led to progress over the last decade is maintained or accelerated.

Posted on the MediaGlobal blog April 25, 2012


Mayors clamor for a voice at Rio+20

UNITED NATIONS – At a high-level meeting of sub-national government leaders and representatives from the World Bank and other institutions with a stake in Rio+20, delegates unanimously clamored for a more prominent role in sustainability and climate change talks.

In light of rapid global urbanization, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recognized the importance of cities, insisting that “our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities.” Ban called on delegates to play a central role in shifting the development paradigm and make the “hard but necessary choices” that lie ahead. “Our goal,” he announced, “is a fundamental ‘reset’ of the global development agenda.”

The delegation shared its vision of a sustainable future, which prioritizes an integrated approach to sustainable development. Ambassador Albert Chua of Singapore, speaking as the co-Chair of Friends for Sustainable Cities, laid out a five-pillar framework comprising: 1) basic services (from education to waste management); 2) investment in connectivity infrastructure; 3) social inclusion and equity; 4) respect and development of culture; and 5) adaptation to climate change, disaster risk reduction, and resilience planning.

Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN-Habitat, Dr. Joan Clos, stressed prioritizing “sustainable urban development through good urban design, urban legislation, economy and governance to face the challenges of the 21st Century”. He also urged thinking about Rio+20 in conjunction with Habitat III, the UN sustainable urban development conference that will revitalize the urban agenda for the 21st century.

Brazilian Ambassador Maria Viotti noted that though cities pose sustainability challenges, they are ultimately “laboratories for the implementation of sustainable development solutions, and hubs for their diffusion.”

Given the high-level affirmation of the importance of cities, many delegates expressed disappointment in not having a greater voice at the international level. As leaders of metropolises who have long grappled with rapid population increases, resource scarcity, pollution, youth unemployment, sanitation issues, and urban planning, many mayors in particular believe they have amassed a set of best practices worthy of emulation at national and international levels.

In response to the recent announcement that mayors will not be accommodated at Rio+20 (only president of United Cities and Local Government is to attend), Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay complained vociferously, warning he would come anyway and sleep in a favela if there was no alternative. Many in the room echoed Tremblay’s demand for a greater place at the table not only at Rio+20, but at all international forums.

Expressing their frustration, Sebastião Almeida, mayor of Guarulhos in Brazil and Vice-President of the Global Fund for Cities Development (FMDV) explained, “Cities represent the level of government closest to the people, so they are responsible in the eyes of the population to implement development models that will define the face of the urban future.”

Posted on the MediaGlobal blog April 24, 2012