Live Last Night: A Celebration of America

At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater last night, Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin introduced "A Celebration of America," a salute to Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama's inauguration, as "a chemistry experiment gone right." An apt description, as it turns out.

For starters, there was the evening's most unlikely pairing: Grammy-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The two arrived onstage together and were later shown in taped segments, discussing their shared passion for jazz and democracy.

O'Connor, who grew up listening and dancing to Kid Ory and Louis Armstrong -- who knew! -- inspired one of the evening's early highlights: a rambunctious New Orleans street parade party that stretched across the stage, from wing to wing. Other colorful and often inspired collaborations followed.

Marsalis joined legendary jazz pianist Dave Brubeck during a cozy quartet arrangement of "These Foolish Things." (The two later strolled offstage with their arms around each other.) Singer Dianne Reeves contributed a glowing rendition of "Skylark," lushly framed by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. And a cross-genre take on "Sweet Georgia Brown" was enlivened by the teaming of Marsalis, fiddler Mark O'Connor, banjoist Bela Fleck, blues guitarist Derek Trucks and tap dance phenom Jared Grimes.

Hosted by actors Angela Bassett and Courtney Vance, the two hour concert was tightly and smartly scripted, the pacing marred only by a few delays between performances. The LCJO, however, had no difficulty reviving the crowd's spirits, whether collaborating with reedman Paquito D'Rivera and conguero Giovanni Hildago (to the audience's delight, they served up some "Salt Peanuts" with a rousing "A Night In Tunisia)," or backing singer Freddy Cole, who belted out an Inaugural-inspired "Let The Good Times Roll" ("Tell everybody, Barack's in town," Cole shouted).

Interspersed throughout the program were performances elegantly expressive (the Alvin Ailey's American Dance Theater's treatment of Duke Ellington's "Three Black Kings') and eloquently rendered (Jessye Norman's reading of a passionate speech that King delivered at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964). Though it may seem odd to call an invitation-only concert inclusive, the performances were certainly that, fueled by a wide assortment of artists and groups, including singer Cassandra Wilson, drummers Roy Haynes, Marcus Gilmore and Herlin Riley, the Foxborough High School Jazz Ensemble, Chorale Le Chateau of New York City, and Odadaa! with Yacub Addy, among others.


(For Anne Midgette's Style-section report on last night's Aretha Franklin concert at the Kennedy Center, click here.)

By J. Freedom du Lac |  January 20, 2009; 10:59 AM ET Inauguration , Live Last Night
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