Presidential Suite: Eight Variations on Freedom
Ted Nash Big Band
By Douglas Brinkley, Kabir Sehgal
Speech is a form of art: an expression of human creativity that is appreciated for its beauty or emotional resonance. The great minds of antiquity like Aristotle believed that a type of speech, rhetoric, should be studied closely and “everyone will at once agree that such an inquiry is the function of an art.” He ardently believed that rhetoric was worth learning because it could persuade and bring about progress. As democracy flourished in Athens around 460 BC (and more recently, throughout the twentieth century), rhetoric became an important skill for public officials and ordinary citizens: use a sentence, not a sword. In this way, words became weapons of freedom and democracy.
But no matter the era, great political speeches stand the test of time. Like most masterful pieces of art, these enduring orations stay with us, convince, or even challenge us. A stirring speech already has certain musical qualities: lyrics, cadence, rhythm, and melody. So when Ted Nash was looking for a muse to transpose into music, he decided on the spoken (and written) word of grand speeches. He realized that these great orations were practically already music, begging to be recast. In Presidential Suite, Nash blurs the line between speech and song, merging two traditions, in order to make a singular work.
This “mashing-up” of forms is a familiar exercise for Nash. A masterful saxophonist-clarinetist-flautist, Ted Nash is one of the most highly-regarded and distinguished composers on the scene today. A seventeen year veteran of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and GRAMMY-nominated composer and arranger, Nash has a knack for converting one art form into another. One of his previous albums Portrait in Seven Shades reframes paintings by seven modern painters into big band jazz compositions: fusing Dali with Duke, blending Matisse with Mingus. Having to think in terms of strokes and colors proved to be a surmountable challenge. This is the brilliance of Nash: an ability to render musical compositions from almost any thematic material – including nouns, verbs, and adjectives.
According to Nash, great speeches combine three elements: a prominent orator, a significant statement, and considerable eloquence. He screened hundreds of twentieth-century speeches against these criteria but eventually realized there were other important things to consider: originality, rhetorical brilliance, powerful peroration, effective delivery, historical importance, international significance, lasting influence, and inspirational effect. As certain speeches made the initial cut, he noticed that they dealt with a common theme: freedom. The son of musicians-cum-civil rights activists, Nash already knew that the struggle for human rights had universal appeal, but it made finalizing the list of speeches difficult. In the end, the eight that he selected moved him emotionally. Having confirmed his “A list” of speeches, he took out his pen and re-wrote them – on staff paper.
For most of the pieces, Nash used the intonations of the speaker, the ups and downs and cadences of the voice, to form the thematic material. For example, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s voice descends in his “The Four Freedoms” speech, so too does the melody of the song inspired by his words. (It should be noted that Suu Kyi’s “Water in Cupped Hands” was adapted not from a speech but essay, so there was no intonation or cadence to transcribe.). Nash also infused some of the songs with the audience reactions to the speeches: a drum roll was used to portray the applause that interrupted President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. Nash also noted the era of each speech and the location where it was delivered. For example, Nehru gave his “Tryst with Destiny” speech in India where there is a penchant for music that doesn’t fit into “even” time signatures to the Western ear, so Nash constructed an artful groove in 7/4. Above all, Nash used the spirit of each message to shape the intensity of each arrangement.
Presidential Suite was originally commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center and premiered on January 18, 2014 in Rose Theater in New York City. When it came to recording this album, Nash didn’t just want to turn sentences into songs. He thought snippets of each speech should be performed by noteworthy individuals who had been inspired by the message of each address. The grandness of these speeches, along with Nash’s perspicuity, attracted an all-star list of readers:
- Ask Not – Kennedy is inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You” speech, which was read by Senator Joe Lieberman, who cited the speech as one of the inspirations for why he entered public service, when as a young man he heard Kennedy deliver the address.
- Spoken at Midnight – Nehru is inspired by Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech, which was read by renowned Indian American author and wellness expert Deepak Chopra who as a boy admired Nehru (and met him when the Prime Minister visited his hometown in India).
- Tear Down This Wall – Reagan is inspired by Ronald Reagan’s famous address, which was read by presidential historian Douglas Brinkley who edited Reagan’s diaries.
- The Four Freedoms – Roosevelt was inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech, which was read by Ambassador William vanden Heuvel who has served as the Chairman of the Roosevelt Institute, and Founder of the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy.
- This Deliverance – Churchill was inspired by Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight On the Beaches,” which was read by David Miliband, the former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs for the United Kingdom. Mr. Miliband greatly admires many of Churchill’s speeches.
- Water in Cupped Hands – Suu Kyi is inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi’s “Freedom from Fear” essay, which was read by the actor Glenn Close who is no stranger to performing the roles of important historical figures.
- The American Promise – Johnson is inspired by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s address, which was read by the actor Sam Waterston, who once played another president, Abraham Lincoln, in a movie.
- The Time for the Healing of the Wounds Has Come – Mandela is inspired by Nelson Mandela’s inaugural address, which was read by former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield who was a friend and fan of Mandela.
Nash has done a great service in composing this masterpiece. “My hope is that this work will remind listeners how far we have come, and how much further we must go,” said Nash. “I hope that it will inspire people to keep striving for freedom, no matter the obstacles that they face.” Through this album we are given a chance to consider again the greatness and meaning of these speeches. A cynic might consider these orations well trodden ground, or worse, political platitudes. But by re-interpreting these familiar speeches into music, Nash has given us a new take on these timeless words. Presidential Suite provides a fresh manner to listen to these speeches. We hear the echo of the exordium, notes of the narration, and percussion of the peroration. We hear prose and poetry turned into pitches and parts. By blending art forms, Nash has established a compelling and interdisciplinary aesthetic, one that knows no boxes and draws inspiration from creativity in many forms.
Soloists: Ryan Kisor trumpet, Sherman Irby alto sax
The opening trumpet fanfare of six repeated notes, strengthened with steady snare strikes, declares the arrival of what is to come: music that is equal parts grand, dignified, and ceremonial. It sounds as if the commander-in-chief, the most visible and powerful defender of freedom, is about to take the stage. In fact, this stately beginning was inspired by the musical fanfare performed at President Kennedy’s inauguration, before he took the oath of office on January 20, 1961. But then a pause. A pregnant pause, which is erased by baritone saxophone and enveloped by pitched horns, counter-pitched reeds, pulsing cymbals, and thumping tom-toms. The overture takes on an exotic groove,
darting in another direction, an up-tempo swing section with Ryan Kisor’s succinct trumpet solo and Sherman Irby’s crisp alto saxophone solo delivering us back to the sixnote fanfare. The frame has been set, modestly and congenially, but with expectations raised. In just over one minute, the overture presents some of the many materials that will inform this oeuvre: groove, swing, solos, counterpoint, development.
We are about to hear eight jazz variations on freedom.
- Ask Not – Kennedy
Joe Lieberman reads John F. Kennedy
Seldom does a U.S. presidential inauguration carry the drama that the forty-three-year-old John F. Kennedy’s did. Not only was Kennedy the youngest president ever elected, but he was also the only Catholic. On January 20, 1961, in just 1364 words Kennedy was able to capture the lofty mood of a new generation of Americans ready for the challenge of the second half of the twentieth century.
While Kennedy’s inaugural address was principally written by the thirty-two-year-old Ted Sorenson, the theme of the symbiotic relationship between citizen duty and governmental power was straight from the incoming president’s book Profiles of Courage, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957. It was Kennedy’s fervent hope that a renewed sense of public service obligation would help him jumpstart his presidency. More than any biography or memoir, JFK’s optimistic inaugural perfectly captured the spirit of Camelot, that frozen moment of time in the early Sixties when America was peaceful and prosperous.
Kennedy delivered the unforgettable speech at the eastern portico of the U.S. Capitol in the bitter cold. Everybody in the audience—including poet Carl Sandburg, novelist John Steinbeck, painter Mark Rothko, and fashion editor Diana Vreeland—were bundled up in winter clothes. Following a tradition that began with George Washington, Kennedy recognized various dignitaries seated behind him including Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren. Robert Frost set an ethereal tone when he read his poem “The Gift Outright.” Beaming a handsome pride and self-assured confidence, Kennedy then started what many consider the most memorable inauguration speech ever; millions watching on television.
If speechmaking is a performance art, then Kennedy was a maestro that January afternoon. While Kennedy was prideful of his youth (“the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century”), he made it clear that he was steely in his commitment to global democracy (“we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”)
Like any great musical composition, the thrust of Kennedy’s oration swung forward with unbridled strength. His vocal strength grew sentence by sentence. Wanting to echo Kennedy’s potency, Nash opted for a shuffle swing in the rhythm section, which has a certain driving force. The piece is upbeat, a musical representation of the optimism that was found in Kennedy’s personality and politics. Despite the colorfulness of Kennedy’s inaugural address, his intonation was fairly static, staying within one octave. Nash noticed that the address had plenty of common tones which suggested a more “traditional” key like F, which lends itself well to a blues. But in order to fit the thematic material into the context of a modern twelve bar blues, Nash had to cleverly manipulate the rhythm of the speech. He also had to reharmonize certain areas where the pitches were outside the key. “This piece was a puzzle,” said Nash. “It required problem solving.” That this piece grooves so hard belies the complexity of the composition process.
Against the laid-back feel, Walter Blanding’s tenor sax solo and Greg Gisbert’s trumpet add vividness and luster to the tune. Moreover, despite the repeating form, Nash turned portions of the speech into seventy-seven measures of written music, so the piece also has ample orchestration to capture the fullness of the moment. In fact, the two measure introduction is based on Kennedy’s call to action, “So let us begin anew.”
By the time Kennedy offered the memorable “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” the world was mesmerized. Here was a new leader of extraordinary strength and charisma, dramatically pledging an entire generation to the defense of freedom and liberty around the world. As Harry Truman said, the address was a “magnificent political speech.” When asked to elaborate, Truman said, “It was short, to the point, and in language anyone can understand. Even I could understand it, and therefore, the people can.”
The end of the piece is inspired by one of Nash’s first memories: “I remember walking into the living room and seeing my father cry after reading the news that President Kennedy had been killed,” he said. In order to evoke this feeling of loss, the piece ends with a foreshadowing question mark.
The speech excerpt was read by Joe Lieberman, the former US Senator and Democratic vice presidential nominee. Lieberman credits Kennedy’s inaugural address as one of the key reasons he entered public service. Early in his life, Lieberman read Profiles in Courage, and he tried to hue closely to the wisdom set forth in this text – even if this meant challenging his own political party.
- Spoken at Midnight – Nehru
Deepak Chopra reads Jawaharlal Nehru
If Mahatma Gandhi was the “Great Soul” of India, then his protégé Jawaharlal Nehru is its “Great Mind.” Born into a prominent political family, educated at Cambridge, and trained as a barrister, Nehru could have been satisfied with his shipshape station in life. But young Nehru’s interest in the law waned, especially as India’s train of independence gained speed. Upon returning to India in 1912, Nehru became involved in his nation’s independence movement, and what would be, for him and his country, a thirty-five year struggle for freedom and the promise of peace. Amid the struggle, Nehru proposed a declaration of independence for India, to free the country from the crown, and he advocated non-violent means to achieve liberty, which led to his imprisonment many times over by the British. India ultimately attained independence on August 15, 1947. It was Nehru who gave voice to his country’s newly found freedom as its first prime minister, the nation’s first Indian leader in hundreds of years.
Moments before the clock struck midnight on August 15, 1947, the date of India’s independence, Nehru began his celebrated “Tryst with Destiny” speech which was delivered in English in New Delhi to the Indian Constituent Assembly or “provisional” Parliament, which had the formidable tasks of drafting the country’s constitution as well as governing the nation. But Nehru wasn’t just addressing the founding fathers and mothers of India in his midst, but all his fellow citizens, from those who lived in diplomatic bungalows in Delhi to the rippling back-waters of Kerala. His remarks were also meant for worldwide distribution, so he acknowledged and reassured that India’s independence “is a fateful moment…for all Asia and for the world. A new star rises, the star of freedom in the east.” A student of history, Nehru knew that his address was supposed to be about India’s future – but he realized that it would go down in history as India’s original declaration of freedom to the world. He opens his speech by sounding a fateful if generous note, that India “shall redeem our pledge” to serve the citizens of this great country and also to “the larger cause of humanity.”
Despite the rich substance of the speech, Nehru delivered it without bombast and with a subdued style. Nash found Nehru’s vocal pattern to be monotonous with the narrowest range of all the speeches that were transcribed for this album. Therefore the main melody has a basic and slight contour, echoing Nehru’s tight-bound span. But given the profundity of Nehru’s remarks, and the complexity and difficulty of achieving his vision, Nash created a secondary line to move against the main line. The dueling lines create tension and harmonic interest. These contrapuntal lines also echo the parallels that Nehru evokes throughout the speech. Nehru contrasts the current state of affairs, “the past clings on to us still,” with what will be, “history begins anew for us.” Later, Nehru says “many of our people are sorrow stricken and difficult problems encompass us,” but he balances it with a charge to act, “we have to face them in the spirit of a free and disciplined people.” Nash captures this back-and-forth between present and future, and establishes the meter in 7/4, which is a reference to India’s classical music that is often expressed in odd time signatures in Western music.
Nash organized the thematic material to create specific tonal centers that sustain over several measures, which gives the song a distinct modal feel. The perpetual changes give ample space for Nash’s soaring soprano solo that begins with bright lines, hinting at a repeated thematic motif, and then spirals upwards with chromaticism, angular intervals, and lively breaks – setting Nehru’s “May the star never set” to music. At the same time, Nash’s boundless solo is an honorific to Gandhi as the “architect of this freedom, the father of our nation,” as Nehru puts it in the speech. Meanwhile, horn backgrounds echo Nehru’s reminder for India to remember the challenges of today, “But freedom brings responsibilities.” Because the speech was delivered in India, a country thousands of miles from the United States, Nash rendered the piece with a “mysterious yet optimistic” spirit. The song sounds both foreign and familiar: freedom makes itself known no matter its cultural context.
Not only was Nash moved by Nehru. So too was Deepak Chopra, noted Indian American author and wellness expert, who read the excerpt for this recording. During the studio session, Chopra recounted how he saw Nehru in person when he was a boy growing up in India. Nehru’s motorcade passed in front of Chopra’s home in Jabalpur, India. Nehru noticed Chopra’s mother and tossed her a red rose that he wore on his lapel. Chopra’s mother saved the flower, which became a symbol of Nehru and India’s greatness for Chopra and his family.
- The Four Freedoms – Roosevelt
William vanden Heuvel reads Franklin D. Roosevelt
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was by nature an optimist. While others felt that being anti-Hitler was enough of a justification for the United States to enter the Second World War, FDR wanted a large global vision worthy of American civilization. On January 6, 1941 he delivered a State of the Union address which elegantly delineated the four overarching American freedoms that he wanted to export “everywhere in the world”: freedom of speech and worship, and freedom from want and fear. The words and concept of Roosevelt’s epochal speech was something akin to a global U.S. Bill of Rights. His declaration of Four Freedoms—delivered after much of Europe had fallen in Hitler’s hands—served as America’s dramatic rationale for going to war.
Through a combination of charisma, indomitable will and bold New Deal policies to help America pull out of the Great Depression, FDR had won an unprecedented third term as U.S. president in November 1940. He was the voice of the American people. Now, his 1941 State of the Union Address was an opportunity for FDR to bring millions of Americans into the fight against fascism. At heart a national security speech, Roosevelt recommended lend-lease aid for Great Britain in the speech. His words were the foundational principles that became the Atlantic Charter statement issued by FDR and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in August 1941.
Most press stories focused on this pro-Allied component. But the Four Freedoms motif is what artists focused on. Many were enthralled that FDR had delivered a cogent four-point plan to promote essential human freedoms. The painter Norman Rockwell did a sterling job of illustrating the Four Freedoms in a quartet of unforgettable paintings. Many Europeans embraced the address as epitomizing American Exceptionalism at its best. Critics, however, thought it was vague mumbo-jumbo language filled with hypocrisies. Were minorities really treated equally in America? (Giving this point credence, a year after this State of the Union Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which led to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.)
But Roosevelt meant the speech to be aspirational. The seeds of the Charter of the United Nations originated in FDR’s hallowed Four Freedoms, which he originally dictated in his White House study to a stenographer. “He dictated the words so slowly that on the yellow pad I had on my lap,” White House speechwriter Sam Rosenman recalled, “I was able to take them down myself in longhand as he spoke.” It was a new Magna Carta for democracy applicable for the modern world. Because Roosevelt knew how to make democracy a crusade, Churchill called him “the greatest man I have ever known.”
Nash has turned this writ of democracy into a jazzocracy. After a piano flourish by Dan Nimmer, Nash invites many soloists to improvise in a way that expresses each type of freedom mentioned in the speech: Kenny Rampton, trumpet; Vincent Gardner, trombone; Sherman Irby, alto saxophone; and Carlos Henriquez, bass. The carousel of soloists demonstrates the ever-changing sound of freedom. These shifting sounds are complemented by the exaggerated intervals of the composed part: President Roosevelt’s intonation jumped around, so Nash reflected this musically.
To Roosevelt the Four Freedoms address wasn’t a vision for “a distant millennium” but “a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.” According to Eleanor Roosevelt—progenitor of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948)—this uplifting cornerstone speech was nothing short of America’s mission statement. All ethical principles of the modern human rights movement have evolved from Roosevelt’s grandiloquent address. To Roosevelt the postwar world—through the UN—had to be based on these ethical principles. The great philosopher Immanuel Kant once wrote that a true “moral politician,” which FDR was, achieved greatness by cutting through “the knot that politics cannot untie.” Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech can help us cut through this knot today just as it did back in 1941.
Ambassador William vanden Heuvel, who served as the US Ambassador to the United Nations’ European office, read the speech excerpt. A long time admirer of President Roosevelt, Ambassador vanden Heuvel is the founder of the Franklin Roosevelt Institute, as well as Founder and Chair Emeritus of the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy. “FDR is the most important president of the twentieth century,” observed vanden Heuvel.
- Tear Down This Wall – Reagan
Douglas Brinkley reads Ronald Reagan
If asked to choose the most memorable Cold War–era foreign policy speech, President Ronald Reagan’s June 12, 1987 stunner in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin would garner plenty of votes. Reagan’s forceful words were aimed like artillery at Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He implored the Russian leader to reunite East and West Berlin. In the most celebrated line of the address Reagan challenged: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Reagan’s freedom-tolling speech was largely written by the thirty-year-old Peter Robinson. In May 1987, Robinson, a White House speechwriter was assigned to draft an address for President Reagan’s upcoming journey to Berlin, then celebrating its 750th anniversary. Unfortunately, Berlin—although one of Europe’s great cities—was divided by a concrete barrier and encircled in barbed wire. The Berlin Wall, erected in August 1961, was to Reagan a monstrous affront to Jeffersonian–Hamiltonian democracy, human rights, common decency, and laissez-faire capitalism. It had become a hideous symbol of Soviet totalitarianism spreading like a cancer across Europe. Obviously any society that had to wall in its citizens or, as Reagan put it, “had to pen its people up like farm animals,” was committing an enormous affront to the very notion of democratic justice.
To gather ideas for the upcoming speech, Robinson flew to Berlin, took the pulse of the world-beat city, and circulated amidst well-informed residents asking questions. A West Berlin socialite at a dinner party made a fist with one of her hands and slapped it into the palm of her other hand and said, “If this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of glasnost and perestroika, he can prove it. He can get rid of this wall.” Robinson had the line he was looking for, the centerpiece of the thirty-minute speech Reagan would deliver.
When Reagan read a first draft of Robinson’s speech he loved it, particularly the jab about the twelve-foot concrete monstrosity having to come down. Richard Allen, a White House National Security adviser, recalled that Reagan had long said, “We’ve got to find a way to knock this thing down.” So Robinson had hit a bull’s-eye with his boss. But the State Department and National Security Council were in an uproar. They pleaded with the president to drop the inflammatory line about the wall, which they considered antagonistic in the extreme. A flurry of telephone calls and memoranda circulated, insisting that the speech be thrown away, or at least seriously rewritten. Robinson called this negative reaction he experienced “squelchfest.”
Even on the morning that Reagan arrived in Berlin, the State Department pleaded with him not to deliver the Robinson speech. It was too provocative. A seemingly conciliatory Reagan told his top foreign policy advisers that he would indeed reconsider. But on the limousine ride to the Brandenburg Gate, the president confessed to White House Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein that he just had to deliver the powerful line about tearing down the wall. With an “aw shucks” Midwest smile, the president poked Duberstein in the ribs with camaraderie and said, “The boys at State are going to kill me, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Standing near the historic Brandenburg Gate, within eyeshot of the Berlin Wall, Reagan had the self-confidence to shout out his clarion call for democracy on that June afternoon. In this song, Marcus Printup evokes Reagan’s poise, with a clear, expressive, and inspirational trumpet solo. Printup’s contribution is fully improvised, in contrast with the rest of the piece. While transcribing the speech, Nash discovered that Reagan demonstrated a wide range in terms of tonality. Nash therefore created many tonal centers and through composed the entire piece, instead of crafting a repeating form. The ensemble is composed of brass and the rhythm section, but devoid of saxophones, as if to evoke the “changing of the guard,” that the Cold War is coming to an end. The brass chorales are constructed like sturdy walls, with Printup’s trumpet punching through them without compunction.
Despite the buoyancy of the melodic lines, the piece has a somber feel. Nash wanted to convey the darkness of the times, especially as officials in the East and West were distrusting of each other. The Cold War was marked by espionage, secret alliances, and foreboding plots. Even though jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong could travel from one side of the wall to the other, almost everyone else didn’t have the freedom to transport their bodies – even if their minds roamed freely. And despite Reagan’s lofty words on that June day, the wall didn’t fall immediately. The world was still fraught with realpolitik.
The afterglow of the speech was initially harsh. Critics considered it too provocative and hawkish. But when the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989 an upward revisionism occurred. Suddenly, Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech was honored for possessing a kind of cause-and-effect magic. A U.S. president spoke brazenly and the concrete abomination dividing East and West Berlin crumbled into rubble.
Reading the speech was presidential historian Douglas Brinkley who was selected by Nancy Reagan to edit Ronald Reagan’s diaries. Brinkley was surprised that Reagan kept a daily diary in which he detailed his meetings with world leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev. He welcomed the opportunity, and the diaries were released in book format in 2007.
- This Deliverance – Churchill
David Miliband reads Winston Churchill
A vestige of the nineteenth century Victorian Age, Winston Churchill became one of the towering figures of the twentieth century. Paradoxically, as Great Britain’s empire shrank in size and influence, Churchill’s stature grew, as he made decisions about war and peace that spelled life or death for millions, re-shaped national borders, and eventually tilted the world towards democracy and freedom. The sun has set on the British Empire, but Churchill’s star, past and present, shines bright – evoked by the loftiness of his vision, unflinching nature of his values, and the eternal import of his orations. A war veteran and correspondent, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Prime Minister who helped lead the Allies to victory in World War II, Churchill might not have believed that the pen was mightier than the sword. But he knew the power of words and that “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”
Churchill was a lover of words. As a young man he observed that he had “a liking for words and for the feel of words fitting and falling into their places like pennies in the slot.” Before he became a politician, he was an accomplished writer and used the income from his books and essays to provide for his family. He authored over forty books and, in 1953, won the Nobel Prize for Literature “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” His prolificacy exposed him to every nook and cranny of the English language, rendering him an excellent editor and grammarian. He opted for short words and staccato phrases, for example, issuing orders to change “Communal Feeding Centres” to “British Restaurants” and “prefabricated” to “ready-made.” He said that “not compressing thought into a reasonable space is sheer laziness.”
Churchill adhered to this logic while crafting his “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech, which compactly recasts a military evacuation, yet defies Hitler and rouses his countrymen. He delivered this speech on June 4, 1940 to the House of Commons in the British Parliament after a powerful Nazi offensive had pushed across Western Europe. In total, 338,000 Allied troops had to be evacuated from the northern beaches of France, and around 34,000 remained to face their potential demise. Though the episode was termed “miracle at Dunkirk” because so many escaped, it was still a significant setback. That the Allied forces had crumbled so quickly was reason for alarm. So when Churchill delivered his address, his first mission was to allay the anxiety of the Britain’s citizenry but also sound a bold note of confidence.
In transcribing the pitches of the speech, Nash realized that Churchill’s address would be the gloomiest on the album, the opposite of President John F. Kennedy’s upbeat inaugural (Nash also discovered that the transcripts of Churchill’s speech had more words than the recording, as Churchill edited many of his speeches before recording them later for his archive). Nash knew that his composition must connote a feeling of loss or failure, so the entire piece is devoid of brass and its commanding timbre. Instead, the saxophones begin with a dirge of defeat, a nod to Churchill’s “I feared it would be my hard lot to announce the greatest military disaster in our long history.” Nash also found that Churchill’s intonation varied substantially throughout, so it was difficult to establish a repeatable form (like the twelve bar blues of the JFK track) – which is why this piece is through-composed.
Though Churchill’s speech begins with a subdued accounting of a military misfortune, he later draws upon colorful and nostalgic metaphors to rouse his audience, such as “The knights of the round table….” In order to evoke these vibrant metaphors, the saxophones are exquisitely deployed across the full sonic range: baritone, tenors, and altos fan out to “cover down,” in military parlance, on every chord tone. But the harmonies aren’t entirely mellifluous, with some tart “jazz” chords included, to portray Churchill’s challenge to Hitler that there are “bitter weeds in England.” But by the end, Nash sweetens the harmonies, and accents the stirring melody with bell-like cymbal strikes to interpret Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” peroration.
Churchill’s speech received universal plaudits. “A speech of matchless oratory, uncompromising candour, and indomitable courage,” reported News Chronicle. CBS’s correspondent in London, Edward Murrow said, “He spoke the language of Shakespeare with a direct urgency which I have never before heard in that House.” Joe Temperly, the baritone saxophonist and featured soloist on this track, was equally moved by Churchill’s oration, and was a teenager in the UK when the vaunted statesman delivered the address. In fact, Temperly urged Nash to include the renowned Prime Minister as part of this album.
Another admirer of Churchill’s speech is David Miliband, who served as the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs for the United Kingdom. While in the recording studio, Mr. Miliband, himself possessing a prodigious talent for oratory, poured over each syllable and considered every inflection, wanting to honor these timeless words with a praiseworthy performance. Like Churchill, Miliband delivers the address with careful cadence and rousing passion.
- Water in Cupped Hands – Suu Kyi
Glenn Close reads Aung San Suu Kyi
Once a political prisoner like Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi has become the de facto political leader for Myanmar and a global voice for freedom and human rights. Born in 1945, she was a toddler when her father, who helped lead the nation’s independence movement from the British, was assassinated in 1947. In the early 1960s she moved to India with her mother where she became familiar with the teachings of Gandhi, which she cites in her “Freedom From Fear” essay. After working at the United Nations in New York, she returned to Burma in 1988, in part, to lead the pro-democracy movement.
In the same year, her profile grew as she hailed the virtues of democracy to over half a million people at the historic Shewedagon Pagoda in the capital city of Yangon. But the military rulers wouldn’t relinquish power, saw her as a threat, and placed her under house arrest in 1989, where she remained for fifteen years over a twenty-one year period. She was eventually released for good in 2010, and shortly thereafter became president of the political party that she helped to found, National League for Democracy or NLD.
While she was in captivity in 1990, the NLD won 59 percent of the vote in the general elections, but the military wouldn’t honor the results. The same year, unable to take to the streets, Suu Kyi penned “Freedom From Fear” in which she starts with a counterintuitive thesis: “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it….” Even though her body was imprisoned, her mind was independent. Yet, the military officers who jailed her could roam freely but their heads were chained to an ideology of authoritarianism. She calls for a “quintessential revolution” of spirit, which is “born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change.” Here she urges citizens not to violently overthrow the government but to adopt a non-violent “grace under pressure” approach that is consistent with the teachings of Buddha. Her views in this essay establish a high moral bar for human rights – and became known the world over when she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.”
The wisdom of her words can be heard anew with this tune. This piece differs from others because it was not derived from a spoken speech but a written essay. Of course, Nash could have picked another oration to convert into music, but it’s important that he featured a living person: these speeches can be timeless no matter their vintage. But with no audio recording to transcribe, Nash had a formidable task: compose from scratch something that would venerate the great Burmese leader and her inimitable insights.
He began by doing his research, becoming an ethnomusicologist who immersed himself in Burmese music. After absorbing ample amounts, Nash infused certain Burmese characteristics into his composition. The track begins with fresh bell tones, like the indigenous instrument linkwin or cymbals that you might hear upon entering a pagoda. The bass forms the principal groove that augments the music with an intricate line that develops with piano accompaniment. In contrast, the flutes, which are inspired by the native khin palwei wood flutes, float gently, creating a celestial melodic line that gradually ascends and descends, a sonic interpretation of Suu Kyi’s appeal for “grace under pressure.” The thematic material that Nash uses is straightforward, and the progression is modal, which is characteristic of Burmese music, so he tinkered with the instrumentation and the timbre of the instruments. For example, the piece features alto flutes, as well as horns with various mutes to refract their sounds. In this way, Nash makes a minimal theme more multifaceted.
Above all, Nash wanted to compose something that reflected the feeling he had after reading this vaunted text. Suu Kyi’s essay calls for listening to the voice within, so Dan Nimmer is featured with a piano solo and places each note elegantly as if he’s deep in introspection. Despite plenty of space to express himself, Nimmer uses silence to frame his phrases, embracing the notion that democracy requires thought and freedom necessitates responsibility. The piano takes center stage as a symbol of the Burmese leader who played an upright Yamaha piano during her incarceration (once when she was frustrated, she slammed the keys and broke a string).
Shouldering the duty of reading Suu Kyi’s speech is the celebrated actor Glenn Close. She prepared for the speech with meticulous attention, wanting to fully inhabit the role of the Burmese leader. No matter that it was a short performance, Close asked the recording engineer to replay her takes, wanting to perfect the reading – and that she did, awakening these words with a spirited oration.
- The American Promise – Johnson
Sam Waterston reads Lyndon B. Johnson
On March 7, 1965 six hundred civil rights activists marched over the 250-foot span of the Edmund Pettus Bridge across the Alabama River in Selma to protest for voting rights. After crossing the bridge, John Lewis, president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) recalled seeing “a sea of blue—Alabama state troopers.” Moments later a contingent of police ran at the front of the column of marchers in a flying wedge, crushing the leaders and those near them. The scene was a melee, with troopers beating marchers—young and old, male and female—with batons. Tear gas was also used on the marchers. “They came toward us, pushing and trampling us with the horses and beating, and then they released the tear gas,” Lewis recalled. “And I was just there choking, choking, and I felt like it was the last demonstration.” Fifty-seven people were injured, with seventeen, including Lewis, who had suffered a concussion and skull fracture, hospitalized. Lewis implored President Lyndon B. Johnson to send troops to defend civil rights workers in the South.
Johnson was sickened by the violence of what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” which had been captured on film. In a democracy that most Americans regarded as the strongest in the world, authorities were clearly seen brutalizing citizens whose only wish was to have the right to vote. Johnson vowed to push through historic voting rights legislation in the wake of Selma. To communicate his sympathy for the martyrs of Selma, Johnson decided to give an address to a joint session of Congress. He turned to his thirty-three-year-old speechwriter Dick Goodwin to draft a speech for him to deliver before a joint session of Congress, one that would reverberate around the world. “It was great working for Johnson,” Goodwin recalled. “I had come to know not merely his views, but his pattern of expression, patterns of reasoning, the natural cadences of his speech.”
Goodwin wrote “The American Promise” speech (sometimes referred to as the “We Shall Overcome” address) in one afternoon. Images from the Edmund Pettus Bridge kept flashing through the White House speechwriter’s mind as he tapped-tapped-tapped away at his typewriter. The words poured out with straightforward eloquence and historical gravitas. At one juncture, Johnson telephoned Goodwin with an instruction. “You must remember, Dick, that one of my first jobs after college was teaching young Mexican-Americans down in Cotulla,” LBJ told Goodwin. “I thought you might want to put in a reference to that.”
The final composition—once properly edited by Johnson—was a masterpiece. When Johnson arrived at the U.S. Capitol on March 15, 1965 to deliver his speech, he headed straight to the rostrum, choosing not to shake hands or fraternize. Broadcast live on U.S. television, Johnson started his address slowly, letting it build momentum. “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of Democracy,” he began. “I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.”
Nobody had ever accused LBJ of being a great orator. But the horrors of Jim Crow segregation, the disease of racism, the spilled blood at Selma, had moved Johnson to speak with stunning moral authority about the need for strong federal voting rights laws. To add gravitas to the occasion, Johnson spoke of past turning points in American history like the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Appomattox. The president was hellbent on making his “American Promise” speech one for the ages.
With vivid detail LBJ explained the depravations that American Negroes faced on a daily basis in the South. Yet he didn’t stigmatize his native region’s antiquated Jim Crow laws. “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem,” he said. “There is only an American problem.”
Throughout the “American Promise” address, Johnson received numerous standing ovations. After delineating on the horror of Bloody Sunday, he shocked the nation by fully identifying himself with the American Negro. “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” Then he very slowly, deliberately evoked the mantra of the civil rights movement as his own: “And… we… shall… overcome.”
Down in Selma the civil rights leaders were watching LBJ’s speech on television together. When Johnson said those three powerful words—“We shall overcome”—Martin Luther King, Jr. was stunned. Tears trailed from his eyes. A landmark moment in American history had at last arrived.
On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. Among those in attendance at the signing were Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis. Four years later, due in part to LBJ’s hubris, the percentage of African Americans in southern states who were registered to vote had risen from 35.5 percent to 64.8 percent. In Alabama, the rise was even more dramatic: from 19.3 percent to 61.3 percent. With Bloody Sunday as his spur, Johnson had used the bully pulpit to advance equal rights in America like no other president since Abraham Lincoln who issued his Emancipation Proclamation during the crucible of the Civil War.
“Every time I hear this speech, tears well up in my eyes,” says Nash who tried to capture the profundity of Johnson’s message in this musical composition. Like many of the speeches, there was no certain tonality to use. But Nash organized the pitches into one form, over which Wynton Marsalis plays a sprinting solo on trumpet. Also contributing powerful solos are Elliot Mason on trombone and Ali Jackson on drums. Nash created a “free jazz” feeling by having the melody stated first with no suggested chords. He was trying to channel Ornette Coleman whose music was in ascendancy during the time in which Johnson’s speech was given in the mid 1960s. The start and end of the piece is a humorous reference to Texas, where Johnson was from, having the baritone saxophone quote a cliché cowboy riff, which is developed and layered with tension.
Notable actor Sam Waterston read the excerpt. Having played another president, Abraham Lincoln, in a movie, Waterston gives a commanding performance – as if he were delivering the address in the House of Representatives.
- The Time for The Healing of the Wounds – Mandela
Andrew Young reads Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela’s speech is one of the all time great political orations: a tribute to liberty, a triumph of democracy, and a testimony for humanity. By the time Mandela delivered this memorable address in English on May 10, 1994 in Pretoria at his inauguration as the first black president of South Africa, he was already a global figure who represented the struggle (and victory) of human rights. His inauguration was an international event attended by world leaders, who viewed Mandela as the embodiment of the same spirit that touched Tolstoy, and awakened Gandhi and King. Mandela’s words were imbued with deeper meaning because he had lived them. He had climbed a giant mountain throughout his life, and these words were but the peaks.
Known as “Madiba” among his compatriots, the name of Mandela’s clan, he began his career as a lawyer who joined the African National Congress in 1944 and ran its Youth League. He was initially committed to non-violent means to bringing about the end of Apartheid. But after a massacre in Sharpeville where hundreds of blacks were killed and injured in 1960, Mandela abandoned his non-violent approach, slipped underground, and formed a military component of the ANC. He was eventually captured and imprisoned for twenty-seven years in total, only gaining his freedom in 1990. Those long years in captivity surely would have broken, if not embittered a lesser man or woman. But Mandela emerged not itching for a fight but committed to reconciliation.
The tenor of this speech is that of forgiveness, reunion, and hope. Mandela invokes well-known indigenous symbols to illustrate how his countrymen share the land and must recognize their common purpose: the “jacaranda trees” and “mimosa trees” take root in the “soil of this land.” Human rights, Mandela suggests, should be as unanimously accepted as the forces of nature: “The national mood changes as the seasons change. We are moved by a sense of joy…when the grass turns green and the flowers bloom.” Human rights have universal significance – just like music.
In order to capture the sunny spirit of Mandela’s words, Nash generates a reggae groove, similar to the type found in pop music in South Africa. To fully establish the style, the bass and drums must mesh: Carlos Henriquez plays the electric bass, which puts the low register in the foreground. Nash asked Ali Jackson to listen to music from this region to become familiar with the laid-back, canyon deep groove, accentuated with rolls, and an occasional cowbell. The interlocking drum and bass lines creates an infectious atmosphere.
The band’s opening riff is based on Mandela’s beginning “To my compatriots, I have no hesitation in saying…” The same riff echoes throughout the piece, as an interlude between sections, and it serves as the first melodic phrase that Chris Crenshaw sings. That there is a vocalist may come as a surprise, the only song on the album with a singer. After Nash transcribed Mandela’s speech, he knew that these joyful words, such as “Let there be peace for all!” had to be sung, or at least, spoken with unhurried cadence. Nash sent the recording of the speech and sheet music to Chris to study. “I swear Chris became Mandela,” said Nash. “He worked diligently to get the inflections and accent right but also to capture the beauty and spirit of Mandela’s message.”
To turn Mandela’s words into a melody, Nash created musical cells that could be repeated, so he altered some of Mandela’s pitches by a half step up or down to keep them in the chosen tonality. It’s these same melodic cells over which Chris plays his lyrical trombone solos. As Chris alternates between singing and soloing, he reveals a beguiling virtuosity and ability to evoke every aspect of this speech. After he delivers a couple of Mandela’s sentences, Chris backs away and lets you reflect, while he translates and recasts what he just said with a snippet of solo. In this way, Mandela’s words are turned from prose to poetry, and back again – giving the listener a kaleidoscopic lens with which to appreciate this masterful speech.
It’s a victory if Mandela’s words inspire one to be more like him – to find common purpose with others. He knew that in order to defeat apartheid, he would have to rely on love, mutual understanding, and reconciliation. While he was imprisoned, he followed news about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and American Civil Rights Movement. Ambassador Andrew Young was a top aide to King, who was instrumental to the movement. Young, who was a reverend, later went on to become a Georgia congressman, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, and Mayor of Atlanta. He and Mandela also became close friends. “Nelson was really a teacher. All those years in jail, he came in touch with so many young men. He taught the importance of reconciliation,” says Young. “In this speech, Mandela teaches the world the same lesson.”
By transposing these speeches into music, Nash shines a light on words as a high form of art, and on the transformational nature of jazz as a unique medium that can embrace every culture and indeed all art forms, even political oratory. “Like music, great speeches free us to feel and to believe we are capable of achieving great things together,” explains Nash. “These speeches show how language and oratory can promote freedom and democracy around the world.”
In composing these movements, Nash builds upon a tradition established by early American artists like Walt Whitman, the poet-saint who wrote Leaves of Grass and Democratic Vistas, and who frequently used his medium to extol freedom and democracy: “Thunder on! Stride on, Democracy! Strike with vengeful stroke!” Yet, at the same time, Whitman was prone to express displeasure at the artistic output of his country: “America has yet morally and artistically originated nothing,” he wrote in 1871. Indeed, the U.S. had numerous pamphleteers, essayists, poets, and novelists – but their composite work had not yet yielded an “American” aesthetic. He believed that his nation must declare its cultural independence from Europe with a “native expressionspirit” if its people were to be truly free. Just as importantly, a U.S.-born art could serve as a fossil or time capsule to remind citizens of American values, if the country ever lost its way. He called for a resident art that was inspired by the values, ideals, and aspirations found among its citizenry: a democracy-infused creation, of the people, by the people, for the people.
Whitman sensed how an aesthetic would emerge – but he didn’t know when. Had jazz music came forth before he died in 1892, he would likely have been gratified by it. He would have recognized it as fundamentally born of America’s democratic spirit: inspired by the “jam session” of African vernacular expressed through European instruments, balanced between the freedom of improvisation and the responsibility of listening to the group. In mixing styles and mingling traditions, the youthful nation’s artistic invention was born, and it has grown to serve as a vital means of expression, not only for the African-Americans who first forged the music from their own experience, but for people of all cultures who may express their own individuality through this art form in a free and everexpanding
improvised global conversation.
As Whitman believed, democracy isn’t just a system of government but a way of thought. And with Presidential Suite the virtuosic and untrammeled mind of Ted Nash taps this “native expression-spirit” in still newer ways. With his juxtaposition, a jam session between
speech and song, Nash discovers the music in the words of great political leaders who sounded the liberty bell throughout the world. Nash alchemizes these two art forms into a golden “one”– e pluribus unum.
That Nash doesn’t only feature speeches by Americans, or just by men, serves to reflect that jazz, like the yearning for freedom, is universal. People from Tokyo to Toulouse, from Cape Town to Calcutta have taken to this music, and in the long-standing international spirit of jazz, Presidential Suite resonates words and sounds from around the globe. This is not a new phenomenon. In the 1940s, jazz music, which had a strong following in Germany, was banned by the Nazis. In the 1950s, during the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union, the American government recognized the cultural power of its art form, and sent “jazz ambassadors” to trumpet the music and, with it, America’s way of life abroad into Europe, Asia, and Africa. Jazz music was democracy in sound, and it was part of the U.S. government’s arsenal to win the hearts and minds of foreigners.
Yet while African American master artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were asked to showcase America the beautiful overseas, they each were raised in, and ultimately had to return to a country beset by bigotry and the ugliness of segregation. Certainly much ground has been gained in the battle for civil rights in the U.S. since then, but as current events suggest, there is more ground that we must cover.
But that is why Whitman longed for an “American” art form in the first place – to remind us of our nation’s ideals and values. It’s no coincidence that Presidential Suite is being released during a U.S. presidential election year, in the midst of a contentious and divisive campaign, and around the time of the party conventions, those pageants of democracy. As November nears, candidates will continue to invoke a litany of the troubling and true. They will also trade invectives with each other, and their campaigns will fight tooth-and-nail, making in some cases, short-sighted decisions. These days, it seems that political speeches often reiterate our dissatisfactions, whereas truly great political oratory serves to remind us what we stand for.
With Presidential Suite, Nash reminds us to “hold fast to dreams” as Langston Hughes once wrote – to keep the essential vision of freedom in the forefront of our dialogues, our actions, and our culture. No matter how or when these speeches were crafted, they all speak to a common purpose of mankind, to seek human rights and liberty for all. These speeches do not present pleasant, self-congratulatory nostrums. Instead they challenge us with powerful visions of the future. They provoke introspection and awareness of where we must go. By encapsulating the best of our values, Nash’s noble suite serves as a lantern to cast away the nomadic shadows of the unknown. By listening closely, we hear the familiar not again but anew.
Douglas Brinkley is CNN’s presidential historian, professor of history at Rice University, and author of more than twenty books. With Johnny Depp, he wrote the liner notes to Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, which were nominated for a GRAMMY.
Kabir Sehgal is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of several books including Jazzocracy: Jazz, Democracy, and the Creation of a New American Mythology. He is a GRAMMY-winning producer.