Remember When Political Speeches Weren’t So Divisive?

by | Oct 6, 2016

Excerpt of Liner Notes by Douglas Brinkley and Kabir Sehgal
From the album Presidential Suite by Ted Nash Big Band

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. It’s the genius of Ted Nash to realize that a stirring speech also has inherent musical qualities: lyrics, cadence, rhythm, and melody. He revisited the most significant speeches of his own life (such as Kennedy’s Inaugural Address; Mandela’s Inaugural Speech; Johnson’s “The American Promise”) and found in them not just profound meanings but inchoate music. This set him on a course to create a far-reaching paean to freedom, based on the spoken (and written) words of grand speeches. In Presidential Suite, Nash finds an exalted common ground 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. An eighteen year-veteran of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and a 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 brush-strokes and colors proved to be an inspiring challenge. This is the brilliance of Nash: an ability to render musical compositions from almost any thematic material – including nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

The son of musicians-cum-civil rights activists, Nash already knew that the struggle for human rights had universal appeal, but that made finalizing the list of speeches difficult. When he finally had his eight speeches, he took out his pen and rewrote 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…Nash also infused some of the compositions 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.

[This article was previously published in Observer]

This article is by Kabir Sehgal & Douglas Brinkley.


Kabir Sehgal is the author of New York Times best seller Coined: The Rich Life of Money And How Its History Has Shaped Us and a Grammy-winning producer. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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®. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America.