With the exception of the now-famous Kanye West outburst, celebrity-driven benefits for Hurricane Katrina victims have followed a familiar formula – musicians singing heart-tugging ballads while famous faces implore viewers to give, all in a sanitized, apolitical tone.
While those elements were present at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s “Higher Ground: Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert” Saturday night, the five-hour concert was stirring not only for its music, but for the emotionally charged performances and speeches that mourned the tragedy that struck New Orleans, but also assigned blame.
“When the hurricane struck, it did not turn the region into a Third World country...., it revealed one,” actor Danny Glover told the audience in a speech with Harry Belafonte.
Both criticized the government, not only for the response to the tragedy but for the conditions prior to it.
“Katrina was not unforeseeable,” Belafonte said, “It was the result of a political structure that subcontracts its responsibility to private contractors and abdicates its responsibility altogether.”
Robin Williams poked fun at the Bush administration during his standup routine, in which he imagined an ethnically named Hurricane, and imagined its attitude: “I’m going to Kennebunkport and see if they respond any quicker!”
Bill Cosby played it straight as he called on the American people to hold government accountable.
“This happened to the people. The Constitution says of the people, by the people, for the people … but the people who got the office got into office and forgot about the people,” he said.
Elvis Costello, who performed with jazz giant Allen Toussaint, said he heard that conservatives were worried about Katrina’s rebuilding cost. “I just hope we keep in our minds that an effort like this can never be too expensive,” he said.
Joining them at the Rose Center were Bette Midler, James Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Toni Morrison, Robert De Niro, Cassandra Wilson, Meryl Streep, Shirley Caesar and the evening’s host, Laurence Fishburne, among others. A condensed version was broadcast on PBS.
Jazz singer Jon Hendricks summed up the tone of the evening. After singing one tribute, he said, “That’s the way I feel about New Orleans. This is the way I feel about the country right now.”
Then he launched into the angry song “Tell Me The Truth,” singing lines like “Nowadays, wrong is right, down is up, black is white, bad is good, truth is a lie” before defiantly singing, “Somebody tell me what’s right,” to the applause of the audience.
But some of the most poignant moments didn’t need a political agenda. Young jazz trumpet player Irvin Mayfield of New Orleans played the melancholy tune “Just A Closer Walk with Thee,” and dedicated it to the rebuilding of New Orleans and “to my father, who is still missing.”
Other performances transplanted the audience to the city’s vibrant musical scene: Diana Krall gave a sultry performance of “Basin Street Blues”; Paul Simon joined Buckwheat Zydeco for a zydeco jam fest; jazz singer and pianist Peter Cincotti played “Bring New Orleans Back.”
Perhaps the evening’s most poignant and entertaining moment came at the end, when Wynton Marsalis, the organizer of the event (and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s artistic director) led members of the jazz orchestra through a Duke Ellington tune that played out like a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral.
It began somber and searing, as the horns wailed for the city. Then it transformed into a joyous celebration, complete with dancing, snaking through the auditorium and back on stage. In the end, instead of a funeral, it represented a resurrection, which is what is hoped for New Orleans.