Swing Vote: What Would the Presidential Election Sound Like as Jazz?

The pianist Marcus Roberts tries to capture the essence of Ben Carson, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump on a new EP.

Ben Carson, crooner manqué? (Steve Marcus / Las Vegas Sun / Reuters)

What does Ben Carson sound like?

Not, what does his voice sound like?—the sleepy, husky tenor has become familiar to anyone who’s watched a Republican debate or three—but what would the essence of Carson’s character sound like if it were converted into song?

That’s a question that the pianist Marcus Roberts set out to answer in a new EP, Race for the White House, of four compositions devoted to the presidential election: one each for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Carson. Roberts picked out the candidates who seemed most ripe for interpretation, two from each party. He’s been rolling the tracks out slowly, and you can hear the Carson song, “I Did Chop Down That Cherry Tree” for the first time below.

John Douglas

What’s the point of such a project? Some reticent musicians, asked to explain their work, like to retreat behind the old aphorism that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. But converting the endless talk of a presidential campaign into instrumental jazz? That seems even crazier.

Roberts, a pianist known for his association with Wynton Marsalis, told me had two motives. One was simple: Election coverage was everywhere around him when he wrote the tunes in November, and it started to seep into his creative process. “Like everyone, I’m sure that’s all you can hear about, even now in February,” he said. “Part of it was the diversity in the different temperaments of the each candidate. Some of them are very identifiable, and I wanted to try to musically describe a little bit about each personality.”

The other motive was a frustration at the sense that jazz is a museum piece, Roberts said. “No matter what you do with a lot of the great songs, you’re dated just by referencing that this song was written in 1938 or 1952,” he said, leading him to want to write new material. Roberts is disappointed that there haven’t been questions about the importance of safeguarding America’s cultural inheritance during the presidential debates so far, and he put forth jazz as perhaps an ideal art form for democracy—and perhaps a model of cooperation that would be well-taken in a polarized moment.

“Jazz music has that sense of inclusion that’s built into the music,” he said. “It’s democratic in nature—when we’re on the bandstand creating music, we get to celebrate our individual identity and function, but it’s always within a shared purpose.”

How well did it work? Here’s each song on the EP, a little about what Roberts was thinking, and my verdict as a jazzbro political reporter.

“I Did Chop Down That Cherry Tree” (Ben Carson)

What is Roberts trying to do? The tune kicks off with a series of beats by the drummer Jason Marsalis, and then Marsalis with the bassist Rodney Jordan. It’s meant to evoke a hacking axe. The title is an allusion to George Washington’s famous, apocryphal tree-felling. When Roberts was writing the tune, a surreal drama was playing out as Carson insisted he’d tried to stab a friend and classmate as a boy and once gone after his mother with a hammer—even as reporters tried and failed to find evidence of the incident.

How well does he do it? I rate this a pretty good likeness of the Carson experience. There’s a leisurely lope to it, and a light playfulness to the song that I think captures the doctor’s friendly, somewhat goofy demeanor. The somewhat knotty melody, turned around a taunting bass riff, and the way Marsalis solos under a bass vamp both seem to capture the unpredictability of a Carson speech or answer, which can veer from pleasant banality to terrifying innuendo with no warning—as does the abrupt finish. But is the song too energetic? “If we’re talking about Ben Carson the surgeon, it is, but if we’re talking about the 12-year-old kid running after you with a knife or hammer?” Roberts said. He deems this the most like its respective candidate, and I agree. A-.

“Making America Great Again (All By Myself)” (Donald Trump)

What is Roberts trying to do? The track centers around a rhythm section vamp reminiscent of Mingus’s “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” with its piano riff and horn arrangement, or perhaps the James Bond theme. “It has a little bit of superhero thing to it in that left hand, Batman or Superman,” Roberts said, which is meant to match Trump’s hubristic self-conception. There’s also a light swinging passage—very classy, very elegant, just like Trump. Alphonso Horne on trumpet takes a lead role, while Marsalis bookends the piece with a whistle on the start and a demonic laugh at the end—representing, said Roberts, the fact that Trump is in on the joke and laughing at himself.

How well does he do it? It’s fitting that the brassy sound of Horne’s trumpet steals the show on this one. Capturing the full scope of the Trump campaign—the humor, the shock, the horror—is practically impossible. Roberts says this one is his favorite and most captured the candidate, but listening now, with Trump poised to win the nomination, there’s not quite enough menace to it, even with the martial drum solo and even with the laugh. B-.

“Feel the Bern” (Bernie Sanders)

What’s Roberts trying to do? The track is built around a three-note motif from Boyce Griffith’s clarinet. Then it takes off into a fast swing section as the horns solo. During his brief solo, Roberts settles into a montuno groove, and then the band rejoins for a slow, New Orleans-flavored bridge. The thinking here is pretty straightforward: “Most of it is high energy. Kind of burning!” Roberts said.

How well does he do it? This track is the least metaphorical of the bunch. The various tempo changes and the shifting moods get at some of the cadence of a Sanders rally, and the hoarse clarinet trills echo Sanders’s gruff, occasionally grating elocutions. Really getting the feel of a Sanders rally would require about 70 minutes of music, an interpolation of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and enthusiastic audience participation, though. B+.

“It’s My Turn” (Hillary Clinton)

What’s Roberts trying to do? An appealing post-bop composition, this tune kicks off in a minor key and in 9/4 time, then lands in standard 4/4, then back to 9/4. It also cycles through several key signatures. “Hillary’s been pretty much about change throughout her life,” Roberts said. “There are two parts of her life—the one is that she’s been under constant scrutiny and controversial. That’s what those key chances and harmonic changes represent. But she’s always managed to land on her feet. She stood up in there in front of that congressional committee for 11 hours, man, she answered every question and didn’t seem to be rattled by it. That’s represented by the cool stable nature of the rhythm.” (Roberts said he didn’t think anyone cared about his endorsement, but he didn’t hide his admiration for Clinton and said he planned to vote for her assuming she’s the Democratic nominee.)

How well does he do it? This is the most complex composition of the four, and the most musically interesting. But does it really capture what Clinton is like? One of the Clinton campaign’s biggest struggles has been defining her—Clinton is at once incredible well-known, a public figure since the early 1990s, and yet her friends and aides are always quick to insist that the public doesn’t know the real Hillary. Roberts said this track was the hardest to write. There’s some mystery and sadness from the minor key and the 9/4 rhythm, to be sure, but while the track gets high marks for the music, does it get any closer to the Real Hillary? C+.