All the President’s Sidemen

Savvy enough about rhythm

"Did I just hear the President of the United States say something about free jazz?," I asked the reporter standing next to me at the 1993 White House Jazz Festival. Clinton had included the esoteric reference in a speech—mostly boilerplate—about the evolution of jazz from "ragtime and boogie-woogie and swing and bebop and cool" and so forth. Was it possible that he drove Hillary and Chelsea crazy by blasting discordant music by Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler at all hours? Probably it meant simply that he had some pretty hip speechwriters. Sitting a few feet from the stage at a table with the First Lady and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Clinton seemed not to notice when the pianist Herbie Hancock and the singer Bobby McFerrin, doing Horace Silver's "Peace," momentarily seemed to be performing two different numbers. Was he just being diplomatic? How much did he really know about jazz? Say this for him—he was probably the first President savvy enough about rhythm to know to weave his shoulders to the bass while tapping his foot to the drums.

Power is seductive—never more so than when it is invested in someone who seems to share many of one's cultural reference points. The musicians on the South Lawn that night unequivocally adored Clinton. Some of them, including a bassist active in leftist political causes and a drummer who had done time for narcotics, would not have been allowed near the White House under previous Administrations. As everyone knew he would, Clinton participated in the closing jam session, borrowing a saxophone from Illinois Jacquet to join the huddle of horns behind the singer Joe Williams on two blues numbers. Not one musician I spoke to afterward had the heart to say that Clinton flat-out couldn't play; putting it as nicely as they knew how, they said he had a "light" tone.

I happened to be talking to Jacquet when an aide returned his horn to him. Learning that I was the same age as his friend Bill, Jacquet, who was then seventy, looked me in the eye and solemnly told me that the future of this country was in the hands of "young men" like me and the President. I know that only politicians can rightfully be called young in their late forties, but still, I was flattered to be mentioned in the same breath.

Francis Davis is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He is working on a book about John Coltrane.