During the last week of February, on those very days the nation's most prominent right-wingers were soaping one another up at the CPAC convention, desperately seeking a leader who can reanimate them out of the grumbling dead condition in which they currently molder, my wife and I were in Northern Idaho, there to enjoy our daughter's participation in the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. While Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee moaned in D.C., James Moody and John Faddis wailed in Moscow. As Michael Steele and goofy Michelle Bachman stewed over whether li'l Bobby Jindal had permanently branded himself irredeemably weenie, Brazilian guitarists and timbale players from L.A. gave workshops and personalized attention to roomfuls of students eager to get giggy on rhumba, samba and the bossa nova. As Rush Limbaugh re-regurgitated his wish for Barack Obama to fail, the University of Idaho offered upwards of 10,000 young musicians the wish to succeed.
Beyond four days of splendid performances and mind-bending creativity—(tip: if you ever have the opportunity to see Bobby McFerrin in concert, do not let it pass)—it was one hell of a dip in Lake Nostalgia for ol' Bill, I tell you. I played in the very first U of I festival 42 years ago, long before Lionel Hampton became its patron saint, and long before the visiting artists were numbered in bus loads. We had one guest artist and one big concert. (Incidentally, I also performed in the very first Boise State Gene Harris Jazz Festival, which makes me—and I will believe it until I am proven wrong—the only person on Earth who can say he played in both very first festivals. I'm not bragging, mind you. Just letting you know that if a fella hangs around long enough, he just might come up with something mildly interesting to say about himself.)
It pleases me to no end that my offspring is now experiencing the thrill that comes from both playing jazz and listening to it. She grew up around the music, but I think it took a leaving-home-for-college level of intensity for her to appreciate what she was hearing. She wanted so much for us to watch her perform, she volunteered to work the festival for free tickets so that I would be enticed to make the trip. I didn't bother to tell her that I would belly crawl from here to Patagonia to watch her perform, free tickets or not.
But enough about me and my family. From the way I opened this, you must be wondering what the CPAC righties have to do with any of this jazz stuff.
Not much, really. If the universe were truly designed with any noticeable intelligence, jazz and Rush Limbaugh wouldn't be sharing the same planet.
But now and then, life serves up a coincidental flapjack so dripping with irony syrup that you can't help but spread the lesson beyond its immediate application. Know what I mean?
This time, it happened during a main-stage concert dedicated to the memory of the great bass fiddle plucker Ray Brown. They kicked the evening off with a brief film about his life, proteges of his then performed and his widow was in the audience. Brown had something of a history with Idaho, not only because of his appearances at the U of I festival, but because for a time, he and Gene Harris toured together, including performances at the Ste. Chapelle Winery.
But what no one who was there for Ray Brown Night knew (except for me, not that I surveyed 3,000 other audience members) is that Ray performed in Moscow long before there was a Ste. Chapelle Winery, long before Gene Harris moved to Boise, and long before the U of I festival had the gravitas to bring in artists like Ray Brown. It was 1966, and at that time he was part of the Oscar Peterson Trio, the sweetest jazz trio that ever was. They were brought to Moscow to perform in the basketball auditorium, which was wonderful news to a handful of jazz-hungry music students. Only, owing to some extraordinary bad planning, the trio was booked as the warm-up act for a rock and roll group called The Grass Roots. I had to Google The Grass Roots to remember the names of any songs they were known for, and even then, I couldn't hum a note of their music. Essentially, The Grass Roots were one of those bands that just enough people liked to keep them selling just enough records for just long enough to earn a spot in Wikipedia 30 years after they disappeared forever, if that gives you a hint.
It was a nightmare. Five percent of the audience had come to hear the Oscar Peterson Trio, and the other 95 was there to hear The Grass Roots. That 95 percent no more knew how to behave during a jazz performance than monkeys would at a wine tasting. They were a typical rock and roll crowd, never once acting like they had any proper upbringing. Throughout Peterson's entire warm-up set, they wandered around like they were at a picnic instead of a concert and wa-hooed to one another across the basketball floor. Peterson might as well have been that little saloon piano man in the funny hat who continues thumping out "Camptown Ladies" even while all the brawling cowboys hit one another over the head with whiskey bottles.
I couldn't hear much of the music. Worse yet, I was genuinely embarrassed. Here was the cream of the jazz crop playing in little Moscow, Idaho, and the auditorium was full of kids acting like they were all from Idaho. All I wanted to do was let Oscar—and Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen, the drummer—know that not everyone in the state was a rude and inconsiderate rube. Those fellas must have been awfully glad to see Moscow in their rearview mirror.
And then, 40 years later, it's Ray Brown Night at the University of Idaho Jazz Festival. Hah!
So what in this story might apply to the CPAC crowd? Do I foresee America's conservative community—at present, so weak and hard to hear over the roar of the majority that they have to turn to a gas-bladder like Limbaugh for self-esteem and attention—someday rising from the humiliation of defeat and rejection and being honored for their superior ideas? Do I foresee them transcending the fads and fancies of the present and in time, like Ray Brown, being recognized later as the true geniuses?
No, no, no. If that's what you got out of all this, you got it all wrong. Conservatives aren't the Ray Brown figure in this parable. They're The Grass Roots. Only their audience is down to about 25 percent, and they have even less to offer than a few forgettable tunes. At this rate, in another 30 years, they'll be lucky to even get a spot on Wikipedia.