Jazz vocalist Rene Marie turned a relatively pedestrian event–this past Tuesday’s “State of the City” address from Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper–into a media tempest over patriotism when she sang the melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner” but imported lyrics from James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing, long referred to as “the black national anthem.” Now even Democratic presidential candidate and jazz fan Barack Obama has entered the fray, praising “Lift Every Voice and Sing” but declaring, “We only have one national anthem…if she was asked to sing the national anthem, she should have sung that.” (How often has jazz gotten tangled up in a presidential election? Outside of Bill Clinton playing the saxophone and Dizzy Gillespie running for the Oval Office?) Marie has apologized to Mayor Hickenlooper, saying that she meant no disrespect, but she’s also defended her decision in interviews given in the past two days. Comparisons have inevitably been drawn to guitarist and singer Jose Feliciano’s controversial 1968 interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Marie has done such mash-ups before, interpolating the anti-lynching classic “Strange Fruit” and the southern anthem “Dixie.” (Full disclosure: I’m a Marie fan, having featured her on Afterglow, and when she’s on her game I think she’s one of the most authentic, soulful, and interesting modern jazz singers around.) Jazz at its best was (and is) a music that thrives on an element of risk–not to mention freedom. The “jazz=democracy” analogy is facile and overused, but that’s because there’s some crude truth to the idea that it has something in common with certain ideals of American life. What Rene Marie did was risky and interesting, and perhaps not appropriate. (The critical piling-on that’s followed, on the other hand, is predictable and emblematic of politicians rushing to prove their patriotic bona fides.) It provokes questions of race, art, history, civil ceremony, and, yes, what it means to be American and what it means to love–and how one loves–this country. Some may be offended; some may be grateful that we are a living, breathing society that can still celebrate our freedoms even as we argue passionately about what those freedoms mean.
Watch Rene Marie’s interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner”: