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Commemorate Presidents' Day in Take Five, with Clifford Brown, Lester Young and More

This Presidents' Day, we thought you'd enjoy a jazz playlist for 46. 

Clifford Brown, “Now’s the Time”

The most celebrated jazz musician from Joe Biden's adopted hometown of Wilmington, DE, is Clifford Brown, a trumpeter whose blazing prowess in the bebop idiom was the stuff of legend even during his tragically brief career. President Biden surely knows this — the DuPont Clifford Brown Jazz Festival has taken place in downtown Wilmington each summer since 1989 — and he might appreciate the sentiment of this track, which Brown recorded at Birdland with Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers in 1954.

The tune, of course, is a blues by Charlie Parker, bebop’s lodestar. He was still alive at the time of this club date, which had Brown and Blakey onstage with alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, pianist Horace Silver and bassist Curley Russell. As for that title, consider these words from President Biden’s inaugural address: “Now we must step up. All of us. It is a time for boldness, for there is so much to do.” As Parker put it: Now’s the time.

Matthew Shipp Trio, “Blue Transport System”

When we called Clifford Brown the most celebrated jazz musician from Wilmington, it was no slight to pianist Matthew Shipp, who has led a profoundly creative career in the improvised avant-garde. Shipp has always been an outlier — entirely his own man, and not the sort of artist to stand still long enough for anyone to erect a monument in his image.

Shipp, who made his feelings about Biden known in an interview withDownBeat, recently released an intoxicating trio album called The Unidentifiable, with Michael Bisio on bass and Newman Taylor Baker on drums. “Blue Transport System,” the opening track, seems only fitting for a Democratic president famous for his years of faithful travel along Amtrak’s Northeast corridor.

Scranton Sirens Orchestra, “Why Should I Believe in You?”

Joe Biden spent most of his childhood in Scranton, PA — a fact that naturally came up often during last year’s presidential campaign. There aren’t many jazz legends from Scranton, at least not yet, but the town did boast a notable territory band.

The Scranton Sirens, led by Billy Lustig, are most famous in jazz lore for the fact that Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey were both in the band during the early ‘20s. But by 1925, when the band recorded this song in New Orleans, the Dorseys had already been poached by Jean Goldkette. Speaking of which, “Why Should I Believe in You?” feels like a song that any politician should know by heart.

Joe Henderson, “Mode For Joe”

Let’s not overthink this. Tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson recorded “Mode For Joe” in late January 1966, for an album by the same name on Blue Note Records.

His band for the session featured Lee Morgan on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Bobby Hutcherson on vibraphone, Cedar Walton on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Joe Chambers on drums. And “Mode For Joe,” a Walton composition, would live on as a post-bop classic. (Dig Henderson’s multiphonic throat-clearing, around 0:45 — as startling an entrance as you’re likely find on a record this suave.)

Billie Holiday with Lester Young, “Georgia on My Mind”

Finally, it wouldn’t be a Presidents’ Day playlist without a selection from our president, Lester Young. And it was Billie Holiday who bestowed that moniker, The President. (He was the one who christened her “Lady Day.”)

They recorded Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind” for OKeh in March of 1941. It’s one of the definitive versions of the tune, up there with Ray Charles. And of course, Georgia was very much on President Biden’s mind during the weeks before and after the election. Did he throw on some Pres and Billie to soothe his nerves? Pro tip: it’s never a bad idea.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.