From the Archives: in 2016 About What It Was Like in the Obama White House

Good God, this feels like a long time ago.  Several African American staffers spoke to me on what it was like to work in the Obama White House.

‘I Wanted to Be a Part of History’: What It Means to Work for the 1st Black President

President Barack Obama in 2015
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

When he was a teenager, Gregory Lorjuste didn’t dream of working in the White House someday. “Politics wasn’t discussed at our kitchen table when I was growing up,” he said in a recent interview. “We talked about work and putting food on the table.”

Until the latter years of high school, he didn’t have college on his agenda but had planned to follow in his father’s footsteps as an automobile mechanic. His father encouraged him to aim higher and he attended Rider College in New Jersey, graduating in 2004. He demonstrated a skill for time management and organization, which led him to work both for the Clinton Foundation and the Hope Fund, which had been started by Barack Obama during his time as a senator from Illinois. Lorjuste worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign and the 2009 inauguration and then was offered a position as an associate director of scheduling for the president; he has received two promotions and is now deputy assistant to the president and White House director of scheduling.

Lorjuste’s rise is remarkable but is typical of the Obama White House staff. This president has employed the most demographically diverse administration in U.S. history. A majority of the top policy appointments in the executive branch are held by women and minorities. According to the Washington Post, Anne Joseph O’Connell of the University of California, Berkeley studied presidential appointments dating back to 1977 and concluded that Obama has placed women or minorities in 53.5 percent of all staff positions.

Greg Lorjuste and President Barack Obama
Courtesy of the White House

That’s in stark contrast with 25.6 percent during the tenure of George W. Bush and 37.5 percent during the presidency of Bill Clinton. This dramatic change led Democratic Party consultant and lobbyist Robert Raben to tell the Washington Post last September that “diversity is a permanent part of the federal government.”

In many ways, there is an Obama generation in black America, and it ranges from the children born after Obama’s election who have only known a black president to the 18-year-olds who are about to vote this November for the first time who assume that there will be someone who looks like them on the ballot, as well as the young adults who discovered that public service and the activist spirit can combine and lead to a job in the corridors of the White House, one of the most powerful buildings in the world.

The Root spoke to seven young African Americans who have worked in the White House under Obama. In addition to Lorjuste, four are still on duty: Kalisha Dessources, policy adviser to the Council on Women and Girls; Albert Sanders, associate counsel; Michael Smith, special assistant to the president and senior director of Cabinet affairs for the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force; and Stephanie Young, director of African-American outreach. In addition, Corey Ealons, the director of specialty media during the president’s first term, and Assemblyman Michael Blake, who now represents the 79th District in New York and was associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and deputy associate director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, offered wisdom from their time with the president.

The Road to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Everybody knows the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. For most of these staffers, the road to the White House involved working on the campaign. For instance, Blake was the deputy political director and constituency outreach director in Iowa in 2008; the Iowa caucus gave Obama his first big victory of that campaign. Several others worked for the Hope Fund. All sensed that working for Obama would give them a chance at making history.

Stephanie Young
Courtesy of the White House

“It was what President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama represented,” Young said. “I wanted to be part of history, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was a personal goal of mine to be part of the movement.”

Sanders added, When that call comes [from the White House] asking you to join the team, it doesn’t take long to say, ‘Sign me up; I’ll be there right away.’”

At the White House

President Obama took office on a wave of optimism but with fires to put out immediately. The national economy was in a historically bad recession, and major sectors like the automobile industry and Wall Street were teetering from the financial crash of 2008. Ealons said that it was disheartening to meet with such staunch resistance from the Republican Party.

“It’s as if they didn’t realize that the president won the largest percentage of the popular votes since Reagan in 1984. We thought the spirit of ‘hope’ would take root in Washington,” said Ealons, who described working at the White House as a 26-hours-a-day, eight-day-a-week job to implement the president’s agenda. He cited the workload as a reason for his departure in 2010. “I wanted to introduce myself to my 3-year-old son.”

For many, just going through the White House gates on a daily basis was a pinch-me moment, but the glow quickly wore off because of the urgency of the situation. Smith said, “Nothing is quite like being on the inside. It’s every kid’s dream. My expectations may have been colored by The West Wing, but in some ways it is like that. It’s very fast paced.”

“Once you think you have it all figured out, something new happens,” Blake added. “We were implementing a new way of handling government. it took us several months to get our rhythm down.”

Memorable Moments

Although each current staffer spoke of racing to the finish line to effect as much change as possible and to narrow the opportunity gap by January 2017, when Obama leaves office, they also discussed lasting memories from their time at the White House.

Dessources’ father was a big fan of Martin Luther King Jr.; “he played recordings of the speeches in the car,” she recalled. So accompanying the president to the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march linked Obama to her dad and King.

Blake recalled a moment after he left the White House to run for an assembly seat in his home district in the Bronx, N.Y. “I was shaking a woman’s hand, and she held it for a minute, just a beat or two longer, then she looked up at me and said, ‘This is probably the closest I’ll get to shaking Obama’s hand.’”

Despite rigorous GOP opposition, the Obama administration’s feats are remarkable: The Affordable Care Act, Wall Street reform, an auto-industry bailout, re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba, prison reform and other notable seismic changes have occurred. It is as if these accomplishments have put wind in the sails of these staffers as they move on into their post-White House careers.

Albert Sanders
Courtesy of the White House

“I’m amazed every day by the depth and scale of our work,” said Smith. “It will support our kids and communities for decades to come.”

Sanders noted, “I’ve had a hand in helping the arc of the universe bend toward justice.”

Lorjuste, who has worked with the president for all eight years, was measured when asked about the takeaways from his tenure. “Change takes time,” he said. “We have brought a new way of doing things.”

Then he added proudly, “I’ve been to 33 countries in eight years with the president. I’ve seen firsthand that big ideas actually happen. If you put your mind to it, you can change the world. During my upbringing, I never would have thought that.”

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From the Archives: at WSJ on Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz To Come

I was delighted to write this and even better, it ran the weekend of my only trip to the Pop Conference.

Bluesy and Achingly Beautiful

Coleman’s ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’ lived up to its title

As years go, 1959 was a landmark for jazz recordings. Miles Davis created his “Kind of Blue” and John Coltrane made his “Giant Steps.” But the most influential jazz album made in 1959 came from Ornette Coleman, then an outcast in that musical community. It was called “The Shape of Jazz to Come.”

The record lived up to its title. Mr. Coleman’s innovations are often called “free jazz,” but that’s an oversimplification. While he did loosen the existing rules in an attempt to bring harmony, melody and rhythm into a more equal relationship within the music, Mr. Coleman was no finger-wagging modernist. Nor did he advocate musical anarchy (though to some ears his music still sounds like noise). He wanted to give musicians the freedom to play in accordance with the emotion of the tune, rather than limiting them to the notes and sequences dictated by chord changes, the progression of notes that create the harmonic structure of a song.

Ornette Coleman JIMMY KATZ

On “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” Mr. Coleman’s quartet made music that was bluesy and often achingly beautiful. His followers established an avant garde that has grown in the past half-century into one of the most consistently vital wings of jazz.

Back in 1959, Mr. Coleman seemed an unlikely source for one of the greatest jazz recordings of all time. He was playing sporadically in Los Angeles, where he moved from his native Fort Worth, Texas, earlier in the decade. Born in 1930, he had grown up with a group of likeminded innovators, such as the trumpeter Bobby Bradford and the clarinetist John Carter, who sought to open jazz’s harmonic structure to allow a deeper expression of the blues. These concepts met with an often hostile reception on the Texas jazz scene and within the L.A. mainstream.

Mr. Coleman was shunned at jam sessions in both places; one angry Texan broke his saxophone. Unable to make a living as a musician, Mr. Coleman took a variety of odd jobs, including elevator operator. But he found several allies in California. Trumpeter Don Cherry and bassist Charlie Haden met him and were excited by his innovations. Pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet heard one of Mr. Coleman’s performances and persuaded Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records to sign him to a deal. Mr. Lewis thought that Mr. Coleman’s music was the first significant step forward in jazz since the advent of bebop in the early 1940s.


Listen to clips from the influential 1959 album “The Shape of Jazz to Come” by Ornette Coleman:

Mr. Coleman is soft-spoken and rarely expresses rancor about his past. He recalled his West Coast stint during a telephone interview in December. “It was a very active jazz community,” he said. “There were a lot of good players in a variety of styles; it was very enjoyable to be a part of it.”

He had recorded twice in California, but both sessions compromised his ideas by matching him with conventional musicians. Atlantic Records gave him the chance to record with a trio of players who shared his convictions — Messrs. Haden and Cherry, as well as drummer Billy Higgins. The music they made still sounds astonishing and fresh today.

The recording opens with “Lonely Woman,” a ballad that has deservedly become a jazz standard. It doesn’t sound revolutionary, however. That comes on the next track, “Eventually,” an up-tempo number that features a soaring, jittery solo from Mr. Coleman that sounds exhilarating today but probably left many listeners bewildered 50 years ago. It’s followed by the sweet, reassuring “Peace,” another tune that has found its way into the repertoire of many jazz groups. The album’s remaining three tunes feature ensemble portions that are familiar and melodic yet highlighted by intoxicating solos that have little to do with the harmonic structure of the piece. Mr. Coleman’s quartet liberated jazz from some musical restraints, yet it made music that was urgent, compelling and accessible.


“The Shape of Jazz to Come” was released in October 1959 and immediately created a firestorm in the jazz community. Miles Davis told Joe Goldberg, in his 1983 book “Jazz Masters of the ’50s” (Da Capo), “Just listen to what he writes and how he plays. The man is all screwed up inside.” Bassist Charles Mingus told Downbeat in 1960: “It’s like organized disorganization or playing wrong right. It gets to you emotionally like a drummer.”

Mr. Coleman and his bandmates moved to New York, and in November 1959 they made their debut at the Five Spot, one of Gotham’s most renowned jazz clubs. The intensity of the response in the New York jazz world made the gig one of the most famous in jazz history.

Although the performances intensified the vitriol of some of Mr. Coleman’s detractors, he said he was pleasantly surprised by the positive reception. Compared to what he normally encountered in Texas and Los Angeles, the New York naysayers amounted to a minor nuisance.

Coltrane and Sonny Rollins came to several shows, and both went on to make recordings with Coleman sidemen. (Mr. Coleman said that Coltrane even visited his house to play.) Many younger musicians began to build on Mr. Coleman’s style, and by 1963 a full-fledged jazz avant garde had formed.

The Five Spot engagement was originally scheduled to last two weeks; it was extended for 2 months. “The Shape of Jazz to Come” sold extremely well, and a few months later Mr. Coleman released a disc whose title made it clear he was aware of his impact. The recording is called “Change of the Century.”

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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Fromage of the Day, Collected

For about five years, approximately 2009-2014, I did a regular blog post called Fromage of the Day where I introduced and paired a cheese then I compared it to a cultural touchstone. Here’s a grouping of them.

Colston Bassett Stilton 01

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At VinePair on Craft Beer and Cheese

This isn’t your usual what IPA to put with Stilton sort of piece.

The Craft Beer and Cheese Businesses Have a Lot in Common, But Only One Is Surging

The Craft Beer and Cheese Businesses Have a Lot in Common, But Only One Is Surging

On a blustery, wintry day in January 2014, Matt Monahan and Sam Richardson, two of Other Half Brewing’s three founders, sat down with a reporter in their just-opened brewery in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood. The space was barren but for the tanks that lined the perimeter of their big open space. They gathered three folding chairs from a small office and put them down in the middle of the brewery for the conversation.

They spoke with the ardent enthusiasm of businessmen about to realize their dream, but it was underpinned with a world-weariness that told of the obstacles they overcame to get there. The men built the brewery themselves on a shoestring budget. Then, when what little seed money they had ran out as the finished structure was waiting to pass inspections from New York City’s infamously cumbersome bureaucracy, they went back to their former employers, Greenpoint Beer Works, and brewed some beer under the Other Half name to provide cash flow until they could legally open their doors.


Fast forward to early 2019. The Gowanus brewery is thriving. There’s a second space nearby lined with barrels aging beer exclusively for select clients, including some of New York City’s most admired restaurants. The taproom next door is a destination for beer lovers from around the world, and, most impressively, it’s not the only Other Half venue. There’s also a newly opened and bustling facility in Rochester, a third Other Half brewery being built in the Washington D.C. area, and plans are underway for a second, massive tap room in Brooklyn near the Williamsburg Bridge.

The Craft Beer and Cheese Businesses Have a Lot in Common, But Only One is Surging
“Creative and constantly changing labels keep craft beer exciting,” says Holly Diehl of NYC’s Milk and Hops, a beer bar and bottle shop that sells artisan cheese. Credit:

Other Half Brewing’s growth from a hardscrabble labor of love to a booming, small business is emblematic of the growth in craft beer. During 2013, as Monahan and Richardson built their brewery, craft beer sales in America totaled $14.3 billion, according to the Brewers Association’s estimates. Five years later, as Other Half negotiated the construction of new spaces and opened in Rochester, those sales had nearly doubled to $27.6 billion, and that tidy sum excludes some breweries that were part of the 2013 tally. (Lagunitas, Ballast Point, Blue Point, and others sold significant stakes of their businesses to big beer and were no longer included.)

With such robust growth, it seems that there might be lessons for other artisan food sectors. Many mention the potential parallels between cheese and craft beer.

The late Ray Deter, a founder of d.b.a., one of New York’s first craft beer bars, used to say in classes that paired beer with cheese that they were natural pairings due to beer’s carbonation and cheese’s salt. Yet artisan cheese sales pale, so to speak, in comparison to craft beer’s numbers. According to the American Cheese Society, artisan cheese sales in America total about $4 billion with steady 15 percent growth.

“In the cheese business we talk a lot about craft beer as a parallel industry from which trends and best practices can be gleaned,” says Liz Thorpe, a cheese expert and author of “The Book of Cheese: The Essential Guide to Discovering Cheese You’ll Love.” “I find this both optimistic and problematic.” She cites perishability (a Camembert, for instance, has a lifespan of less than two months, less than even the most temperamental IPA); and supply chain issues, given the risk of mishandling by a distributor or retailer.

“It’s typical that major retailers are selling cheese that should have been tossed weeks before,” she says, “but no one knows this, so consumers come in, take a risk on something they’re unfamiliar with, have a bad experience, and don’t buy it again.”

The Craft Beer and Cheese Businesses Have a Lot in Common, But Only One is Surging
In the years since Brooklyn’s Other Half Brewing opened, national craft beer sales have nearly doubled. Credit:

Holly Diehl, a buyer and bartender at Milk and Hops, a beer bar/bottle shop that sells artisan cheese in NYC, notes the importance of word-of-mouth marketing. “Social media, especially Instagram, is vital to craft beer promotion,” she says. “People enjoy seeing hops being picked, recognizing the brewers standing near a fermentation tank, or viewing the final product poured into proper glassware. I’d love to see an adorable goat that contributed milk for the cheese or the family that runs the dairy farm.”

She also feels cheese could up its merchandizing game. “Creative and constantly changing labels keep craft beer exciting, too,” she says. “Cheese, on the other hand, seems static. Rotating imagery with a cohesive theme or labels that feature the same artist are a significant part of craft beer branding.”

Lisa Witkowski, a Los Angeles-based Cicerone, CSM Certified Sommelier, and beverage consultant who worked on several leading cheese counters in New York City before going west, sees price as a key component. “If you want to try some craft beers, it’s not expensive,” she says. “Artisan breads and pastas are similar in that regard. If you enjoy the experiment, wonderful craft beers and outstanding bread are cheap enough to incorporate into your every day.”

In general, though, Witkowski sees beer as having cultural advantages that make comparisons with other artisan foods and beverages awkward. “It’s an ancient and fairly universal product that’s followed humanity across thousands of years and many civilizations,” she says.

“We may feel like it was unloved during those few decades after Prohibition and the world wars, but real beer is woven into our lives in a way that’s not easy to erase. That isn’t to say you can’t start a kvass revolution or get a fountain pen back in everyone’s hand; those are just uphill battles in a way that beer is not.”

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At WSJ on Anna Webber’s Amazing “Clockwise”

‘Clockwise’ by Anna Webber: Putting a Fresh Twist on Music History

Saxophonist, flutist and composer Anna Webber creates music with compelling, intense new rhythms that were inspired by great 20th-century classical composers.

Saxophonist, flutist and composer Anna Webber PHOTO: EVAN SHAY

For more than half a century, jazz musicians have been finding new rhythmic inspiration in the indigenous genres of Africa, Asia and Latin America. On “Clockwise” (Pi, out now), saxophonist, flutist and composer Anna Webber takes a different approach: She creates music with compelling, intense new rhythms that were inspired by great 20th-century composers of classical music. Her compositions were influenced by percussive works from Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis. On her label’s website, Ms. Webber says that the goal was not to recontextualize the composers’ original aims or ideas. Rather, it was to find hidden sympathetic points of resonance within these compositions that she could develop into new works.

Innovative meters have been a highlight of Ms. Webber’s previous recordings. “Binary” (Skirl, 2016) and “SIMPLE” (Skirl, 2014) featured the work of her trio with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer John Hollenbeck as they wound their way through a series of imaginatively propulsive compositions. On “Clockwise,” she has assembled a stellar seven-piece band of leading improvisers: Mr. Mitchell, trombonist Jacob Garchik, cellist Christopher Hoffman, percussionist Ches Smith, bassist Chris Tordini and reedman Jeremy Viner.

The impact of the larger ensemble is heard almost immediately on “Clockwise.” On the opening track, “Korē II”—a piece that draws upon Xenakis’s “Persephassa”—percussion, strings and horns all meld into the quirky momentum of the piece. Feldman’s “King of Denmark” inspired parts of three pieces. The first one is combined with “Loper,” which takes its point of departure from Varèse’s “Ionization.” Each iteration of the Feldman-derived piece stems from improvisations by Messrs. Smith and Tordini. “Idiom II,” a piece written entirely by Ms. Webber, features horns creating a swirling effect and forceful improvisations from each bandmember.

For all of the conceptual ingenuity and complexity, it is the urgency of the playing that makes “Clockwise” compelling. The composers Ms. Webber draws from were frequently criticized for works that were academic and dry, but she and her ensemble create music full of narrative, vulnerability and triumph. Mr. Mitchell’s piano solo elevates “Array,” which builds on an excerpt from Babbitt’s “Homily,” and Mr. Garchik’s solo on “Korē I” brings the album to an exhilarating close. Throughout the recording, Ms. Webber’s ensemble plays with an intensity and drive that makes this music feel destined for large stages, not intimate settings.

There’s a useful antecedent for the scope of “Clockwise”—Rudresh Mahanthappa’s 2015 recording “Bird Calls” (ACT Music), where he builds original compositions from snippets of melodies and solos from another 20th-century giant, Charlie Parker. That recording, which also featured Mr. Mitchell, escaped the long shadow of the inspirations and offered exciting new music with clear historical roots. Ms. Webber accomplishes the same feat here.

Ms. Webber, who is 34 years old, was born in British Columbia and moved to New York to study music. After a brief stint in Berlin, where she studied with Mr. Hollenbeck, she returned to New York and launched her trio and several other projects. In addition, she performs in bands led by Mr. Hollenbeck, trumpeter Dave Douglas and multi-instrumentalist and composer Jen Shyu.

During the past few decades, the overlap between jazz and contemporary classical music has grown markedly. Some, like Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, are giants in both styles. Others, like Theo Bleckmann, Brad Mehldau and Tyshawn Sorey, adeptly move between them.

Ms. Webber has upped the ante. Using the music of great composers as a springboard for her own innovative compositions, she has created music that is equally visionary and captivating.

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If Pitchfork reviewed a 34th Joni song…


A few weeks ago, Pitchfork published a nifty tribute to Joni Mitchell by having several stunningly good writers review 33 songs of the legendary singer/songwriter in a package led by an essay from NPR’s Ann Powers, who is at work on a book about Joni.

Last week, while stuck at O’Hare Airport, I began to bide the time with a happy counterfactual.  What if they didn’t stop at 33.  The number of course has resonance for anyone who has ever loved vinyl, but what if they did 40 or 100?  That led me down the rabbit hole of what would I choose for number 34?

As I waited patiently for my group to board, I arrived at two finalists, both from Mitchell’s phenomenal mid ‘70s period, “Song for Sharon” from Hejira, a song that continues to resonate for me as it’s in part about the struggle between self and societal validation and all the complicating overlaps; and “Harry’s House/Centerpiece” from The Hissing of Summer Lawns, a song about the ugly undertow of presumed Baby Boomer bliss.  Perhaps because I could see heatwaves on the runway, I chose the latter.

I’ve long been annoyed by the casual reference of Joni Mitchell’s embrace of jazz as if the genre was a monolith; she engaged several aspects of jazz.  There was the jazz funk of her versions of “Woodstock” and “Love or Money” from Miles of Aisles and songs like “Hejira” and “Amelia” are like ECM recordings of that era plus vocals.  “Harry’s House/Centerpiece” is a daring mash up of her own song and the 1962 Jon Hendricks/Sweet’s Edison classic of hipster cool which first appeared on Lambert Hendricks and Ross’s album, “The Hottest New Group in Jazz.”  Mitchell takes off from the last line “Centerpiece,”  “hey baby let’s go,” and builds a new song that presumes the proposed relationship in the LH&R song into a marriage 10 years or so on and chafing at the artificial separation of masculine and feminine spheres “She is lost in House and Garden/He’s caught up in Chief of Staff”

The song is full of pithy lyrical flourishes, “yellow schools of taxi fishes,” “like a dragonfly on a tomb” and “businessmen in button downs pressed into conference rooms,” but the music is outstanding too.  Muted trumpets both reference the sounds of the streets and the transitions from Harry’s House into Centerpiece and back again.  In it, you can hear that Joni isn’t self-aggrandizing via her experiments with jazz.  She wants to go somewhere.  You can see “Paprika Plains” in the offing.

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross



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The Martin Johnson Blog Network

I write…a lot.

I write about music, mostly jazz.

I write about sports, mostly basketball (though drill down deep enough here and you’ll find a late 2014 piece that correctly called the rise of the Chicago Cubs).

I write about gender issues;  essentially I think men need to embrace rather than resist their inner goddess.  Yeah, she’s universal, if she can exist inside my hoops loving, jazz listening, barbecue fanatic soul, then I think she’s everywhere; but a lot of men either don’t listen or don’t know how to act on her counsel.

I write about the new middle age.   It used to be the time to coast a little on your laurels; now it’s a time for urgent reinvention.

And at times, I have written professional grade prose on contemporary classical music, artisan cheese, craft beer and cinema.

I finally realized that that’s too damned much for one blog, so I’m breaking them up into other blogs for the purposes of rebranding my work.

The basketball pieces are here.

The gender, well feminism blogs (Chimamanda is right) are here,

The musings about the new middle age are here,

The music pieces will remain here for now.  If the people I send this way can’t do a search on music, then I’ll break them out but for now, this blog is on my business card and I usually hand it to people in the music biz, so…


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