A report by Bryan Reesman for Billboard.
For 30 years, the Jazz Foundation of America has provided financial relief for jazz musicians in need as well as help with employment opportunities and educational outreach across the country. Thursday (April 4) night’s 17th annual A Great Night In Harlem benefit gala at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem not only celebrated the JFA anniversary but honored two famous musicians, Harry Belafonte and Tony Bennett, for their advocacy for musicians and for civil rights. While a dark cloud of intolerance has been hanging over America as of late, the mood inside the venue was joyful and uplifting.
“This is a day to show our appreciation for musicians in the Jazz Foundation community,” JFA executive director Joseph Petrucelli told the audience at the outset. “For all of our lives, their music has provided us comfort in moments of personal turmoil and public tragedy, and they receive far too little in return and live on the edge as a result. Because of you all, we can empower them in their own dark hours.”
Drummer Steve Jordan also works with the Foundation and served as the musical director for the event. Prior to the event, Billboard asked him how he’s seen conditions for working musicians change throughout his career. “I’m in a good position, and I’ve watched zeroes being slashed,” said Jordan. “From royalties to you name it. We’re getting less money. It’s harder for these legendary musicians to collect lost money.” He noted how legal means are needed to chase down money that normally used to come to musicians, and if people do not have the financial means to do so, they lose out. In working with the Foundation, Jordan is also trying to offer assistance that way.
Actor and JFA board member Danny Glover amiably hosted the event (“no donation is too small or, of course, too large”), bringing out Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to help start the night with remarks about Bennett and Belafonte (whom he counts as a friend). JFA founder director Wendy Oxenhorn occasionally came out to make remarks, her own introductions, and give shout outs to different heroes of the foundation. Acknowledgments to musical luminaries in attendance were made throughout the evening to Roberta Flack, drummer Percy Bryce and Quincy Jones, whose front row presence became a magnet for some of the onstage talent. Early on, Oxenhorn joked about the budgetary challenges of working nonprofit, quipping that her award wardrobe changes little each year and then presenting a framed photo to JFA board member Quincy Jones because it was too expensive to ship it. But the precarious nature of nonprofit work is no joke. Near the end of the evening, while a figure of $116,000 in fundraising was projected onstage, Oxenhorn offered out her phone number because the ultimate goal they needed to reach this year was $400,000.
The date for this gala, April 4, turned out to coincide with many notable birthdays: JFA board chairman Richard Parsons, the late poet Maya Angelou, and the late jazz musician and anti-Apartheid activist Hugh Masekela, whose image was the Google Doodle yesterday. April 4 also marked the day when civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Both Belafonte and Bennett marched with King in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Trying to encapsulate the philanthropic and humanitarian efforts of both JFA award recipients would fill a separate story alone.
In honor of Dr. King, tap dance wizard Savion Glover started off the evening by dueting with saxophone player Patience Higgins. As the brass player delivered a soulful performance, Glover altered his tempo, moving between fleet footed freneticism and slower tapping, providing a synergistic contrast to their delivery. Soon after, the lush, brass heavy sounds of the Count Basie Orchestra, under the direction of trumpeter Scotty Barnhart, filled the hall for two songs, including “April In Paris” and “Li’l Ol’ Groovemaker” (written by a young Quincy Jones), easily transporting the audience back to the era when Big Band was king.
After that, former Count Basie Orchestra pianist Terence Conley, his wife Judith and his three grown children were introduced. After a bus accident 10 years ago, he lapsed into a near three-month coma. Thanks to JFA relief, Judith home schooled her children while watching over her husband rather than letting him sit in a nursing home. It took him two years to recover, and he danced euphorically onstage to emphasize that point. His children surprised their mother by offering her a trip to somewhere in the world to thank her for her selflessness. Oxenhorn also announced that NYC’s Funky Joe’s Studio was offering Conley time to record two new songs on a CD of recently unearthed recordings. Conley and his wife thanked everyone for their support on all levels.
When Ben Stiller came out to honor Tony Bennett with the JFA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, he joked that the iconic singer was his father. “When my mom passed a few years ago, one of the last things she shared with me was that when Stiller and Meara were playing with Tony in San Francisco in 1965, his heart was not the only thing he left there,” he deadpanned to uproarious laughter. After listing many of the beloved crooner’s credits – 19 Grammy Awards, two Emmy Awards, and honorary doctorates among them – Stiller pointed out that he had a Teen Choice Award and a Kids’ Choice Award. “Deal with it.” Among other accolades he mentioned, the actor showed admiration for the singer in taking on social justice issues long before it was fashionable, from marching in Selma to refusing to play in South Africa during Apartheid.
Smiling widely, the 92-year-old Bennett emerged onstage to accept the award and perform “Our Love Is Here To Stay” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” The man can still deliver the goods, and his voice sound stills golden. The audience received him enthusiastically and whole-heartedly, clapping along during part of the first number.
The musical diversity for the evening continued with a solo performance by 12-year-old Indian piano prodigy Lydian Nadhaswaram, who played a medley of three pieces including “Misty.” His speed and agility along the ivories were impressive. In contrast, punk rock pioneer Patti Smith and her longtime bandmates Lenny Kaye (on guitar) and Tony Shanahan (piano), along with a rhythm section, came on to deliver an impassioned rendition of “Pissing In The River” from her 1976 album Radio Ethiopia.
Smith’s presence did make sense. “I was raised on jazz,” she told Billboard just prior to the concert. “Albert Ayler, Coltrane, Roland Kirk, all those great artists and musicians. I listen to them all the time, so they’re still with me. I dance to R&B and listen to jazz, so here I am.”
Up next were JFA board president Jarrett Lilien and board member Dr. Frank Forte, who was Dizzy Gillepsie’s doctor and who has given pro bono medical care to 2,000 uninsured musicians since 1994. They presented the first Dr. Frank Forte/Dizzy Gillespie Humanitarian Award to JFA chairman of the board Richard Parsons as a thank you for his efforts in the organization. Lilien also said that Parsons has been their guiding spirit and joked that he had been “interim” chairman since 2008. Clearly, it is a position that he cannot walk away from.
Veteran soul singer Bettye LaVette, a three-time Grammy nominee, came out to perform “Abraham, Martin & John,” a song originally recorded by Dion and later covered by the likes of Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and Ray Charles. It was a highly apropos tune given that it is about four iconic figures of social progress who were assassinated: Abraham Lincoln, JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Appropriately right after, the legacy of the late South African trumpet legend and social activist Hugh Masekela was honored by his children Sal Masekela and Pula Twala and Manhattan School of Music president James Gandre. They announced a new scholarship grant – in conjunction with Manhattan School of Music, the Hugh Masekela Heritage Foundation, and the ELMA Music Foundation – through which six South African students will have their entire four-year education at that institution covered. Following that announcement, the house band, along with along with trumpeters Wallace Roney and Keyon Harrold and pianist Larry Willis, played an energized rendition of Masekela’s 1968 song “Grazing In The Grass.”
Harlem native Harry Belafonte has won three Grammys, an Emmy, a Tony and been a Kennedy Honors recipient, among other accolades. The famous vocalist and social justice defender, who nurtured and championed Masekela’s talents, was not there to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Foundation. Instead, former UN ambassador and King confidante Andrew Young, who had just returned from a trip to South Africa, accepted the award on the performer’s behalf, immediately declaring, “If it hadn’t been for Harry Belafonte, we might not have had a movement.” He noted his associations with Bennett, King and Paul Robeson, adding onto the list of achievements listed by Glover, everything from civil rights to AIDS activism, calling Belafonte “the godfather of the civil rights movement.” Furthermore, he told the audience that the singer had taken out a life insurance policy on Dr. King that benefited his widow Coretta Scott King following his death. Glover led the crowd in a chant of “Day-O” that Oxenhorn recorded on her phone for Belafonte.
Then came the seven-piece group August Greene, which includes rapper Common, pianist Robert Glasper, and drummer Karriem Riggins. The new group, which meshes hip-hop, R&B and jazz, performed two numbers including “Black Kennedy.” Common’s lyrics, some improvised in the moment to recognize many attendees, deftly touched on many of the social justice themes of the night. While August Greene performed, images of ’60s marches and footage of Harry Belafonte in activist mode were projected behind them. Common made one audience member’s night by dancing with her in the front row.
Oxenhorn emerged one more time to introduce Puerto Rican musician Ramon Vazquez, who flew up from his country to thank donors for support that saved the livelihoods of 200 Puerto Rican musicians put out of work following Hurricane Maria in 2017. His presence was an important reminder of how much relief work still needs to bring that country and its people back to their former state. Vazquez was very humble throughout his speech, stating, “I want to really say thank you because jazz musicians from America bring hope, bring work, and I am so honored to help a little bit, just coordinating some things for them. Thank you for being here.”
Bruce Willis lead the penultimate performance of the night, singing and playing harmonica on “Devil Woman,” a tune made famous by Cliff Richard. The actor’s delivery was solid, but he also had no problem taking a backseat for the final performance of the night, “Everything Is Gonna Be Alright,” which included pianist Davell Crawford, blues vocalists Diunna Greenleaf and Sweet Georgia Brown and guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks (son of Lonnie Brooks), whose searing six-string work amped up the crowd. The 12-minute jam featured different members of the house band soloing, with Oxenhorn surprising everyone with her down-and-dirty harp performance. Frankly, she showed up Willis with her expressiveness, and he was beaming throughout the whole number.
The JFA gala house band included drummer and musical director Steve Jordan, bassist Tom Barney, keyboardist Jeff Young, guitarist Monte Croft, trombonist Clifton Anderson, trumpeter Eddie Allen and tenor sax player Patience Higgins. They came out in different configurations depending on the number. Many of them, along with LaVette, Greenleaf and Brooks, jammed at the lively after party in the nearby Alhambra Ballroom, where the positive vibes set forth at the Apollo continued to emanate late into the night.