Great Night at the Apollo Benefits Jazz Foundation of America
On May 17, a week shy of the Season 11 finale of the commercial TV hit show “American Idol,” another major—and historically more significant—“11th” event, the Jazz Foundation of America’s annual Great Night In Harlem benefit show, took place at the hallowed music landmark the Apollo Theater. In fact, the venue presaged the “Idol” phenomenon beginning in the 1930s with its weekly Amateur Night, which helped launch the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Aretha Franklin and many more. (It continues today with the slogan: “Be good or be gone.”)
While the JFA, whose motto is “Saving jazz and blues…one musician at a time,” doesn’t discover talent, it does lovingly celebrate the great figures of the past who are still with us. It does so by caring for older musicians who have been swept aside—and in many cases, forgotten—in their housing and medical needs. “We help people who come through our doors in desperate situations,” said JFA Executive Director Wendy Oxenhorn at the show. “There’s no formula to doing this. …This biz is a tough biz.”
Funds raised by the JFA prevent homelessness and evictions, provide free medical care (via its partners at the Englewood Hospital in Englewood, N.J.), create dignified work in jazz-in-the-schools programs and help with utilities and food needs.
Each year, Oxenhorn and her nonprofit company assemble an impressive cast of regulars and special guests to perform a tightly arranged and well-produced show (thanks to the oversight of well-known music producer Hal Willner) as both a fundraiser and awareness-raiser. The top-tier house band, conducted by Steven Bernstein, included James Carter, Geri Allen, Don Byron, Craig Handy, Mark Whitfield and Ambrose Akinmusire, among others.
This year’s concert (clocking in at close to three hours vs. last year’s two-hour show) featured the first-time JFA appearance of Bono, who delivered a rousing take on U2’s rocking hit “Angel Of Harlem” (from the band’s 1988 Rattle And Hum album), which references jazz heroes such as Holiday, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Breaking out of song, Bono shouted, “Tonight, we’re not just dedicating songs to those who have passed on, but to the ones still with us who have given us so much.”
Other marquee pop stars included the sassy, soulful Macy Gray, the bizarre-looking but exhilarating David Johansen (of New York Dolls and Buster Poindexter fame), a subdued Dr. John (a brief appearance at the end on “Motherless Child”) and blues vocalist Sweet Georgia Brown joining Gray to serve up a deep-brewed “At Last” in tribute to Etta James. The rowdy r&b belter Bettye LaVette got the entire bandstand and crowd enlivened with “Stand By Me,” which ended the concert portion of the evening.
The jazz acts were the best. Highlights included Randy Weston and his African Rhythms Trio lifting off into a spirited take on “Loose Wig” and Paquito D’Rivera offering a sublime clarinet take on the classic standard “Solitude” (“I can’t play the Apollo without playing Duke Ellington”), which he playfully spiced with a chorus of “Salt Peanuts” at the end.
A Great Night In Harlem concert co-chair Quincy Jones presented Montreux Jazz Festival impresario Claude Nobs with the JFA’s Dr. Billy Taylor Humanitarian Award. Calling Montreux “the Rolls Royce of jazz festivals,” Jones praised the 40-plus-year summer event and saluted Nobs as “my brother from another mother.” The honoree graciously accepted the award and commented on the hall itself: “There’s the Duke, the Boss, the Prince; there’s the President and the Doctor. I feel like I should take my shoes off coming in here.”
The final numbers on the sold-out concert proceeds and after-party auctions are not yet in. For more information on the JFA, which handled nearly 6,000 cases nationally and assisted some 700 musicians since the 2011 show, visit jazzfoundation.org.