‘A Great Night in Harlem’ Honors Belafonte, Bennett

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Every April, a handful of artists find themselves center stage at the Apollo Theater in front of gold-painted balconies and red-upholstered seats. Their mission: Honor the architects of American music.

On Sunday—the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1968 assassination in Memphis—the Jazz Foundation of America’s annual “A Great Night in Harlem” gala concert honored recipients of the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award, visionary artist-activists Tony Bennett and Harry Belafonte, with performances, appearances and surprise guests that included actor Ben Stiller and civil rights disruptor, Ambassador Andrew Young.

In its 17th year, the event offered supporters a night of reflection and remembrance with mic-in-hand testimonials that spotlighted the foundation’s crisis- and disaster-relief mission of “saving blues, jazz & roots, one musician at a time.”

“If we let our younger generations know these are the people that paved the way, then they won’t be forgotten,” Steve Jordan, music director for the evening, said about the influence of JFA’s mission on young artists. “In helping the elders, we bring light to them, and that helps younger players know who these people are.”

After JFA Founding Director Wendy Oxenhorn took the stage to share the foundation’s impact on lives and livelihoods of countless artists, spots lit up an elevated dance floor for the evening’s first act: Savion Glover and tenor master Patience Higgins. Before they hit, Glover hopped off stage and into the front row to greet Quincy Jones with a long embrace.

Celebrity host and JFA board member Danny Glover summoned applause with a stark, inclusive description of American music’s lineage as “the music of truth, the music of pain, love and endurance.” He then introduced Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), who’s pursuing the Democratic nomination for president, to gasps and applause.

The evening’s first surprise guest, Sanders delivered personal testimony regarding his relationship with Belafonte, whom he described as “heroic ... in the fight for human dignity.”

As the program heated up, the Count Basie Orchestra opened its set with “April In Paris,” featuring soloists Alvin Walker on trombone and band director Scotty Barnhart on trumpet. The band paid tribute to Jones, playing his 1964 arrangement of “Li’l Ol’ Goovemaker.”

Three-time Grammy nominee Bettye LaVette and living legend Patti Smith, along with their bands, each delivered one-song sets. LaVette performed Dick Holler’s “Abraham, Martin And John” in tender, vulnerable tribute to Belafonte; Smith dug in on the second verse of “Pissin’ In A River,” her 1976 composition co-written with Ivan Král, casting the mic stand behind her as she sang. She earlier spoke about her personal connection to crisis relief.

“I’ve had my own difficult patch in life, and I was able to get through it because people helped me,” Smith said. “Artists and musicians, we have our ups and downs. Knowing there is an organization like [JFA] to help others is a wonderful thing.”

While performances radiated love and thanksgiving, sobering commentary framed the evening. Judith Conley spoke about JFA’s instrumental efforts during her husband’s—former CBO member Terence Conley—challenging recovery from a coma. Delivering a first-hand account, bass player Ramón Vázquez testified to the organization’s critical impact on victims of Hurricane Maria.

Actor Stiller lowered the program’s intensity with a series of I-wish-he-were-my-dad jokes, introducing Bennett, who performed “Our Love Is Here To Stay” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which received a standing ovation.

One of the evening’s more emotional surprises played out when, flanked by board members, Ambassador Young took the stage to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of the 92-year-old Belafonte, his close friend and colleague.

Other highlights included the Dr. Frank Forte/Dizzy Gillespie Humanitarian Award recipient, JFA Board Chairman Richard Parsons, and a guest appearance by legendary artist-activist Hugh Masekela’s children, Sal Masekela and Pula Twala, who shared details of the Hugh Masekela Heritage Scholarship, which provides six South African students complete funding for four years of education at the Manhattan School of Music. With a full band, pianist-composer Larry Willis and trumpet masters Wallace Roney and Keyon Harrold performed Masekela’s breakout hit “Grazing In The Grass.”

“It was nothing short of amazing to pay homage to Hugh Masekela,” Harrold said. “I have always been inspired by his playing—totally filled with melodicism and attitude. To play ‘Grazing In The Grass’ on Hugh’s birthday at the legendary Apollo Theater in front of his children was an honor.”

Lyrical firebrand Common unleashed a series of scripted and improvised verses on “Black Kennedy” and “The Light” with Karriem Riggins, Samora Pinderhughes and the rest of August Greene. But the evening ended on a blue note when Bruce Willis joined Diunna Greenleaf, “Apollo Joe” Gray, Sweet Georgia Brown and the Apollo House Band for a slow-cooked blues. Oxenhorn brought out her harp to blow over a single chorus. DB



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July 2019
Anat Cohen
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