It took but a few notes played by alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón and pianist Fabian Almazan to quiet the room full of contributors who had been festively socializing during the hour-long cocktail reception that kicked off The Jazz Gallery Honors Gala at The Players Club in New York City on May 15. The duo performed a stirring rendition of “Rabo De Nube,” and the swiftness of the transformation of the mood in the toney Gramercy Park chamber from raucous to serene was as much a testament to the audience’s true appreciation of the music they had gathered together to support as it was to the beauty of the sounds emanating from the bandstand.
Both the song by Silvio Rodriguez, a leading figure of Cuba’s politicized nueva trova music tradition and the players, one Puerto Rican, the other Cuban, underscored the Gallery’s 20-plus-year mission as an “international cultural center … sustaining a tradition of artistic excellence in jazz.”
As such, the evening billed as a “celebration to honor four luminaries for their contribution to the world of jazz” was a testimony to the organization’s own outsized role in moving the music forward into the 21st century.
The awards ceremony began with opening remarks from the event’s co-chairmen, impresarios Todd Barkan and James Browne, followed by singer and WBGO radio personality and Jazz Gallery founding member Lezlie Harrison. In a brief recounting the Gallery’s humble origins, she shared stories of bringing the club to fruition with fellow founders Dale Fitzgerald (1942–2015) and trumpeter Roy Hargrove. Harrison then introduced the presenter of the night’s Founders Award, Cuban born composer and conductor Tania Leon, who bestowed the award upon its honoree, Chucho Valdés. With Leon translating, Valdés detailed the story of the Gallery’s role in realizing his dream to come to New York and play his own music.
Almazan then returned to the stage, along with bassist John Benitez, to accompany Chilean songstress Claudia Acuña on her heartrending reading of Luis Miguel’s “La Puerta” that had Roy Hargrove blowing soft sensitive flugelhorn obbligati. George Wein next came to the podium to present the first of the ceremony’s two Contributor To The Arts Awards to H.I.P. philanthropist Arthur Barnes. In his opening remarks, Wein lauded Acuña’s performance as “one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.” The legendary founder of the Newport Jazz Festival went on to fete Barnes for his long history of generous support of jazz.
Barnes told of his introduction to the music as a youngster, brought by his father to Carnegie Hall in 1943 to hear Duke Ellington. Since that day, he said, jazz had become “the theme song of my life.” Noting the shrinking of government support for the arts, he emphasized the need for private individuals to step up to fill the gap, as well as the responsibility of elders to pass on an appreciation for the music to succeeding generations. Former DownBeat editor and Grammy Award winning journalist/historian Dan Morgenstern then presented the second Contributor To The Arts Award to Mosaic’s Michael Cuscuna, who accepted the honor with humility, humor and grace, lauding Morgenstern for his role in his early development as a writer, before going on to become one of jazz’s premier record producers.
A musical tribute to the night’s final honoree, Charles Lloyd, followed. A quintet with tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott joining Hargrove on the frontline and drummer E. J. Strickland filling out the rhythm section with Almazan and Benitez, performed Lloyd’s soulful “Songs My Lady Sings” with the composer looking on intently from his front-row seat.
Beginning deliberately at a measured medium tempo, with Pennicott’s legato lines intermittently reminiscent of Lloyd’s distinctive tone and phrasing, the ensemble’s sound progressively grew bolder, freely modulating into a spiritual Trane-esque interlude before returning to the melody to conclude the performance that earned the approval of Lloyd, who applauded the band with his hands raised in the air high above his head.
Pianist Jason Moran began his presentation of the Jazz Gallery Lifetime Achievement Award to Lloyd with a poetic introduction worthy of the saxophonist himself, before detailing a bit of his history with the multi-instrumentalist bandleader he calls his mentor. In his acceptance speech, Lloyd began modestly, praising the nearby Wein for his refusal to buy into the “plantation system” propagated by many jazz presenters and then waxed poetically himself, telling of his upbringing in Memphis and journeys to first New York and finally California. With humor and hipness, he apologized for his occasional risqué references by saying “pardon my lyrics.” He ended his remarks proclaiming, “This is the music of freedom and wonder. My dreams are amplified in the songs I sing.”
The celebration concluded in a final musical tribute with conguero Mauricio Herrera joining the earlier quintet for Valdés’ “Mambo For Roy,” a fiery Afro-Cuban opus that incited incendiary solos by Hargrove, Pennicott and Almazan and peaked with a climactic percussion interlude that had Benitez beating the body of his bass as Herrera and Strickland exchanged grooving rhythms that had most people dancing in their seats and some up on their feet. DB