Marsalis, Lovano Champion Disability Pride at Winter JazzFest


Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (foreground), bassist Christian McBride and drummer Joe Farnsworth perform at the Jazz Legends for Disability Pride concert on Jan. 14 in New York (Photo: Deirdre Bird Rose)

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The 2016 Winter JazzFest, a marathon featuring more than 100 jazz groups playing in multiple venues in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, began on a note of charity and goodwill. The bulk of the concerts took place on Jan. 15–16, but on Jan. 14, two dozen of jazz’s greatest artists, including NEA Jazz Masters Wynton Marsalis, George Coleman and Jimmy Cobb, came together at the Quaker Friends Meeting Hall in a concert billed Jazz Legends for Disability Pride.

The $100 ticket event raised funds for Disability Pride NYC, a not-for-profit organization founded by keyboardist Mike LeDonne whose mission is “to instill a sense of pride in the community and change the public perception of people with disabilities.” All proceeds supported this year’s second annual Disability Pride Parade.

LeDonne, whose 11-year-old daughter, Mary, was born with a rare genetic disorder, explained that his inspiration for starting the organization in 2015 was, appropriately, a song. He shared an anecdote about attending his daughter’s graduation from a school for blind and cognitively disabled children. He said he remembered feeling bad for the children.

“The turning point was when this choir came out while I was feeling that way and they started singing, ‘Gray skies are going to clear up, so put on a happy face,’” said LeDonne. “And I took the words literally, as if they were singing it right to me. And I thought, ‘Wow! Here they are making me feel better. I thought I had to make them feel better, and here they are helping me.’ I turned to my wife and said, ‘You know they just had Gay Pride Day, why isn’t there Disability Pride Day?’”

Shortly afterward, LeDonne created a Facebook page for Disability Pride NYC, and eventually others began to spread the word. The only problem, said LeDonne, was raising money for the parade.

“The disability community … can’t easily raise the kind of funds necessary to put on a big [event],” said LeDonne. “I thought, ‘Well, all I know is music and musicians, so what if I try to put together a concert?’”

He reached out to saxophonist Benny Golson and bassist Ron Carter, both of whom he had worked with, and explained to them that he was trying to put together the first Jazz Legends for Disability Pride benefit concert. Golson and Carter both agreed to perform, and soon after, so did a number of New York-based jazz stalwarts, including pianists Bill Charlap, Brad Mehldau, Renee Rosnes and Harold Mabern, as well as drummer Jimmy Cobb and guitarist Russell Malone. With the performers in place, the first Jazz Legends for Disability Pride concert was held on Jan. 8, 2015.

LeDonne proudly notes, “It was a great success. We raised a lot of money and it put us on the map.” As a result of the concert, funding began to pour in, and LeDonne’s dream of hosting a parade for disability awareness became a reality. On July 12, 2015, New York City had its first Disability Pride Parade in 21 years.

This year’s Jazz Legends For Disability Pride concert featured many of the same musicians who performed last year, plus a few new faces, most notably Wynton Marsalis. The trumpeter declared, “It’s a privilege to play with my colleagues on behalf of this worthy cause. I have a little brother, [Mboya Kenyatta], that suffers from severe autism. I thank all the musicians on behalf of families who have members who are disabled in some way. My hat goes off to Mike. It’s a great honor to be part of this initiative.”

LeDonne kicked off this year’s concert with a spirited reading of “On Green Dolphin Street” accompanied by his regular bandmates, bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth. Marsalis, with pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Christian McBride and Farnsworth, followed with rousing renditions of “What Is This Thing Called Love” and a harmonically altered “Embraceable You,” the trumpeter’s clarion sound filling the hall sans microphone as he strode about the bandstand.

Charlap (with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington) skillfully wed the standards “Dance Only With Me” and “Dream Dancing,” and the quartet of Mabern, guitarist Peter Bernstein, Webber and Cobb swung hard on Dexter Gordon’s “Cheese Cake,” then mellowed with “Getting Sentimental Over You,” before pianist Monty Alexander, bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Carl Allen closed out the first half with a soulful jazz calypso.

Saxophonist Joe Lovano stepped in for Benny, playing the ailing saxophonist’s “Along Came Betty” and “Stablemates” with his quintet featuring trumpeter Eddie Henderson, LeDonne, bassist Buster Williams and Allen, after which vocalist Roberta Gambarini was heard on “Body And Soul” and the Johnny Griffin blues “The Jamfs Are Coming.”

With time running short, drummer Louis Hayes, alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, Rosnes and Webber burned through Cole Porter’s “Love Walked In” before Coleman closed things out by trading “Rhythm” changes with Mabern, Webber and son George Coleman, Jr. on drums.

(Note: To read a review of the album Live In Cuba by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, click here. To learn more about Disability Pride NYC, visit the organization’s website.)

—Russ Musto

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