Jazz Foundation of America Hosts ‘A Great Night in Harlem’
Jazz, blues and pop royalty assembled at the Apollo Theater on May 17 for the Jazz Foundation of America’s 12th annual “A Great Night in Harlem” gala. Produced by Hal Willner, the three-hour show, featuring the Steven Bernstein-conducted Kansas City Band as the event’s house band, was packed with surprises by artists of all ages.
The evening began with a few words from JFA President Jarrett Lilien, who explained that the New York-based nonprofit provides performance opportunities and assistance to more than 5,000 elderly musicians annually.
“They made the soundtracks of our lives,” Lilien said, adding that the “Great Night in Harlem” program is a special acknowledgment to the people who have contributed to jazz’s cultural legacy. Executive Director Wendy Atlas Oxenhorn also explained that JFA’s job is “not just about saving the music, but about saving the artists.”
One of the most noteworthy performances of the night was from a JFA beneficiary. Charles Gayle set aside his saxophone to perform a rambling, fractured-chord excursion on the piano, teeming with playful dissonance and moving lyricism. Gayle’s story of how he first associated with JFA was just as poignant: Members of the organization knocked on his door in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy’s power outages in New York last fall.
“They brought me roast chickens,” Gayle said onstage. “I experienced love from the people.”
Outstanding rising stars also flourished. Early in the show, dazzling 12-year-old blind pianist Matthew Whitaker played a rousing stand-up-and-dance tune. Later in the evening, Azerbaijani pianist Isfar Sarabski led his hard-driving trio in a rollicking number inflected with traditional folk, blues, funk and rock. Fellow pianist Jonathan Batiste also blew through with a tempo- and style-shifting powerhouse performance, ranging in influence from ragtime to rock.
Two elder statesmen brought down the house: Chicago vocalist Babi Floyd and Texas blues legend Long John Hunter. Floyd sang a self-composed tune, “All Alone,” with a dozen background vocalists in support. Though he needed a hand to get to the mic and strap on his guitar, Hunter dug into a deep blues groove on the song “Irene” with searing tenor saxophone support from James Carter, whom Hunter dubbed “Captain Blow.”
Another highlight was Don Byron, Nicholas Payton, Jerry Dodgion and Henry Butler performing the 1940s jump-blues/swing tune “Wondering Where,” a song put on the map by the John Kirby Sextet. Elvis Costello put on his jazz shoes during several tunes from the Kansas City Band, including the pop tune “Point Of No Return,” a swinging version of his own hit “Watching The Detectives” and a jam-like finale, “Compared To What,” where Costello shared the stage with vocalist Macy Gray.
Several special guests also spoke between performances, including actors Morgan Freeman and Danny Glover, as well as keyboardist Paul Shaffer. Producer Quincy Jones spoke in tribute to one of his early mentors, trumpeter Clark Terry, and paid homage to the Montreux Jazz Festival’s late artistic director, Claude Nobs.