REPORT: The Jazz Foundation of America’s A Great Night in Harlem at the Apollo Theater

The re-formed Mwandishi band. Photo copyright Jazz Foundation of America / Enid Farber

Paul Pace reports from last month’s annual fund-raising gala of the Jazz Foundation of America:

On the evening of Friday 24th October 2014, I was fortunate to be in the audience at the annual fund-raising gala entitled ‘A Great Night in Harlem’ held by the Jazz Foundation of America at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem New York – the incubator of many a star within jazz, blues and soul, from Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald through to James Brown and Aretha Franklin. The venue was the appropriate backdrop for the feast of world-class talent on show that rainy night as well as a focus point for the extremely worthy mission of the JFA.

The evening was hosted by the inspirational Executive Director Wendy Oxenhorn, in order to raise monies for their Jazz Musicians’ Emergency Fund, specifically destined to ease the financial burdens of rent, hospital and home-care bills of jazz, soul and blues musicians who find themselves fallen on hard times.

In the party tent located behind the Apollo and prior to the concert, there were numerous examples described to a seated audience largely comprising donors from the business world and pillars of the local community, whereby ailing and financially strapped musicians and their families were handed back their lives through the efforts of the JFA. Looking dapper as Guest of Honour and recipient of the night’s Life Achievement Award, Herbie Hancock and his wife Gigi beamed from their table at this glittering occasion.

Speeches made, VIP guests were ushered from the marquee tent across the road and through the artists’ entrance to the auditorium with its splendid neo-classical decor. Warming up the room was 13 year old pianist Matthew Whitaker. Early turns were from Benin-born songwriter Angélique Kidjo singing a poignant tribute to Nelson Mandela as the opener accompanied by bass guitar, followed by rising star Cuban pianist Jorge Luis Pacheco with his trio.

Watching from the front row was musical legend Quincy Jones who spoke movingly about his mentor Clark Terry after a clip from a forthcoming documentary Keep On Keeping On was shown on the drop-down screen. In the scene, the bedridden trumpeter, was defiantly tutoring a young jazz piano student on how to play fewer notes but make them count. Footage of another soulful veteran, the much loved Jimmy Scott singing a torch ballad also brought the audience to an emotional standstill. Through the auspices of the JFA, both Terry and Scott were afforded nursing care within their family homes rather than in a less personal hospital ward. Clark is still very much with us even though his mobility is no more. As a musical tribute to Clark, there followed a spirited performance of Jimmy Heath‘s Gingerbread Boy from the diminutive hard bop tenorist and composer of the song, who was about to turn 88, playing magnificently with his brother Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath on drums, trumpeter Wallace Roney, bassist Buster Williams and Herbie Hancock on piano.

The stage was reassembled with a funk rhythm section featuring Earth Wind and Fire’s bassist Verdine White who later paid tribute to his elder brother Maurice who unfortunately was not well enough to attend. Drummer and musical director for the gala was Steve Jordan – armed with a demonic rhythmic pulse and watchful eye, who kept things moving between speeches. Veteran session guitarist Ray Parker Jr and keyboardist Paul Shaffer  – who will be familiar to many as MD of the house band for the Letterman show – completed the back line. A row of horn players including trombonist Clifton Anderson and saxophonist Ron Blake lined up back stage and with backing vocalists to the fore, soul songstress Chaka Khan strutted onto the stage whilst a groove that could not be denied was laid down. In great voice, she soared above the rhythm on one of her early hits with Rufus, Tell Me Something Good segueing into personal EW&F favourite, Shining Star.

The funk continued with the irrepressible Charles Bradley displaying an emotive vocal style and deft stage moves evoking the early Apollo shows of James Brown. Later that evening, he kept dancers on their feet at the after-show gathering in the party tent with a exclusively JB set running into the early hours.

Herbie Hancock returned to the stage to introduce 11 year old Indonesian piano prodigy Joey Alexander. Joey made a fine fist out of Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight to rapturous applause before Hancock who had been sitting attentively next to the young maestro, joked about his young colleague that he might be putting him out of work. It was at this point, actor Bruce Willis presented Hancock with his JFA Life Achievement Award.

Next came the moment that jazz buffs thought they would never see reprised – the reunion of Mwandishi, Hancock’s band of 40 years previously and the 3-album project blending free and modal jazz which preceded the ground breaking Headhunters album. Hancock was joined by a dream team of some of jazz’s most searching and respected players: trumpeter Eddie Henderson, saxophonist and flautist Bennie Maupin, trombonist Julian Priester, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy Hart, and dreamy it was, with the tone poem of Toys (actually first recorded for Hancock’s 1968 album Speak Like A Child‘) creating a profound ethereal interlude.

We were back with a jolt with the anthematic Chameleon – Hancock and Maupin locking in with Parker Jr, bassist James Genus and a textbook syncopated funk backbeat laid down by Jordan. A rocking blues section followed with a couple numbers from guitarist and vocalist Susan Tedeschi and an ecstatic audience response to Bruce Willis’ star turns on blues harp and gritty vocals – and still the theatre building stayed intact! JFA supremo Wendy Oxenhorn garnered a heartfelt connection with her self-effacing introduction to the final part of the evening as well as performing a winning blues harp solo herself. All the leading performers – Chaka, Hancock, Verdine White, Willis et al returned for the finale, a rousing rendition of Earth Wind and Fire’s That’s The Way of The World.

Jazz Foundation of America Website

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