Friday, May 15, 2009

Great Night 2009

It is not a great time to ask for money, so it was heartening to see a full house for the Jazz Foundation of America’s annual Great Night in Harlem at the Apollo Theater. As usual, some of the biggest names in music came out to support a truly worthy cause.

For twenty years, JFA has been a lifeline for jazz and blues musicians in desperate financial need—artists without insurance, pensions, or even proper royalty accounting. JFA has been there to prevent evictions and to provide emergency medical treatment with their partners at the Englewood Hospital and Medical Center. Always overworked, their caseload exploded during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. According to their multi-talented Executive Director Wendy Oxenhorn, ten years ago, they were working with 35 musicians, all based in New York. Last year, the Jazz Foundation had 1,600 clients around the world.

The Great Night concerts usually feature several celebrity co-hosts, but last minute illnesses sidelined board-member Danny Glover and longtime supporter Chevy Chase, so their duties were left to the Sopranos’s Michael Imperioli, Wendy Oxenhorn, and pinch hitter Dick Parsons. Chairman of Citicorp. Of course, it is nice to see famous figures show their support for JFA, but the music is the real attraction at their Apollo galas.

This year’s concert was billed as a “tribute to the blues,” which they broadly defined, in a departure from the all-star jazz jams that characterized their earlier Apollo shows.
Even before the show formally started, there was a relaxed pre-concert set from Piedmont bluesman John Dee Holeman, consisting of variations on blues classics like “Mojo Hand” and “Hoochie Coochie Man.”

Of course, there was still a healthy amount of jazz, including a guitar trio led by Dr. Frank Forte, the Englewood physician who has treated thousands of JFA referrals pro bono. He can play too, leading accomplished jazz guitarists Gene Bertoncini and Bucky Pizzarelli through an enjoyable rendition of “If I Had You.” Jazz pianist Eric Lewis also played a hypnotic power solo rendition of his “(Here) In Your Arms,” complete with rock-star lighting effects, sounding radically different from his stint with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

JFA will probably forever be associated with New Orleans, so naturally there were several performances by NOLA musicians. An all-star group including R&B vocalist Irma Thomas and contemporary blues piano-man Dr. John paid tribute to the late great funky pianist-vocalist Eddie Bo (Bocage). Happily, everyone seemed perfectly in-synch, which is often not the case for all-star blowing sessions. Thomas dug deep into the blues bag on “You can Have My Husband but Don’t Mess with My Man,” inspiring a Chuck Berry-style duckwalk from R&B guitarist Deacon John Moore.

NOLA blues were also represented in the person of Henry Butler, arguably heir to Professor Longhair’s throne as king of the funky New Orleans piano-players. His blues-drenched cover of the Otis Redding standard “Dock of the Bay,” was an obvious audience pleaser. Perhaps the most recognizable musician of the evening was the penultimate Lou Reed, who also got in on the blues act with a medley that included Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” as well as the Velvet Underground favorite “Romeo Had Juliet.”

In keeping with JFA tradition, this year’s Great Night closed with Sweet Georgia Brown belting out “Stormy Monday” and “Let the Good Times Roll,” the former featuring Wendy’s eagerly anticipated harmonica solo, nearly sabotaged this year by a faulty harp. Fortunately, a replacement was found, and she killed the crowd, as usual.

Wendy and the Foundation do amazing work on behalf of the musicians who have made jazz the great American art-form. Just because you play jazz or the blues, doesn’t mean you should the blues if you ever get sick or injured. That is where the staff of the Foundation has been coming in for twenty years. The concert might be over, but you can still hear it tomorrow and next Thursday on Sirius Radio. You can also still donate online or by mailing a check to:

Jazz Foundation of America
322 W. 48th St., 6th Floor
New York, NY 10036