Friday, May 20, 2011

Great Night in Harlem 2011

What do you call it when Lou Reed, Macy Gray, and Donald Fagen jam on-stage at the storied Apollo Theater? It is a jazz concert, and a pretty important one at that. Each year, some of the hippest rock and soul artists, fully understanding the debt their music owes to jazz and blues, come out to support the Jazz Foundation of America. They also get a rare chance to cut loose and swing like mad with some jazz and blues heavy weights. Last night was no exception when former Saturday Night Live music supervisor Hal Willner took over as producer of JFA’s annual Great Night in Harlem benefit concert, with a less talk, more blues and soul format.

Of course, the sounds of New Orleans are always prominent at JFA events. The Foundation has always been there to help jazz and blues musicians in times of financial and medical need. However, Katrina was something of a wholly different magnitude, increasing their caseload several hundred-fold.

Whenever I hear the Hot 8 Brass Band, the hair stands up on the back of my neck. More than any other group, they represent the resiliency of NOLA musicians. Not even the senseless murder of drummer Dinneral Shavers (covered in-depth by CBS’s 48 Hours Mystery) could derail the indomitable combo. In recent years, tragedy struck the band once more, but the Foundation was also there again. As a result, they were able to triumphantly rock the house last night, with an assist from fellow New Orleanian Dr. John.

In addition to the Crescent City, this year’s great night also featured the sounds of Kansas City, reuniting the all-star band seen and heard throughout Robert Altman’s criminally underappreciated Kansas City. The term all-star here means musicians like Nicholas Payton, Mark Whitfield, Geri Allen, Don Byron, and Christian McBride, all headliners in their own right. The reunion of the KC Band would be a big deal at major festival. Yet, not only did they burn through the 1930’s big band standards that made Altman’s film such a joy, they also backed up Gray, Fagen, and Reed quite effectively. For instance, her uncharacteristically up-tempo “God Bless the Child” might sound like a dubious proposition, but it worked surprisingly well. In fact, Gray’s soulful vocal approach fit the swing and blues eclecticism of the evening quite aptly.

Of course, longtime JFA supporters were eagerly waiting for the Foundation’s executive director Wendy Oxenhorn to wail on the blues harp and she never disappoints. Indeed, her blues chops greatly helped establish her credibility with JFA’s clients in the early years. Jazz musicians are independent by nature (and not infrequently idiosyncratic). Convincing then to accept help, even when they are facing existential crises has been difficult at times. Fortunately, Wendy could convince them she was offering a hand-up rather than a hand-out. Then Katrina hit.

JFA has done incredible work, providing critical medical care with their partners at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey, replacing lost instruments, and preventing evictions or foreclosures. Thanks to the generosity of Vice Chair Agnes Varis, JFA has also provided meaningful work to scores of musicians through their Jazz in the Schools program, which also affords a critical introduction to jazz, the greatest expression of American values in music, to the younger generations. JFA is close to making their fundraising target with this year’s Great Night, but they are not quite there yet. To help them carry on their good work, go here.