10/10/09

Giants of Jazz Concert Honors Randy Weston

On Saturday, October 17, 2009, the life and music of pianist Randy Weston will be celebrated in a concert featuring an all-star lineup of jazz players, including six notable pianists—Monty Alexander, Geri Allen, Cyrus Chestnut, Barry Harris, Mulgrew Miller and Billy Taylor. The concert takes place at a school auditorium in South Orange, New Jersey. The organizer is himself a musician of note: Bassist John Lee, who performed with Dizzy Gillespie for many years. Lee told JT that the tribute concert is actually a fund-raiser for the summer concert series he has presented in South Orange every summer since 1997. It seems that Lee, a longtime resident, had grown weary of seeing jazz given short shrift in the concert series in nearby Flood Hill Park. “So I told the local head of parks and recreation that I wanted to organize a jazz concert. I got the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band. And the park was packed. The guy said to me, ‘Wow, look at this crowd. You’ve got people of all races, all ages, all types here.’ That got his attention. I’ve been doing a jazz series there ever since.”

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Geri Allen TD Toronto Jazz Festival 2008
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Dr. Billy Taylor

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Lee soon realized that to bring in top talent it would take more than just calling in favors. He wanted to keep the summer concerts free for the entire community and that meant he needed to raise some money. So he organized a concert with Phil Woods & Jackie McLean. “We didn’t actually honor them that year. But that’s when I got the idea. Seeing them made me think about all these great artists out there. It seems some guys get skipped over with all the awards and honors.” Lee called the concert “The Giants of Jazz,” and honored Benny Golson the next year. Lee couldn’t believe how readily fellow artists offered to participate. “When people hear who we’re honoring, they start calling me to ask me to be involved. It’s a real love fest each time. Like this year, I can’t believe that we have these six world-class pianists performing.” But that’s not all. Besides those pianists, performers in the concert on October 17 will include Frank Wess, Roy Hargrove, Don Braden, Roberta Gambarini, Jimmy Heath, Rufus Reid, T.S. Monk, Benny Powell and other notables. And of course the organizer himself, who has been wearing multiple hats for some time now.

Lee told JT that he’s always been involved on the business side of things. “I was with Dizzy Gillespie for about nine years and eventually I became what some people might call the ‘straw boss’ taking care of all the details and managing the band on the road.” He also runs a recording studio and now even a record label. Recent releases include CDs from the Heath Brothers, Cyrus Chestnut, Steve Davis and One For All.

But he said that he doesn’t feel that as a musician he cares any more about the performers than other promoters. “Most of the promoters are just as passionate about jazz as we are. I do try to take care of the little things from a musician’s point of view.

The inclusion of Dr. Billy Taylor in the evening’s festivities is no accident. Dr. Taylor has been a mentor to Lee throughout his tenure as a concert promoter. “He’s been so helpful to me with just about everything. He’s been there every step of the way. During the concert he usually sits next to me by the side of the stage. I can remember him sitting there when Barry Harris was tearing it up on a blues. Billy sort of shifted forward and said, ‘Uh-oh.’”

We asked Lee whom he was considering as the honoree for next year, but he said that he hadn’t decided other than that he was thinking of honoring a bassist or a drummer. If you have any suggestions, please feel free to chime in with a comment below.

The Giants of Jazz Concert will be held at 7:30 PM at the South Orange Middle School at 70 North Ridgewood Road. Tickets are just $35. To purchase tickets or obtain more information about the show, visit the site of the Center for the South Orange Department of Recreation and Cultural Affairs.

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