“When’s the next gig?” So spoke the trumpeter, composer, bandleader, and Strata-East Records founder Charles Tolliver after receiving the Jazz Foundation of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award on June 23 at City Winery in New York City—one of the highlights of the foundation’s annual Spotlight Jazz benefit event. His query was a clear indication that Tolliver, at a remarkably vibrant 80 years of age, continues to be interested in looking forward, not back. But it’s also a question that countless jazz musicians are asking every day as they struggle to rebuild their lives and careers in the wake of an economically devastating two-year period of loss, lockdown, and constant uncertainty.
That’s where the Jazz Foundation comes in, stepping in to support artists and bring them back from the financial brink. As executive director Joe Petrucelli noted from the City Winery stage, the foundation’s capacities have grown exponentially over the past two years, as has the number of people who’ve been helped by it. These facts are somehow both encouraging and saddening, as an even bigger one looms above them: The pandemic may or may not be almost over, but the need it generated remains great. Most folks in the jazz world are the epitome of the independent contractor; they can’t file for unemployment, and they can’t cash out their 401(k)s as a last resort. But they’ve still got to pay their rent every month, even if they haven’t had a steady gig for the last six, or 12, or 18.
Electric violinist Lorenzo Laroc, a former member of percussionist Sheila E.’s band, found himself in just such a predicament during the COVID outbreak, and the JFA came to his rescue. His appearance at Spotlight Jazz, on video and in person, brought home both the gravity of the situation and the gratitude of those who’ve been helped. Playing to a pre-recorded hip-hoppy track, he pointed his instrument’s headstock up in the air, then balanced it under his chin and took away his left hand, letting his arm and the violin neck float unencumbered while still bowing the open strings with his right. Sure, it was kind of a gimmick, but it also carried a sense of invocation—a celebratory gesture that seemed to be requesting further action.
The other performances were first-rate. Tolliver ripped through two complex numbers, “Copasetic” and “Suspicion” from his 2020 album Connect, flanked by Jaleel Shaw on alto saxophone, Victor Gould and Keith Brown on piano—the former on the first tune, the latter on the second—Bruce Edwards on guitar, Buster Williams on bass, and Lenny White on drums. (The JFA’s usual house drummer for these events, Steve Jordan, is currently in Europe with the Rolling Stones but was instrumental as always in organizing this show.) Pianist and vocalist Johnny O’Neal gave a touching rendition of “Did I Ever Really Live?” Melanie Charles got the crowd going with her singing, her flute playing, and her way with technology; for her version of Betty Carter’s “Jazz (Ain’t Nothin’ But Soul),” she flew in samples from her own recording of the song (available on her 2021 album Y’all Don’t (Really) Care About Black Women) and triggered them repeatedly at the push of a button, thereby extending and multiplying the sounds of her live voice. And top-notch blues singer Shemekia Copeland closed the night deep in the groove, with help from singer/guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks.
Yet in the end, it was the cause more than the concertizing that held primacy here. The JFA’s achievements since March 2020 are many, and this event was a splendid way to celebrate them, but it was also a reminder that there’s a lot more to be done. If you are in a position to give, please do.