Before International Jazz Day, Two Local Ones

Benefits for the Jazz Foundation of America and Jazz House Kids show the community orientation that drives Jazz Appreciation Month

Ledisi and the Jazz House Kids Big Band
Ledisi and the Jazz House Kids Big Band, conducted by Abraham Burton, at City Winery, New York, April 17, 2019 (photo: Richard Conde)

Jazz Appreciation Month, as April has been designated for the past 19 years by the Smithsonian Institution, ended yesterday (April 30) with the eighth annual International Jazz Day. Celebratory events were held worldwide, but the focal point was Melbourne, Australia, site of an all-star show featuring performers from around the globe. Unity seemed to be on everyone’s mind. Early on in the concert, Herbie Hancock, the man who came up with the original idea for IJD, spoke of jazz as a “universal language of peace.” The show’s co-organizer, Australian trumpeter James Morrison, went so far as to muse, “If only the world were one big jazz band,” just before Antonio Hart soloed on a Persian melody over a tabla-and-didgeridoo groove. As has become customary in these concerts, John Lennon’s “Imagine” was the final number, its hope that “the world will live as one” seeming more necessary than ever in 2019. (Look for a full report from Australia on jazztimes.com soon.)

While IJD is perhaps the premier current example of jazz thinking globally, two earlier April shows in New York ably demonstrated the other side of the equation, acting locally with a clear and compelling sense of purpose. The Jazz Foundation of America’s “A Great Night in Harlem” benefit concert at the Apollo Theater on April 4 and the Jazz House Kids spring gala at City Winery on April 17 fostered a different kind of jazz appreciation—not just of the music itself but of the community that values it, and of how that community’s members care for each other.

The April 4 benefit was the 17th “Great Night in Harlem” and marked the 30th anniversary of the Jazz Foundation. Two special honorees, Harry Belafonte and Tony Bennett, had been announced as Lifetime Achievement Award recipients well before the event. The former unfortunately ended up being unable to attend; the latter was present and sang with all the authority one could possibly expect from a 92-year-old. The night wasn’t about star power, though. Nor was it really about the music, as good as much of it was (thanks in large part to a crack house band led by drummer Steve Jordan). A tribute to Hugh Masekela, for example—“Grazing in the Grass,” featuring Wallace Roney, Keyon Harrold, and Masekela’s longtime pal Larry Willis—had an infectious bounce. But what lingered in the memory far longer was the announcement by Masekela’s children that the foundation named for their father was helping to support a new scholarship, which would pay for the entirety of six South African students’ undergraduate education at his alma mater, the Manhattan School of Music.

Other acts of kindness more directly attributable to the Jazz Foundation provided the night’s most touching moments. Terence Conley, a former pianist for the Count Basie Orchestra grievously injured in a bus accident 10 years ago, thanked the Foundation for the financial support it gave his family during his long convalescence. Bassist Ramon Vazquez testified to the help that the Foundation has provided both to him and nearly 200 other Puerto Rican musicians in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. And Dr. Frank Forte talked about the program he has overseen for the past 25 years, with the Foundation’s assistance, at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey, where more than 2,000 jazz musicians to date have received free medical care.

Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett at the Jazz Foundation of America’s “A Great Night in Harlem” gala concert, April 4, 2019 (photo: Udo Salters Photography)

Two weeks later and a few miles downtown, the Jazz House Kids spring gala announced itself with an instantly engaging theme: “The 60th Anniversary of the Most Influential Year in Jazz.” That year would be 1959, in case you were wondering, and six albums recorded during those 12 months were spotlighted over the course of the evening. First, Ledisi—best known as an R&B singer but also in possession of a strong set of jazz chops—covered “Someone to Watch Over Me” from Ella Sings the Gershwin Songbook and “Come Rain or Come Shine” from The Genius of Ray Charles, backed with flair by the Jazz House Kids Big Band, comprising 17 high-school students who are part of the New Jersey-based education program (and who placed first in the 2019 Charles Mingus Festival and High School Competition).

Next, Ravi Coltrane made the bold decision to take on the toughest song from his father’s Giant Steps album—the title track—with help from bassist Peter Washington and two Jazz House alumni, pianist Isaiah Thompson and drummer Whisper McRae (now studying at Juilliard and SUNY Purchase, respectively). Another alum of the program, alto saxophonist Zoe Obadia, sat in with the Bill Charlap Trio on Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out.” And one can only imagine what a thrill it must have been for saxophonist Julian Lee and pianist Caelan Cardello to play Miles Davis’ “So What” alongside Coltrane, bassist Christian McBride, and the man who played drums on the original Kind of Blue recording, 90-year-old Jimmy Cobb (also the recipient of a Jazz Luminary Award that night).

McBride’s New Jawn band, featuring trumpeter Josh Evans, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland, and drummer Nasheet Waits, rounded out the evening with a spirited take on Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” from The Shape of Jazz to Come. NBC Nightly News’ Lester Holt was the M.C., and also got a chance to show off his formidable bass skills, trading eights with McBride for the closing all-hands-on-deck “Love Is Here to Stay.” But as with the Jazz Foundation concert at the Apollo, the brilliance of the set list was secondary to the overarching mission of the event.

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Marcus Strickland, Christian McBride, Josh Evans, and Nasheet Waits
Left to right: Marcus Strickland, Christian McBride, Josh Evans, and Nasheet Waits at the Jazz House Kids Spring Gala, April 17, 2019 (photo: Neil Grabowsky/Through the Lens Studios)

Jazz House Kids, headed by Melissa Walker (McBride’s wife and a talented artist in her own right), got its start 16 years ago in Newark, bringing instruments and jazz education to underserved public-school students. And though it has recently made its first foray outside New Jersey—supporting a music program at the Grand Street Campus high schools in Brooklyn—it remains proudly focused on doing good on its home turf. This was evident in the program’s testimonial letters from the mayors of Newark and Montclair, and in two other awards presented that night: the Community Champion Award, given to New Jersey Performing Arts Center president and CEO John Schreiber, and the James Moody Scholarship for New Jersey, which went to saxophonist Jalin Shiver, a senior at Arts High School in Newark and longtime Jazz House Kids member.

The charitable efforts of the Jazz Foundation of America and Jazz House Kids show the jazz community at its best. In the unified spirit of Jazz Appreciation Month 2019, they gave us two notable local jazz days, leading up to the big global one. And they are two organizations that are worthy of your support. If you are so moved, visit jazzfoundation.org and jazzhousekids.org, and do what you can to help the universal language of peace be heard just a little louder.

Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall has been the editor of JazzTimes since May 2018. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.