Institutional support in jazz is now essential to the music’s health, but it can sometimes seem like a satire of charity: a few thousand dollars of grant money to a postgraduate trust-funder, so that he or she might finally finish that chamber-jazz song cycle about whale watching and not get razzed by the family during Christmastime in Connecticut. The Jazz Foundation of America, which held its annual fundraising gala concert at the Apollo Theater on April 20, deals more in authentic beneficence: healthcare for jazz and roots musicians in dire need of it; home repair for working artists whose communities, such as those in Puerto Rico and Texas and Louisiana, have been devastated by extreme weather. We’re not talking about “Music is a healing force, so check out my Kickstarter” stuff; this is inarguable good.
The Apollo show/schmooze is an integral date for the JFA’s books, and the event does a consistently fine job of balancing the music culture that the organization serves with the fireworks that keep philanthropists and their dates coming back. Although this year’s lineup came off as lower-key—recent editions have featured Keith Richards and John Mayer—it still delivered. Davell Crawford’s gospel choir provided a spiritual overture, before pianist Matthew Whitaker dispelled the notion that prodigies lack soul.
Saxophonist Jimmy Heath and his drummer brother Tootie received their 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from Chevy Chase, before performing two tunes: Blue Mitchell’s Caribbean hard-bop offering “Fungii Mama,” with high-note trumpet specialist Jon Faddis, pianist Harold Mabern and bassist Rufus Reid; and “Nardis,” which swapped out Mabern for Chase. (The comedian gave it the old college try, and his playing demonstrated real enthusiasm and an obvious penchant for the style of the tune’s greatest interpreter, his pal Bill Evans. He unhitched from the rhythm section for a spell, and the arrangement seemed … let’s call it casual, but all’s well that ends with Tootie Heath.)
Under the musical direction of drummer Steve Jordan, the concert moved with striking efficiency. During the segment to honor Roberta Flack, Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard made Gene McDaniels’ “Compared to What” into a roof-raising moment that felt tailored for the Apollo. (Howard’s comfortable fire evoked Les McCann as vividly as it did Flack.) Cassandra Wilson brought her bewitching signatures to “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” and had fun singing with Nona Hendryx, who’d given “Strange Fruit” a sort of rock-musical treatment earlier. Eddie Palmieri performed starkly wistful solo piano in memory of his late wife, before a blues finale honored Otis Rush.
At the close, guitarists Jimmie Vaughan, Doyle Bramhall II, Isaiah Sharkey and Ronnie Baker Brooks traded choruses as Houston singer Diunna Greenleaf and actor Bruce Willis, also on harmonica, belted out “Shim Sham Shimmy.” It was freewheeling in execution but also savvy programming, pleasing to a roots-music aficionado or a well-heeled Die Hard fan.