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Sonny Rollins: Soulful Soldier

The saxophone colossus is honored in Harlem

Danny Glover listens as Sonny Rollins accepts his Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Foundation of America, Apollo Theater, NYC, Oct. 2015
Billy Harper, James Carter and Ravi Coltrane (from left) at the Jazz Foundation of America gala, Apollo Theater, NYC, Oct. 2015
Keith Richards (right) and Waddy Wachtel at the Jazz Foundation of America gala, Apollo Theater, NYC, Oct. 2015

There’s a large, lovely wall behind the stage of the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem. It appears to be brick painted some shade of eggshell, perfect for any sort of illumination, whether stark or soft; I’ve seen it look gorgeous cast in red or blue. There is, therefore, no need to project images of contemporary New York City graffiti onto it, especially throughout the majority of a terrific program featuring some of the greatest musicians alive today. The desired vibe seemed obvious enough: jazz and blues are raw, real American expression born in the streets, as is graffiti art … or something. But backgrounding the blues-lite singer-songwriter Keb’ Mo’ with murals of the Clash’s Joe Strummer and Tupac Shakur provides little more than a distracting non sequitur. The same for acoustic jazz and roots performances accented by images of Betty Boop, or a Nazi-fied Ronald McDonald, or the lowbrow aerosol that covers the bars near my building in Queens.

But let’s not turn annoyance into pettiness, particularly when dealing with what was essentially a glitzy act of nobility. The Jazz Foundation of America’s 14th annual gala concert, held at the Apollo on Oct. 22, was won right out of the gate: The JFA’s executive director, 2016 NEA Jazz Master Wendy Oxenhorn, announced that the event had already earned hundreds of thousands of dollars to use to help ailing musicians; a later, all-inclusive sum came to $1.5 million. And the concert was its trademark deft blend of heavy-duty mainstream jazz with the rock and R&B royalty that add sparkle for the laypeople. This year, with the addition of show-closer Keith Richards performing the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” the event received high-profile press typically reserved for televised awards shows. Another victory. (Seeing Richards lock into one of his shambling grooves at close range is the caliber of memory that quickly becomes a bullet on your short list of beer-drinking stories.)

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