Star-studded, multi-band galas can easily become tedious, but the Jazz Foundation of America’s annual gala featured a long, long list of performers which moved expertly onward, both musically and technically. Devoid of the interminable equipment adjustments we’ve come to hate, the combination of seasoned performers’ professionalism, musical director Steve Jordan’s planning and the Apollo Theater’s 80-plus years of experience started the evening simply and relatively quiet with 82-year-old soloist Drink Small (that’s his name), and ended with a bang by a man a decade younger, Keith Richards.
The lovely Executive Director Wendy Oxenhorn made brief remarks during the evening, as did presenters, including JFA Board Member Danny Glover. Honorees included the late activist Julian Bond, saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who’s still gigging at 85, and singer Merry Clayton, whose career has been interrupted—but not halted—by a life-changing automobile accident.
For this attendee, musical highlights included “A Brand New America” in the tribute to Julian Bond, with Randy Weston on piano and Alex Blake slapping his double bass hard enough to get arrested. I’ve never heard anything like it. The Sonny Rollins tribute brought out the saxes, of course, and Benny Golson blew the ornate roof off the Apollo. In his remarks, Sonny Rollins mentioned he had honorary degrees, but tipped his own hat to the Apollo stage, saying “This is my university, right here.”
Sarah Dash, Nona Hendryx, Ivan Neville, Ray Parker, Jr., Will Lee and Steve Jordan jammed on a truly heart-stopping “Feeling All Right/Lady Marmalade,” which rocked the 1500-seat house back up to the acoustically flawless cheap seats, and setting us up perfectly for the evening’s finale, Keith Richards.
Richards and the better part of his X-Pensive Winos band showed up to close out the gala with a rendition of “Gimme Shelter” in Clayton’s honor. The band included X-Pensive Winos members Waddy Wachtel and Steve Jordan, Rolling Stones alumni Sarah Dash, Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler, as well as Willie Weeks and Ivan Neville. It wasn’t jazz, but who cares?
The pre-concert dinner raised $430,000 in pledges beyond the concert revenues, which will go toward the Jazz Foundation’s mission to provide food, shelter and medical care for musicians, as well as funding dignified work through its Jazz & Blues in the Schools Program. Not bad for a Great Night of Music in Harlem for us music lovers.