A Great Night in Harlem Gala

The Jazz Foundation of America struts its members

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Photos by Ebet Roberts

The Jazz Foundation’s annual gala at New York City’s storied Apollo Theatre has 14 years of excellence to live up to, and, once again, the Foundation met the challenge. This year’s honorees, pianists Dr. John and McCoy Tyner, brought out multi-instrumentalist Jon Batiste and guitarists Robert Cray, John Mayer and Robert Randolph to play the blues on a particularly upbeat evening.

An award ceremony/dinner/performance/fundraiser and flat-out party all rolled into one, the evening started out with cocktails, BBQ sliders and New Orleans’ treats. Actor and JFA Board Member Danny Glover set up the evening with introductions to a number of honorees, notably Dr. Frank Forte, who has made good on a promise he made to Dizzy Gillespie many years ago, and facilitated Englewood [NJ] Hospital’s donation of over $7,000,000 in free medical care for musicians in need.

Then we got down to the real meat of the matter, the music. I’m not one who normally swoons at the sight of a clarinet, but Doreen Ketchens’ amazing turn did make me a little light-headed. With Zeke Mullins, a 25-year veteran of the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and longtime member of the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band on piano, Ketchens turned her instrument into a magic wand, dusting the audience with music like sparkles. Honestly, I could have gone home right there, happy.

The music took a sharp turn from sparkles, however, with Dr. Michael White and the Liberty Band, featuring N’Oleans’ own Ms. Thais Clark, who mostly talked “Horn Man Blues,” a tune with down and dirty lyrics that would make a rapper blush (e.g., “He took out that long black horn and played it deep and stout. That’s when I passed out.”). If Ketchens gave me a new appreciation for the clarinet, suffice it to say that Clark did the same for the horn section, for a very different reason.

Ex-New Yorker and Hollywood star Bruce Willis showed off his blues harmonica and vocal talent for four songs before one of the evening’s two headliners, Dr. John (Mac Rebennack), took the stage. Coming up on 76 years old, the Hank Jones Award recipient played extended versions of two of his classics, “Such a Night” and “Right Place Wrong Time.” In a brief but eloquent acceptance speech, Rebennack thanked the Jazz Foundation for their support to musicians in the Baton Rouge flood, and wished us all “a blessed night and a wonderful life.”

Pianist McCoy Tyner, backbone of the classic John Coltrane Quartet and the all-star quartet with Sonny Rollins, has released some 80 albums and received four Grammys, and this night received yet another accolade, the JFA Lifetime Achievement Award.Another surprise of the evening, Davell Crawford accompanied his impressive vocals on piano, and, with his gospel choir, moved us all with his rendition of “Louisiana,” appropriately complex without being complicated. His set ended with a second gospel choir walking through the house aisles, singing and signing the hymn “For Every Mountain,” a powerful moment.

Pop superstar John Mayer teamed up with his old friends bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan (the Musical Director for the JFA and the entire evening), and, joined by Robert Randolph and Robert Cray, finished out the night. A rousing “Let the Good Times Roll” featured the night’s ensemble, plus Executive Director Wendy Oxenhorn blowing a mean harmonica. Let the good times roll, indeed!

—Suzanne Cadgène

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