by Charles Dion Springfield
The star power was at a light bulb-busting wattage on May 20 as jazz, blues, opera, R&B and film and television greats descended upon the Apollo Theatre stage for “A Great Night in Harlem,” an annual fundraising concert for the Jazz Foundation of America.
Every year since 2001, more than 50 of music’s living legends perform at the Apollo for the organizations’ benefit gala. The goal is to help raise money needed to continue the Jazz Foundation’s mission, to save the homes and lives of elder jazz and blues musicians in crisis.
Hosted in part by Chevy Chase, Michael Imperioli, Kevin Klein, David Johansen and the Jazz Foundation of America’s Executive Director Wendy Oxenhorn, it was evident early on in the evening that it would be a monumental night. It seemed that celebrities, music lovers and glitterati from all around the country were destined to feast on a sumptuous evening of music, laughs and even a few tears.
While the night was dedicated to “The Spirit of Greatness” in jazz and blues music and the artists who continue to push the art forms forward, the spotlight was also put on the supporters, “love doctors” and the hospital that continues to meet the needs of musicians.
The pre-concert kicked off the night with award presentations with both “Saint” Agnes Varis and Ambassador Andrew Young receiving the “Spirit of Greatness Award.” Varis, vice chairwoman on the board of the Jazz Foundation and a pioneer in the pharmaceutical industry, has made it possible for the Jazz Foundation to employ musicians in 17 states to play free concerts in public schools and senior homes through the Agnes Varis Jazz in the Schools program. This includes eight southern states where New Orleans musicians were forced to settle post-Katrina. Young was a top aide to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and presently serves on the board of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change. He also serves as a member of the board of directors of numerous organizations and business including Delta Airlines, Argus, Host Marriott Corporation, Archer Daniels Midland, Cox Communications and Thomas Nelson Publishers.
The pre-show concluded with a theatrical and moving jazz performance of an original song by Davell Crawford entitled “Stranger in My Own Home” that depicted his life in New York after relocating from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
The night’s performances continued to crescendo with appearances by Manno Charlemagne, Fred Staton, Jimmy Heath, Frank Wess, Ron Carter, Barry Harris, Winard Harper, Terence Conley, Jimmy Norman and others. Roberta Flack performed and gave the audience the back story to her updated version of “Sweet Georgia Brown” from her jazz-inspired album, “Roberta.” Legendary Little Jimmy Scott, decked out in all white, belted out a powerful performance of “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child” from his wheelchair. And Sweet Georgia Brown closed out the show alongside fellow performers and got the audience on their feet one last time.
Because of the generosity of others, the Jazz Foundation has provided a number of signature services to musicians and their families. An Emergency Housing Fund was founded by Jarrett Lilien and pays the rents and mortgages of musicians that fall on hard times. The Jazz Musicians’ Emergency Fund helps with everything from keeping the phone and electricity on to ensuring food remains on the tables of veteran musicians with nowhere else to turn. For more than 17 years, the Jazz Foundation’s Angel-partners at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center’s Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund have provided pro bono medical care – including free operations, specialists, lab work and diagnostics – worth more than $5 million in services for more than 1,000 uninsured musicians. Additionally, a volunteer network of dedicated, caring professionals provides free legal, dental and therapeutic services.
Many of the performers of the night have been helped by the Jazz Foundation. Therefore, for them, it was an opportunity to return the favor by giving their supporters the glorious gift of music.
To make a donation to the organization, visit http://www.jazzfoundation.org/, call 212-245-3999, ext. 13 or send a donation payable to “Jazz Foundation of America” to 322 West 48th Street, 6th Fl., New York, NY 10036. You can also make a donation using Text-to-Pledge by dialing 718-594-5333. In the address line, create your text with your name or company and the amount of your pledge. Then press send.