The Jazz Foundation of America won’t be accused of false advertising, or overpromising and underdelivering, with a hard-to-live-up-to name like “A Great Night in Harlem” — at least not for this 19th annual edition of their benefit at the Apollo Theatre, which had Tony Bennett as a lifetime achievement honoree and performers as wildly disparate and crazily on-form as Bettye LaVette, Patti Smith, Savion Glover, Common and the Count Basie Orchestra.
Not on the bill, but showing up as a surprise guest: Senator Bernie Sanders. “I’ve certainly known of and been a fan of Tony Bennett for many years, but I don’t know him personally,” Sanders told Variety on his way into the Apollo. “But Harry Belafonte I do know personally, and I’ve worked with Harry for a number of years,” he said, referring to the other lifetime honoree, who was being saluted in absentia. “Harry is truly an American hero. Everyone knows him for being the great entertainer he has been, but he has also been in the forefront of the fight for racial justice and economic justice, from waaaay back when, when it wasn’t so easy” for a pop star/actor to moonlight as an activist.
The musical director for the night was legendary drummer Steve Jordan, who explained his book policy for the “Great Night in Harlem” evenings to Variety before the show. “It’s kind of like a Bill Graham show in reverse,” Jordan said, referring to the rock impresario who used to book Weather Report on psychedelic-rock bills at the Fillmore back in the day. “Instead of having the one jazz artist on a rock bill, we have one great rock artist on a jazz bill, so we have the one and only Patti Smith.”
Not just by Jordan’s calculation, Patti Smith was in some ways the odd woman out on a mostly black and/or traditional jazz-oriented bill. Yet she roused an audience that may be a lot more familiar with Bird than “Horses” by bringing Lenny Kaye and her band along to sing “Pissing in the River” from the late ‘70s “Radio Ethiopia” album, leaving few in the audience unmoved by what was easily one of the most passionate performances of the night.
“I was listening to James Brown live at the Apollo when I was a teenager,” Smith told Variety before the show, “and now I’ll be here, at least for a song, so I’m really proud and happy.” Her highly dramatic song of choice does not necessarily stir James Brown feel-good vibes, but, she explained, “I chose ‘Pissing in the River’ because it’s a song about overcoming strife, and (because) we’re honoring Harry Belafonte, one of our great activists. Who faces more strife than our activists? They’re often unappreciated and they have to fight the same causes day after day after day, so I thought that that song resonated, because it’s a song of resilience within strife. Hopefully people will like it.”
Glover opened the show with a performance that was hard to top in the succeeding three hours at the Apollo, tapping at great and dynamic length to the accompaniment of a tenor saxophonist playing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” African American pride and social consciousness was inherent in that shoes-and-sax instrumental. It was more lyrically explicit when LaVette sang Dion’s late ‘60s hit “Abraham, Martin and John,” on the anniversary of the assassination of the Martin Luther King Jr. of the title, and when Common joined up with players like Robert Glasper in their hip-hop/jazz supergroup, August Greene, to perform their 2018 song “Black Kennedy.”
Quincy Jones, a longtime board member of the Jazz Foundation, sat in the front row, and was surprised to be getting an unannounced salute of his own — the Count Basie Orchestra’s rendition of “Li’l Ol’ Groovemaker,” the title track of a 1963 Count Basie album, which Jones arranged for the ensemble 56 years ago.
A performance of Hugh Masekela’s 1968 smash “Grazing in the Grass” led by his friend of 60 years, pianist Larry Willis, and modern horn greats Keyon Harrold provided another highlight Two of Masekela’s adult children were present to announce a scholarship for South African students to study at the late South African star’s American alma mater, the Manhattan School of Music.
“Two or three months ago they told us they were doing the honor,” said Sal Masekela on the red carpet. “For us, the timeliness of it and the way the universe works is strange — because today is my father’s 80th birthday.” The star trumpeter got another honor Thursday that was definitely timed on purpose: “Google made him the Google doodle today,” the son proudly pointed out.
Belafonte had been expected to show up for his lifetime achievement award, but Jazz Foundation founder-director Wendy Oxenhorn filmed a greeting from the crowd for Belafonte to see, with host Danny Glover leading everyone in a quick round of “Day-oh” from “The Banana Boat Song.”
The mood was more serious as civil rights leader and former ambassador Andrew Young, who said that Belafonte might have been “too proud” to accept in person, accepted on his friend’s behalf, and made further note of the MLK assassination anniversary. He said the movement as the world knew it might not even have existed “if it hadn’t been for Harry Belafonte… Harry came here (to New York) and at the Actors’ Studio he got involved with Paul Robeson, but he also got Tony Bennett, Marlon Brando, the whole gang… everybody who was anybody got involved in the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King used to say that you’ve got to be certifiably insane to be doing what we’re doing. So whenever we decided to do something, he said, ‘Wait a minute, before you do that, let me call Harry.’ Because he said ‘Harry will tell you whether this is crazy or not. and Harry will let us know how the rest of the world is looking at us being foolish.’ And we werefools, fools for freedom. And we didn’t mind dying for it… But it was Harry in the New York committee that sort of helped us keep even.” Belafonte, Young added, “is a saint.”
Ben Stiller introduced Bennett, claiming in jest to be his illegitimate son, then getting serious by acclaiming the singer for “the risks that you have taken for social justice at a time when few celebrities back in the day were using their fame to right the wrongs in the world. When Harry Belafonte asked you to join him and Dr. King at the march in Selma, you stood with them arm in arm. You showed up every time you were called. And at the height of apartheid, you refused to perform in South Africa.”
Stiller also pointed out Bennett’s support for arts education, including “founding the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens… and then when Frank Sinatra opened the Tony Bennett School of the Arts in Brooklyn, you sued him, and won. … Damn you for being 92 and still the coolest guy in the room… We love you, Dad!”
Bennett, still a marvel a couple of years in his tenth decade. did not offer any speeches when he emerged from the wings, but did give voice to “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” a seeming nod to the romance of the west coast that New Yorkers have always embraced as their own… if only because it does talk about leaving SF.
Bruce Willis, a longtime Jazz Foundation supporter, rounded out the night in full “Bruno” mode by playing harmonica with Georgia Brown and lending his own lead vocals to a blues standard.
The JFA raises fund to help jazz musicians and former musicians in need, from health care issues to the effects of the disaster in New Orleans. The most moving portion of the night found a former member of the Count Basie Orchestra who was nearly killed in a car accident and left in a diminished mental state for years taking the stage with his family, who said the Jazz Foundation’s financial assistance saved his life by providing his wife the ability to provide around-the-clock home care.