You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Tony Bennett, Patti Smith, Common and Bernie Sanders Go Live at the Apollo for ‘Great Night in Harlem’

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.”

Tony Shanahan, Bruce Willis and Patti SmithThe Jazz Foundation of America's 17th Annual 'A Great Night In Harlem' Gala Concert, Arrivals, The Apollo Theater, New York, USA - 04 Apr 2019
CREDIT: Stephen Lovekin/REX/Shutterstock

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.

Bernie Sanders on stage at the Jazz Foundation of America's 17th annual "A Great Night In Harlem" gala concert at The Apollo Theater, in New York17th Annual "A Great Night In Harlem" Gala Concert, New York, USA - 04 Apr 2019
CREDIT: Brad Barket/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

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.

Tony Bennett, Patti Smith, Common and Bernie Sanders Go Live at the Apollo for 'Great Night in Harlem'

More Music

  • Obit Obituary Placeholder

    Nick Tosches, Author of Dean Martin and Jerry Lee Lewis Biographies, Dies at 69

    Some time around the turn of the century, author Nick Tosches prankishly hacked his own online biography so that it gave his death date as the year 2021 — picked, he said, because “it was the anniversary of Dante’s death (in 1321); it made so much sense.” He wasn’t too many years off with that [...]

  • Dimitri Vegas and Like Mike

    Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike Take No. 1 Spot on Top 100 DJs Poll

    The duo of Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike top DJ Mag’s 2019 Top 100 DJs poll, returning to the list since taking the No. 1 spot in 2015 and dethroning Martin Garrix after three years of dominance. The results of the Top 100 DJs were arrived at from 1.3 million votes cast in 179 countries. [...]

  • Bruce Springsteen arrives for the New

    Bruce Springsteen Returns to NJ Hometown for Surprise 'Western Stars' Introduction

    Bruce Springsteen returned to his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey to offer a surprise introduction to the first public multiplex viewing of his concert/documentary film, “Western Stars.” Dressed simply in a brown jacket, Springsteen took a moment to say a few words at the AMC Freehold 14 movie theater on Saturday night. “We knew we [...]

  • Marc Byers

    Execs from Motown, Live Nation, Recording Academy Set to Speak at Culture Creators' Inaugural C2 Summit

    Culture Creators, the organization which recognizes minorities in film, television, music and fashion, is holding its first-ever C2 Summit on Oct. 21 in Washington D.C. Its mission: to engage, mentor, and provide recruitment opportunities to students of color attending historically black colleges and universities. Students were selected from an application process and will participate in [...]

  • Rami Dawod SESAC

    SESAC Toasts Rami Dawod as Pop Songwriter of the Year

    Camila Cabello’s “Never Be The Same” and “Electricity” by Mark Ronson and Silk City featuring Dua Lipa are just a few of the co-writing credits celebrated during an October 16 dinner at Nobu Malibu hosted by SESAC in honor of Rami Dawod. Named Pop Songwriter of the Year by the performance rights organization, Dawod is [...]

  • Luis Fonsi Erika Ender Latin Grammys

    The Second Latin Explosion: How 'Despacito' Ushered in a New Generation of Stars

    Music is an ever-evolving art, and for the Latin Recording Academy, that’s meant riding multiple waves of attention. The most recent arrived with the stratospheric success of “Despacito,” which kicked off a second Latin Explosion with full force in 2017. The Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee hit, later featuring verses by Justin Bieber, made Latin [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content