Jazz Rocks Harlem's Apollo

The Wall Street Journal: Tad Hendrickson: 19th May, 2013.

The 1958 Art Kane photo "A Great Day in Harlem" featured 57 jazz musicians posed on the steps and sidewalk in front of a Harlem brownstone. It is arguably the most famous jazz photo ever taken. Riffing on that photo, the Jazz Foundation of America hosted its 12th Annual A Great Night in Harlem performance and gala Friday night at the Apollo Theater, which around the corner from the site of the famous photo.

"The idea was born when I first took this job," recalled Wendy Oxenhorn, the executive director of the organization. "I didn't know much about Jazz—I was a straight bluesman—so I rented Jean Bach's 'A Great Day in Harlem' documentary figuring I'd learn who was who, like a mini-history lesson. When I was watching it, I thought, How amazing would it be to get all the jazz legends left today to come together and create a living playing photograph in Harlem on the stage of the Apollo?"

Ms. Oxenhorn and the JFA pulled the initial one together in nine weeks, presenting the first jazz-and-blues concert at the Apollo in 50 years to a packed house 13 days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

That night they raised $350,000 with just a concert. The JFA has since raised over $20 million, with this year's event raising $1.3 million.

Elvis Costello, Macy Gray, the Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, Paul Shaffer and others appeared for an audience of 1,500 at the Apollo, performing with and all-star house band that featured many of the same players from Robert Altman's jazz era gem "Kansas City." About 1,000 stuck around for the dinner and after party, which included a surprise appearance by pianist Chick Corea.

"Hearing Henry Butler play that beautiful intro for Allen Toussaint's 'Freedom for the Stallion' meant that every word of the song was already true before I ever opened my mouth," Mr. Costello, who did four songs, wrote in an email later. "Trading with Macy on 'Compared To What' with that band—James Carter, good grief!—was a gas. I'll never forget any of it."

Jazz musicians generally don't have a retirement plan, and even the ones with long and successful careers, like 92-year-old trumpeter Clark Terry, need a helping hand. His former student Quincy Jones, who spoke at length about his teacher and the power of music, honored Mr. Terry on Friday.

Montreux Jazz Festival founder Claude Nobs was honored posthumously with the Dr. Billy Taylor Humanitarian Award. Suffering from stage four cancer, R&B singer Babi Floyd performed "All Alone," and there were many other highlights.

"What I'll remember most about the night is [saxophonist] Charles Gayle talking about being trapped downtown in his apartment after Sandy and he hadn't eaten," said Dick Parsons, the chairman of JFA's board. "He was just looking for some chicken. And the Jazz Foundation people showed up at his door with chicken because they were checking on a musician across the street who told them about Charles. That's what the JFA does."

Only a few jazz musicians from the Kane photo are alive today, but there are many other musicians in need of assistance. More than just providing food or money to cover rent and mortgages, the nonprofit even helps find dignified work to 5,000 musicians each year in the New York area and beyond.

"I was talking to someone at the JFA and happened to mention a legendary jazz musician—who does not live in NYC, but is going through some financial problems—and he said they were already on it," said Steven Bernstein, the evening's musical director. "That's amazing."