Jazz Notes: The Jazz Foundation of America’s 26th Annual Loft Party — A Night for the Soul
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, October 18, 2017
With its motto (“Please help us to save the very people who saved you all these years with their music”), the New York-based Jazz Foundation of America has been raising funds to help and support elderly blues and jazz artists in need of medical and living expenditures (supporting 5,000 to 7,000 cases a year). The 26-year-old JFA holds two annual events: its Great Night in Harlem all-star benefit concert at the Apollo Theater and its once-a-year Jazz Loft Party, now in its 26th year, at Hudson Studios (the once silent movie studios on West 26th Street).
This year, the Loft Party celebration, dubbed “A Night for the Soul,” featured gourmet food, dressed-to-kill patrons, star-studded celebrities and a full sampling of top-tier musicians giving their best to the crowds in two venues: the Soul Loft and the Jazz Loft. The JFA presented one-of-a-kind shows that feature special guests performing an array of music, ranging from the blues to jazz. No one counts categories for the cause.
The Soul Room featured among others the Jonny Rosch collective featuring former New York Yankees slugger and now fine guitarist Bernie Williams, ecstatic soul singer Nona Hendryx (one-third of Labelle and background vocalist for the Talking Heads in their film Stop Making Sense), and a Super Soul Banned jam with drummer/producer Steve Jordan (who served as co-music director of the entire event).
In the Jazz Loft the evening began with a guitarist summit that featured bluesy, harmolodic master James “Blood” Ulmer playing angular beauty and singing sweet and gritty hollers and joy. Also featured was an avant duo of Mark Ribot and Mary Halvorson who plunged into a fiery take of John Coltrane’s “Dearly Beloved.” Ribot noted that they were playing the song in honor of displaced musicians in Puerto Rico and Texas, in-need hurricane-devastated areas of JFA-fueled recovery efforts. He also signaled out the people in Northern California being ravaged by firestorms. As host of the guitar segment, Ribot said, “While we all support the Jazz Foundation of America, we also need to support justice for all musicians.”
The Jazz Loft also hosted young piano phenom Matthew Whitaker who invited special guest teen-aged vocalist Alexis Morrast who has won the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night twice. The young folks were followed by the vets: the Wallace Roney Sextet where the trumpeter had enlisted drummer Lenny White, keyboardist Patrice Rushen and saxophonist Gary Bartz.
Bartz, a former New Yorker who teaches at Oberlin College and now lives in Oakland, CA with his wife, has been a frequent participant at JFA shows. “The Jazz Foundation? They are musicians’ best friends,” he said in the dining area before he hit the stage. “Anybody who is a friend of musicians is a friend of mine.”
He laughed and explained that trumpeter titan Dizzy Gillespie was the person who pointed him in the direction to work with the JFA. “Dizzy is the one who helped to lay the groundwork for the JFA,” he said. “So I became committed to giving them whatever they need. I remember how they helped [trumpeter great] Freddie Hubbard when he was ill and unable to pay for his housing. The JFA saved his house. They’ve helped so many people. In fact, they are better than the [musicians’] union.”
(Of note: All the musicians who played the Loft Party as well as the Apollo are paid an honorarium. Even though both events are benefits to raise funds for those in need, the JFA never asks musicians to play for free.)
Jarrett Lilien has served as the president of the nonprofit JFA for the past 17 years. He became involved when he lived at the historic Gilsey House on 1200 Broadway. It had once been a grand hotel that had been split up into loft spaces. When he moved in, he was welcomed by one of the JFA’s founders, Herb Storfer, a neighbor who organized an annual loft party with others living in the building. Today’s longstanding executive director Wendy Oxenhorn brought Lilien into the organization as a board member.
“I got involved with the Jazz Foundation because I liked the music and liked the idea of musicians playing in my apartment,” Lilien said. “Wendy invited me to be on the board, and two years later when I missed a meeting, they voted me in as president.”
Formerly a high level exec with eTrade and now founder and managing partner at Bendigo Partners, Lilien helped the JFA grow financially. “I can remember doing the Loft Parties, and we would pass around a hat during the shows,” he said. “We’d make $20,000, but we knew there were ways to organize it better.” [This year’s total was close to $300,000 that goes directly to the musicians JFA serves.]
It was the same magic that developed into the Apollo Theater shows. When the idea came up to use that as a benefit concert space, it was a risk. Most board members pointed out that Oxenhorn had never been a concert producer and was more steeped in blues music at the time than jazz (she became a fast learner). “We knew we were going to have to pay $15,000 to rent the Apollo, and people worried, what if we couldn’t raise that? We’d go out of business,” said Lilien.
But he was a firm believer in the potential, going as far as committing to the board that he’d personally back it financially. Another factor entered: 9/11. The concert, scheduled for September 23, 2001, was less than two weeks later in a city that was reeling from the catastrophe. But the show went on, Oxenhorn said, marking the first time in 50 years that the Apollo had blues and jazz on its stage.
“What happened was that we raised $350,000,” said Lilien. “The landscape had changed. Being in a corporate position, it was easier for me to ask clients and vendors to support the JFA. That was a breakout moment. Now the JFA has a $3 million budget to help all the musicians we work with.”
However, Oxenhorn pointed out that there’s more needed in light of the widespread hurricane disasters in Houston, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Islands. “We need an additional million dollars to help musicians in those places,” she said. [Info on support for the JFA’s mission: jazzfoundation.org.]
At this year’s event, the JFA inaugurated its Tommy LiPuma Award for Recording Excellence, named for the famed record producer. In the Jazz Loft, actor Danny Glover, a vital supporter of the organization, presented soul-singing legend Gladys Knight with the award. She and and her band then performed a short set to commemorate the work of the JFA.
Cover: Gary Bartz; photo: Udo Salters.