Norah Jones Sings Blues to Make Musicians Smile

Call it falling through the cracks, sent to pasture, swept under the rug, dispatched and forgotten. Relegated to forced retirement is one thing; to be bereft of hearth and health is quite another. It's all the more brutal when the modern-day craving for convenience and mobility breeds the dissolution of family and community.

On a micro-level, that's what the benefit concert A Great Night in Harlem seeks to defy each year when it stakes its claim on the heralded Apollo Theater in New York to foster kinship around a common passion: jazz and the blues. On Thursday, the nonprofit organization Jazz Foundation of America staged its seventh-annual two-hours-plus show, boasting such well-known headliners as Norah Jones and Dave Brubeck and such under-the-radar esteemed elders as Houston Person, Randy Weston, Hank Jones and James Blood Ulmer.

Gluing the proceedings together was a triumvirate of top-tier hosts, each of whom has handled MC chores for the evening for several years: Danny Glover, Chevy Chase and Bill Cosby.

What sets this all-star convergence apart from other galas and fundraisers is the JFA mission: not only keeping a pillar of American culture alive but also administering to the needs of its multitude of foundation builders from the blues and jazz worlds.

From such legends as pianist/singer Fats Domino and jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard to hundreds of working musicians without recognizable names, for 19 years the New York-based JFA has provided emergency assistance and long-range support to elderly individuals with free medical care, social services and rent or mortgage payments to forgo eviction. This year's sold-out concert and preshow dinner raised $1.8 million toward that cause.

"I owe it to these people," said Chase, who grew up in New York hanging out at jazz clubs like the Five Spot, the Half Note and the Village Vanguard in the 1950s and '60s. "I was a teenager in love with jazz. So, it's an honor to help support these people -- great innovators and the greatest musicians in the world, who were only making $100 to $150 a week, to help solve the medical and housing problems they face when they get older."

It's a form of cultural myopia, Chase said while hanging out backstage at the Apollo: "It's the nature of this country, of show biz, of TV, where everyone wants quick results and then it's good-bye, I'll see you later. They don't think about what's formed their judgments, their rituals, their musical views."

Glover agreed, noting that it says something about a culture that commodifies and commercializes musicians and their music rather than truly honors and appreciates them.

"Their value is diminished," he said. "It says something about how we live and what kind of respect we have for culture. There's a line, a journey of music that comes from the blues and goes to gospel to jazz to bebop to soul to rock 'n' roll to hip-hop. If we don't recognize the connection among all those formative means of expression, then there's a screw missing. That's why it's so important to help musicians who are in dire straits. It's a generosity of spirit and that been at the heart of the Jazz Foundation, especially since Katrina."

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