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."

While JFA has extended a lifeline throughout its history to musicians in need, it upped the ante in the wake of the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. The organization experienced a post-Katrina spike in service, assisting more than 3,500 musicians with emergency housing, mortgage/rent payments and musical instruments. (Previously the JFA averaged 500 emergency cases each year.)

The most noteworthy case was supplying Fats Domino with a new piano after his prized instrument was destroyed by the floods. The JFA also raised more than a quarter-million dollars to buy instruments to help unemployed and displaced musicians get back on their feet.

"We have a program that employs musicians who are too old to start over in New Orleans," said JFA founder/executive director Wendy Atlas Oxenhorn, who has tirelessly led the charge by raising $1 million for the ongoing operation that brings music to schools and senior care centers.

"Some of these musicians are icons who can't get work on Bourbon Street, which now has little jazz since Katrina," she said. "When they do get work, the pay is ridiculously low. We also help out with transportation costs for work outside of the area."

New Orleans-based bandleader/clarinetist/jazz historian Dr. Michael White, who has played the JFA benefit for three years, turned in a rousing, blues-steeped rendition of "Horn Man Blues" at this year's show. His collection of artifacts and instruments, as well as his book-in-progress on the history of jazz in New Orleans, were lost in the flood.

"The Jazz Foundation has been tremendous," he said backstage after his performance. "It has done more than any single agency for so many musicians who lost their homes, their instruments, their music, their jobs."

Joining White onstage was New Orleans vocalist Thais Clark, who proved to be the blues-belting sparkplug of the evening. Afterwards, she told her JFA story. While her house wasn't completely destroyed, her living room area and kitchen were severely damaged.

"I didn't ask for much, but I did need help," she said. "I called Wendy and she said, 'Whatever you need, just let us know.' There wasn't a second thought. The Jazz Foundation was right there. Two thumbs up for them."

While she's a regular in New Orleans, it was Clark's first appearance at the Apollo, which was a thrill for her.

Ditto Norah Jones, arguably the youngest -- and most popular -- of all the performers. She joined Hank Jones, who was honored with a chocolate-iced cake in honor of his 90th birthday at the show. Along with bassist Buster Williams, he delivered a sublime version of "The Nearness of You."

Jones said she had a lot of reasons to sign on for the JFA benefit.

"They asked me to sing with Hank Jones, so that was a yes," she said. "It was at the Apollo Theater, which I'd never even been in before. That's a yes. And it's a good cause."

For other performers, the event was more personal in nature. Such was the case for guitarist Brandon Ross from the band Harriet Tubman, who served in the rhythm section for Blood Ulmer's spitfire blues number, "Little Red Rooster." Oxenhorn, who was once a performer, raised the heat with her fiery harmonica solo.

"The Jazz Foundation is the angel force when musicians need help," Ross said while hanging out in the downstairs "green room." "My cousin Lance Carter, who passed in 2006, got very, very ill and was supported by the Jazz Foundation, which helped out with he and his wife's mortgage bills."

The evening's highlights included tenor saxophone great Houston Person opening the show with a gorgeous solo rendition of "Sentimental Mood," piano legend Dave Brubeck playing his seminal tune "Take Five" and the endsong blues jam, "Any Way You Want Me" lead by vocalist Marva Wright.

Conspicuously absent was spunky Chicago blues singer/songwriter Johnnie Mae Dunson, who passed last fall at the age of 85. The writer of songs covered by Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and Elvis Presley, Dunson was spared eviction for four years thanks to the JFA's help. In return, she performed at A Great Night in Harlem two years running, bringing down the house with her gutbucket blues performed in a wheelchair.

She was called by Chicago Tribune writer Howard Reich "one of the last true voices of the blues" and identified herself as the "mother and the grandmother of the blues."

"Johnnie Mae was a priceless treasure," Oxenhorn said. "In many ways she was our poster child. We brought her out of retirement to sing again. There was no one to replace her."

Others who have received support from the JFA include Freddie Hubbard, who suffered congestive heart failure in 2001. Without medical insurance, like most jazz and blues musicians, he quickly exhausted all his savings and was on the brink of selling his home in Southern California. The JFA paid his mortgage for several months.

Jazz saxophonist Cecil Payne, who died late last year at the age of 84, was supported by the JFA.

"I was going blind and couldn't see to shop or cook," he said. "I was living on two cans of Slim-Fast for over a year and a half. ... The Jazz Foundation saved my life."

Stories like these underline Glover's commitment to the Jazz Foundation.

"Human beings live through music," he said. "[In all cultures] the drum is always present. Jazz, like all music, is a common language of expression. It's the essence of life, with the improvisation, the uncertainty, the expansiveness of beauty. The poetry of jazz is an expression of love."

In reflecting on the concert's effect, Glover added, "This is one night that helps your spirit, your energy."

For more information on the Jazz Foundation of America, visit

Up close, in-depth, behind the scenes, Dan Ouellette has been covering the artistry of popular music for two and a half decades, ranging from the icons to the upstarts. He's written for Billboard, Stereophile and San Francisco Chronicle and is currently working on a biography of legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter.