NEA Jazz Masters pianist Randy Weston and alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, both 86, played the same room as two astonishing 12-old prodigies — trumpeter Geoffrey Gallante and organist Matthew Whitaker (see their video clips, below) — at the Jazz Foundation of America‘s annual benefit Loft Party Saturday night (Oct 27),. It proved again that America’s improvised, vernacular art form appeals to kids of the 21st century as to 70-year world-class professionals. Entertaining a suitably diverse, all-age audience, these musician spoke same language, held the same values, had the same aims: playing with rhythm and energy, for others and for self-satisfaction, too.
The Loft Party is always a hoot. I’ve been the volunteer mc at the “Jazz Loft” several times (this year my colleague Dan Ouellette did the same for the “Blues Loft” and actor Danny Glover was the man in the “Montreux Loft”). This year some 1100 attendees listened, schmoozed, flirted, noshed, drank and milled about the 13th floor of a Manhattan West Side studio building with grand views of the city, river and shorelines. Partiers (tickets: $281 each) got close to a festival’s worth of top players,
who donated their services. (I stand corrected: From a JFA DIrector: “Performers do NOT donate their services…they might if we asked, but it’s our policy not to ask anyone to play for free, part of our philosophy of creating and perpetuating PAID gigs!”) Some $400,000 was raised to support JFA programs for musicians in need of medical care, housing assistance, career counseling and sometimes employment opportunities. The Jazz Foundation’s beneficiaries and constituency are usually thought of as ill or elderly, but Saturday night healthy, bright kids stole the show.
“What do you like about jazz?” I asked Matthew Whitaker. who lives with his parents in Hackensack, after his soul-infused 40 minute set at the Hammond B-3, supported by adult guitarist Matt Oestreicher and drummer Ralph Rolle.
He thought a moment, then blurted, “Everything!” He’d played a tribute to his favorite older organist, Dr. Lonnie Smith; a vibrato-drenched, slow drag “Misty,” very fast “All Blues ” and a splashy “St. Thomas.” Being blind and credible on drums as well as keyboards, Matthew can’t help recalling Little Stevie Wonder. He’s jammed up a mean version of “Higher Ground,” but for idiom-cred, check out his rendition of “Killer Joe.”
I put the same question to Geoff Gallante, whose parents had brought him up from Alexandria, VA for the loft party. He wore a snappy black suit and fedora, white shirt with open collar and turned-up sleeves. “What do you like about jazz?”
He came up quickly with the obvious answer: “It’s cool! It’s fun!” I echoed him: “If it isn’t fun, it isn’t jazz!”
Geoff had sat in for a couple of choruses with charming chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux (she sang “Careless Love,” a variant on “St. James Infirmary” and “I Hear Music”) with bassist Barak Mori and keyboardist Sam Yahel on the bittersweet Charlie Chaplin composition “Smile,” which was his choice. He’s got a focused tone, his own relaxed ideas, can phrase over bar lines — in all, sounds natural yet sophisticated in the vein of Harry “Sweets” Edison. Currently in seventh grade, Geoff mentioned that he started with classical music (all music lessons start with “classical” training) but likes jazz better. Will he keep on with it? “For sure, why not?” was his reply.
The “jazz” in the jazz loft was broadly defined, embracing indi-rocker Ken Stringfellow (“I’m honored to be here, since I hardly every play in this idiom,” he said), alto saxophonist Darius Jones‘ probing, esoteric Mae’bul Quartet and conscience-of-Haiti singer-songwriter-guitarist Manno Charlemagne. The blowout set was Weston’s. He seems looser and more profoundly ebullient every time I see him, and led super-physical bassist Alex Blake, urgent saxophonists T.K. Blue and Bill Saxton plus drummer Vincent Ecton in his African Rhythms Quintet.
Donaldson was no slouch though; with guitarist Randy Johnston (who was inspired to not one but two Chicago South Side-style solos), organist Akiko Tsuruga and drummer Fukushi Tainaka, laid down the line on what jazz is: hard-swinging blues, bebop a la Charlie Parker, funkification through generous application of r&b/gospel ploys. These days Uncle Lou sings a bit: He did “Last Night I Had the Craziest Dream,” recounting in his final chorus dismay at the evident ascendency of Mitt Romney and relief when, on waking, he finds Barak Obama is still president. Ovation ensued.
When not onstage, both Gallante (who performed in another loft with reedist Carol Sudhalter) and Whitaker sat in the crowd, soaking in the vibe and sounds of their elders. Other rooms’ attractions included saxophonist James Carter’s Organ Trio, Rebirth Brass Band, guitarist Elliot Sharp’s Terraplane, guitarists Bern Nix, Stew Cutler, Ladell McLin and Manu Lanvin, Melvin Van Peebles (who sang with a group he called Laxative because “they get sh*t done!”), percussionist Henry Cole, blues diva Sweet Georgia Brown with organist Greg (Organ Monk) Lewis and pianist Junior Mance.
In one Jazz Foundation of America initiative, under-employed instrumentalists pay teaching visits to grade schools, formalizing the in-person, oral tradition exchange of knowledge and dedication Randy Weston and Lou Donaldson had provided to Matthew Whitaker and Geoffrey Gallante, among others, at the gala community event. Such programs obviously pay off. Drummer Taylor Moore is another fresh,
sharp player, a protegé of a Jazz Institute of Chicago’s Jazz Links Ensemble and the Ravina Jazz Scholars project of the Chicago Public School System. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove blows in front of her at an unplanned jam. Where there’s jazz talent, there’s a future.