It certainly was a great night in Harlem on Thursday, as producer Quincy Jones and a cast of blues, jazz and R&B greats gathered to raise funds and awareness for artists who have fallen into financial despair. “We don’t just dedicate this song to the ones who’ve passed on,” Bono said during his performance of “Angel of Harlem.” “Tonight we’re thinking of the ones who are still with us.”
The annual event was a benefit to support the Jazz Foundation of America, a non-profit group that helps thousands with medical care, housing and providing a safety net to musicians who spent their lives on the road without a retirement plan.
The gala, dubbed A Great Night in Harlem, took place as many learned that disco queen Donna Summer had passed away. The news made an impression on the event, which pays tribute to the talented artists who have passed on in the past year. “She’s a legend,” Quincy Jones told reporters about Summer outside the Apollo after the performance. “She had a big heart, a big mind and a big soul.”
Earlier, Jones stood on the Apollo stage and ran through a few memories before telling an anecdote about meeting Pope John Paul II with Bono. He then brought the lead singer of U2 on stage to perform “Angel of Harlem,” in perhaps the most appropriate of venues.
“I feel like I should take my shoes off,” Bono said, as the backing of a full horn section compelled him to dance.
In a stunning gold dress and her signature kinky hair, Macy Gray paid tribute to Etta James with a sultry version of “At Last.” The Swell Season’s Glen Hansard practically stormed the stage to perform a song in honor of the late Levon Helm. Clad in a purple suit, Dr. John held court over a methodical and soulful version of the old spiritual “Motherless Child.”
There was even some comic relief from former Saturday Night Live star Darrell Hammond, who did an impressive Al Sharpton impersonation. But it was a surprise appearance by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog that added a correct dose of awkward humor for the majority-white crowd in the historic Harlem theater.
“If these walls could talk,” Triumph said, “they would wonder what the hell all these rich Jews are doing inside them.”
David Johansen played the perfect jester as he rekindled his Buster Poindexter days. With a three-piece suit and a top hat, Johansen joyfully performed Cab Calloway’s “Kickin’ the Gong Around.”
The foundation also showcased work they have done in places like New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. At the opening of the show the house lights went up, illuminating the entire theater. The Treme Brass Band and Rebirth Brass Band both marched down the aisles blaring “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The horns were all-encompassing. For a few minutes, all their joys and sorrows were ours as well.