Jazz Foundation of America’s 2024 “A Great Night in Harlem” Gala, Featuring Bobby Weir, Chuck D, Sun Ra Arkestra and More (A Recap + Gallery)

March 29, 2024
Jazz Foundation of America’s 2024 “A Great Night in Harlem” Gala, Featuring Bobby Weir, Chuck D, Sun Ra Arkestra and More (A Recap + Gallery)

Photo Credit: Udo Salters

Last night, March 28, the Jazz Foundation of America returned to the legendary Apollo Theatre for “A Great Night in Harlem,” the long-awaited 2024 presentation of the organization’s annual benefit gala. This year’s staging boasted a roster of some of the leading innovators from a wide variety of genres, including Sun Ra Arkestra with Marshall Allen, Chuck D and Bobby Weir. In two hours of incomparable performance, this staggering lineup pioneered new directions in sound with a deep reverence for the innovators who came before, all in the name of the JFA’s noble mission of supporting musicians in need and ensuring the music’s future. 

Steve Jordan–the storied musician and producer esteemed for work with Chuck Berry, the John Mayer Trio and the Rolling Stones–served as the musical director for the 2024 gala; beyond the scope of the event, Jordan has long served as the foundation’s co-artistic director. This year’s event honored Richard D. Parsons, the chairman emeritus of the JFA board of directors, and presented awards to Marshall Allen, Chuck D and the Titans of Jazz Drums: Al Foster, Billy Hart and Louis Hayes.

To kick off the all-star musical odyssey, Sun Ra Arkestra assumed the spotlight, lining the stage with the brilliant tones and textures of Ra’s trademark cosmic ceremonial garb. Under the direction of the great Marshall Allen, who has led the unit since Ra’s ascent in 1993, the 16 subversive multi-instrumentalists charted a course to the stars with the swinging retrograde 2020 track “Swirling,” championed by vocalist Tara Middleton. The group continued with 1960’s riotous “We Travel the Space Ways,” complete with cartwheels, before finally coming to a close with the iconic “Space is the Place,” tagged with a salute to the now 100-year-old Allen as Danny Glover presented his well-earned Lifetime Achievement award.

Act two of the evening began as Gina Gershon introduced the jazz song-stylist Jazzmeia Horn, whose performance was highlighted by a stripped-down, freely-floating treatment of “Love is Here to Stay” alongside a backing trio. This was followed by a set from vocal prodigy Alexis Morrast and acclaimed organist Matthew Whitaker, who presented a rousing, Hammond B-3-driven rendition of Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together” atop a steady backbeat from Jordan. The next honoree to receive an award was Parsons, who graciously accepted the Dr. Billy Taylor Humanitarian Award.

The benefit’s third frame was comprised of a massive and suitably elaborate tribute to the late Max Roach, the inexpressibly influential bebop pioneer who set the rhythm for a century of drummers to follow. Roach’s tribute was delivered by the Charles Tolliver Big Band, which featured among its twenty-member ranks NEA Jazz Master George Coleman and Grammy and Tony-winning vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. The percussive component of “Grand Max” (Tolliver’s 1976 salute to the artist) was delivered Billy Hart and Louis Hayes, two of the three drummers to receive the Titans of Jazz award, alongside Al Foster, who could not attend the event. 

In a stark and powerful juxtaposition to this presentation, highlighting the ambitious scope of the JFA, the next performer to take the stage was the great Chuck D, principal mic-rocker for Public Enemy. Chuck’s performance followed his reception of the Lifetime Achievement Award from true original Fab 5 Freddy, who the artist identified as one of his heroes and mentors, testifying to his understanding that his music “stands on the shoulders of giants.” When the lights went up on champion turntablist Mix Master Mike and Jordan, the audience was caught in the middle of a 3-way mix, as a barrage of witty, gritty samples, thumping breakbeats and boom-bap gospel came to compose singular treatments of “Kill Them Guns” and “Fight The Power.”

Finally, as the fourth and final act, JFA President Dr. Daveed D. Frazier introduced Bobby Weir, who offered four carefully curated selections that highlighted the strong ties between his style and jazz history. Alongside the impressive trio of saxophonist David Murray, bassist Jamaldeen Tacuma and the inexhaustible Jordan, Weir brought on a chilling, slow-burn cover of “I’ve Got Your Under My Skin,” building to a shuffling, bluesy “Bird Song” and on up to the red-hot stomper of “West L.A. Fadeaway.” For his fourth entry, Weir expanded his band to welcome a brass section of Eddie Allen, Patience Higgins and Clifton Anderson, who came together with the quartet for an unforgettable, exultant finale of “Turn On Your Love Light” that sent the crowd off into the cool Harlem night.

The 2024 “A Great Night in Harlem” benefit concert is available to stream now via FANS.live. For more information on the Jazz Foundation of America and its mission, visit jazzfoundation.org; donate to the organization at jazzfoundation.org/donate.

View a gallery from the event, courtesy of photographer Udo Salters, below.