Years ago, when I was helping to run a children's theatre company, it really pissed me off when people asked us to perform for their group or organization, and didn't expect to pay us anything for our troubles. It would be one thing if they were asking us to participate in a benefit — even then we'd ask for expenses to be paid — but for just an everyday regular performance we expected people to pay us for our time.
Still to this day I can't understand the logic in asking us to do what we did for a living for free. Did they think because we worked in the arts we had some special arrangement where we didn't have to pay rent, buy food, or any of those things that people with more conventional job worried about? Well, if there are any of you out there who suffer from a similar delusion about people working in the arts, you need to get over it in a hurry. It doesn't matter whether someone is a painter, musician, actor, singer, sculptor, dancer, or writer they still have to have enough money at the end of the day to pay their rent and put food on the table.
Unless an artist is incredibly lucky and makes it big, he or she will be leading a hand to mouth existence for most of their days. Artists don't have a pension plan, and in North America (if they don't live in Canada), the chances of them having medical insurance are slim to none. The fact that it is next to impossible for artists to afford any type of insurance leaves them particularly vulnerable in emergency situations. But if you think that artists in general are vulnerable, that situation pales in comparison to the one faced by a particular group within that community.
Predominately African American, the older generations of jazz and blues players in North America are at most risk from the deprivations of age, illness, and misfortune. Far too many years of creating wonderful music for no money and sometimes little recognition, has left that community in difficult straits under normal circumstances. When a devastation like Hurricane Katrina destroys not only their homes, but their means of earning a living by destroying their instruments, equipment, and the venues for their performances the consequences are catastrophic.
With all levels of government seeming more intent on ensuring they never return to their former homes or their neighbourhoods are rebuilt, the musicians of New Orleans are facing circumstances we normally associate with refugees in countries that don't consider themselves "world powers". Fortunately there are people who recognize the contribution that they have made to North American culture, and are refusing to allow these men and women to be swept under the carpet and forgotten.
Since its founding, The Jazz Foundation Of America has worked to make life more comfortable for the elder generations of jazz and blues musicians in America. They have done everything from ensuring people's rent is paid, securing them housing, putting food on their table, to supplying them with new instruments so they can work and make a living. But they haven't just been doling out handouts to tide people over on an interim basis, they've also developed programming that allows the musicians to work for a living, doing what they do best.
So, when it became clear nobody at an official level was going to do anything to preserve New Orleans for the people who are the city's heart and soul, and were intent on making it as hard as possible for them to return to their homes (Read the chapter in Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism on New Orleans for a full description of how local, state, and federal officials are ensuring that the Ninth Ward will not be rebuilt and its former inhabitants prevented from returning.) the people at The Jazz Foundation have done their best to take up some of the slack.
Aside from donations and sponsorship from individuals and corporations whose hearts and souls are in the right place (Note here should be made of the contributions of Dr. Agnes Varis who has donated a million dollars to fund a musician in the schools program that pays for musicians to perform to school children and the corporation E*Trade Financial who run an emergency housing fund that supplies rent and mortgage payments to musicians in dire need) their one main fund-raising activity each year has been a special benefit concert staged at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem New York for the past six years.
This year's A Great Night In Harlem took place on May 17th and raised 1.5 million dollars at the gate, making it their most successful event yet. But the need for funds isn't going away, and will only continue to worsen. People are still living in temporary shelters run by the government as far away from their home as Texas and that can't last forever. One of the ways people can help is by purchasing a copy of the CD made of the concert.
This year's A Great Night In Harlem was subtitled A History Of Music as it presented a history of African American music in North America from its roots in Africa up through to contemporary jazz, blues, and the popular music of recent years. I've been reviewing a lot of music from the time period covered on this disc, and what amazed me was how few of the people I had heard of before, and how many of them were truly spectacular.
Track one gives you an indication of the CD's power. It's a medley of music that starts with the insistent and compelling drums of Africa, segues into the New Canaan Baptist Praise Team performing a compelling gospel tune reminiscent of what slaves would have been allowed to perform, and finishes off with ninety year old Johnnie Mae Dunson, accompanied only by her son Jimi "Prime Time" Smith, raising the roof of the Apollo with a version of "Trouble Won't Let Me Be".
Johnnie Mae was typical of the performers the foundation worked to support, still vital enough to work for a living if given half a chance; she was on the verge of being made homeless in her eighties if not for the intervention of the foundation. This was a woman who wrote over six hundred songs and was never compensated for one of them, even though they were recorded by people like Elvis. She died on October 3rd listening to the CD of her final performance. The doctors were actually officially declaring her gone when the final track on the CD started to play – featuring her, Sweet Georgia Brown, and Paul Shaffer singing "Let It Roll Baby Roll".
In between Jonnie's tunes on A Great Night In Harlem you'll find everything from Dr. Michael White & The Original Liberty Brass Band playing old style New Orleans jazz from 1905, Henry Butler playing some quite amazing ragtime and other early jazz piano, The Duke Ellington Big Band playing some mean swing with "It Doesn't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" and then being joined by Fay Victor for a heart rendering version of "Strange Fruit".
The disc turns the corner into harder jazz next and picks up the pace with Arturo O'Farril and Candido for a burning version of "Caravan", and Roy Haynes gives a clinic in jazz drumming with an amazing drum solo. Next it's time for the boys with the horns to take the stage, and what could be more fitting then "Straight No Chaser" to represent the bebop era. It's then on into the modern era and Jimmy Norman sings his song "Time Is On My Side" (some guys named the Rolling Stones had a hit with it some time back) and is followed by Davell Crawford singing "Everything Must Change"
Sweet Gerogia Brown, and Johnnie Mae Dunson join Paul Shaffer and others on stage for the grand finale of a blues jam that includes the aforementioned "Let It Roll Baby Roll", and sounds just amazing. It's a fitting end to a concert disc that features some truly special musical moments. Making it even more special is the knowledge that all the musicians are performing in order to help out their compatriots who are in dire need, and that all the money raised will one way or another end up in the pocket of somebody who has made the world a better place with their song or the sound of their instrument.
I figure that buying a copy of A Great Night In Harlem: A History Of The Music isn't a matter of giving to a charity, it's a way for all of us to finally pay back the money that's long been owed to the people who wrote the music we've all loved for years, and who were never paid for their efforts. The fact that the disc was considered for a Grammy nomination under the legends of music category tells you something of its quality, but there's no award out there that can match that of listening to the heart and soul being poured out on every track of this disc.
You can purchase copies of A Great Night In Harlem: A History Of The Music directly from the The Jazz Foundation Of America's website and enjoy a piece of history forever. Remember some of these people aren't going to be around forever, and if we are ever going to pay them back for what they've given us, we should be doing it soon, if not sooner.