I’m writing this post after attending and performing at what has become something of an annual pilgrimage for me, the September Concert: Heart of Jazz event held at Ashford and Simpson’s Sugar Bar in Manhattan. Every year since 2005, Edward James (a.k.a. “E. J.”) Decker has produced an event featuring an assembly of thirty to forty jazz singers and instrumentalists who get together to honor the memory of those lost in the tragic collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.
E. J. is a native of New Jersey and a singer, songwriter, actor, and political activist who has been described by jazz historian-journalist Scott Yanow as “a talented, but fairly obscure, baritone … [with] a strong voice touched by that of Billy Eckstine, although he has his own sound.” His father, Everette, was a big band singer who worked for a time with the pre-war Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and influenced E. J.’s singing style. But E. J.’s repertoire reflects the folk, rock, and jazz music he heard in the early 1960s around New York and later when he was in college (St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). According to his entry in the encyclopedia at Jazz.com, it was while in college that E. J.—like many who were coming of age at the time—discovered that music could function as a carrier of socio-political messaging that might not be included in mainstream entertainment. E. J. was particularly impressed with the anti-Vietnam War messaging that was gaining popularity at the time and was inspired to activism, going as far as to be appointed to chairing a Philadelphia-based rally that presaged the famous National Moratorium rally held in Washington, D.C. on November 15, 1969, and serving as a member of the security retinue on the 20th anniversary of the 1963 Civil Rights March held at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1983. This is the same rally that recently was commemorated with a 50th anniversary celebration. (Sadly, many believe that the core issues of the original march have been resolved and that people should quit complaining.)
When E. J. sings, he delivers the song’s melody fairly “straight,” with little or no embellishment, while his accompanying musicians improvise on the song’s structure. In the almost 20 years since I first became acquainted with him, I’ve never heard him “scat” on a tune. However, the vocalists who comprise the roster for the Heart of Jazz events pride themselves on their improvising abilities and nearly always include scatting in their performances. This year’s vocalists included: Mary Foster Conklin, Gabriele Tranchina, Anne Phillips, Linda Ciofalo, Melissa Hamilton, E. J., Lainie Cooke, Judy Neimack, Roseanna Vitro, and Antoinette Montague. Each singer performed for about 20 minutes with an accompanying five-piece group comprised of a horn player, a guitarist, a pianist, a bassist, and a drummer. Some of the group members would play for two singers, although on the set I played (with Anne Phillips and Linda Ciofalo) the pianists, Neal Alexander and Mala Waldron, changed with the vocalists. The other pianists were: Joe Vincent Tranchina (for Mary Foster Conklin and Gabriele Tranchina), Bob Albanese (for Melissa Hamilton and E. J.), Janice Friedman (for Lainie Cooke and Judy Neimack), and James Weidman (for Roseanna Vitro and Antoinette Montague). The rest of the rhythm section players, in order of their appearances, were: Lou Volpe (guitar), Saadi Zain (bass), and Newman Taylor Baker (with Tranchina); Joe Giglio (guitar), me (bass), and Baker again (with Alexander and Waldron); Dom Minasi (guitar), Cameron Brown (bass), and Peter Runnels (drums) (with Albanese); Jeanfrançois Prins (guitar), Gene Perla (bass), and Michael T. A. Thompson (drums) (with Friedman); and finally Roni Ben-Hur (guitar), Tim Ferguson (bass), and Art Lillard (drums) (with Weidman). Since there were only three horn players, they stayed on stage a bit longer. Patience Higgins played tenor saxophone for Conklin, Tranchina, and Phillips; Chip Shelton played flute and soprano saxophone for Ciofalo, Hamilton, and Decker; and Elizabeth Frascoia played trombone for Cooke, Neimack, Vitro, and Montague. That should add up to thirty-three musicians gracing the stage of the Sugar Bar over a period of five hours. E. J. also acted as the master of ceremonies, but was helped out at the last minute by WBGO-FM’s on-air host Sheila Anderson, who lasted for four sets.
The Heart of Jazz event is organized by time slots only; programming of sets is left up to the singers, who perform two or three numbers, and the instrumentalists, who play one or two tunes during the changing of the vocalists. Some of the audience might have found it interesting that the singers supplied charts for almost everything they sang to their groups while the instrumentalists didn’t use any for their musical interludes, but this is common practice for jam sessions, the working model for E. J.’s annual get-togethers. While jam sessions are often perceived as a jazz musicians-only event, where the music takes on an esoteric elitist character that can’t be “dug” by anyone who doesn’t play the music, some very popular groups, like Count Basie’s big band, were famous for improvising head-arrangements on the spot. Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic series was inspired by working on the movie Jammin’ the Blues and was essentially a travelling jam session. (It is no coincidence that the head of Basie’s sax section, Lester Young, was the star of Jammin’ the Blues, as well as a mainstay of Jazz at the Philharmonic.) The interesting part of Heart of Jazz is that, even though the line up changes every year, it changes very little. Some of the performers have played at every concert since 2005: E. J. (of course), Melissa Hamilton, James Weidman, Anne Phillips, and yours truly. Almost all of the rest have played it before and continue to return. It’s a small community of about 40 to 50 returning artists, including: Sheila Jordan, Harvie S., Virginia Mayhew, Bob Kindred, Claire Daley, Amy London, Christopher Dean Sullivan, Carol Sudhalter, David F. Gibson, Kate Baker, Tom Dempsey, Howard Johnson, and Jay Clayton (among others) and after nine years, we have become accustomed to seeing each other there. Granted not everyone sees eye-to-eye on everything and some don’t play together on any other day of the year, but when it comes to Heart of Jazz, all our differences are laid to the side for the evening.
E. J. organizes the events so that the programs are unique and nobody performs with the same people as the year before. But sometimes the tunes picked are repeated because not everyone gets to the venue at the same time. I didn’t hear anything twice this year, but I also missed the first and last singers (Mary Foster Conklin and Antoinette Montague, respectively) as well as part of Gabriele Tranchina’s and Roseanna Vitro’s sets, so I can’t assert that with authority.
Until now, no documentation exists of the Heart of Jazz performances. E. J. has been strict about still photos only being taken with no videos. But this year I was able to convince him to let me do it with my cell phone if, and only if, everyone on the stage agreed. I was able to get a single tune from two singers, Lainie Cooke and Judy Neimack and their accompanists. Unfortunately I didn’t have a tripod, so the camera gets a little shaky. I guess I’ll have to invest in a portable stand for the future. E. J. has agreed to see if we can get everything recorded next year so that the best can be picked out for the readers of NewMusicBox. For now, though, I hope you like these: