Chuck Foster, the archivist for the New Amsterdam Musical Association (NAMA), wasn’t around when the organization was founded in 1905, but he recounts its history as if he were there. Last Saturday, he and his cohorts were at Johnny Hartman Plaza in Heritage Heights to celebrate the “Glory of Sugar Hill” and the role Hartman’s great voice played in Harlem and in the world of music.
“This is our third annual tribute to Johnny,” Foster said, “and as you can hear from saxophonist Willie Mack and his ensemble—all of them members of the NAMA—this is the best way to honor that phenomenal singer.”
Several vocalists, including Kim Austin, Antoinette Hamlin and Anthony Brown, were magnificent in summoning Hartman’s music as well as a few timeless chestnuts made popular by Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan. If Brown didn’t exactly invoke Hartman with his version of “Lush Life,” he came pleasantly close. Austin’s snappy, up-tempo rendition of “Lady Bird” and Hamlin’s spirited “Secret Love” enticed even more passersby to linger a little longer at the plaza.
Hartman, for the uninitiated, died in 1983 at age 60, and many Americans discovered him in 1995 when his deep, mellow crooning was featured in Clint Eastwood’s film “Bridges of Madison County.” “Dedicated to You” and “My One and Only Love” were staples in Hartman’s repertoire, and they were never better heard than when accompanied by the legendary saxophonist John Coltrane.
“This is where Johnny lived, where he gained his fame,” said WHCR’s Lamon Fenner, who served as moderator.
A golden rock protrudes from the ground, throwing bright rays of sun on a marker commemorating Hartman’s place in Harlem and the jazz annals. “There is so much more we want to do around here, particularly from an economic standpoint,” said John Cardwell, one of the event’s coordinators. “We are currently in association with a number of organizations and institutions to certify the community’s place in the economic growth and viability of Harlem.”
Among the vendors assembled around 143rd Street and Hamilton Place was Kevin Dunn, who had an array of children’s books and was promoting Bob Gumb’s fine art. Barbara Wallace had a table with books written by her mother, artist-author Faith Ringgold. Even Sugar Hill Hardware was on hand displaying a number of items, some of which were used to keep the makeshift tent covering the musicians in place.
“Each year, this event gets bigger and bigger,” said LaQuita Henry. “And this is just one of the events giving Heritage Heights greater popularity.” Henry acknowledged the presence of Theodora and Lori Hartman, the widow and daughter of the honored singer.
“A party yesterday was given in a garden,” Austin chirped in the opening lines of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” and it captured the increasingly festive moment at the plaza.