Credit: Ron Scott photo

As COVID-19 continues to hold us hostage and live music remains a pleasant memory that we pray will return soon, there are still things to cheer in the jazz community.

The Jazz Journalists Association recently announced its 27 “activists, advocates, altruists, aiders and abettors of jazz” in 23 U.S. cities as 2020 Jazz Heroes. New York City is honored to have three Jazz Heroes—they are Harlem’s own Roberta “Berta” Alloway and the partners of Brooklyn’s ShapeShifter Lab, Matthew Garrison and Fortuna Sung.

Alloway, who is a native New Yorker and resident of Harlem, was gently pushed into the jazz promotion business by her friend, cornetist, singer, composer and blues/jazz man Olu Dara. He suggested she find a Harlem bar where musicians could play on a regular basis. She began her jazz promotion career at the Mark IV (on St. Nicholas Avenue) with an all-star cast of local favorites that included saxophonist Patience Higgins, keyboardist Les Kurtz, drummer Eli Fountain and the late bassist Andy McCloud III. In 1993 she moved her Monday Jam Sessions across the street to St. Nick’s Pub, turning it into the place for players aspiring and established alike to come in and burn. She named the house band at the Mark IV “The Sugar Hill Jazz Quartet.”

Almost instantly the Pub became a music haven. Alloway continued earning her stripes by hosting an impressive, Harlem-centric array of artists including vocalists Vanessa Rubin, Rome Neal and Ghanniya Green; tap dancers Savion Glover and Buster Brown; the late baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, keyboardist-singer Donald Smith, trombonist Craig Harris, and drummers Greg Bandy, Dave Gibson and Dennis David. Even Wynton Marsalis showed up to play in the wee hours.

Before the pandemic paralyzed live music in New York City and the world, Alloway was presenting jazz Monday and Friday Night Jam Sessions at Patrick’s Place. Over the last 25 years Alloway has become the preeminent jazz presenter in Harlem. 

“I’m trying to preserve the spirit of jazz and keep Harlem residents and the international audience involved in the music,” Alloway said after being informed she was selected. Once live performances again become a reality, she will be officially presented with her Jazz Heroes statuette.

Brooklyn Jazz Heroes Matthew Garrison and Fortuna Sung opened their doors to the ShapeShifter Lab in 2011. For nine years they’ve presented avant garde improvisation and contemporary composition nightly. They later extended their platform with spoken-word, dance and visual art. Garrison is the son of renowned bassist Jimmy Garrison (John Coltrane’s mainstay) and modern dancer Roberta Escamilla. He is a gifted bassist and Shapeshifter’s creative director. Fortuna Sung was raised by a musician-father and actor-mother in Hong Kong. She studied design at the University of San Francisco, already having experience in administering vast educational arts programs in her home country. Her skills in both design and business organization are a perfect fit as ShapeShifter Lab’s administrative director.

“In this troubling time, as the world fights a pandemic, the JJA is proud to celebrate the hearts, souls and efforts of these Heroes who are all of the opinion that creative, improvised music offers substantial person and societal benefits,” says Howard Mandel, president of the JJA. “And they do everything they can to spread that message.”

For a complete listing of 2020 Jazz Heroes visit the website www.JJAJazzAwards.org.

As the pandemic leads us to alternative ways to express, the Bronx Music Heritage Center (BMHC) invites you to sign up to share a poem or two on May 28. Or you can just join via Facebook to see the performances. The open mic at 7 p.m. (EST) includes spoken word and storytelling in any language. The special guest performer is Don, hosted by Bocafloja and Lyrical Bliss. It’s free for all ages. Livestream from your device at Facebook.com/BXMUSIC, sign up at emartinez@whedco.org.

Noted jazz festivals around the world have been cancelled or postponed, but like any jazz performance with its improvisational riff, the DCJazzFest From Home Series has taken another course with its free video series occurring every Saturday at 7 p.m. on both the DCJF YouTube channel and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/pg/dcjazzfest) that will feature never-before-seen footage of performances from years past as well as live-streamed shows from DCJF artist alums. The bassist and composer Ben Williams, whose music always grabs listeners and keeps swinging in the moment, appears on May 23, and on May 30 vocalist Rochelle Rice, who crosses genres between jazz, folk and soul with her lyrical harmonies, will be featured.

“Jazz Is Dead 001” album: For this ignited ear experience compilation the producers/musicians Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad partnered with cross-genre eclectic music legends: vibraphonist and vocalist Roy Ayers known for his insulated soul swing; jazz alto saxophonist/composer Gary Bartz (after his stint with Miles Davis he formed the NTU Troop that combined soul funk); the Brazilian jazz and bossa nova pianist Joao Donato; keyboardist, flautist, singer, producer Brian Jackson known for his collaborations with Gil Scott-Heron; multi-instrumentalist known primarily for his work on organ and piano Doug Carn; Brazilian singer, songwriter, and record producer Marcos Valle; the Brazilian jazz-funk trio formed in 1973, Azymuth, featuring bassist and guitarist Alex Malheiros, percussionist Ivan Conti, and Fender Rhodes piano and synthesizer Lincoln Kiko.

This compilation of eight tracks features each guest musician offering compositions that were all co-written with producers Younge and Muhammad. Ayers opens the music journey with “Hey Lover” with his distinctive groove on vibes with warm vocals and a drum backbeat keeping it in the pocket. The track “Distant Mode” finds Bartz’s alto saxophone hitting notes that soothe, notes that swing but say it’s alright, then he jumps into high gear riffing off some Isle Of Wight notes. Brian Jackson appears on “Nancy Wilson” playing alto flute. A smooth sailing ballad that captures the essence of the great singer from a fusionistic stance. “Nao Saia Da Praca” features the vocals of Marcos Valle on Fender Rhodes taking you right to his homeland of Brazil with that bossa nova stirring rhythm. The Midnight Hour (Younge and Muhammad playing multiple instruments from electric bass, alto saxophone and Fender Rhodes piano along with vocalists) closes the album with the title track crispy swinging low key.

The title “Jazz Is Dead” is a most serious title. It is a conceptual term that continuously pops up as an honest jazz conversation among critics, but jazz, like love, will never die. It’s not the word jazz, it is the blood, sweat and tears of the musicians and ancestors that were and remain committed to this Black music do or die. Granted, the word jazz has mixed emotions, so noted, Duke Ellington, Randy Weston, Max Roach and Dr. Billy Taylor.

The inaugural release of “Jazz Is Dead” is a futuristic nod to the past, a dream come true for two producers that started their careers DJing and sampling some of the greatest jazz icons. “It’s surreal to be in the studio with cats ranging from Marcos to Roy Ayers,” says Younge. “The stories, the music and the experience is something ‘Jazz Is Dead’ wants to share with the world,” Younge’s quote from press material. The company is releasing albums, as well as vinyl LP copies. Contact Dru@jazzisdead.com.

“Jazz Is Dead” is a romping sometimes mystical journey through the hills of Brazil, the streets of Harlem, downtown Baltimore, brothers in the barber shop, sisters in the hair salon. Feel the groove, don’t get caught up in jazz (as a category), get caught up in the soul of Black music. Duke Ellington didn’t say jazz don’t mean a thing…No, he said, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”