The Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival Aims to Keep Jazz Alive

The Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival Aims to Keep Jazz Alive
Wycliffe Gordon and his trombone

Walking down the street of most metropolitan cities, you are more likely to hear the sounds of hip-hop, pop or dance music blaring out of venues.  But from May 9-15, the only sounds that emanated from the iconic Harlem cultural organizations of the Apollo Theater, Harlem Stage and Jazzmobile was jazz.

The occasion marked the inaugural Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival that brought together an array of talented individuals to honor the music that defined the Harlem community.  For celebrated performer, conductor, composer and arranger extraordinaire Wycliffe Gordon, the festival’s mission is about keeping the important legacy of jazz alive.

“Jazz touches everything.  It tells the story of American history and culture.  What I find happens is that, eventually, we come back to where it comes from, even if you don’t hear about it in the schools.  Eventually, the music comes out,” he says.

Capturing the history was exactly what occurred during the Apollo Theater’s revival of their “Jazz à la Carte” variety show.  When the show debuted in 1934 as the Apollo’s very first show it featured Ralph Cooper, Benny Carter and his orchestra, and “16 Gorgeous Hot Steppers” for an evening of comedy, dancing, singing and all that jazz.  Under the tutelage of Gordon, the show paid homage while imagining the future of jazz.  The event was hosted by comedian Robbie Todd and featured Philadelphia’s Temple University Big Band.

Highlights from the evening included Savion Glover’s dazzling tap dancing routine as he literally went toe-to-toe with Gordon’s trombone playing.  Gordon also impressed with his reference to jazz’s influence on hip-hop as the band weaved in The Sugarhill Gang’s classic hit, “Rapper’s Delight.”  Meanwhile, the dancers of the night similarly combined jazz and hip-hop through their choreographed routines.  Such mergers proved that jazz’s influence spreads across art forms and is still relevant to today’s generation.

“The shuffle beat in hip-hop comes from swing.  So, whether we know the history or not, it’s all part of what we do.  Jazz is a fusion of many cultures.  Music is part of dance and vice versa, and the comedy is all part of it, too,” he says.

Additional noteworthy moments came from the next generation of jazz talent including Canadian teenage sensation Nikki Yanofsky, who wowed the crowd with her rendition of Ella Fitzgerald’s complicated scat routine, “Air Mail Special.”  Joining Yanofsky in carrying on the legacy was alto sax-vocalist Grace Kelly and trombone prodigy Corey Wilcox, who all proved that the future of jazz is in capable hands.

For Gordon, the main purpose of the night was to ensure that jazz is carried forward into the future, and he believes this can happen if more young people are simply exposed to the music.

“Play the music and videos of jazz on YouTube if you have to for the children.  It’s all out there.”


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