Salute To Jazz Inspires Piano Shoot Out
Barry Harris, Hank Jones and Oscar Peterson honored; performances reign
In just three short years, GRAMMY Salute To Jazz has earned a distinction as one of the most satisfying and spontaneous events in all of music. Yet for all its positive repute, nothing could have prepared fans for what transpired Friday night at the Music Box @ Fonda in Hollywood. What began as a ceremony honoring jazz immortals Barry Harris, Hank Jones and Oscar Peterson, concluded nearly 75 minutes later with a piano-playing duel pitting a teen-aged music prodigy against a keyboard legend.
By the time the friendly musical skirmish ended, attendees at the GRAMMY Salute To Jazz were lavishing Oscar Peterson and his 16-year-old challenger, Sylvester Sands, with a deafening standing ovation. In a scene more reminiscent of a rock concert than a jazz gala, fans vied for photos of the legendary Peterson with his honored young challenger.
The virtuoso demonstration capped an evening in which the President's Merit Award was presented to the night's honorees. Teaming swing and bebop legends with high school music students from the Gibson/Baldwin GRAMMY Jazz Ensembles, the GRAMMY Salute To Jazz celebrates the genius and accomplishments of experienced players while showcasing the talents of a new jazz generation. Past honorees include Benny Golson, John Hendricks, Horace Silver, Clark Terry and Gerald Wilson.
Friday's event was hosted by vocalist Nancy Wilson. The GJE was conducted by Ron McCurdy (professor of jazz studies, USC Thornton School of Music) and Justin DiCioccio (dean of studies, Manhattan School of Music).
It was apparent early on that the honorees were eager to mix things up. The evening got off to a soulful, funny start when Harris accepted his award. The Detroit-born pianist and music educator, who first garnered attention playing with Cannonball Adderley, Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins, Illinois Jacquet and Max Roach before striking out on his own, recalled how his mother asked when he was young, "Boy, what you gonna do?" When Harris replied that he wanted to play jazz, his mom said matter-of-factly: "Well…go ahead wit' it."
And with that recollection, Harris proceeded to pull out all the stops. Accompanied by the GJE choir, he performed an incandescent version of "Autumn In New York." In a demonstration of his teaching mastery, Harris improvised an interactive tune titled "5-7-8," featuring simple choruses sung by the audience.
"We didn't have to lip sync [or] spend a million dollars making an album," Harris said, reminding the crowd that music should be fun. "We just make it up."
If Harris seemed eager to supply wisdom leavened with comic relief, Hank Jones offered up gentlemanly reserve. As Recording Academy President Neil Portnow detailed in his remarks, Jones won renown performing on Norman Granz' Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, and later as an accompanist for swing and bebop giants like Ella Fitzgerald, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker and Wes Montgomery.
Jones kept his acceptance speech short and sweet, opting instead to let his fingers do the talking. A gasp went through the crowd when the pianist quoted "Eleanor Rigby" during his interpretation of Joe Henderson's exquisite ballad, "Recordame." Switching musical gears, Jones followed up by leading the GJE in a version of his original tune, "Hank's Blues."
The spotlight next illuminated the formidable Peterson, who spent most of his acceptance speech praising his late hero, Art Tatum. The room fell silent as Peterson recalled the day his idol gave him a vote of confidence. "This is my time," Tatum told the young Peterson, "[but] you're next."
Yielding the floor, the pianist looked on approvingly as 16-year-old Yuma Sung led the GJE in a sensitive rendition of Peterson's Martin Luther King tribute, "Hymn To Freedom." But when 16-year-old Christian Sands of Orange, Conn., assumed the ivories to perform "Kelly's Blues," Peterson — who was not scheduled to perform — couldn't restrain himself any longer. To the cheers of the crowd, the tuxedoed legend was helped to an adjacent piano and proceeded to engage Sands in a duel.
The result was an intense, but good-natured "call-and-response" session that lasted nearly 15 minutes. It was a remarkable improvisational display; Peterson captivating the crowd with his rippling melodic inventions, while Sands counter-pointed in a gutbucket style reminiscent of Thelonious Monk.
"[Oscar] got inspired, and it showed," a breathless Berry Gordy testified after the event.
"It was one of those things you know you'll never forget," said Lord Of The Rings star, Elijah Wood. "I feel honored just to be here to see it."