The Jazz Foundation of America’s Annual Jazz Loft Party, now in its 27th year, is a one-night-only, feel-good-all-year, mini music fest.  With three stages, a host of celebrated performing artists, a bountiful spread, and glittering city views, it’s hard to imagine a better way to spend an autumnal Saturday evening in Manhattan.

True, at $500 each, ticket prices are steep. But proceeds benefit the JFA, which provides financial assistance to jazz musicians facing all manner of hardships—health crises, financial troubles, homelessness, or natural disasters. This year’s Loft Party, held on Oct. 13 at the tony Hudson Studios, drew special attention to Puerto Rican musicians whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed by Hurricane Maria a year ago—a situation that still demands remedy a year later.

“A goal that we’ve been working toward over months is to raise about half a million dollars for victims of Hurricane Maria,” says JFA Co-Executive Director Joseph Petrucelli. These funds will continue the work JFA began last September: After the hurricane struck, the organization provided displaced Puerto Rican musicians with basic necessities like food, water, and fuel via emergency micro-grants of about $500 each. Now the JFA is looking to help them regain their livelihoods by repairing or replacing ruined instruments and finding them employment as musicians. Gains from the Loft Party will go a long way toward these ends: All told, this year’s benefit fêted about 1,000 music lovers and generated $400,000 in aid. 

The theme of the evening, “A Night For The Soul,” reflects both the Foundation’s mission and the musical underpinnings of the programming. “We were talking about the idea of ‘a dark night of the soul’ and the climate in the U.S., and we turned it around into the idea of a ‘night for the soul’ generate a feeling of hope and warmth,” Petrucelli explains.  

In keeping with this theme, the program featured a slate of Puerto Rican jazz and Latin groups in the “Café San Juan,” among them Bobby Sanabria’s Multiverse Big Band, an exciting panoply of horns and percussion, and Eddie Palmieri’s Afro-Caribbean Jazz Sextet, introduced by actress/choreographer Rosie Perez, who cited Palmieri’s genre-defining music as a pivotal influence on her younger self’s emerging Puerto Rican identity. As part of the final set in Café San Juan, the JFA honored percussionists Pablito Rosario and Cachete Maldonado, leaders of the Puerto Rico All-Stars, with the JFA Lifetime Achievement Award for their prolific contributions to Latin music over the decades.    

While Café San Juan provided the Latin dance grooves, the “Vanguard Lounge” featured modern jazz and ageless blues—trumpeter Randy Brecker and his sextet, with guest saxophonist Ada Rovatti, in a crisp, riveting set; saxophonist Joe Lovano and his quartet, before a standing-room-only crowd; and vibrant blues star Sweet Georgia Brown, backed by The Blues Crusaders.  

The headlining event—a tribute to R&B icon Robert Flack—drew hundreds of fans into “Roberta’s Room,” the third performance space, where a retinue of Flack’s fellow soul superstars, band members, and backup singers (all indomitable soloists in their own right) waited to pay tribute to their friend and colleague. Actor and JFA board member Michael Imperioli introduced the set of classic pop, R&B, and soul tunes: singers Dennis Collins, Brenda White King, and Sharon Jerry-Collins in harmony on Flack’s hit “The Closer I Get To You”; singer/composer Valerie Simpson on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothin’ Like The Real Thing,” two of Simpson’s most successful songs as co-writer with her late husband Nickolas Ashford; and vocal phenom Lisa Fischer, in a gripping rendition of Flack’s most popular single, “The First Time (Ever I Saw Your Face).” Before her own set, tour de force singer/songwriter Macy Gray joined Fischer for Flack’s second most popular single, “Killing Me Softly With His Song” (a reggae version), followed by Gray solo on the third-ranking “Feel Like Making’ Love.”   

Flack, 81, who’d remained off-stage during the tribute, afterwards moved down center to receive The Clark & Gwen Terry Award for Courage from JFA Executive Director Wendy Oxenhorn. In presenting the award Oxenhorn, who with Artistic Director Steve Jordan had overseen the event’s programming, remarked, “I always say that love is a song. I can’t think of anything more important than keeping music alive.”

In closing, Flack joined the entire ensemble in singing “You’ve Got A Friend”—her first live performance this year. Her hundreds of friends in the audience returned the sentiment.    

(Reprinted from Downbeat Online, 13 October 2018.)