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Marian Anderson Award Gala Honors Bill Cosby with Jazz and More

Victor L. Schermer By

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11th Annual Marian Anderson Award Gala
Bill Cosby, Honoree
Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
April 6, 2010

The Marian Anderson Award is given each year to a personage who has used his or her "talents for personal artistic expression coupled with a deep commitment to the betterment of society." No one deserves such an award more than this year's recipient, Bill Cosby, whose comedy scenarios and TV programs have themselves communicated a message of harmony among the races and generations. In addition, Cosby is a philanthropist, notably on behalf of education, and frequently advocates and supports various social causes. It so happens that "Cos," who came of age in Philadelphia, is an avid jazz fan, a drummer himself, who sometimes shows up at clubs and concerts to give the musicians a friendly boost. So the awards concert in his honor included two jazz mini-sets, one featuring vocalist Lizz Wright and the other with a group of seasoned local jazz musicians supplemented by two saxophonists from New York who are among the longest-lived players in jazz history and still going strong!

The gala event was packed with superb music, encomiums to Cosby, and stand-up comedy, with various musical celebrities and the Philadelphia Orchestra further contributing to the festivities. Cosby and his wife Camille occupied a box close to the proscenium and were obviously moved and thrilled. The festivities culminated in an "acceptance speech" by Cosby which actually consisted of an uproarious improvised comedy routine about his childhood and adolescence in Philadelphia. As funny as it was, his informal "shtick" also contained subtle and important understandings about the nature of race and ethnic prejudice, revealing a "dark side" of the comedian that echoed the deeper musings of Lenny Bruce.

The person for whom the award is named, the great soprano Marian Anderson, was herself an African American who, like Cosby, grew up in Philadelphia and who suffered racial apartheid in American. In 1939, shortly before a scheduled concert in Washington, D.C., she was denied the use of Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because of her color, prompting Eleanor Roosevelt to resign her own membership in the DAR and sponsor Anderson in a widely-covered, memorable, historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with thousands of people of all colors in attendance. The award in Anderson's name—which has gone to prominent celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Danny Glover, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Gere and, most recently, co-recipients Maya Angelou and Norman Lear—celebrates those prominent, influential figures who have fought racism and supported equal opportunity for all.

The 2010 event honoring Cosby served as a testament to African-American and multi-ethnic and cross-generational music and culture, with Chita Rivera, a close friend of Cosby, as narrator. DJ Bob Perkins emceed the jazz set. Representing a broad cross-section of diverse racial and ethnic groups were conductors James De Priest and Thomas Wilkins, operatic mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, jazz singer Lizz Wright, the Chinese-American student pianist, Yang Bao, the Boyz2Men pops group, an all-African-American jazz band, and comedian David Brenner. There were also many echoes of the City of Brotherly Love, with DePriest having studied in Philadelphia, Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter presenting the award to Cosby, and Brenner and Cosby reminiscing with side-splitting humor about their native city.

Cosby loves jazz, and vocalist Lizz Wright gave him a performance to remember. Accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra and her own fine pianist, Kenny Banks (who hails from Wright's home town of Atlanta), she delivered knock-out versions of Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue" and the title tune from her recording debut, Salt (Universal, 2003). An already proven top vocalist with small groups and big bands, notably the Count Basie Orchestra, Wright, coming on soon after Denyce Graves' stunning operatic renditions of "Ave Maria" and "Acerba Volutta: Dolce Tortura," showed that a jazz diva could hold her own with the best of classical singers. (Indeed it served as a reminder that some selections in the classic and operatic repertoire once held the status of popular songs.)

Following the ever-popular group, Boyz2Men, the music was climaxed by an extended jam of Dizzy Gillespie's "Blue 'n Boogie" by a sextet of top Philly-based musicians assembled by Perkins: Tony Williams on alto sax, Bootsie Barnes and Tommy Grice on tenor saxophones, Lee Smith on bass, Don Wilson on piano, and Mickey Roker on drums. They were joined for the last few choruses by venerable out-of-towners Max Lucas, age 95, and Fred Staten, age 99 (!) both on tenor sax. These two gentlemen defied all the laws of aging as they grooved their solos like young lions. The expanded sax section did some improvised riffs that sounded like the Basie Band in its early days. Wilson delivered some of his sophisticated and strongly clustered piano work, and Roker's drumming lit up the stage with fireworks appropriate for the celebratory occasion.

The leader of the sax section, Bootsie Barnes, one of the most accomplished players in this city, is a close friend of Cosby, the two having grown up together in the same neighborhood. Barnes' latest CD, Boppin' Round the Center, was dedicated to Cosby and to the times they hung out together at the local recreation center. Barnes coordinated the group with panache, and his solos hit home with a special personal touch, derived perhaps from Lester Young, but so unique that younger sax players have tried without success to duplicate it.

The concert afforded the uncommon opportunity to hear a live performance by a jazz group that followed on the heels of the world-class Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. Without denying the wonderful, sometimes electrifying, orchestral renderings of the latter esteemed musical organization, it was remarkable how a jazz octet could generate an energy and pulsation that actually exceeded the large orchestral ensemble. The energy level in the auditorium simply jumped up by a few notches. The reason may be in the idiom itself: jazz syncopation, improvisation, and immediacy have a power and joy that, at their best, tower above other musical genres. No modern jazz drummer generates more swing" than the great Mickey Roker (once Dizzy Gillespie's favorite drummer), and he and the group left no doubt that "jazz is king."

This gala concert and award event brought together various expressions of the African-American experience, the worlds of entertainment and philanthropy, diverse musical genres, and social commentary in the form of stand-up comedy in a once-in-a-lifetime way. Since jazz indeed functions within all these contexts (including, in its past, comedy in the form of vaudeville and second acts in clubs and college concerts), the event provided a natural sociological perspective on what makes jazz "tick" and what, in turn, it brings to the cultural and artistic table. In fact, the music in itself lent status and validation to the award and its recipient, without whom the extraordinary harmonies of this special event could not have happened.

Photo credit
Cashman and Associates

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