Jazz at Thompson Central Park

February 1, 2023

Tuesday nights are special at New York’s Thompson Central Park Hotel (formerly the Parker Meridien). From 6-9 p.m. in Parker’s lobby/atrium bar there is now live jazz, thanks to the efforts of the Jazz Foundation of America, a nonprofit organization that has existed since 1989 to provide such things as housing and emergency assistance, pro bono medical care, and disaster relief for jazz musicians in need. 

On the night I was at the Thompson, January 17, the attraction was the Art Baron Quintet, playing standards like Ellington/Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” and Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul”. Baron was joined by Bill Crow on bass, Bobby DaVelle on tenor saxophone, Lafayette Harris on piano, and John Cooksey on drums.  

In addition to the music, the hallways at the hotel are embellished with classic photos of jazz legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Jimmy Heath, and Crow. Some of them were taken by longtime JFA Board member, photographer/author/music producer Hank O’Neal, who arranged for additional photos to be included from other photographers such as Carol Friedman and Richard Corman.

According to JFA Executive Director Joe Petrucelli, the connection with the hotel (located at 119 West 56th St.) goes back to 2019, “when our Board member, the entertainment lawyer Geoffrey Menin, introduced me to Joel Rosen, the President of GFP Hospitality, which was redeveloping the property. The pandemic intervened, and we weren’t able to work on the partnership in earnest until early 2022. From the start, the team at the hotel emphasized that they wanted to take a holistic approach, incorporating jazz as a theme at the hotel, not only programming music but by curating a gallery of jazz photography in the lobby and featuring jazz-inspired artwork in the rooms. 

“Furthermore,” he continued, “the Parker Meridien was built on the site of the Old Northern Hotel, which housed the studios of Fine Recordings Inc., where many jazz sessions were recorded circa the early ‘60s. Retaining the name Parker’s for the bar was an homage to the hotel’s past identity but also a tribute to Charlie Parker. We have been thrilled to feature so many fantastic musicians at Parker’s.”

O’Neal joined the JFA Board in 1990, one year after the organization’s founding. The creator of two record companies, Chiaroscuro Records and Hammond Music Enterprises, O’Neal has produced more than 200 jazz albums; published several books; and photographed many of the giants of 20th century jazz. His book, The Ghosts of Harlem: Sessions with Jazz Legends, was published by Vanderbilt University Press in 2009. It consists of interviews conducted between 1985 and 2007 with more than 40 jazz artists who worked in Harlem during its prime. 

“In 1991,” O’Neal recalled, the JFA “probably helped 20 people.” Last year, JFA assisted musicians and their families nationwide in nearly 7,000 individual cases of need – from housing and healthcare to employment and emergency financial grants. “We have money in the bank and a wonderful Board,” said O’Neal. “And, we help people all over the country. I just finished writing a piece about Clark Terry,” he continued, “and I know we helped with Clark’s nursing at the end of his life. We fund lung transplants and things like that. Sometimes it’s musicians who are household names but never had any health insurance. Or those who didn’t have enough points with 802 (AFM Local 802) to get a pension.” Richard Parsons, former Chairman of Citicorp and onetime CEO of Time Warner, is the current JFA Chairman.

One of the iconic photos taken by O’Neal that is hanging in the Thompson is of Dizzy Gillespie, and it was Gillespie’s battle with cancer at the end of his life that ultimately enabled the JFA with a means to provide medical care for jazz musicians that need it. “One of our Board members,” said O’Neal, “is Dr. Frank Forte, an oncologist at Englewood Hospital. He was Dizzy’s doctor. Dizzy made Dr. Frank promise that he would never turn away a jazz musician who needed help. And, Englewood never has. The hospital has provided over $13 million of medical care to jazz and blues musicians in need and made a significant difference in the many lives they have touched.”

To raise funds in 2022, O’Neal and JFA reissued a CD called One Good Turn that O’Neal originally produced as a fundraiser for JFA in 2002. It contains tracks from Chiaroscuro albums including recordings from legends such as Lionel Hampton, Gerry Mulligan, and Clark Terry as well as a never-before-heard collaboration between Dizzy Gillespie and Buddy Rich. Another JFA partner, Santa Barbara, CA-based apparel company, 32 Bar Blues, created a One Good Turn t-shirt, with 100 per cent of the net proceeds going to the JFA Musicians’ Emergency Fund.

O’Neal recalled one of JFA’s earliest fundraisers held to benefit the Jazz Musicians’ Emergency Fund, a 1992 concert at Town Hall featuring three pianists: Dorothy Donegan, Dick Hyman, and George Shearing. It was called “The Fine Art of Jazz” and also included Jon Burr on bass and Ray Mosca on drums. The concert was held in conjunction with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Stuart Davis Centennial Retrospective, raising more than $60,000, much of it from the sale of prints by Davis and other artists.

The lineup of live music in February at the Thompson is as follows: February 7, tenor saxophonist Bill Saxton; February 14, vocalist Antoinette Montague; February 21, guitarist Ed Cherry; and February 28, bassist Kim Clarke. And, Art Baron will be back on March 14.

Baron, who is 73, joined the Ellington band in 1973. “Jimmy Maxwell, the trumpet player, was a dear friend of mine,” he said, “and he told me Mercer (Ellington) needed someone to play trombone. At the time, they had a small band during the week at the Rainbow Grill, but on Sundays they’d go out of town and do gigs in other cities such as Washington, DC, and Boston with the full band. When I got on that band bus, people told me to be careful where I sat. Some of those guys had their seats for 50 years. But those guys were so nice to me. I was a hippie with long hair.”

Baron still leads a sextet called The Duke’s Men, aimed at keeping Ellington’s music alive. Crow often plays with the group, and Baron describes the 95-year-old bassist as “a walking history of our glorious music.”

Ed Cherry, the February 21st Thompson performer, was profiled in the June 2021 issue of Jersey Jazz. He was part of Gillespie’s band for 14 years. “From 1978 until he (Dizzy) passed,” he told Jersey Jazz’s Schaen Fox, “I was always in the band. He changed drummers and bass players two or three times and added this or that, but I was the one guy who was in the band through the whole thing.” The 68-year-old Cherry released an album on January 20 that is climbing on the JazzWeek charts. His Cellar Music Group recording, Are We There Yet?, broke into JazzWeek’s Top 50 chart on January 26 debuting at Number 24. Jazziz.com called it, a “formidable showcase of his fine, expressive musicianship and the melodic approach that he is renowned for, as well as his profound understanding of the blues.”

The partnership between JFA and the Thompson Central Park Hotel appears to have a bright and long future. “We’re very thankful for JFA for being so generous with their time and sharing some incredible talent with our guests,” said Amanda Reed, TCP’s Director of Sales and Marketing. “JFA is now an essential piece of Thompson’s success, and we’re looking forward to what is to come.”—SANFORD JOSEPHSON,

This year’s major JFA fundraising event,“A Great Night in Harlem”, will be held on Thursday, March 30, at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. For more information, or to order tickets, log onto www.jazzfoundation.org/Gala2023.

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