BY NICOLE JAVORSKY | Billy Kaye climbed the stairs, made his way to center stage, and stood at the mic. “We are waiting,” he said, pausing to great effect, “for the host.”
An audience member quipped, “You’re the host!” Without skipping a beat, some others took up the refrain. The chant, though a joke, expressed the audience’s reverence for the jazz musician.
“You’re the host! You’re the host!”
This friendly exchange was just one example of the good humor — and good timing — on display every week, when the The Jazz Foundation of America (JFA) hosts a Monday Night Jam in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen, at the Local 802 Musicians’ Union. Kaye has been a part of the Jazz Foundation since its beginnings. He joined the union at 18. Back when the clubroom where the jazz jam is held was a studio, Kaye’s music was recorded there. “I’ve been a member, host, honoree, the whole thing,” he said. “This room is my history.”
But this steamy July Monday was a special occasion. The clubroom was packed for the 92nd birthday of another beloved jazz figure — pianist Zeke Mullins. Mullins’ smile was visible under the rim of his baseball cap. He sat at a table near the front of the room, surrounded by family members.
Over 120 people filled the space, now adorned with black and gold balloons. Often during the night, faces gleamed in sudden recognition of someone else in the room. As two attendees shook hands and embraced, laughter spilled from their lips.
Gabriel Romance, longtime jazz vocalist and flutist, emphasized, “It’s the camaraderie and friendship of musicians coming here. That’s what it’s all about.”
Last year, after Romance sang at the jam, one member of the audience approached the stage. That week was the anniversary of the attendee’s father passing away. “The Shadow of Her Smile,” the song Romance performed, was a touchstone in her relationship with her dad. As waves of nostalgia crashed on her face, she cried, “To hear Gabriel sing it like that means so much.”
Dashiell Feiler, JFA Manager of Grants and Program Development, organizes the jam. In his office upstairs, Feiler recalled how he used to wear jazz and blues T-shirts every day to school. “It’s a lifelong obsession.”
He shuffled through some drawers until he found a cartoon. Jean Cabut, who died in the 2015 attack on the office of satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, drew it at one of JFA’s Monday night jams. After a moment of squinting at the caricatures, Felier pointed to the jazz musicians in the illustration, naming each one.
At Mullins’ birthday celebration, singer, songwriter and musician Whitney Marchelle Jackson gave Mullins her CD (“Me, Marsalis & Monk”), on which Wycliffe Gordon and Clark Terry also appear. Beyond serving as a place for established jazz musicians to come together, Romance called the Monday night gathering “a good fraternity” to support local musicians — old, new, and in-between.
For each jam, a different combination of musicians plays in the band, accompanying the vocalists and players who sign up to perform. Anyone who didn’t know otherwise, however, would think they were part of a regular band. The bandleaders lend their support to the “newbies,” as Feiler put it.
JFA’s work to support jazz and blues musicians encompasses much more than the weekly jam though. Feiler explained how scarcity of work, low payment, and unreliable work add up to difficult financial circumstances for many jazz players.
“I like to think that it’s because they’re innovators, and that’s not economically optimal,” Feiler said.
Improving the welfare of jazz musicians is important not only for the craft, but also for the individuals themselves. JFA offers direct assistance to musicians, including housing and medical help. They even have a licensed social worker on staff and host free concerts at schools, museums, and nursing homes.
The jams alone are an avenue to engage the community in jazz music. Attendees come from all over the New York City boroughs to perform and listen to others. One of Feiler’s favorite moments from the jams is when the musicians are on stage playing and the people in the audience sing along. “That happens fairly often here.”
Weekly except on major holidays, the Jazz Foundation of America hosts its Monday Night Jam from 7pm to 9:30pm at the Local 802 Musicians’ Union (322 W. 48th St., btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.; first floor Club Room). Free and open to the public. Musicians wishing to perform are encouraged to arrive early to sign up. Visit jazzfoundation.org/what-we-do/monday-night-jam-series.