Thousands Gather to Celebrate the Life and Work of Roy Hargrove

News | Jan, 10th 2019

On Tuesday, January 8, 2019, a global jazz community came together at Jazz at Lincoln Center to celebrate the life and music of the great Roy Hargrove, who passed away on November 2, 2018. It was the kind of sendoff Roy would have wanted: a five-hour musical blowout in Rose Theater, free and open to the public—followed by a jam session at Dizzy’s Club that lasted into the early morning hours—featuring more than 150 musicians. A crowd of 2000 was in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall to watch the concert in Rose Theater or to view the event live on screens in The Appel Room and the Mica and Ahmet Ertegun Atrium. More than 95,000 people around the world tuned in to the free livestream.

The excitement before the show was palpable as Wynton Marsalis and members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led a New Orleans funeral-style second line through the Atrium and into Rose Theater.

Emcee Christian McBride, who has known Roy since they were teenagers, made it clear from the start that this was not to be a somber affair. This was a night to celebrate Roy as not only a great musician, but as the kind of person you're lucky to know once in a lifetime:

As George Clinton once asked, “What is Soul?” To me, “soul” means never having to overtly explain where you’re coming from. When you’re around a person with soul, you find yourself saying to and about that person, “Oh, I dig,” even when that person didn’t say anything. When you heard Roy play, you clearly understood where he was coming from. He was a man with a huge heart, lots of empathy and understanding. Every musician who will appear on this stage tonight was deeply touched by Roy. We ALL loved him, and he loved us.

More than ten of Roy’s groups reunited onstage throughout the concert in Rose Theater, featuring one special guest after another. The show highlighted all the musical styles for which Roy was known and loved, from big band jazz, straight-ahead jazz, bop, and Latin jazz to hip hop, neo-soul, and funk—and reminded us that these supposedly divergent styles weren’t all that segregated in Roy’s music.

Roy Hargrove Big Band

The Roy Hargrove Big Band opened in grandiose fashion with an enormous arrangement of "Valera," with its regal brass passages giving a shout-out to Roy's mother, for whom the piece was originally written and who was in attendance this evening. But they really set the tone for the diverse evening of music by going right into an extra-funky tune with a backbeat—"Roy Allan," written for Roy's late father—followed by a fast bop swinger before Theo Croker and Giveton Gelin came to the front of the stage, singing, dancing, and playing trumpet while fans danced in the aisles.

The next group brought Christian McBride together with Karriem Riggins, Jon Batiste, and one of McBride's former roommates from back in the day when they toured in Roy’s band: Antonio Hart.

McBride returned to the mic:

Roy understood that the key to unlocking the true wisdom in this music was to spend time around the elders. He couldn’t waitto spend time and talk with them. Roy decided to play the language of all his elders and gain their respect and, therefore, gain credibility, and thenwork on creating something fresh. What could be more fulfilling than that? We’re going to bring a group of titans to the stage now.

And titans they were. The crowd rose once again, giving an extended standing ovation as living legends George Cables, Gary Bartz, Ray Drummond, and Jimmy Cobb took the stage. These icons were then joined by master vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater on a sweet ballad that brought slow-dancing couples into the aisles and Dee Dee herself to tears.

Jon Batiste, Antonio Hart, Freddie Hendrix, Christian McBride, and Karriem Riggins

One of Roy’s great small groups came next, featuring Antonio Hart, Karriem Riggins, Giveton Gelin, Danton Boller, and Marc Cary. With a mean backbeat and clear hip-hop influence, “Caryisms”—written for Cary by Roy himself—gave a new portion of the crowd what they most wanted, and the energy just kept shifting and rising throughout the show.

Roy was a long-time member of the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, and they brought their best for him tonight, putting on a showcase alongside Mark Gross, Roberta Gambarini, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Jon Faddis.

The only solo performance of the night was truly a special one, with Norah Jones treating audiences to a moving rendition of “The Nearness of You,” a song she learned by listening to Roy’s version of it—her favorite—on repeat. “We were all in awe of him,” she said.

The next quintet performance featured Roy’s wife Aida Brandes Hargrove singing a tune with Justin Robinson, Tadataka Unno, Ameen Saleem, Quincy Philips, and Giveton Gelin. Vocalist Renée Neufville performed a song that she and Robinson wrote with the band that very morning. “To call you friend, you carried your load more than you show. More than memories,” she sang. Their set closed with one more surprise guest: Gerald Clayton on another seriously funky tune.

When Roberta Gambarinijoined Willie Jones III, Danton Boller, Steve Davis, and Cyrus Chestnut onstage, she convincingly changed the lyrics of “I Remember Clifford” to “I Remember Hargrove” for a touching farewell.

Roy’s Latin band Crisol and JLCO saxophonist Sherman Irby followed, bringing the heat and percussion chops that earned them and Roy a Grammy Award for Best Latin JazzAlbum. The band also took the time to verbally reaffirm that Roy’s music and spirit are being celebrated right now not just here in New York, but also in the Caribbean and especially Havana.

Vocalist Lezlie Harrison made her first appearance of the night with Evan Sherman, Ben Patterson, and Saul Rubin, playing a soulful, organ-infused ballad to cool things down after Crisol’s high-energy Latin percussion finale.

The night was almost complete. One more of Roy’s great jazz quintets came out, with Sherman Irby, Jeremy Pelt, Larry Willis, Gerald Cannon, and Willie Jones III playing best-in-class straight-ahead jazz.

Terence Blanchard with RH Factor

When Jones stayed behind the drums while the final group set up, the audience knew it was the moment they had been hoping for: the return of the two-drummer RH Factor. The groundbreaking group absolutely brought the house down as the clock approached midnight, with more people up and dancing than ever. Following powerful performances by RH Factor and vocalists Renée Neufville and Stephanie McKay, superstar rapper Common surprised the crowd and honored Roy with unique freestyles.

Following the rousing finale in Rose Theater, the tribute to Roy continued in Dizzy’s Club as the Evan Sherman Big Band performed a Late Night Session entitled To Roy with Love. The bandstand was packed with musicians who had also performed in the second line and in Rose Theater only minutes before hitting the Dizzy’s stage. Throughout the night and into the morning hours, musicians sat in with the Evan Sherman Big Band, honoring the jam session tradition of which Roy was a master.  

There was nothing in the air tonight but love. We’ll miss Roy, but he’ll always be here with us in a musical community forever changed by him.

(Photo by Lawrence Sumulong for JALC)

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