The concert featured a performance from jazz vocalist Rose Bilal, who has opened for the likes of Chubby Checker and Gladys Knights & The Pips. Accompanied by the Harlem Jazz All Stars, Ms. Bilal delighted all with her smoky renditions of songs by Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
Also on the bill were the Savoy Dancers, who performed an energetic and lively group number evoking the spirit and fun of an old Harlem nightclub.
Closing out the night was a superb performance from the sassy “Queen of the Keys,” Lillette Jenkins-Wisner. It’s hard to believe she is 86 years old, since the moment her fingers touched the keys, they moved with the dexterity and grace of a young woman. Her hands flew over the keys as she played with skill and panache, notably during her incredible jazzy rendition of “Flight of the Bumblebee.” A most delightful aspect of her performance was her personality, engaging her audience with colorful anecdotes between songs. She sang cheeky numbers with lyrics like, “While you were stepping out, someone else was stepping in.” The audience was thrilled and enthralled, clamoring for an encore at the end.
For one man, the evening was more special than the good food, incredible jazz and friendly atmosphere. It was his first time setting foot inside the Ft. Harrison since he worked at the hotel as a waiter during Segregation.
It was only fitting that the event was hosted at the Ft. Harrison Hotel. The Church of Scientology recently restored the property to its pre-WWII splendor; and it has a rich jazz history. In the 1970’s, the hotel hosted jazz greats like Count Bassie, Duke Ellington, Harry James and Buddy Rich, a tradition that survives today as the famous Clearwater Jazz Festival.
“The event’s goal was to raise funds, but it did more than that. It brought people back in time to Harlem in the 1940’s,” said Sherry Van Hootegem, one of the event’s organizers. “We have had many contacts asking us when our next event is and our plans. Harlem Nights has become an institution,” she said, “because of the incredible environment of the Ft. Harrison.”
The event was organized by the Mt. Carmel Community Development Corporation of Clearwater, Inc., and the North Greenwood Community Coalition. The concert served as a fundraiser for seven non-profits in the Clearwater and Tampa Bay communities, and is the first in a series of fundraising concerts. The benefiting charities were Jazztorian, Inc., the North Greenwood Community Coalition, Willa Carson Health Resource Center, Unlimited Gospel Expressions, A Spiritual Change, Inc., Artists in Action International, and the Mt. Carmel Community Development Corporation of Clearwater, Inc.
“These agencies seek to improve our youth, families and communities through the arts, mentoring, education, drug rehab, drug [and] crime prevention, health, and religion. They share the same visions and goals to inspire the human spirit, healing our communities through holistic methods that bind us all together,” says Maurice Mickens, who produced the event.
For more information, visit www.harlemnightsbenefit.org