“This is the true jazz experience,” proclaimed five-time GRAMMY-winning bassist Christian McBride, laughing deeply at one point during the performance he and his big band helmed at the Women’s Association of NJPAC’s 21st Annual Spotlight Gala. The ink wasn’t dry on an arrangement offered to the pianist by powerhouse singer Cynthia Erivo, who nonetheless brought down the house with a flawless rendition of Aretha Franklin’s heartbreaker, “Ain’t No Way.”
That true jazz experience was evident throughout the Oct. 1 fundraiser, titled “An Evening of Elegant Soul.” The spirit of jazz’s musical democracy and mentor-student bond was tangible from the top of show, when NJPAC Arts Education teen vocalist Alexis Morrast was the first to take the mic. Backing her was the evening’s band, composed of fellow students from Wells Fargo Jazz for Teens playing elbow-to-elbow with professional teaching artists, like saxophonist Mark Gross, and under McBride’s musical direction.
Each year, the Gala invites its donor audience to witness the results of their dollars at work by showcasing “such amazing potential,” remarked NJPAC President and CEO John Schreiber after Alexis’ performance. “And that’s what we see here all the time,” he added. The Women’s Association of NJPAC has raised more than $46 million for the Arts Center since its founding – the largest single stream of support for its operations and arts education programs. The 2,000-member WA dedicates between $100,000 and $200,000 annually for such arts ed initiatives as the All-Female Jazz Residency intensive.
“An Evening of Elegant Soul” added another nearly $2 million, contributed by 900 guests who thrilled to the artistry in Prudential Hall, dined sumptuously at intimate tables tucked into nearly all corners of the building and danced until midnight to hits spun by celebrity DJ M.O.S.
“Modern soul man” Kenny Lattimore, who performed swoonworthy tunes like “For You” and the Sinatra classic “Fly Me to the Moon,” mingled with friends and guests until the evening’s conclusion. Last season’s Broadway musical queen and king – The Color Purple’s Erivo and Leslie Odom, Jr. of Hamilton, both Tony winners for their lead roles – duetted on “Dear Theodosia” from Hamilton. In another heartfelt moment, McBride teamed his bass with piano, played by 15-year-old Matthew Whitaker of Hackensack, for Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom.”
The toast of the Gala were three prominent advocates for the arts in New Jersey: Stephen P. Holmes, Chairman and CEO of Wyndham Worldwide (Chambers Award for Service to the Community and to the Arts); Victor L. Davson, artist and founding director of Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art in Newark (Ryan Award for Commitment to NJPAC and Leadership in the City of Newark), and Robert H. Doherty and Bank of America (Vagelos Award for Corporate Commitment to the Arts). In his acceptance remarks, Davson praised recent innovative partnerships among NJPAC and other Newark corporations, community groups and institutions: “This is a moment for everyone, and all boats should rise.”
Guests strolled on white carpet runways and dined on braised veal and roasted sea bass prepared by Theater Square Events, also responsible for a Wonka-like fantasia of after-dinner treats, from white chocolate lavender crème brulée to bourbon flambé cider donuts filled with chocolate Nutella orange cinnamon ice cream. Fingers were aimed in every direction to point out the elaborate lighting schemes by Arc3design.
“The performances were stellar, and the attention to every delightful detail of the evening was obvious,” said Ann Marie Miller, Director of Advocacy and Public Policy for ArtPride New Jersey. “I recognized Ricky Persaud on guitar, who won a Governor’s Award in Arts Education this past May.”