Last week, I was part of a memorial tribute to a woman I have written about several times before, Phoebe Jacobs, who died April 9 at the age of 93.
She was a founder of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, of which I am the president, and worked her head and backside off until shortly before going to the hospital. The foundation she helped start brought jazz into schools, doing its best to teach young people about Armstrong and the broader tradition he helped engender.
Jacobs was a double-edged sword of affection and spunk. If you wanted or needed love, and she agreed you should get it, she came right out with her affection. But if you stood in the path of her devotion to humanity, she could turn into a lioness.
Even though she was 93 when she died, Jacobs proved with her passing that the death of a widely beloved person, old or young, always comes too soon.
Jacobs had known Armstrong well and understood what he had contributed to American and, indeed, world culture. Armstrong was able to do what all great artists do: Express himself in a very personal way, but with such profound meaning that his own work became a model for the new art form known as jazz.
It blossomed quickly. Musicians inspired the world over disciplined themselves and sought out self-expression in a language based on empathy.
The pulse of that sound is called swing. It is a language totally American while also being universal. In the language of jazz, one becomes a real individual, executing split-second decisions. But in a great ensemble, or even just a highly professional one, the resultant music seems as if it were written beforehand. It is one of the true miracles of modern art.
In dedicating a free concert in tribute to Phoebe Jacobs last Thursday, we of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Jacobs family celebrated the woman herself, Armstrong and all the jazz that has descended from him through the years.
There was much inspired playing and much inspired talk at Rose Hall, and much fine playing was done at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, featuring either professionals who taught jazz at Juilliard, or highly serious and greatly talented younger men and women at the after-hours session, the sort that Phoebe loved to cheer on because she always thought it inspiring to hear young artists maintain the fire of the fundamentals. So much good playing and singing was done from the rainy afternoon through the misty night, she would have deeply enjoyed it — had she only been there in the flesh.
People like Robert O’Meally, founder of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of Duke Ellington, jazz entrepreneur George Wein, “Queen of Swing” Norma Miller, who danced for Ellington and Count Basie, and members of the Jacobs family all spoke — and spoke well.
A celebratory bittersweet joy was heard, with mother wit present. This was really humanity at its best, perfectly representing the life and work of Louis Armstrong, with whom Phoebe became joined at the hip in work done on the stage and behind it, in the community and from city to city, anywhere that people come together in the music because it is always beyond any of the distractions of race, politics, religion, business and geography.
The celebration began with an incredible rendition of “What a Wonderful World” by trumpeter Lew Soloff, who played with a golden quality I had not before heard from him. He clearly loves Phoebe as much as she loved him.
This also was true of trumpeters Wynton Marsalis and Jon Faddis, as well as veteran saxophonist Jimmy Heath. They all sounded superb. This continued at night in Dizzy’s, where grandmaster bassist Ron Carter played an unaccompanied version of “You Are My Sunshine” that was the essence of what Armstrong gave to the music because Carter moved from folk music to the back cello suites and on to the blues, pulling it all together with such brilliant artistry, the club’s audience went rightfully nuts.
In the after-hours performance that followed, one of Jacobs’ favorite up-and-coming musicians, the New Orleans pianist Jonathan Batiste, honored the mantle of Armstrong and the memory of the woman we were gathered to salute with a dance upon the ever-burning flame essential to all art.
A fine time was had from the beginning to the last notes played for a young audience that has discovered a timeless truth: Talent, not technological tricks, allows the human soul to become a beacon of morale.
Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.