Live: Remembering The Glorious Life Of New York Jazz Heroine Phoebe Jacobs


A Celebration of the Wonderful World Of Phoebe Jacobs
Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center
Thursday, May 24

The voice that filled Rose Hall first at the Thursday afternoon memorial for Phoebe Jacobs was Jacobs’s own. There was her face, too, projected on a large screen in a first-tier box. It all might have seemed off-putting had any of the several hundred people who mostly filled the auditorium felt as if Jacobs, who died on April 9 at 93, was no longer present.

Just before critic Stanley Crouch kicked things off, Jacobs, via video, was recalling how Ella Fitzgerald once remarked that no one had ever thrown her a real birthday party—and how she took it upon herself to quickly organize one for Ella, with celebrants including Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Mickey Mantle and Richard Nixon. Jacobs’s was a life in and of jazz that touched all other worlds. Jazz has its heroes and heroines, some of whom make their marks behind the scenes and off in the wings. Their glory is measured not just in deeds, in how well they carried the culture forward, but also in how they carried themselves. “If there was anybody who embodied the idea of swing better than Phoebe,” said Crouch, “I haven’t met that person.” Later, Mercedes Ellington—who was neither the first nor the last speaker to claim Jacobs as a “surrogate mother”—described Jacobs’s long relationship with her storied family. “Phoebe was not a singer or an instrumentalist,” she said, “but Phoebe approached life and friendships and solved problems like a musician.”

Impresario George Wein recalled from the stage how Jacobs, who was born in 1918, grew to adore jazz at a time when Manhattan’s 52nd Street was, for the music’s fans, “a chocolate factory with all the chocolate you could ever want all the time.” Jacobs worked her way up the ladder within that glorious factory. She began as a hat check girl in her uncle’s club, Kelly’s Stable, at 17. She later served as director of public relations and producer of special events at the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Plaza. She worked for some of jazz’s biggest stars, including Fitzgerald, Ellington, Goodman, and Sarah Vaughan. She was mostly a publicist, and yet she was always something more—a trusted advisor, tireless advocate, dearest friend.

“Publicity for her was a kind of spiritual calling,” Robert O’Meally, who founded the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, said from the podium. “Jazz people loved and trusted her. She helped deliver their music.” Jacobs also helped to deliver jazz as something more than just music within a wide variety of contexts through her later work. “Jazz is now a required course of study at Columbia University,” O’Meally explained. “This is part of Phoebe’s legacy.”

Jacobs’s deepest and most formative relationship was with Louis Armstrong. She worked closely with the trumpeter during his final decade, and she tirelessly and brilliantly promulgated his legacy since his death. The final page of the memorial’s program book reproduced a 1982 letter from Armstrong’s widow, Lucille, appointing Jacobs as a legal representative; the agreement was for six months, but the engagement never ended and reached far beyond what either woman could have envisioned. The Rose Hall video screen eventually settled on an image of Jacobs looking sweet in a wide-brimmed hat on the steps of the modest red-brick house in Corona that Louis and Lucille Amrstrong called home for decades, and that is now an innovative museum thanks mostly to Jacobs’s efforts. She also helped found an associated Louis Armstrong Archive at Queens College. Before presenting a proclamation to the Jacobs family, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall cited how Jacobs “kept Louis Armstrong alive in the lives of our community.” Kids in the audience cheered at the mention of I.S. 227, the public school that bears Armstrong’s name due to Jacobs’s work. As executive vice president of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, which she established in 1969 at the trumpeter’s request, Jacobs created initiatives ranging from a music-therapy department at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan to the Louis Armstrong (Satchmo) Summer Jazz Camp in Armstrong’s birthplace, New Orleans.

Dancer Norma Miller recounted how Jacobs had changed her life by introducing her to Armstrong “back in the day,” and how she was again moved, decades later, when Jacobs lured her down to New Orleans to work with musicians at the Satchmo camp. That summer program, inaugurated in 1995, has been an important breeding ground for young players; among its alumni are Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and pianist Jonathan Batiste. At the memorial, pianist Courtney Bryan, another Satchmo camp alum and now a doctoral candidate at Columbia, played “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” a tune indelibly associated with Armstrong, accompanied by tuba player Bob Stewart and members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

The orchestra, studded for the occasion by some special guests, served as house band. As befitting Jacobs’s life and taste, the music evoked Armstrong throughout, and especially from trumpeters. He was there in trumpeter Lew Soloff’s upward cadenza within “What a Wonderful World” near the start, and again through the hand-shaken vibrato and piercing high tones of Jon Faddis on “Memories of You”; he could be sensed more subtly in Wynton Marsalis’s phrasing during “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” Armstrong’s collaborations with Fitzgerald were recalled when the orchestra’s Vincent Gardner set aside his trombone to sing in duet with Brianna Thomas, who played a reasonably convincing Ella. The afternoon’s musical highlight was a version of Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” in an arrangement by tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who soloed through an opening section with typical laid-back, hard-swinging savvy. Conducting the orchestra, he teased out both stunning tenderness and stark force.

These were the same qualities described by the afternoon’s speakers when considering Jacobs’s life and impact. While recalling Jacobs’s loving and unconditional support, O’Meally also cited her ability to administer a “whupping” for laziness or intransigence. Crouch recalled Jacobs sending letters relating to pending work, and delivering orders when necessary, from her hospital bed just months ago. Drummer/percussionist Bobby Sanabria, one of the many musicians on hand with stories of Jacobs’s unsolicited support, joined the orchestra for “Caravan.” At one point, he played patterns on his conga drums and chanted to invoke Ogun, the Yoruba deity who is a warrior and blacksmith, known to hack through the forest with his machete. “That was Phoebe,” he said later, “in her tireless efforts for jazz and its musicians.” Marsalis was inspired to offer a less formal chant during his comments, thrice repeating, simply, “She was always there.”

The most touching remarks came from Jacobs’s direct descendants. Her son, Jerome Fella, marveled that “a woman who never earned a penny on the stage is getting this sort of tribute. She earned this through her love,” he said. Her daughter, Susan Devens, copped a phrase from a journalist’s account in calling Jacobs “a woman of considerable dash,” and concluded that, if her mother played an instrument, “it was her own heart.” Her now-grown granddaughter Brittany Fella recalled how a grandma who had no set schedules or routines imparted valuable life lessons while maintaining a steadfast focus on fun. Her grandson Seth Kunin celebrated Jacobs’s role as a lifelong champion for music as more than mere entertainment.

In the documentary Satchmo, the Great, Armstrong described for newsman Edward R. Murrow the beauty and wonder of a New Orleans jazz funeral. This memorial ended in such a fashion, with the orchestra leading a mock second-line parade out of Rose Hall while playing “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” as a dirge. Once in the lobby, a crowd formed, full of musicians—including Batiste, playing the melodica he often favors. Clapping along, second-lining, was Jackie Harris, Jacobs’s own aide-de-camp for many years, who directs the Satchmo camp and who lovingly produced the Rose Hall memorial. Bouncing atop Seth Kunin’s shoulders was three-year-old Phoebe, named for her great-grandmother, waving a string of beads with a joyful abandon and sense of swing that appears to run in the family. By then, the beat was uptempo, which, at an actual New Orleans funeral would signify “cutting the body loose.” The tune was one a jazz funeral staple, “Didn’t He Ramble.”

Yes, didn’t she.