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‘Jamaica Funk Reunion’ brings out jazz stars

On Jan. 18, music fans from the five boroughs braved bone-chilling winds and single-digit temperatures to gather at a famous New York night club, The Bottom Line, for a star-studded celebration and musical memorial tribute to one of the Long Island’s highly respected and accomplished pianists, composers and playwrights, Weldon Irvine, Jr.

Irvine, who passed away suddenly at the young age of 58 on April 9, 2002, had developed an impressive resume and left a rich legacy of work to his adoring fans and his colleagues in the music industry.

The evening’s master of ceremonies, Fred Buggs of 98.7 Kiss FM, introduced the Jamaica Funk Reunion, noting that the tribute was produced by the Black Spectrum Theatre of Jamaica, and was sponsored by both The Village Voice and WBGO, the New Jersey-based mainstream FM jazz radio station.

Irvine had followed in his father’s footsteps as a musician, teaching himself to play piano at an early age, developing a strong desire to play jazz professionally, and forming his own 17-piece big band after graduating in 1965 from Hampton institute of Virginia (now Hampton University). He was quite a fertile source of original projects and a mentor to many successful artists in the industry, many of whom appeared that evening in order to celebrate his life.

Though he never learned to read music, Irvine played saxophone for a short while in the early years, but afterward progressed to his ultimate love of piano and sharing his persona and musical talents with many people.

A testament to his legacy and the deep love his fans and colleagues had for him was clearly shown by the standing-room-only two-set show of straight up jazz and jazz funk played by such industry notables as the popular jazz funk band leader and electric bassist from Rochdale, Marcus Miller; the humorous but sophisticated funk keyboardist, arranger and band leader for the evening, Donald Blackman; the mesmerizngly powerful electric guitarist Dean Brown; and the renowned drummer Lenny White.

Rounding out the funky star-studded cadre that night was the awesome, if not jaw dropping, talent of the Bronx, female vocalist Toni Smith (watch out Aretha); the white hot fluglehorn/trumpeter Wayne Cobham (Billy Cobham’s brother); alto/soprano sax wizard Danny Walsh; tenor sax man Roger Byam; and versatile second keyboardist Lesette Wilson.

While all of these musicians are stars in their own right, and years younger then Irvine, several of them expressed a great reverence for the person and eclectic artistic genius of Irvine. Marcus Miller and Donald Blackman in particular spoke as close personal friends of Irvine.

Blackman reflected on Irvine for the audience, by affectionately mimicking some of his spoken phrasings and mannerisms. The fans laughing repeatedly and deeply, were happily receptive to his touching and insightful roasting of his now deceased mentor and friend. Miller, in a very emotional voice, informed the fans that many of the artists performing that night had worked directly with and were mentored personally by Irvine, and that, “in a small way, the evenings whole performance (was) dedicated to celebrating Irvine’s inspirational effect on each of them.”

Irvine, who was a composer, arranger and producer of musical works also made a name for himself by penning the title tune of Lorraine Hansberry’s production of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Irvine is probably best known for this legendary composition which was recorded by the famed jazz vocalist Nina Simone.

With more than 500 compositions to his credit, and his extensive work with jazz legends such as Miles Davis, Stanley Turrentine, Nina Simone, and Aretha Franklin to name a few, Irvine was described in his lifetime as the one man responsible for successfully bridging the generational/artistic gap by becoming a revered member of the hip-hop culture. Irvine was sought out by, worked with and influenced such hip-hop notables as Grand Master Flash, Big Daddy Kane, Ice Cube, and some of the more politically conscious artists such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Q-Tip. In that fertile community of rappers and poetic artists, he was affectionately known just as Weldon.

It was no wonder that the capacity crowd, many from Queens, moved enthusiastically and rhythmically with each solo or ensemble dedication. The collective talent on stage raised the roof with not only several straight-up jazz numbers penned by Irvine, but some soul stirring funk tunes such as “You Set My Soul on Fire” and “Jamaica Funk,” sung by Toni Smith, powerfully supported by Miller on electric bass and Lesette Wilson on Keyboards.

“Woflbane,” a tune written by Lenny White, offered up a funky middle eastern flavor to the night’s fare, stemming from magical keyboarding that was further spiced up by some mystical yet sensual alto sax and fluglehorn support.

When “Jamaica Funk” was played the second time during the encore of the first set, (it became a number one hit on the charts, according to Don Blackman), the level of energy in the room seemed to grow exponentially as the fans, too numerous to count, clapped in emotional unison, tapped their feet and swayed rhythmically in their seats or wherever they were standing.

Though Irvine’s eclectic musical and personal legacy goes as far back as the ‘60s, like his early involvement in musical stage productions at the famed Billy Holiday Theater, he will remain affectionately remembered by most of us probably as Weldon, a gentle man whose greatest gift to his fellow artists and the community at large was his music.

“Dear Weldon,” next year’s Jamaica Funk Reunion, is one that I’m already putting on my calendar, and I look forward to hearing from all those artists again.

Norm Harris can be contacted for future jazz and blues events via e-mail at JazzShots2000@aol.com.

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