Bruce Willis and John Mayer sang the blues at the Jazz Foundation of America’s annual benefit concert, which honored two legendary pianists, Dr. John and McCoy Tyner.
Willis took a break from filming a remake of the Charles Bronson vigilante movie “Death Wish” to appear at Thursday night’s concert at New York’s Apollo Theater.
The actor played harmonica as he backed up 91-year-old pianist and singer Henry Gray, a Louisiana native who became a major figure on the Chicago blues scene with Howlin’ Wolf’s band. Willis then belted out the blues himself on “She’ll Be So Fine” with a band that included “Blues Brothers” saxophonist Lou Marini.
Ringo Starr appeared by videotape to introduce Dr. John, who performed with the ex-Beatle’s first All-Starr band, praising him for “a lifetime of piano brilliance.”
Dr. John, dressed in a purple suit and carrying two wooden canes adorned with pendants and charms, played two of his New Orleans funk standards, “Such A Night” and “Right Place Wrong Time.”
Co-host Danny Glover presented Dr. John with the newly established Hank Jones Award, named after the jazz piano great, in recognition of his work to advance New Orleans’ musical legacy.
Dr. John thanked the JFA for helping many Louisiana musicians whom he knows personally, including victims of the August flooding in Baton Rouge.
Thursday’s concert raised about $1.5 million for the JFA, including emergency funds to provide food and clothing, cover missed mortgage payments, replace damaged instruments and fix damaged homes of Baton Rouge musicians.
“It’s an honor to receive the first Hank Jones Award,” Dr. John said. “Hank was truly my partner. He was a great musician and a musical inspiration to me.”
Co-host Joe Morton (“Scandal”) expressed appreciation for Tyner’s contributions to many jazz styles — including bebop, hard-bop, modal and mainstream — in presenting the pianist with the JFA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Tyner said he relished the opportunity he’s had “to travel around the world playing this music with so many great musicians,” including saxophonist John Coltrane. The pianist was a member of Coltrane’s 1960s quartet.
Mayer, who is working on a new album, displayed his blues chops as he closed out the evening by reuniting with his trio of bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan. He kicked off a short set with B.B. King’s “Every Day I Have the Blues” before being joined by blues singer-guitarist Robert Cray, who performed his raunchy tune “Chicken In The Kitchen.”
The concert closed with most of the evening’s performers gathering on the stage to jam on a rollicking version of “Let the Good Times Roll.”
The JFA provides medical and housing assistance, employment opportunities to perform in schools and crisis intervention to thousands of jazz and blues musicians each year.