Historically speaking, jazz has often served as a springboard for change and a mechanism to highlight any number of community-oriented activities. Although the genre is most commonly known as an art form and a source of entertainment, numerous charitable organizations have used jazz to bring focus to their overall mission. As has been the case, benefit performances have also been used as an entertainment incentive towards helping many of these groups accomplish their goals. Outreach activities such as these provide a major source of funding as well; as a result and whenever possible, jazz music has been used to stimulate interests in the goals of a large number of worthy causes. 100 Black Men of Houston is merely one of many organizations whose main purpose is to make a difference in the community for which they serve. Another perspective is to provide a positive influence by empowering young African Americans and other minorities through mentoring, education, health and wellness programs. These ideas nurture creativity, while emphasizing academic achievement and the reinforcement of social responsibility. Including the organization in Houston, Texas, there are 101 chapters and over 10,000 members worldwide, all of which have the same mission statement. The national office was formed in New York City in 1963 by a group of black men with a common sense of purpose. Since that auspicious moment in time, one of the most consistent focuses has always revolved around youth development. The 100 Black Men of Houston has been actively involved in that process for the last eleven years. One of the ways to perpetuate their ideas was the inauguration of the first ever benefit fund-raiser entitled an Evening of Elegance featuring one of the finest menus of food and jazz entertainment of the type ever offered in Houston, Texas.
Sponsored by Geico Insurance, Capital One, Aetna, Diverse Staff and a host of other notable resources, the 100 Black Men of Houston featured An Evening of Elegance with Bobby Lyle, Warren Hill, Peabo Bryson and a promising young female vocalist with great potential by the name of Song. Overall, the event served a two-fold purpose, one was to educate the general public about and celebrate the group’s accomplishments. Another aspect of the evening provided a night of exceptional entertainment by some of jazz’s premier musicians. An additional highpoint of the night included the transfer of responsibility from current President Darnell Joseph to the new President of 100 Black Men of Houston-Dr. John M. Rudley, CPA and Vice Chancellor of Administration at the University of Houston. Civil and public dignitaries witnessing the transition and the espousal of 100 Black Men’s accomplishments as well as their future plans included United States Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), Reuben Davis-Fort Bend County Constable, Pct. 2, Grady Prestage-Fort Bend County Commissioner, Pct. 2 and Elwyn Lee-Vice President of Student Affairs at the University of Houston. Representing the sponsors were Rynthia Rost-VP Public Affairs, Geico Insurance, Laurie Vignaud-VP Community Development, Capital One, Kelvin Boston of PBS television's Moneywise and Ron Reynolds-President of the NAACP, Missouri City Chapter. These individuals as well as an enthusiastic audience opened the door for an elegant evening of jazz.
Opening the jazz portion of the event was one of the most exceptional vocalists I have heard to date. With Cassandra Wilson-like influences, Song’s vocalese was provocative and sensual. Her ability to communicate her thoughts were effervescent and thought-provoking, as she combined a bluesy style of music with jazz. Seven years ago, I had the opportunity to witness the onset of her career; even then, it was obvious her singing abilities were uniquely qualified to be special. Song’s stage presence was intimately eclectic. She possessed a mannerism that engulfed and embraced the audience in a very commanding way that night at An Evening of Elegance. Although Song was perceived as a relative newcomer in the minds of most, by the end of her performance, she would leave a definite impression filled with sentiment. Those individuals witnessing her singing for the first time gave her a rousing applause, which did nothing more than set the stage for a huge helping of great jazz music and personably romantic R&B songs from Peabo Bryson.
Riding high on his latest CD entitled Hands On for Heads Up International Records, Bobby Lyle brought a number of very special friends along to highlight the efforts of 100 Black Men of Houston. Included were drummer Rayford Griffin, saxophonist Warren Hill and guitarist Dwight Sills, all three being national recording artists in their own right. Those guys and other members of Bobby’s band of merry men rocked, romped and reeled with excitement the night away with jazz having a totally different spin. As goes the commercial side of jazz, radio demands from all artists at least one or more smooth jazz tracks for airplay purposes. Sadly if they are unable to comply, the general public will not hear their music. When examining the relationship between jazz and radio, more than 3000 albums are recorded each year; however, less than twenty percent ever see the light of opportunity beyond the studio. But on this particular night there were no constraints to dictate or mandate a particular style, as Bobby Lyle & Friends pushed the envelope of groove infused jazz to its highest level of enthusiasm. Bobby began the set with Passion Drive, one of the tracks from Hands On that has recently been selected for radio airplay. From that moment on the groove was set. Bobby Lyle set about the business of firing a barrage of percussive piano licks that refuted any notion of him being just another smooth jazz wannabe. In fact, Bobby Lyle is the ultimate funkmeister, his ability to incorporate contemporary melodies and rhythms into straight ahead jazz is tremendous. But then again, he also has the ability to be flirtatious and romantic as well. The lightness of his touch coupled with the elegance of his piano strokes breeds caress and sexuality. At one point of the performance during a connection with a song written by Warren Hill for his wife, the two pulled significant others closer in a moment of passionate intimacy. But throughout the night, Bobby took his band in and out of funk oriented rhythms and sensuous discourse, wowing the audience in the process. But for the most part, the funk precedent had already been established by Lyle on keyboards, Warren Hill on saxophone and a fantastic bass player by the name of Keith Vivens. Keith may well be one of the most pervasive practitioners of rhythmic response around today. If all of that was not enough, another stage of activity was set by the one and only Peabo Bryson, a vocalist whose name speaks volumes of his abilities as a singer.
Peabo’s performance was all about the unparalled demonstration of love and affection between two people. He is the last of a legendary breed of male vocalists who really are credited with putting the "L" into love. Over the years, Bryson along with Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendegrass, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Jeffrey Osborne have all brought something distinctively different to the R&B table when it comes to vocal music. When it comes to Peabo Bryson, he is in a stand-alone category of melodic romantic perfection. During the Evening of Elegance, Peabo proved to all why he remains one of the most popular entertainers of his time. Even while doing a song he and Bobby wrote for Hands On entitled Lost In Our Love, Peabo’s transformation from R&B balladeer to contemporary jazz crooner was effortless. These and other attributess surrounding a night of elegance with Houston’s 100 Black Men were memorable. As it stands today the future of jazz is intact for now. Of course, that will remain true as long as the general public continues to be exposed to quality contemporary jazz as heard from Bobby Lyle and Friends.
As this was the first benefit for 100 Black Men of Houston, the resources they draw upon to provide wisdom and purpose to their mission will continue to expand. The vision espoused by the national organization’s founding fathers in 1963 is as true today as it was eleven years ago when Houston came on board. The city’s chapter founder Ben Pigott instilled the exact same ideals, sense of purpose and virtues that began 43 years ago. The successful implementation of their programs on a national and international level stands as a testament to one of the youngest organizations for positive change in the African American community.