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

Frank Stewart/Jazz At Lincoln Center
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."

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