Back as a youngster posing among dozens of hip-hop luminaries for a shoot with the fabled Gordon Parks, Questlove—the indefatigable drummer of the Roots and noted musical raconteur—handled his awkwardness around his heroes by listening to OutKast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” for the first time on a Discman in his pocket. His bandmate Black Thought, overwhelmed in the presence of Slick Rick, Grandmaster Caz, and others from the hip-hop stratosphere, tried to scram but was convinced to stay put.
Both were happy with the resulting image—A Great Day in Harlem (1998), staged to emulate a picture taken 40 years earlier of a bunch of jazz heavyweights—and especially the memories surrounding it, as recalled last night at the Gordon Parks Foundation’s 13th Anniversary Awards Dinner and Auction in New York.
The evening’s official honorees were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Chelsea Clinton, Raf Simmons, Kehinde Wiley, Carol Sutton Lewis, and William Lewis Jr., and the starry crowd assembled at Cipriani 42nd Street included Fab 5 Freddy, Leonard Lauder, Amy Sherald, Kool Keith, Ronald Perelman, Dave Chang, Alexander Soros, and many others not lacking for flash.
Describing the event as “the Grammys mixed with the ESPYs and a little bit of the Met Gala,” Sarah Jones—the many-voiced actress and MC for the night—presided over the fund-raiser for the foundation, which was started in honor of the late photographer (for Life magazine, et al.), filmmaker (Shaft), and multivalent talent, Gordon Parks. “His camera was his weapon of choice to fight racism and poverty,” said the foundation’s director, Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., whose grandfather (a Life editor and a close friend of Parks) helped found the enterprise to preserve the artist’s legacy and support others working in similar ways.
At the podium with Alicia Keyes, Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean said to the well-heeled crowd, “You come to a lot of these events and you want to do the right thing … but sometimes they’re so boring!” No one would sling such an accusation at the Parks Foundation affair, which carried on with spirited speeches.
“I am so invigorated—so fertilized—by this environment that is going on right now,” Kehinde Wiley said. Chelsea Clinton, in her remarks, said she first learned of Parks as a 9-year-old when her teacher played a video of a Parks-abetted ballet by Alvin Ailey made in tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. And she expressed solidarity with the creators in the room with a pointed decree: “In this moment of incredible danger, when we have a president who comforts white nationalists and those who look like him, we need our artists.”
After more of those artists held forth as dinner and drinks were served, the Roots took the stage to play a funky set that got people up on their feet. In the midst of a cover of Donald Byrd & the Blackbyrds’ 1970s hit “Rock Creek Park,” Black Thought—rocking the mic in his typically heady fashion—tweaked the lyrics a touch to fit the occasion. “Doin’ it in the park, doin’ it after dark, oh yeah,” he sang. “Doin’ it for Mr. Parks, doin’ it after dark, oh yeah.”