Love Wins: Ana Grace Benefit At WestConn A Bittersweet Night

Some wounds never heal.

Connecticut’s ever-present wound is the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, inflicted on Dec. 14, 2012.

But Love Wins, a jazz benefit concert now in its fourth year, is a salve.

The concert took place on Saturday evening in Veronica Hagman Concert Hall, a stunning venue located in Western Connecticut State University’s Visual and Performing Arts Center in Danbury.

Saxophonist and professor Jimmy Greene, who organized the event, lost his daughter, Ana Grace, in Newtown.

“I miss [Ana Grace] every moment of every day,” Greene said during the concert. “I can’t hold her in my arms anymore.”

The concert featured students and professional musicians. Although it was completely sold out, there were plenty of empty seats, thanks to Winter Storm Benji.

The benefit raised more than $10,000 for the Ana Grace Marquez-Greene Scholarship Fund, which helps incoming first-year jazz students pay for tuition. (The previous three years combined brought in more than $25,000.)

Saxophonists Nathan Edwards and Jack Riotte and drummer Nick Morcaldi, three scholarship recipients, opened the show. They were joined by two fellow students: pianist Joe Conticello and bassist Niles Spaulding.

“There’s definitely a melancholy kind of thing going on,” Riotte, a Durham native, told me before the concert. “But there’s also a completely opposite thing that happens. There’s a lot of energy and happiness, too. We’re doing this for somebody, and we’re giving what we do to other people, and I think that’s a really great thing.”

“It’s my last concert on this stage,” Edwards, a senior from Manchester, said beforehand.

Edwards, who transferred to WestConn from the Hartt School after his freshman year to study music education and jazz performance, couldn’t predict how he’d feel once he started playing. “This is going to be the first time it’s ever been my last concert. I’ll tell you after.”

When their song ended, the five student musicians took seats in the venue’s front row, where they stayed for the duration of the concert.

Drummer Matt Wilson’s holiday-themed Christmas Tree-O, with reed player Jeff Lederer and bassist Paul Sikivie, played a short, uplifting, humor-filled set. Toward the end, they softly crooned the chorus of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” in unison with the audience.

Nelba Marquez-Greene, Ana’s mother, spoke about the Ana Grace Project, which partners with schools to help kids and families in crisis, while offering professional development opportunities for teachers.

All of the musicians donated their time, energy and talent to the concert. Nelba’s mother flew in from Puerto Rico to be at the show. Jimmy and Nelba separately acknowledged members of their son Isaiah’s hockey team, who showed up to support their teammate.

Jimmy and an all-star group — Wilson, bassist Rufus Reid and pianist Bill Charlap — played songs by Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, jazz titans feted this year with centennial celebrations.

Singer Rene Marie joined for “C’est si bon,” a popular French song (with English lyrics) from the 1940s, and “Skylark,” a standard composed by Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael.

Greene’s “Skylark” solo, a musical highlight, built to a primal scream. Audience members wiped eyes and hugged children.

Being an Ana Grace scholarship winner, Edwards said, means “being on time, carrying yourself more professionally, being a more compassionate person, listening more to people, presenting yourself in the way you’d want to be presented, just helping others.”

Riotte recalled a saying Greene has posted on the wall of his office: “When words fail, music speaks.”

“It’s really something else. I have no words to express how grateful I am, and hopefully tonight we’ll express ourselves through the music.”

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