Ann Sneed, Who Brought Jazz to Schools and Concert Halls, Dies at 87
By RICHARD SANDOMIRMAY 3, 2017
Ann Sneed in an undated photograph.
Ann Sneed, whose love of jazz led her to create an organization that for 35 years promoted jazz concerts and sent top performers into schools to preach the value of music and education, died on April 21 in Las Vegas. She was 87.
Her daughter Kathleen Lukens said the cause was cancer.
Ms. Sneed founded the nonprofit International Art of Jazz out of frustration. She was living in Stony Brook, on Long Island, and was a regular at nightclubs in Manhattan. One night in 1964 at the Embers on East 54th Street, she recalled, she could barely hear the jazz pianist Eddie Heywood playing over the din of customers and waiters.
“And I said, ‘Gosh, I wish that we could hear Eddie in a concert,’ and Eddie came over and said, ‘I’m giving a concert and I’d like you to come,’” she told The New York Times in 1978. The concert, a benefit for Mr. Heywood’s children’s school in White Plains, “absolutely destroyed me because I had never heard jazz in a concert situation before,” she said. “That’s what did it.”
Soon after, she told a friend, “We’ve got to do something like this.”
She began the International Art of Jazz modestly, with winter concerts on Sunday afternoons around Long Island. With the support of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission, the organization was bringing music into poor areas by the late 1960s. Eventually, the organization expanded its concerts and educational efforts around the state.
Among the musicians who played at the concerts were the vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, the trumpeter Clark Terry, the pianists Billy Taylor and Marian McPartland, the saxophonist James Moody and the singer Ruth Brown. Ms. Brown had been an R&B star in the 1950s, but her career had faded and she was living with her sons in Deer Park on Long Island, supporting herself as a domestic worker and a bus driver. In 1968, Ms. Sneed heard about Ms. Brown’s circumstances and urged her to sing again.
“The I.A.J. allowed me to sing during those years,” Ms. Brown told The Times in 1989. “Kept me alive musically and helped pay the bills, making it possible for me to get back home in time for the kids after school.” She had a career resurgence and won a Tony Award in 1989 for best performance by an actress in a musical for “Black and Blue.”
The trumpet player Dave Burns, a veteran of the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, said in 1978 that Ms. Sneed’s group “was the most important thing around for keeping jazz alive, not just because it gives us musicians a chance to work but because by bringing top-shelf music to the people we’re making jazz a part of people’s lives.”
Ann Elizabeth Harris was born in Westport, N.Y., on Lake Champlain, on May 19, 1929. Her father, Harold, was a physician and an expert on undulant fever; her mother, the former Aileen Russell, was a teacher. At home, Dr. Harris played the banjo and the family listened to cowboy music, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, Brahms and Duke Ellington on a Capehart record player. One day Paul Robeson visited her family’s house with his friend, the landscape painter Rockwell Kent, who was also friendly with the Harrises. Mr. Robeson sang “Ol’ Man River” on the porch.
Ms. Sneed played the piano, favoring boogie-woogie, and had a lifelong love for Joe Sullivan’s bold and bouncy song “Little Rock Getaway.”
In addition to her daughter Kathleen, she is survived by another daughter, Jan Sneed, and two grandsons. Her marriages to William Sneed and John Evo ended in divorce.
The International Art of Jazz occasionally faced financial problems, including a near-bankruptcy in 1990. Ms. Sneed closed it nine years later, believing that a state requirement that nonprofit arts groups make unemployment insurance payments for all independently contracted musicians would have put the organization out of business.
“That was very sad,” Jan Sneed said in an interview. “We always said the whole point of doing something was to pass it on.”
Her mother later donated recordings of her group’s concerts to the Library of Congress.