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SNL's Hal Willner Produces Music for A Great Night in Harlem at the Apollo

05/17/2013 12:53 pm ET | Updated Jul 17, 2013

It's always Howdy Doody time in music producer Hal Willner's workspace at the Film Center building in Manhattan. Best known for producing music for Saturday Night Live, Willner shares his lair with many antique puppets, Jackie Gleason memorabilia including a Ralph Cramden bus driver's suit, as well as DVD's of Shoah and other Holocaust films. He jokes, "My work sounds like a Warner Brothers cartoon or the soundtrack to a movie about Dachau."

The ability to live comfortably with these juxtapositions may be why he was tapped to work on the Jazz Foundation of America's annual benefit at the Apollo Theater on Friday night, his third year in a row. Celebrating Quincy Jones' birthday, and offering tribute to people who are about to leave us, like Clark Terry, Elvis Costello, Paul Schaffer, Macy Gray, and many others will perform. Jeffrey
Wright will introduce an act or two.

Willner explains his vision: "Last year we had Darrel Hammond and Triumph the Insult Dog, with Bono and Randy Weston. I love bringing mainstream comedies together with music. If you are doing a show, you want to expose people to more than what they like and know. To make an impact, they have to have a moment to think, what the hell is this? I like to bring that element in. Macy Gray will do an Ike & Tina tune. Chad Smith from The Red Hot Chili Peppers asked to be a part of the show. Henry Butler from New Orleans. We're going to have a slightly smaller show than past but everyone will do more."

For anyone who is benefit-shy, this is an amazing charity: Says Willner: "I love charities where it's not about saving the world; it's about saving a neighbor, helping uninsured, artists who are broke because their managers ripped them off, or paying for Odetta's funeral. It's helping people we know, people who have given their lives to this music."

The day I visited him, the announcement came that Bill Hader would be leaving SNL. Over the decades, Hal Willner has seen many comedians come and go. "Bill Hader has been there for a long time. He's going to do good things. He has great taste. When someone like that leaves it gives a little window to others like Kate and Vanessa to step up and shine. After someone's been there for awhile, it's just a matter of time. "

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.