(Businessweek) — Friday night, and the crowd at the bar in Harlem’s Lenox Lounge is a mix of neighborhood old timers and young hipsters who have come for the jazz club’s 1940s ambiance. Back in the Zebra Room, famous for walls decorated with striped animal skins, there’s a private party going on for the Jazz Foundation of America, a nonprofit group that helps indigent jazz and blues musicians pay their bills.
The room itself hasn’t changed much since Billie Holiday sang here decades ago, but tonight it’s filled with the foundation’s donors—mostly white hedge fund guys—and their female companions. A handful of guitarists, drummers, keyboard players, and even a saxophone-playing blues vocalist from New Orleans—most of them black—are standing by to provide the evening’s entertainment. The two groups maintain a polite but awkward distance.
Finally someone arrives who can bridge the cultural gulf. Richard D. Parsons, the 62-year-old chairman of Citigroup (C), strolls through the doorway with his wife, Laura. His beard is closely cropped and he wears rimless glasses, a brown sport coat, black shirt, and no tie. At 6 foot 4, he towers over his spouse. His singular talent, which has powered his career to the top of some of America’s most prominent—and troubled—companies, is one he demonstrates tonight as he mingles easily with the musicians and the money men: He is flat-out smooth.