Credit: Mark Jaworski Studios

When Joan Jett started out playing grimy L.A. clubs with the Runaways in 1975, she probably never imagined she’d play to a crowd like the one that convened Thursday night at Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom. Fans paid as much as $10,000 each to gain entry to the 6th Annual Little Kids Rock Benefit, which featured tributes to the femme-rock legend by artists including Cheap Trick, Alice Cooper, and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong.

Jett was there as well, to perform with many of the artists and accept the organization’s Rocker of the Year award. Little Kids Rock, which brings free musical instruments to low-income public school students throughout the country, raised about $1.5 million by the end of the night.

That money went toward a good cause and also let attendees sit in on a night of classic and unusual performances, curated by Jett and Steven Van Zandt—a member of the E Street Band and Little Kids Rock beneficiary. With support from the Blackhearts, Jett’s own backing band, all the guest musicians provided their interpretations of the icon’s tunes.

Cheap Trick kicked off the show with a scorching rendition of “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” and then handed off the stage to a series of less-distinctive performers including Gary U.S. Bonds, Brody Dalle, and Darlene Love. Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna dueted with husband and Beastie Boy Ad-Rock on “Fake Friends”; their version was lackluster, but perfectly exhibited the night’s theme of “Joan as mentor and rock ‘n’ roll elder.”

Social Distortion’s Mike Ness delivered a cover of “Love is Pain” in his characteristic alt-country dirge before the evening kicked into high gear. Jett came out to join Armstrong as he demolished one of her deep cuts—1980’s “Don’t Abuse Me”—and stayed onstage to jam on “Be My Lover” with Alice Cooper. For the finale, all of the night’s stars and a cadre of Little Kids Rock students rocked out with Jett to, of course, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

All of the evening’s stars related to Little Kids Rock’s mission, which emphasizes contemporary instruments and genres so kids feel they have a greater stake in music education.

What Jett admires about Little Kids Rock is that the organization encourages kids to pick up whatever instrument they want. “I played clarinet, but I wasn’t inspired to play clarinet,” Jett said after the show, describing what sounds like a decidedly less cool period of life. “They didn’t offer us things like drums or instruments like that—but it was still music.”As for the rocker’s own teenage years? She said that although rock icons from all generations now turn up to swanky events in her honor, she hasn’t forgotten her days as “a sh–head punk.”

“I know you get the accolades, but you always have gotta stay busy and stay into it,” said Jett, who recently received a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination. “I don’t think you can rest on your laurels. That’s dangerous, you know? So I try to take it a little bit with a grain of salt—but it’s really unbelievable. I’m so stoked about this.”

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