Sponsored by Freedom Trails: Legacy of Hope, African American Heritage Tourism Development, Illinois
If you're into jazz, you're surely into Miles Davis. The money-makers know this too, which is why you see countless Miles tributes and marketing tie-ins. But all cynicism aside, last Friday's 80th Birthday Party in East St. Louis was the real deal. A simple idea to celebrate a local son grew into a full-blown, week-long jazz-fest celebration of the region's living legacy. Plans are already in place to make this an ongoing annual event. If you were there, you know you'll be going back. If you weren't there, you'll wish you were.
With a name as long as the event itself, the Freedom Trails: Legacy of Hope, African American Heritage Tourism Development Illinois, is dedicated to promoting awareness of the region's historical role in slavery, abolition, the underground railroad, the Civil War, the 1917 Race Riots, community quiltmaking, and more. As far as their latest event is concerned, the printed program said it all:
"In 1987, Congress designated jazz as a rare and valuable national American treasure to which we should devote our attention, support and resources to make certain it is preserved, understood and promulgated. The Lifting the Legacy Concert proposes to promote jazz, a dying discipline in the very city that produced the legendary jazz artist, Miles Davis How unique would it be for East St. Louis to follow his lead and recreate itself, through its cultural heritage!"
Juneteenth, as it is called in the African American community, is the observation of the end of American slavery. It is also the name of a faith-based foundation created by Reverend Ron Myers, a medical doctor, minister, educator, and jazz musician. Myers was another main sponsor of Friday's celebration, adding to the mix his traditional jazz band, gospel choir, and a company of "praise dancers."
Every jazz festival needs a mass-appeal headliner; this date was magnified by the amazing Russell Gunn. Gunn was raised in East St. Louis, attended the same high school as Miles, and remains one of the best living examples of the distinctive "St. Louis Blues" trumpet style popularized by Charlie Creath, Roy Buchanan, Levi Madison, Clark Terry, and of course, Miles himself. Gunn has backed jazz superstars Jimmy Heath, Roy Hargrove, James Moody, and even Wynton Marsalis on his Pulitzer Prize winning "Blood on These Fields." Gunn also backed R&B star Maxwell on MTV and received a Grammy nomination for his own Ethnomusicology, Vol. 1. Though Gunn's personal journey has led him to distant cities and modern musical styles, it's all a natural evolution along the lines of Miles' electronic jazz fusion.
On the Wednesday before the show, Gunn held an assembly at East St. Louis High School (which replaced the historic Lincoln High School), performing and speaking on the topics of work ethics, diversity, and confidence. Forming the backup band were Delano Redmond, the jazz band teacher, on guitar and two students on drums and keyboards. Gunn answered several questions about his equipment and stayed afterward to give a little one-on-one instruction to a few lucky young musicians.
Friday night's concert at Blackmon's Plaza in East St. Louis was hosted by jazz radio personality "Edie Bee," Southern Illinois University Music Chair (and jazz trumpeter) Prince Wells, and Gene Bradford of Jazz at the Bistro.
Although the concert fell on a busy weekend full of competing events, a sizeable crowd formed with eager anticipation. Jazz fans from all over the bi-state region sojourned to Miles' hometown hoorah for what would have been his 80th birthday. Looking out over her patrons, event planner Anne Walker was proud to see a colorful mix of old-time jazz regulars, college students, men and women of every age, race and socio-economic strata. Her comments apply equally to jazz and the region, "We have to expose the youth to this legacy for it to have longevity."
Rev. Ron Myers played a classic jazz set with his trademark down-home Gospel feel, supported by his hard-swinging combo of Rolla Armstead and Sayeed Jamal on saxophones, Dr. London Branch on bass, and Aye Aton on drums. Russell Gunn's trumpet work was inspiring as always. Instead of traveling with his usual bandmates, Gunn attended a Lincoln High School Reunion of sorts. His pianist/organist Reggie "Reg" Thomas, sax-man Amos Brewer, and drummer Montez "Tez" Coleman all studied together under famed jazz educator Ron Carter (same name, but not Miles' famous bassist.) Gunn teased Amos for entering the stage in a long black "Matrix coat," but even he had to admit Amos unloaded some serious ammunition. Bassist John King was unexpectedly absent, but Reg made up for it with his ambidextrous low-end organ runs. Speaking of dexterity, Tez anchored the whole affair with his sophisticated and rock-steady rhythms. The "Legacy was Lifted" again when the band played one of Tez's compositions, "John Hicks," an emotional tribute to the recently deceased St. Louis jazz pianist. Many years have passed since high school graduation and they all took different paths to musical maturity, but tonight they read each other's minds as if no time had passed. Who says nothing good could come from East St Louis?!
To culminate the evening of Miles-influenced music, all the musicians returned to the stage for a big "All Blues" send-off. While mingling afterwards, it was possible to talk with people who had known or even played with Miles, and they were more than happy to share their stories and impersonations. There were some shared memories about the late George Hudson, another trumpeter, educator, and long-time associate of Clark Terry and Miles Davis. Those in attendance received birthday cake and door prizes such as prints of Miles' artwork. Winners of a Miles Davis trivia contest got even more great merchandise from Concord Music Group.
The birthday party's finale moved outdoors the following Monday for the placement of a commemorative street sign at 17th and Kenner, renamed as "Miles Davis Way". The ceremony was attended by Mayor Officer, local TV news crews and featured a fitting trumpet fanfare from Gunn and several local musicians.
Thanks to all the hard work of Walker's Freedom Trails team, everyone was treated to a family-friendly, affirmative vision of what East St. Louis could be. Without a doubt, this is a dream we should all be working to realize. See you next year!
For more information:
Freedom Trails website http://www.freedomtrails2legacies.org/
Juneteenth Jazz website http://www.juneteenthjazz.com
Russell Gunn website http://www.russellgunn.com/
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.