Muskogee celebrates Juneteenth with jazz and heritage events

Jay McShann
Jay "Hootie" McShann. a Muskogee native, will be honored at
several Juneteenth celebrations this month

June, 2009
By Joe Mack
Current News

(Muskogee, Oklahoma) - Not only is the month of June designated as Black Music Month, but the state of Oklahoma, along with 29 others, officially recognizes the third Friday in June as the National Juneteenth Holiday, and Muskogee will be celebrating and honoring these traditions in grand fashion in 2009.

It all kicks off on a jazzy note when legendary trumpeter and pianist Rev. Ron Myers performs a swinging set of original works and standard favorites at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 11, at the Frisco Train Depot at the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. Here, Myers will be joined by percussionist Wilton Knott, drummer/percussionist Aye Aton and bassist Derrick Brown paying tribute to the late great Muskogee-born jazz pianist Jay McShann.

Jay "Hootie" McShann was born in Muskogee in January of 1916 into a vibrant and loving household that always made the best of what was around. McShann excelled in the arts at Manual Training High School and upon entering his teenage years decided that he wanted to be a jazz musician, thanks to early influences that included the live radio broadcasts of Earl “Fatha” Hines and the fancy fingerwork of Thomas “Fats” Waller. Hootie was making significant musical waves right out of high school, tickling the ivory up and down the Arkansas River from Tulsa to Fort Smith until 1936 when he headed upstream to Kansas City in 1936; a move that unbeknownst to him would launch several careers in addition to his own, which would carry on for nearly seven more decades.

Within a year of moving to Kansas City (the Missouri side, that is), McShann heard the sweet sound of improvised saxophone coming from a downtown jazz club, in which he quickly ducked into and heard for the first time the genius of K.C. native Charlie Parker. McShann hired Parker right away to join his band and offered the prodigy his first professional full-time gig, which he held from 1937-1942 until moving to New York to welcome fame, fanaticism and, ultimately, misfortune.

Other prominent musicians that would follow McShann’s melodious lead in delivering the "Kansas City sound" from coast to coast would include bassist Gene Ramey, drummer Gus Johnson and saxophonist Paul Quinichette. After gathering incredible support from jazz lovers across the country, things got put on serious hold when the great musician strike of 1942 dampened the entire recording industry for nearly two years. And no sooner did resolution pop up on the radar when McShann was drafted into the Army to serve his country in World War II.

After WW II, McShann returned to Los Angeles, where he launched into a project with singing sensation Jimmy Witherspoon, and they recorded a top-40 hit in "Ain’t Nobody’s Business," in addition to other tunes that made it to the airwaves like "Money’s Getting Cheaper" and "Shipyard Woman Blues."

In the years that followed his success with Witherspoon, McShann returned to Kansas City with a variety of business ventures up his sleeve. It didn’t take long to heed to the call of the music and the road, performing across the world with a variety of small groups and keeping his name relevant in contemporary jazz circles. As the documentary came of age, McShann found himself at the center of many a film about Kansas City jazz and blues. In many ways, Hootie’s road continues on forever and his party never ends.

Amazingly enough, Rev. Myers is following the same path oft traveled by McShann and company, performing in numerous cities where Jay's groups took jazz music to new heights and to new audiences. Myers too is an accomplished jazz artist, having released multiple recordings and performed alongside the likes of trumpet master Donald Byrd, Jimmy Cheatham, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, Ellis Marsalis and countless others.

But the Reverend’s reach doesn’t stop there – in addition to being an ordained Baptist minister and accomplished jazz musician, Myers is also medical doctor, and has spent years of his life caring for underprivileged communities in rural America.

So the doctor’s orders are to get out to the inaugural Muskogee Juneteenth Jazz & Arts Festival honoring the late great Jay McShann on Thursday, June 11 at the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. Tickets are $15 each or $20 per couple. For more information call Wilma Newton, President of the Oklahoma Juneteenth Historical Foundation, at (918) 781-9248 or logon to

The following week on Friday, June 19, is the official observance of the Juneteenth National Holiday and there’s one huge free-for-all community celebration slated from noon – 6 p.m. at Elliot Park, located on the corner of Altomont Street & Tower Hill Street in Muskogee. Here, area youth groups, choirs, band ensembles, rappers, artists and community leaders will come together to preserve and educate anyone and everyone about African American history through song in lieu of Black Music Month. Free food will be provided by Bob Newton, a.k.a. “Smokehouse Bob,” and there’ll be live music and performances all day long.

"We’re excited to kick things off this year and we hope to see everybody out for the great food and fellowship,” Newton said. “Next year we’re already taking it to the next level with a rodeo and a banquet in addition to a top-notch concert.”

For more information, logon to


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