I Love Delta Jazz

We love our blues, but too often jazz is totally ignored


Woodrow Wilkins
By Woodrow Wilkins

September 15, 2006
Greenville, Mississippi

(GREENVILLE, MS) It's well documented that the Mississippi Delta and the blues go together like red beans and rice.

A by-product however, is that many people believe jazz doesn't belong on the local scene.

Ron Myers, artistic director of the Mississippi Delta Jazz & Heritage Festival, which had its 11th program in August, is out to change that perception.

The Delta physician, who is also a jazz trumpeter and pianist, organized Thursday night's Jazz Tribute to the Blues, in association with the Delta Symphony Association.

Over the years, the Delta Symphony Association and Greenville Arts Council have done a good job with the program. The concert series has featured a few nationally known acts, like Ramsey Lewis, Billy Taylor and Ellis Marsalis, as well as some regional and lessor-known artist.

The programs have always been excellent. And the audience reactions are strong indications that people want this music - setting aside the fact that, like almost everything else in Greenville, fewer people are attending these concerts.

Even so, some Greenville residents' jazz collections are so vast and diverse, they make mine seem puny.

Further, at least two dining establishments - Delta Grand and Antwone's Downtown Cafe - play jazz for customers. And Myers performs regularly at the latter.

But to look around or, perhaps more to the point, listen, one would think the Delta hates jazz.

Two nights a year, we put on a good show with the August festival and the September tribute. But the rest of the time, this indigenous form of music, which is very closely related to the blues, is ignored.

Artists who have performed in Tunica County, Jackson and even Vicksburg won't play Greenville because of the perception that there's no audience for them. Based on Thursday enthusiastic but sparse showing, they're right.

For an audience to build, people have to hear the music. Unfortunately, radio stations around here act act as though jazz were the musical equivalent of leprosy. They won't touch it.

WVSD, 91.7 FM, is the only exception, but the Mississippi Valley State University station's low-power output means poor reception for most of Washington County.

Of course, there are those who will say the Delta is blues territory. They are correct, but that designation apparantly only inhibits jazz. Pop, rock, country, easy listening, R&B and hip-hop are abundantly available.

Myers hopes to break that restriction by introducing jazz to young musicians. On Thursday, for example, he arranged for Jackson-born trombonist Dick Griffin to conduct a workshop for students at Coleman Middle School. Eight-graders Branton Hudson, percussion, Raven Crawford, trombone, and Robertnisha Kitchen, saxophone, joined the ensemble for a song during the Jazz Tribute. After the program, Hudson got a few tips from drummer Rod Shannon and Aye Aton, the latter having been a member of the legendary Sun Ra Orchestra.

That is what it's going to take - teaching children about the history of this music so that when they get older they can keep it alive.

"That's my emphasis, to really get the kids exposed to jazz and, more importantly, to continue playing it," Myers said. "Over the years, we will have a good group of kids that, because we worked with them in these annual concerts, that they will make us proud and become professional musicians like Dick Griffin."

Myers wants to establish a big band of young jazz musicians. Hopefully, the idea will gain momentum and become as big as Blues in Schools.

Until then, we who love jazz are on our own.

With apologies to "Pierre Bernard's Recliner of Rage": Bottom line, Delta, jazz in our community is bound by the chains of resistance.

Woodrow Wilkins, Jr. is manging editor of the Delta Democratic Times.


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