Students learn of Muskogee's jazz connections

school jazz
Ben Franklin Science Academy seventh-grader Harley White and jazz musician
Dr. Ronald Myers tune their horns before a Tuesday morning Black History Month assembly
at BFSA. Myers, who leads an effort to make Juneteenth a national holiday, performed jazz
numbers with students and talked about jazz.
(Staff photo by Cathy Spaulding)

February 22, 2011
By Cathy Spaulding
Muskogee Phoenix Newspaper

(Muskogee, Oklahoma) - Fifth-grader Jennifer Fraley found a way to improvise a tune as she played her recorder in front of schoolmates Tuesday at Ben Franklin Science Academy.

“I just played different notes until I found ones I really liked,” she said, after performing with a jazz ensemble and other fifth-grade musicians.

That’s what jazz is all about, said Dr. Ronald Myers, founder and chairman of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.

“Jazz is the form of music that came from slavery based on improvisation,” Myers said.” You make it up from the heart.”

Myers, who plays jazz piano and cornet, performed for — and with — BFSA students at a Tuesday morning assembly marking Black History Month. The school has a school-wide assembly each February to mark various aspects of African American history. Previous assemblies have included the proud African American tradition of wearing fancy hats to church.

Myers said jazz celebrates freedom in music, just like freed slaves celebrated their freedom with Juneteenth. He said Americans celebrate their freedom on the Fourth of July, dating from 1776.

“But it wasn’t until 88 years later that a group of black slaves heard they were free, June 19, 1865,” Myers said, explaining the origins of Juneteenth.

Myers, a physician from Roland, told students about Muskogee’s role in African American history, jazz, even Kansas City barbecue.

He said Muskogee got its start as one of several black towns set up by freed slaves after the Civil War.

“One of your favorite sons (Ollie Gates) became owner of one of the greatest barbecues in Kansas City,” Myers said. “Gates Barbecue came from Muskogee.”

And Kansas City jazz?

Myers credited Muskogee native Jay McShann with developing the Kansas City jazz scene with his swing piano playing. He said jazz great Duke Ellington once played in Muskogee on a grand piano now at Sadler Arts Academy.

“So, where did Kansas City jazz come from,” Myers kept asking the students.

The students kept answering “Muskogee.”

“Where did Kansas City barbecue come from,” Myers kept asking.

The students kept answering “Muskogee.”

Then Myers started playing his jazz, backed by rows of BFSA fifth-graders with their recorders and a trio of BFSA band students — Hailey White and Georgi Johnson on clarinet and Harvey White on trumpet. It was the first time the students had played the music.

When plying Ellington’s “C Jam Blues,” Myers plunked an eight-note riff on the piano with the BFSA students playing the climactic last note.

Students then had the chance to improvise.

“It was hard for me, because I never played the music before,” said fifth-grader Diamond Tramble.

Georgi said she had to listen to Myers “and know what the notes were going to sound like” before she improvised her tune.

A combo of adult musicians also played, featuring Andy Livesay, Eddy D and Lee Norfleet.

Reach Cathy Spaulding at 684-2928 or

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