Juneteenth jazz concert series to honor famous Mississippi musicians

By Vern Walker

Jackson Advocate Contributing Editor

9 June 2011

Ron Myers has two great passions he readily exposes for all to see. First is his headlong mission to pay tribute to Mississippi’s sometimes unheralded great black musicians. A second passion is his international crusade to gain official status for a Juneteenth holiday in as many states, nations or territories that will accommodate his desires.

In recent years, Myers has combined the two passions and turned them into a fervid celebration of Black Music Month, the current month of June. From that has come his special blend that a widespread group of fans know and embrace as the Juneteenth Jazz Tribute. This usually consists of a concert dedicated to a musician or musicians native to the place where the event is unfolding.

Holding to a schedule of 39 play dates that began April 16 in Helena, Arkansas, and running through Nov. 7 in Baton Rouge, with other venues in Las Vegas, Chicago, St. Louis and New York and Canada in between, Myers and his Juneteenth Jazz Praise Ensemble will readily spread his message of “preserving our African American jazz legacy.

” In Mississippi, tributes to Milt Hinton (June 23) and Hank Jones (July 31) will take place in Vicksburg, the hometown of the two late masters of the jazz field. The 16th Annual Mississippi Jazz & Heritage Festival takes place September 1-3, in Belzoni, Indianola, and Greenville, consecutively; and on September 5 in Greenwood.

The Vicksburg tribute to the late bassist Milt Hinton features bassists London Branch, a retired Jackson State University music professor; Richard Davis, and Larry Ridley, with Myers on piano and trumpet. The event takes place at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 23, in the Coral Room Theater in the old Vicksburg Hotel on Clay Street. A panel discussion is scheduled for noon the same day. “The idea of a concert to honor jazz musicians from Mississippi developed over a long time,” Branch said.

“The late jazz critic and radio jazz show host John Reese initiated the plan that brought musicians back home. Milt Hinton, for example, is a native of Vicksburg and was 86 years old when he came back to play a concert in Mississippi for the first time since leaving as a young man.” The July 31 concert for pianist Hank Jones will take place at 8 p.m. in the Coral Room at the Vicksburg.

Both concerts are free and open to the public. Donations are appreciated. Branch says that all music is pretty much the same and that differentiating music by pinning labels on it—such as jazz, gospel, or classical– takes away from its effectiveness. “Music has been called the universal language,” he said. “I suppose the reference was to spirituality of music.

You might understand the language itself, but there is something about the spirituality that is understood by everybody. Teddy Edwards was one of those kinds of people who touched people in that way.” Many others, living or dead, are similarly honored either through being invited back for a play date or having a concert presented in their name in the musician’s hometown.

Some of these include Teddy Edwards, Hank Jones, William Fielder, brother of drummer Al Fielder, Lester Young and William Grant Still, and Ola Dura, Myers is a medical doctor whose practice in the Delta was placed under severe restrictions in 2004 by the former Dr. J. Edward Hill, president of the American Medical Association. Hill also lives in the Mississippi Delta. Hill sits on the board of the insurance company that denied Myers malpractice insurance.

Myers said that Hill and the insurance company were engaging in “medical malpractice racism.” A self-taught jazz pianist and trumpeter, Myers finds great consolation in music since having cut back on his practice of medicine. “June was designated Black Music Month by President George W. Bush before he left office,” he says. “By celebrating our musical heritage of jazz in June, we also celebrate our freedom. So June is the month of Freedom; that is, of Juneteenth–June 19.

We build a legacy on the music by putting on concerts in these famous musicians hometowns. So much of the time we find that young people have never heard of these musicians. It pays to remember that if we don’t celebrate our legacy, it will be taken away from us. It’s not so much that it will be taken away as that it will be given away. Our music came out of a struggle against oppression, from slavery to freedom. We celebrate our legacy and pass it on to the next generation.”

Myers is currently in his busiest season of tributes to black musicians. Over the next 10 days, beginning June 10, he will play in Juneteenth Jazz and Arts Festivals be Muskogee, Oklahoma, Kansas City, MO, Omaha, Tulsa, Washington, Galveston and Corpus Christi. On “Juneteenth,” he plays same festival in Chicago.