The “Chitlin’ Circuit” will be revisited on April 8 in Lake Village when the Alex Foundation hosts Architects of Jazz during Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), a month-long celebration honoring the life and works jazz musicians.
Former Delta High School and Dermott High School band director, Charles Scurlock, will present the Architects of Jazz lecture and lead a five band ensemble of various jazz musical selections. The event will also feature an exhibit of Arkansas and world renowned jazz greats.
The event will be held on April 8 at 6 p.m. at the Guachoya Cultural Arts Center, Highway 65 and 82 South in Lake Village and coincide with Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) which has been globally celebrated since 2002. JAM was created to herald and celebrate the extraordinary heritage and history of jazz for the entire month of April. It is intended to encourage people of all ages to participate in jazz – to study the music, attend concerts, listen to jazz on radio and recordings, and read books about jazz.
Although jazz music is relevant, it is not necessarily revered in many public schools and rural communities, according to Scurlock.
“Jazz is recognized around the world for its rich cultural heritage rooted in the African American experience,” Scurlock said. “It has contributed to and been a reflection of American culture and art form. Yet, most Americans graduate from high school with little knowledge of the history or importance of jazz. With the Architects of Jazz, we are able to help introduce its relevance.”
John Cain, the founder of the John Cain Foundation and program director for KABF public radio station in Little Rock, says jazz has deep roots in the Delta, and Arkansas is on the jazz highway running up the Mississippi River.
“Jazz flowed upriver on the Mississippi and that’s how jazz spread right through Arkansas,” Cain said.
Cain relishes the impact of jazz music along the Mississippi River. In 2010, he launched a jazz festival in Lake Village to give the community a chance to learn about jazz and its connection to the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta. Reflecting on a time when African Americans went the distance to bring their artistry to audiences in safe and inviting places, Cain said during the early 1900s, African American musicians travelled the Chitlin’ Circuit for their chance to break into the music business, and let their “chops” shine.
“They went to neighborhoods with a central avenue where African American owned businesses and entertainment halls thrived,” Cain said. “The Chitlin’ Circuit was an umbrella term and collective name given to performance venues in the United States that were safe and acceptable for African American entertainers to perform during the racially charged Jim Crow era. It was where African American bands could play and not feel threatened.”
Many notable 20th century performers worked on the Chitlin’ Circuit, including Count Basie, Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis, Jr. Fats Domino, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan, Ella Fitzgerald, Muddy Waters, Bobby “Blue” Bland, B.B. King and numerous others.
The Mississippi Blues Commission designated a historic marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail in front of the Southern Whispers Restaurant in Greenville, Mississippi, a stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit in the early days. In those days, the historic strip garnered crowds to hear Delta blues, big band jump blues and jazz.
In Arkansas, there have been a few jazz artists that branded the jazz sound. Art Porter Sr., Pharaoh Sanders, James Leary, Al Hibbler, John Stubblefield, Louis Jordan and Alphonso Trent were among the select few. They will be recognized for their contributions to jazz during the Architects of Jazz lecture and performance on April 8.
Leading up to the Architects of Jazz lecture and performance, Charles Freeman, a former band director at the Dermott, Dumas, Lakeside (Lake Village) and McGehee school districts, along with Justin Anders, band director at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, will present Jazz in the Classroom at four high schools: Dermott, Dumas, Lakeside in Lake Village, and McGehee.
The Architects of Jazz is funded in part by a grant from the Black History Commission of Arkansas, the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation and the National Park Service. Jazz in the Classroom is funded in part by a grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council.
The Alex Foundation, a 501 C 3 nonprofit organization, is the host for the Architects of Jazz and Jazz in the Classroom.