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25 years of celebrating the genius of W.C. Handy

by Florence M. Howard —

The Tri-State Defender A who’s who of local community, church and business leaders gathered on Sunday (Dec. 3) to celebrate the 150th birthday of the “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy.

Held at the Halloran Centre For Performing Arts & Education, the celebration was part of this year’s W.C. Handy Heritage Awards, presented by Heritage Tours and the W.C. Handy Memphis Home and Museum.

A highlight of the celebration included the presentation of the 2023 W.C. Handy Heritage Award for Lifetime Music Achievement to renowned jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

Howard Robertson of Trust Marketing accepted the honor on behalf of Marsalis, who was unable to attend the event. Robertson expressed the trumpeter’s appreciation of the honor and announced Marsalis’ then upcoming performance (December 5) at First Baptist Church Broad.

The celebration included Ekpe Abioto, director of the African Jazz Ensemble, leading The Second Line Band down the aisle as they played “Down by the Riverside.”

African Jazz Ensemble Director Ekpe Abioto and The Second Line Band. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The Tri-State Defender)

Stan Bell of WDIA Radio and V101 emceed the event.

Elaine Turner of Heritage Tours highlighted the occasion and history of the W.C. Handy Heritage Awards – The Man, The Music, The Movement.

Handy, the acknowledged Father of the Blues, “put Memphis on the global map.”

Stan Bell was the evening’s emcee. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The Tri-State Defender)

Born on Nov. 16, 1873, in Florence, Alabama, William Christopher Handy was “the son and grandson of former enslaved Methodist ministers.”

According to his online biography, he was born in a log cabin that was built by his grandfather.

Young Handy, surrounded by Negro spirituals, work songs and Methodist hymns, “embodied it all and stored it in his bosom when he ventured from his hometown to explore this magical music by which he was so inspired.”

As part of the Heritage Awards program, Memphis’ own blues and jazz singer Joyce Cobb, in a tribute to W.C. Handy, played the harmonica and in her melodic voice sang snippets of “Memphis Blues,” “Beale Street Blues” and “St. Louis Blues” – all composed by Handy and songs that put him on the international blues map.

Joyce Cobb sang snippets of W.C. Handy songs in tribute to the “Father of the Blues.” (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The Tri-State Defender)

Also honored at Sunday’s event were:

  • The McKinney Trio of Kurl McKinney (keyboards), Paul McKinney (trumpet, bass), Dr. Alvin McKinney (saxophone) was honored with the Music Legacy Award.
  • The Gospel Music Workshop of America, Inc. (Memphis Chapter) under the leadership of Delores Crawford Wade was honored with the Gospel Award.

*Memphis Jazz Workshop pianist Stephen Lee was recognized with the Jazz Award along with fellow honorees – bassoonist Michael Scott of the Memphis Jazz Workshop and trumpet player Johnny Yancey, also of the Memphis Jazz Workshop.

*R&B/Soul singer Larry Springfield was recognized with the Authentic Beale Street Musician Award.

*Blues vocalist Joyce Henderson also was recognized with the Authentic Beale Street Musician Award.

Authentic Beale Street musicians and entertainers were honored during the 25th celebration of the W.C. Handy Heritage Awards. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The Tri-State Defender)

Founded in 1983, Heritage Tours is celebrating its 40th Anniversary. It was founded by Elaine Turner and her late sister, Joan Nelson.

Turner said that Heritage Tours is the first African-American-owned tour company in Tennessee to highlight the contributions of African Americans.

As directors of The W.C. Handy Home Memphis Museum, Heritage Tours initiated the W.C. Handy Heritage Awards, now in its 25th year.

“We started because we were the managers and directors of the W.C. Handy Museum and we wanted to recognize W.C. Handy each year on his birthday as well as honor other authentic musicians who have kept his music alive.

“We honor the musicians who have kept his heritage alive,” Turner said in a post-event interview with the Tri-State Defender.

“Over the last 25 years, we have honored over 150 authentic Beale Street musicians and entertainers. We realize that it was important for Memphis to recognize the Father of the Blues and to realize his great contribution to Memphis and to music. So, during this celebration we honor people who have kept Handy’s music alive.”



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