W. C. Handy Heritage Awards celebrate Memphis Bicentennial Blues, Jazz & Soul

Heritage Tours owner Elaine Turner (third from left) with the honorees and representatives (l-r): Muneer Nasser (Jamil Nasser), Patrice Joyner (Phillip Joyner Jr.), Teresa Tate-Clardy, Frank Phillips and Robert “Bobby Lavell” Garner. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

Swaying, clapping and rocking from beginning to end is the norm at the W.C. Handy Heritage Awards and the 23rd annual event had all of that – and more!

Guests flowed into the Holiday Inn-Airport (Nov. 17) to the sounds of the super-talented Stax Music Academy Jazz Ensemble, under the direction of Kelvin Walter. The celebratory event marked the 146th birthday celebration for Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” with the ensemble treating attendees to familiar Handy compositions including “Memphis Blues,” “Beale Street Blues” and the “St. Louis Blues.”

Next came the procession of African drums by the African Jazz Ensemble directed by Ekpe Abioto. With the stage set, tenth-grader Eliyahu Pinkney wowed the audience with his Louis Armstrong-inspired version of “Mr. Handy’s Blues.”

Sponsored by the W. C. Handy Memphis Home and Museum and Heritage Tours (Elaine Lee Turner, owner), the event honored “Authentic Beale Street Musicians. The evening’s theme was “Memphis Bicentennial Celebrates Blues, Jazz and Soul.”

Co-hosted by Toni Green (International Queen of the Blues) and television and radio personality Leon Griffin, the awards showcased Memphis music.

The Lifetime Music Achievement Award was presented to jazz and blues artist extraordinaire, Joyce Cobb, former owner of Joyce Cobb’s Jazz Club on Beale Street.

Other Authentic Beale Street Musician honorees included national jazz saxophonist, Robert “Bobby Lavell” Garner of New York, who gave the audience a sample of why he was recruited by some of the world’s best bands; blues guitarist/vocalist Jonathan Ellison, who solidified why he now is widely regarded as the “New King of Beale Street”;  soul/R&B singer and lead vocalist of the Mad Lads, Frank Phillips, and gospel singer Teresa Tate-Clardy.

Posthumous Awards were presented to the families of bassist Jamil Nasser (George Joyner), organizer of the First Beale Street Music Festival; jazz pianist/trumpeter Philip Joyner Jr., and world-renowned jazz pianist Harold Mabern. Blues/soul trumpeter Kenneth Jackson paid tribute to Joyner, with pianist Delores Crawford doing the same for Mabern with “Mr. Blues.”

Receiving special recognition as pioneers of the First Beale Street Music Festival in 1977 were Memphis’ “Queen of Soul” Carla Thomas, veteran jazz saxophonist Herman Green and gospel vocalist Barbara Perry-Wright.

Memoriam tributes were paid to jazz guitarist Calvin Newborn; Mad Lads lead vocalist John Gary Williams and to gospel vocalist the Rev. Melvin Rogers. And with a performance many will long remember, soul/blues artist Melva “Chick” Rogers delivered a stirring musical tribute to her late father.

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