Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A jazz jam celebration for Johnny Yancey

Jazz musicians young and old gathered at Circle Music Center to pay tribute to
their mentor, Johnny Yancey, who celebrated his 60th birthday. (Photos: Wiley Henry)
      Jazz trumpeter Johnny Yancey walked into Circle Music Center at 5124 Poplar Ave. Monday evening and heard a chorus shout “Happy 60th birthday, Johnny Yancey!” with jazz music teeming in the background.
“I don’t think I deserve this!” said Yancey, who actually turned 60 on Dec. 14. His wife Marcquinne, her mother Earlice Taylor, and Mike Kelley, a music historian and photographer, could not have disagreed more. The trio invited Yancey’s longtime friends and a cadre of jazz musicians that he’d jammed with over the course of 30 years to a combination birthday party and jazz jam celebration.
“I was totally surprised,” said Yancey. “My son Nygel told me that we had a gig to do. That’s what I thought I was going to.”
Old guys, young guys and new guys were all together.
Johnny Yancey prepares to cut his birthday cake. From left:
3-year-old Ari Yancey, Alaina Yancey, Nygel Yancey, Annese
Yancey and Amir West.
“We got people of all ages, diversity, high school, co-workers, friends and family,” said Marcquinne Yancey, who sang a silky smooth love song to her husband later on in the evening and then threw him a kiss.
The audience approved.
W. J. Michael Cody, former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, listened intently while Yancey and his band-mates played syncopated beats on the drums and riveting chords on the piano. The wind and string instruments – saxophones, a trumpet, trombone and bass – moaned and whimpered.
 “I’ve known Johnny his entire life. His mother was a dear friend of mine,” said Cody. “I watched him grow up. I watched his career. And now I’ve seen his son Nygel come alone. He’s (Johnny) a wonderful person.”
The band played for four hours – totally unrehearsed yet in sync – with occasional vocal accompaniments from Taylor, a noted jazz, blues and gospel singer; Kellie Hurt Parker, a resident of Little Rock, who was accompanied by her husband Chris on piano; gospel artist Annie Ivory, director of Urban Family Ministries CDC, Inc.; and Todd Allen, a former Memphian now living in Atlanta.
The Rev. Renardo Ward, senior pastor of Greater Harvest Church of God in Christ, who also plays drums, called the assembled talent the “underground institution of jazz” and credited Yancey with birthing it in his home.
“Johnny has had a profound impact in Memphis for generations. I learned a lot from the University of Memphis, but I declare I learned a lot from Mr. Johnny Yancey,” he said.
The birthday host committee: Marcquinne Yancey, Mike
Kelley, a photographer and music historian, and Earlice
Taylor, a noted jazz, blues and gospel singer.
“I’m still learning myself,” said Yancey, giving props to his late brother, a saxophonist, who inspired him to play saxophone as well while in elementary school. At Southside High School, where he graduated in 1973, Yancey was introduced to jazz music and excelled.
Between then and now, he honed his jazz skills and learned to play other genres – gospel, classical, blues, reggae, and rhythm and blues – with relative ease and proficiency. He has performed with Alvin Baptiste, Billy Pierce, Donald Brown, Terri Lynn Carrington, Javon Jackson, James Williams, Herman Green, Zaid Nassar, the late Emerson Able Jr., Joyce Cobb, and Floyd Newman, who was in attendance.
“Floyd Newman was a great inspiration for me,” said Yancey, recalling the jam sessions with Newman at the old Bill’s Twilight Lounge, once a hub for African-American artists and writers on North Parkway before the building was razed in 2009.
Thad Jones, a jazz band conductor and trumpeter, also influenced Yancey, who formed his own jazz orchestra, The Sanctuary Jazz Orchestra, in 2002. That inaugural performance was a tribute to the late great composer, pianist and bandleader Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.
Yancey and his orchestra have performed at a number of venues in Memphis and surrounding areas and accompanied Taylor in a benefit concert at Bridges of Memphis for mission charity relief in the Republic of Haiti.
Ward sees Yancey and his orchestra as a lynchpin that connects the Memphis jazz music scene to the world. He played with Yancey in the early days and said the bandleader was integral in shaping mindsets such as his own and bridging cultures with jazz music.
“He’s had people in the band from Haiti, Germany, Puerto Rico,” he said. “It’s international. It’s multicultural. The group spans generations from 9 years old and up. And he didn’t have a grant to fund the orchestra.”
Yancey said playing with the orchestra makes him feel happy.
“It’s an institution,” he said. “It’s no stress. They’re not obligated to do this. They do it because they love it.”
He loves it too – immensely – adding that his life-long mission is to pass the culture down to the younger generation, people who otherwise may not know that jazz is an integral part of African-American music history and the predecessor to other genres.
Quoting Art Blakey, a jazz drummer and bandleader who jammed with the likes of Fletcher Henderson and Billy Eckstine, Yancey said, “Jazz is the highest art form in the universe, because it comes from within and it tells a story, like an artist painting a picture or an actor playing a different role than his own personality.”


·         Johnny and Marcquinne Yancey have been married 32 years.
·         They have three children: Annese, Alaina and Nygel, a freshman at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville majoring in Engineering. He also plays drums in his father’s band.

·         The couple has three grandsons: Ari, Demarrius and Amir.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Grim obesity rate prompts health conscious advocate to launch weight loss initiative

Anniece Robinson and the youngest team members of UBABY (U Be A Better
You) prepare to show Channel 24's Mary Jo Ola how to do "The UBABY Shuffle."
     It was difficult – but not altogether impossible – but Anniece Robinson managed to drop from a 28 dress-size down to a 14 in a year and a half and gained control of a weight problem that had tugged at her for quite some time.
The weight was a constant reminder that Robinson needed to take the necessary steps to avoid the potential threat of a medical malady on down the road. So with a diet change and a razor focus on health and wellness, she shaved off a whopping 130 pounds.
The euphoria was short-lived, though. Why? Because Robinson gained 40 of those pounds back over the course of a few years after she quit smoking. She also went up another dress size or two – 16 or 18, one or the other – which she has maintained since.
“I picked the weight back up because I digressed in my behavior. I lost my way,” said Robinson. “Now I have to fight my way back.”
Robinson is not alone in her fight to lose weight and to keep it off. There are countless men, women and children in the United States grappling with this widespread problem. In Tennessee alone, the adult obesity rate is 31.2 percent, according to a 2015 report, The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America.
Dozens of UBABY team members and others from the audience
performed "The UBABY Shuffle" amid a throng that came out for
The Tom Joyner Morning Show at the Liberty Bowl Memorial
Stadium on Sept. 11. (Photos by Wiley Henry) 
That percentage, which reflects the combined effort of Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), has Tennessee saddled with the 14th highest adult obesity rate in the nation.
Tennessee has struggled with its adult obesity rate over the years – up from 20.9 in 2000 and from 11.1 percent in 1990. The obesity rate fluctuates from state to state. According to the report, Arkansas tips the scale at 35.9, the highest percentage in the country, while Colorado comes in at the lowest – 21.3 percent.   
Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of RWJF, and Jeffrey Levi, executive director of TFAH, stressed in a letter accompanying the report that obesity remains “one of the biggest threats to the health of our children and our country.”
By 2030, it is projected that 68 percent of Tennesseans will be obese. That grim forecast is the precursor to a number of deadly diseases and chronic illnesses on the horizon, which is troubling and often leads to a shortened lifespan.
Obesity is expected to cause 939,564 new cases of type 2 diabetes; coronary heart disease, 1,896,993; strokes, 1,714,690; hypertension, 1,117,321; and arthritis, 260,360. The current tab in Tennessee for obesity related illnesses and diseases is more than $6 billion annually.
“There are no quick fixes,” said Robinson, who didn’t hesitate to hit the reset button to get her weight-loss regimen back on track. “You just got to psychologically make those adjustments; then you have to do it.”
Robinson is doing just that. She’s trying to unyoke the heavy burden of carrying around too much weight. But not all people with weight problems have the resolve to “trim the fat” or the dogged determination to keep it off.
In 2013, Gov. Bill Haslam launched the statewide “Healthier Tennessee” initiative “to encourage Tennesseans to be more physically active, to eat nutritious foods in healthy portions, and not to use tobacco products.”
Robinson was appointed the health ambassador for the Shelby West Tennessee area. She was one of 22 individuals who completed 14 weeks of training in the whole person wellness model across Tennessee, which tied as the second fattest state in the nation according to the “F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies are Failing in America” 2010 report.
With those dismal facts in the forefront of Robinson’s mind, she founded UBABY, Inc. (U Be A Better You), a community-based, 501c3 corporation that promotes and facilitates wellness via “edutainment-formatted” opportunities. She is the organization’s executive director.
The goal, said Robinson, is to encourage individuals and organizations to practice and sustain healthy lifestyles in an effort to reduce health disparities in minority communities. She essentially wants individuals to “keep it moving.”
“Gotta Keep It Movin,’” in fact, is a catchphrase Robinson is using to brand a new six-month health and wellness campaign called The WOW (Wisdom of Wellness) Challenge. Three churches in the Memphis area have accepted the challenge. Others are pending. Cigna Corporation (NYSE: CI), a global health service company, is sponsoring the “Challenge.”
A number of activities are slated throughout the six-month campaign, including weigh-ins, a culinary challenge for chefs, a red carpet showcase production and other activities that will coincide with the participating churches’ in-house wellness program.
Keeping the body in motion is important, but changing or adjusting the portions of one’s diet is just as important, said Robinson, adding, “We are the fun and fresh side of fitness and the delicious side of nutrition.”
During the early morning of Sept. 11, Robinson and the UBABY team introduced The WOW Challenge on The Tom Joyner Morning Show at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in conjunction with the 26th Annual Southern Heritage Classic.
Robinson and her team challenged the audience to keep it moving to avoid a sedentary lifestyle and to make better nutritional choices. Dozens rose from their seats to perform “The UBABY Shuffle,” an original line dance Robinson created specifically to get people moving.
The UBABY Shuffle is a rhythmic form of exercise designed to increase flexibility and motor movement. It keeps the body in motion without the use of heavy equipment. Everybody can participate, Robinson said.
“I want people to be better than they were in terms of their health. We want people to take ownership in improving their health. When you lose weight, it decreases chronic diseases,” said Robinson, noting that not all people taking the challenge are overweight or obese. But everybody, she said matter-of-factly, needs to take care of their “earth suit,” a term denoting the human body.
“If you adopt a healthy mindset, eat healthy, and get the required physical activity, you’re going to achieve optimum health,” said Robinson, taking incremental steps to get the obesity rate lowered in Memphis and Shelby County and subsequently in Tennessee.
“We’re building a wellness community,” she said. “We’re going to keep everybody engaged.”