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.

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