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Making The John Coltrane Jazz Festival in High Point

La-Faithia White By

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John Coltrane's musical foundation started in High Point, and his connection to the area has led to... a jazz festival. —Bernita Sims, The Friends of John Coltrane
John Coltrane was born in Hamlet North Carolina on September 23, 1926. When Coltrane was a young child his family moved to the town of High Point, North Carolina where he spent the first seventeen years of his life at 118 Underhill Street.

Coltrane showed academic potential at Leonard Street School. Among his classmates he was known as a shy boy who was neat as well as a sharp dresser. Coltrane's situation changed drastically in the winter of 1938-1939 when his grandfather and father died within weeks of each other. After the death of his uncle in the winter of 1940, Coltrane's mother took work at the Emerywood Country Club to support the family. During this period without a lot of adult supervision, Coltrane found opportunities to explore the new sounds of jazz.

"John Coltrane's musical foundation started at High Point, and his connection to the area has led to the need for a jazz festival," explains Bernita Sims, Chairman of the Board for The Friends of John Coltrane. In this interview, we chat with Ms. Sims about the festival's brief history and her plans for the immediate future.

All About Jazz: Who are the Friends of John Coltrane, and how did the idea of establishing a jazz festival come about?

Bernita Sims: The friends of John Coltrane basically got established a few years ago. It was after the installation of the John Coltrane statue in Downtown High Point. We initially came together with the High Point Museum, raised funds and decided that we needed to have a tribute to our native son. Of course we are claiming him as our own.

So, we got together and raised the funds and actually installed the statue which is on the corner of Hamilton and Commerce Street in High Point. After the statue was put in place we thought there was a need to continue with some ongoing tributes for this jazz legend and what he has brought to the jazz genre.

At that time we created The Friends of John Coltrane and decided that we would do something every year to honor him, and so the festival idea was born. Since that time the first John Coltrane International Jazz & Blues Festival was in 2011, the inaugural one, and of course the next festival is coming up on September 1st at Oak Hollow Festival Park in High point.

AAJ: I recently read an article in the High Point Enterprise discussing the Piedmont area tourism which has given our area an A grade. How has the Coltrane festival helped if any, to obtain this quality grade in the High Point area?

BS: A lot of people did not know that John Coltrane had a connection to the High Point area. He was born in Hamlet N.C. moved to this area when he was five years old, and he attended the public school system here. So, I think a lot of his musical formative years actually happened in our public school system.

So there are a lot of jazz enthusiasts all across the country, even internationally, that once they found the connection and once they saw that the community was engaged and involved to make sure the world knew that High Point was here.

We get visitors from far and wide who basically come to our community to see the statue, and to see the connection that this community has with John Coltrane. Then of course, the quality of festivals, because there are so many across the country, and that is a tribute to what music actually brings to a community as a whole.

We would like to think that ours is truly a jazz festival. It does not incorporate any rhythm and blues or any of the other musical genres other than the blues into the festival.

We are trying to keep purely at that genre of music and hopefully be a tribute to the influence that John Coltrane has had on music in general. I think we are putting High Point on the map and with the music festival that we are doing, of course you know they all start off small aad mushroom into much larger festivals, our hope and our desire.

We want people to know if you want to hear jazz, if you want to hear blues, this is the place to be Labor Day Weekend.

AAJ: Looking ahead, what accomplishments would the FOJC committee like to see develop and blossom out of this festival?

BS: Well, hopefully we are looking at some point in time to expand the festival into a two day event, and so that is definitely in the works. Right now we are just trying to grow our one day event.

We would like to b able to bring artists in to put on one day, two day workshops, work with our children, work with other jazz folk in the community.

Basically talk about and teach what that genre of music is all about. And finally, the city, a few years ago purchased John Coltrane's home, his boyhood home where he grew up on Underhill Street. At some point of time the festival, the FOJC would like to be able to rehabilitate that home and turn it into a working museum.

So. that is the ultimate goal of where the FOJC would like to move forward with.

AAJ: What was the overall feedback from the community and the attendees of the first festival?

BS: Oh I thought it was great. I had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people that attended the festival and they were blown away at the caliber of the musicians we had, the caliber of music, and of course the venue itself.

Of course you know we do it at the Oak Hollow Festival Park, which icon Oak hollow Lake, so the venue was just magnificent for the first festival. The audience and the participants were excellent. They came from far and wide, and they enjoyed the evening in the park.

Once the sun went down, it was a little warm in the day but once the sun went down, it was the place to be. So it was a great great festival, actually it exceeded our expectations.

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