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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.

AAJ: During one of the intermission breaks saxophonist Kirk Whalum was on stage presenting instruments to students. Is this part of the mission for the FOJC?

BS: The Friends of John Coltrane gave a donation to local area students that were actually nominated by their music instructors at their local schools.

The instructors said that these individuals have shown an aptitude towards music and have shown a need that they should have their own instruments. So, instruments were given away at the festival and we intend on repeating that at this years festival.

We have contacted all of the area schools in the Guilford county school system and in high point, where high point students attend, so we are doing the same thing this year only think we are upping the amount, or increasing the amount of instruments that we are giving away, and it is now six this year.

We are hoping that we get good sum of students who have been nominated and hopefully receive those as recognition to their willingness and desire to be musicians.

AAJ: What is your affinity to John Coltrane and the genre of jazz?

BS: I was raised in High Point through the public school system. I was a member of the marching band at William Penn High School, and also the concert band. So, my instrument of choice was of course the saxophone (laughs) I do have a connection to the instrument and so I have a musical background.

I come from a family of musicians, all of my brothers and sisters played an instrument, and I have three siblings that were music majors. I have a connection to music in general and I just believe that jazz is probably the purest form of music that have.

It is the foundation probably of every genre out there. I just think that jazz brings about a whole different perspective of soothing your soul and calming your spirit. I think that what we have chosen to do, and what John (Coltrane) has chosen to do with his music in his life has been phenomenal.

AAJ: Are there any other committee members that might be musically inclined as yourself?

BS: I do not know. I would hope so (laughter) there is no one on the committee that has said they do not like music, and they do not like jazz. So, I will take that as an affirmative for where we are and what we do.

I think the biggest part of all of this is that you know, we are a community that birthed quite a few in the music field. Fantasia of course being from here, the Barrino Brothers being from here. There is music floating in the air in our community, between what we are doing with the festival and also the Coltrane workshops that we do with our students during the summer.

The workshops are done through the High Point Arts Council and actually promotes where we are as a community around that particular culture aspect of music in our community. We are just excited about what we are doing and hoping that it is going to blossom someday into a huge festival.

AAJ: At this time do you have any of the demographic data from the festival, and are more people traveling from out of town to come to the festival?

BS: We do not know. If it is anything like last years, we had quite a few people that were outside of High Point. It was more of a regional festival in a sense that you know that there were people from all the state of North Carolina.

We had individuals from over the eastern seaboard, as far away as Washington, New York, and New Jersey. Individuals from Georgia, Florida, as far west as Tennessee. We had quite a few individuals coming from other places and are jazz enthusiasts

Once they heard what the lineup was gonna be, they felt that this was where they needed to be. All have committed to coming back this year, We are hoping to have an even better crowed, particularly since the artists coming are The Duke and Clarke Project.

AAJ: Yes, and by the way what is the lineup for this year? This is my last question, and I would like to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule today.

BS: Thank you for inviting me. George Duke, Stanley Clarke will be our headliners. We are really excited about that. Of course the festival will be hosted by Kirk Whalum. Kirk (Whalum) said "I just wanna be there" He was actually blown away by the venue itself. I do not think he has been to a place with that type of feel.

Normally musicians come, they perform then leave. He stayed for the whole festival.
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