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Meet H. Alonzo Jennings

Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper By

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By the time I graduated high school in 1964 I was a full-blown jazz head. I walked around with my shades, pork pie hat, or broke down leather driving cap, always with some records under my arms. I was doing my best Miles Davis act.
H. Alonzo Jennings, artist, photographer, poet, and jazz aficionado, has been photographing jazz musicians since 1976 and going out to support live jazz music for even longer. His photographs include images of jazz legends such as Billy Eckstine, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan and Cassandra Wilson. "My objective as an artist/photographer is to provide a visual record of these sublime moments of transcendence, reflecting the purity and honest spirituality of the artist's souls." Music is no less than an entryway to the soul. One particular jazz titan is his daily meditation. Can you guess the title of his desert island disc?

Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in Paterson, New Jersey, and raised in Georgia from ages two to six, and then in Paterson and Passaic, New Jersey. I currently live in Willingboro, New Jersey, about 18 miles from Philadelphia. I graduated from Montclair State University with a BA in Art Education, and then got my Masters of Public Affairs from Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. I taught general art, and art for the gifted, at the W. Allen Middle School in Moorestown, New Jersey, for 20 years. I also worked with the Passaic, New Jersey, anti-poverty programs of the 1960's; OIC International, serving in Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria; The Afro- American Museum in Philadelphia; the Whitman Center in Camden, New Jersey; and the Children's Home of Burlington County. I hold occasional jazz listening sessions at my home and have produced jazz concerts, art exhibits, and poetry readings for the Underground Railroad Museum of Burlington County, New Jersey. Now I am retired. I dabble in photography and poetry, and collect vintage jazz recordings. I also co-host a one-hour radio program with my friend Daryle Lloyd on WPPM-FM 106.5 every Monday 7-9 PM. My half of the session is called Jazz From An Eclectic Mind. I only play music from my personal collection, and am prepping to do my own one-or two-hour show soon.

What's your earliest memory of music?
I cannot remember life without music. When I lived in Georgia with my grandparents, there were the church and my uncle's gospel quartet, with his musical friends always around. We lived about a half a mile from the local juke joint, and I would follow my older cousins there, and we would sit outside and listen to the music and observe the good times and the drunk people. (My grandmother was very religious, and she would have killed me if she knew we were there, listening to the Devil's music!) In addition to a jukebox, they occasionally had live bands who played mostly the blues and R&B. Both my cousins could sing, and learned to play instruments by ear, but the music gene skipped me completely. I guess I got the visual art and poetry genes.

When I moved back north my love of music continued to grow. My mom loved the shouters: Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy Witherspoon, Big Maybelle, LaVern Baker, and others. These singers came out of the big bands: Count Basie, Jay McShann, Fletcher Henderson, Jimmie Lunceford, Louis Jordan, Ray Charles. Lloyd Price and other singers like Johnny Ace, Ruth Brown, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. These were my first musical loves.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?
I was a Basie and Duke Ellington fan long before I knew that what they played was jazz. It was just the music that my mother and her friends played and danced to. For the time, and given our economic status, we had a lot of music—all lacquer/shellac 78s. We also had several great jazz stations WLIB, SBLS, WJZ, WRVR. I guess all this was my gateway to jazz.

How old were you when you got first record?
My mother loved music, so we always had a record player, or at least a Victrola (they might have been second-or third-hand, but we had one) and lots of 78s. So I was always around records.

I purchased my first jazz album, Ahmad Jamal's Live At The Pershing when I was about 15. I bought it used from Jamal, a neighborhood junkie, who never left his house without albums under his arm. He sparked my interest in bebop and taught me a great deal about jazz, history, and Africa before he flamed out.

I was hypnotized by "Poinciana," and it never let me go. I could close my eyes and fly. I played the grooves off that record. It is still on my monthly rotation. Jamal prepared me for Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I had simply never heard sounds like that before. It awakened a musical curiosity and passion in me that lasts to this day.

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