Knoxville's Jazz Community Comes Together for a Landmark Recording Session

Mark Feb. 10, 2010 down as Knoxville's own version of "A Great Day in Harlem," when 57 legendary jazz musicians gathered for a group photo on a sunny summer Sunday morning in Harlem, perched on tenement stairs and lining the sidewalk along 126th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues. The 1958 photo turned into a documentary film in 1994, much of it assembled from archival footage shot that very day. Among such notables as Count Basie, Thelonius Monk, and Charles Mingus captured at that New York photo session was a young drummer named Art Blakey, already leader of his own Jazz Messengers octet at age 38, and who would one day be as highly regarded for his shepherding of exceptional young talents in his band as for his thunderously virtuosic drumming style.

One of Blakey's late-life pupils, a man upon whom he would have a profound mentoring influence, was Knoxville pianist/composer/educator Donald Brown. And when recruited by Nelda Hill of Lawson McGhee Library to help pull together a recording session to raise money for the city's annual jazz festival and an upcoming Knox jazz documentary, Brown became the central figure in Knoxville's own Great Day, gathering the city's best jazz players for a banner session at a studio in Bearden.

The result: by late March or early April, there should be a 12- to 14-song CD available, featuring a veritable who's who of Knoxville jazz musicians, playing mostly original songs, including four written by Brown himself. The working title, Tenors in Satin: The Knoxville Jazz Sessions, is based on one of Brown's originals.

"Donald was the one who pretty much put the session together," says Hill, who besides being an organizer of the jazz festival is also producer of the forthcoming Knoxville jazz documentary. "He made the phone calls, did the arranging. Pretty much everyone playing jazz around town today is on the record. People rearranged schedules, postponed trips so they could play on the record, all because Donald asked them to."

But while Brown was ringmaster, he wasn't working alone. There was Hill, of course, and AMG Media President Todd McCoig, who was at least partly responsible for the idea, and who made available his swank studio facilities at AMG, located on the otherwise grim industrial outskirts of Bearden, where Northshore Drive says its dour good-byes to Kingston Pike.

And then there are the musicians, none of whom will be compensated for their work—honored, perhaps, but not compensated. Brown made a special effort to reach out to Knoxville's three venerable octogenarian tenor saxophone players, Bill Scarlett, Lance Owens, and Rocky Wynder, for whom he penned the song "Tenors in Satin." The trio also recorded an arrangement of the Duke Ellington standard "Take the A Train," their group being the only one that will appear on two tracks of the forthcoming album.

"Those guys, they go way back as friends, but I feel like they also represent one theme of what the CD is about as far as trying to document Knoxville jazz history," Brown says. "They represent to me the living history, connecting the present to the past, the focal point of the whole thing."

Besides the three tenors, around seven other combos recorded tracks that day in an eight-hour session that went with barely a hitch—"Everyone was really well rehearsed," Brown says—while a few other acts, such as Vance Thompson and the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, have recorded tracks for submission on their own time.

Some of the other tracks laid down on Wednesday include Brown's own group, a specially assembled quasi-all-star unit that included his sometime collaborator, vocalist Sanda Allison, performing the Brown original "Ange"; Brown's sons Keith and Kenneth, performing with their own band, playing one of Keith's original songs; long-running local jazz group Boling, Brown and Holloway performing guitarist Mark Boling's original "Skranky"; longtime local songstress Sharon Mosby performing "Our Day Will Come" with a nine-man ensemble; local writer Jack Rentfro doing spoken word with backing from pianist Emily Mathis; and Kelle Jolly performing an original with her husband, sax player William Boyd.

At the end of the day, Brown was exhausted, but exhilarated; and constitutionally incapable of picking a single favorite track. "After the three tenors, I thought it couldn't get any higher," he says. "Then Ben [Dockery, former Brown piano student] played. Then hearing my songs play. And then hearing Sharon Mosby again after so many years, after playing with her when I first came to Knoxville. And then Jack Rentfro's rap. I can't wait to get the CD engineered and finished. It's gonna be exciting."

Look for a release party in early April.