Alcorn State Jazz Festival brings music, tradition to Vicksburg

Published 5:06 pm Monday, April 17, 2023

It’s a musical genre that’s as American as the Blues and country music, and area residents had the pleasure of hearing some of its practitioners Saturday at the Vicksburg Convention Center.

The 41st Alcorn State University Jazz Festival offered a variety of high school and college bands playing Big Band and jazz standards and new compositions and performances by the Mississippi Jazz Educators and Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Randy Brecker to close out the event.

In the more than 40 years the festival has been produced, it has featured music from high school and college jazz ensembles and big bands from Mississippi and across the South. This year’s festival featured high school bands from Gonzales, La., and Houston, Texas.

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One of those bands was from Vicksburg High School, which made a return trip following the COVID-19 pandemic and brought a crowd of supporters with it.

“This is our first jazz group since COVID happened,” said band director Courtland Smoot. “This is a completely first-year group and they’ve done an exceptional job preparing for this event.”

Playing at the festival for family and friends, Smoot said, “Is a good feeling; it’s always good to play for your city to play for your community. We’re just trying to get as much exposure as we can listen to other bands, try to get better at the craft and go steamrolling ahead into the next channel.”

The Jazz Festival began in 1980 as a local event on the Alcorn campus in Lorman by then-Alcorn jazz band director Russell Thomas.

“He just wanted to get something that was kind of a local thing that we had on campus and that happened for 21 years,” said Dr. David Miller, Alcorn jazz band director and festival organizer. “And then we moved to Vicksburg 20 years ago. We brought it up to Vicksburg to really reach more people. Now we’ve got bands coming from all over the place — and one of the bands here is from Houston — and most of the rest of them from Mississippi. We usually have more universities and colleges than we have this year.”

Miller said Alcorn hasn’t done 20 festivals since coming to the convention center, citing the COVID pandemic.

Things, he said, are beginning to return to a regular schedule.

“We got a little bit behind,” he said, “now we’re rebuilding and just let everybody know it is up and running.

“It’s been such a tradition, and if you look at the roster of the artists that we’ve had through the years and you look at a jazz history book, these are the same people. I’ve always been kind of focused on that — having people who are historically significant. They’ve always been the people that have moved jazz music forward.”

And there’s no charge, he said, for people to watch these greats perform in Vicksburg in concert.

“If they went to see them in most of the big concert halls, you know, they could easily be $200 to $300 to see and almost never get a chance to actually meet the artist.”

The festival venue, Miller said, is small and intimate enough to allow people to get the chance to meet the artist and talk to them.

“So it’s a tremendous opportunity,” he said. “It’s something I wish more people would take advantage of.”

Miller said he wants to see the festival continue and remain in Vicksburg.

“I’m going to try and pass it on to good hands and keep it going,” he said. “It’s been a great tradition and I really hope it stays on and I hope they keep bringing it up to Vicksburg because there are some people that want to move it back to campus.

“It would be a shame to do that because it’s much more accessible here, much more centrally located. Jackson people come over; we have a lot of people from Jackson who come and I hope they come, but if we were farther away on campus some of them probably wouldn’t make the trip. So I hope it stays up here.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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