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Richmond Jazz Concert
Sax Master: John Handy is one of the many stars at the Salute to Richmond Jazz Concert March 21.

Concert salutes the rich musical legacy of Richmond

By Nicky Baxter

Ask most so-called experts about West Coast blues and jazz, and invariably, they'll rattle off a very short list that begins in Los Angeles, winds its way to Oakland and ends with a certain finality in San Francisco.

Any mention of the East Bay city of Richmond as a crucible for the West Coast sound usually elicits blank expressions. Which goes to show how ignorance is indeed blissful if you don't do your homework. The fact of the matter is that Richmond played a key role in the evolution of both genres.

Though blues and jazz demigods Jimmy McCracklin and Jimmy Witherspoon are the most renowned figures who kept Richmond juke joints jumpin' in the 1940s and '50s, some relatively unknown musicians--Billy Pegrum, Jessie James and Herb Gibson, among a host of others--were scarcely less significant.

These were "crossover" acts--switch-hitters equally adept at performing nasty-assed blues, R&B and hep-cat jazz.

"Richmond, like Oakland has a distinct musical history," says guitarist/historian Ronnie Stewart. "Blacks migrated from the South to places like the Bay Area to work in the maritime industry during WWII. Richmond was one of those cities."

Among the emigrants were musicians hailing from the southwest, primarily Texas, Louisianna and Oklahoma, and their respective origins were reflected in the grooves they churned out.

So why hasn't Richmond garnered the props it so rightfully deserves? Stewart, a longtime East Bay resident explains: "This city never got on the historical map because it didn't have a Bob Geddins [a prominent Oakland-based producer and label owner] or a record company on the scale of Modern [for which B. B. King recorded] or Specialty [Joe Liggins & the Honeydrippers]." As a result, Stewart says, the city did not attract much notice.

If the Bay Area Blues Society and the city of Richmond have anything to do with it, however, posterity will no longer ignore the tiny burg's once vibrant music scene. "A Salute to Richmond Jazz Past & Present" (March 21) will feature some of the genre's most prominent exponents, including saxophonist John Handy, who holds the distinction of being the first act to perform at the Richmond Memorial Convention in 1951.

Guitarist Cornell Dupree is slated to headline. His impeccable pedigree includes stints with King Curtis--that's Dupree on Curtis' instrumental version of "Soul Serenade"--Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack and many other jazz, R&B and pop giants.

Unlike similar events, there's no drop-off in talent. Funk-jazzsters Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff are headliners in their own right, as is Handy. Individually, and in tandem, alto player Crawford and Hammond B-3 monarch McGriff wrote the book on soul-jazz. Guitarist Calvin Keys, who has strutted his stuff with the sultan of contempo soul Luther Vandross, is also on the bill.

Stewart, who will be backing local hero Herb Gibson, is optimistic about how future generations will perceive Richmond's contributions past and present: "This is just one in a series of concerts designed to put this city where it ought to be: on the A-list of jazz and blues."

Salute to Richmond Jazz Past & Present takes place Friday (March 21) at 7:30pm at the Richmond Memorial Convention Center, 403 Civic Center Plaza, Richmond. Tickets are $10 & up. (BASS or 510/836-2227)

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