Jazz in the park with “Black Lives Matter: seniors”

Al Mtu organized “Black Lives Matter: Seniors,” a jazz music and swing dancing event that took place in Riverside Park on Wednesday evenings between early July and early October. The 73-year-old believes in the healing powers of jazz and its “inherent powers of reflection, justice, freedom and equality between all men and women.” On Sept. 30, Wayne Escoffery played the saxophone, Miles Griffith was on vocals and Greg “The Organ Monk” Lews was on the organ.

The final two installments of the event took place on Sept. 30 and Oct. 7, 2020. Every week, Mtu brought together a different lineup to play in the band. The last performance featured Paul Odeh on keyboard, Don Braden on tenor saxophone, Hillard Greene on bass, Patsy Grant on vocals and Dwayne Droadnax on drums.

The makeshift outdoor dance floor was open to anyone who wanted to dance. Participants, wearing face masks, improvised their choreography. Mtu says dancing was not as prominent during “Black Lives Matters: Seniors”’ predecessor, “Jazzmobile – Grant’s Tomb” concerts which ran every year between 1964 and 2019.  

The “seniors” in the event’s name mostly stayed in their seats and observed, swaying their heads when the songs were playing and clapping when they ended. The swing dancers generally landed on the younger end of the spectrum. Most of them, that is, except for 80-year-old Bernard Dove, who gave the youngest, most energetic dancers a run for their money and was a loyal attendee at the weekly event.

When Jazzmobile announced that it would not hold its annual summer festival, also featuring jazz musicians in the same spot, Mtu decided that he would try to fill their shoes this year. He had attended every year for 49 years.

A retired science and social studies teacher, Mtu says, “Black Americans have always relied on music to get through troubling times.” To him, one of the most profound things about these socially distanced events, is seeing “white and Black folk come together here to heal through the pandemic.”

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