Mid-Shore Arts: Sumner Hall Presents Roots of African American Music

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The MSG Acoustic Blues Trio, the opening act for the Sumner Hall concert series

Chestertown’s Sumner Hall begins a new venture this fall with a stellar concert series, “African American Legacy & Heritage in Jazz, Blues & Gospel.” The series, featuring local and nationally-known performers, is produced by Tom McHugh, well known for his work at the Mainstay in Rock Hall.

Since retiring from the Mainstay, McHugh has worked with the arts programs at the Kent County public schools, bringing recognition to the art teachers and students and working to bring in artists to help expand the students’ horizons. Now, working in a volunteer capacity with Sumner Hall, he has drawn on his many contacts throughout the music world to assemble a concert series to represent the rich spectrum of African American music, from spirituals and blues to the giants of jazz. McHugh was joined by Sumner Hall President Larry Wilson for a Spy interview on the concert series.

Musician Karen Somerville with Tom McHugh, producer of the concert series and director of Arts in Motion – Photo by Jane Jewell

McHugh said the inspiration for the series came when he was at Sumner Hall for an event and read a poster on the wall that made him think about the role of music in African American life in Kent County and how that links to the mission of Sumner Hall. “It’s a poster that just makes you think,” he said. The series inspired by it “is intended to be the legacy of African American contributions to blues and jazz and folk music.”

Reggie Harris

The first performer he thought of was Reggie Harris, guitarist, songwriter and storyteller extraordinaire. McHugh said, “Reggie has this reputation of being able to pull all these currents together.” He said that whenever he brought Harris in for a concert, “I just let him roll,” knowing the result would be right for the situation and the audience. When McHugh called Harris – even before contacting anyone at Sumner Hall – to tell him about the idea of a concert series to present “snapshots” of the different musical genres, Harris said, “I’m in.”

McHugh then began looking for other performers, particularly those who could take the history “way back,” which was when he found out about the MSG Acoustic Blues Trio, a Washington DC-based group that presents the Piedmont Blues style associated with such artists as Cephas and Wiggans. McHugh said MSG had performed at Archie Edwards’ barbershop in Washington, which featured live performances while Edwards cut hair. The group was referred to McHugh by Dave Robinson, a fixture of the Washington jazz scene, who brought a DC-area youth band to the Chestertown Jazz Festival a year ago. Robinson referred McHugh to Archie Edwards Barbershop Foundation and they recommended MSG Acoustic Blues Trio. “You have to get these people…they entertain and educate the audience about the Piedmont blues traditions,” Robinson said.

Larry Wilson, president of Sumner Hall Board of Directors – Photo by Jane Jewell

Having secured those two groups, McHugh said, he felt the rest would be a matter of “filling in.” He presented the idea to some of the Sumner Hall leadership, and the project began to take shape. He said that all the artists had agreed to perform for less than their normal fees, many of them because of their previous experience with McHugh at the Mainstay.

Phil Dutton

He talked about the performers, many of whom are already familiar to local audiences – especially Philip Dutton and Karen Somerville. For their performances in this series, McHugh asked both of them to stretch beyond what audiences have come to expect. Dutton, who usually appears with his band the Alligators, will do a solo set, talking about the influences on his playing. McHugh described Dutton as “a scholar” of the different styles of New Orleans piano playing.

Somerville, best known for gospel performances with the Sombarkin trio, will pay tribute to Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin – two of the most revered voices in African American music. McHugh said that he and Somerville have been friends for at least 25 years, and he described her as his main link to the Kent County African American community during his first few years here, introducing him to important members of the community and filling him in on bits of local history.

Pianist Daryl Davis and guitarist Guy Davis (no relation) have been regulars at the Mainstay, with Daryl Davis a frequent performer at Rock Hall Fall Fests. McHugh has known Guy Davis for many years, since inviting him to demonstrate slide guitar at a blues class he was teaching at Vassar. Guy Davis and Reggie Harris played a memorable concert at Sumner Hall a couple of years ago.

Guy Davis – photo by Joseph A. Rosen

One of the less familiar performers is Jason Blythe, a young tenor sax player from the jazz program at the University of Delaware, whom Mchugh heard when the U. Del. big jazz band played at the Mainstay. McHugh described Blythe as “a natural” musician. Learning that one of Blythe’s favorite tenor players is the late Lester Young, McHugh challenged him to recreate Young’s 1946 trio with Nat “King” Cole on piano and Buddy Rich on drums. Blythe recruited two members of the U. Del. faculty to fill out the trio.

McHugh said that each of the performers has agreed to talk about the music with the audience and to answer any questions. “It might have to do with your instrument, or it might have to do with how you got into this music, so people can take those stories out into the community,” he said. In some cases – notably with Daryl Davis, who has made an ongoing effort to meet and engage with members of the Ku Klux Klan – the discussion may range far beyond the music. That’s part of the point – as important as the music is in its own right, it has an important role as part of African American life, and draws on all aspects of the black experience in this country.

Daryl Davis

Wilson reminisced about the music he heard while growing up in Kent County. He and his friends listened to the black-run radio stations, WSID and WEBB from Baltimore and WANN from Annapolis until they went off the air at sundown, then switched to the Baltimore Top 40 station, WCAO – where much of the same music was crossing over into the pop mainstream. He said he hoped the concert series would attract more members of the local African American community – especially young listeners — to Sumner Hall

With this goal in mind, 20 tickets will be set aside for each concert for Special Guests. The concerts’ website notes that there are many members of the community who may be unable to purchase a ticket but who are either a part of the local African American music scene in the region or who are students and youth who would love to attend. Anyone interested in sponsoring one of these community members can purchase a “Sponsor a Special Guest” ticket in addition to their own, and Sumner Hall will make sure that ticket goes to a deserving local music fan. “Sponsor a Special Guest” tickets are tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” he said of the concert series. “Each one is different in its own way but it brings a light to the music.”  The musicians will open the floor for questions and discussion at the end of each concert.  Most concerts are on Saturday, a couple on Friday evenings.  Shows begin at 7:00 pm. The complete series schedule is below.

Everyone involved in the production is spreading the word through email and other media, so anyone interested would be well advised to make advance reservations online here https://aalhconcertseries.eventbrite.com.  The series is supported in part by a generous donation from the Hedgelawn Foundation.

All shows begin at 7 p.m.  Tickets are $20 each.  The hall seats just a little over 100. Advance ticket sales only. No tickets will be sold at the door.See their website for more information on Sumner Hall and other upcoming events.

The complete schedule:

November 10 – MSG Acoustic Blues Trio Showcases the Piedmont Blues
December 8 – Daryl Davis Offers Boogie Woogie and a Message
February 9 – Phil Dutton Plays New Orleans Piano
March 1 – Guy Davis is on the Road with Blues and Songster Ramblings
April 13 – Jason Blythe & University of Delaware Band Re-create the Lester Young Trio
May 11 – Karen Somerville Sings Mahalia, Aretha. . . and More
June 1 – Reggie Harris Wraps It Up

Sumner Hall
206 S. Queen Street
Chestertown, MD 21620
phone 443 282 0023. 

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