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St. Albans celbrates history of jazz with festival

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Sitting under a tree in St. Albans Park Saturday afternoon, the relatives of three jazz legends patiently waited to hear the music they loved.

The women, accustomed to traveling to Europe and South America for jazz festivals, were delighted to have jazz come to their native Queens.

"I've been all around the world many times in the 62 years I was with Milton," said Mona Hinton, the wife of the late jazz musician. "To have a festival at my front door - what can be better than that?"

Mona Hinton was one of hundreds of people who descended on the park at Merrick Boulevard and Sayres Avenue for the first St. Albans Jazz Festival.

The festival was held in honor of the many great jazz musicians who lived in the neighborhood. The event was spearheaded by Carl Clay, the founder and director of the Black Spectrum Theatre.

"This is an idea that has circulated around the community for years and years," Clay said. "We wanted to be a part of making it a reality."

During the heyday of jazz, Queens was home to some of the world's most famous musicians.

Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Benny Goodman are just few of the jazz musicians who made their home in the borough. Most lived in either St. Albans or Corona.

Saturday's event was designed to pay tribute to the jazz legends as well as showcase new talent.

Many who attended called themselves jazz aficionados. Like Hinton, some of those fans were related to the musicians, while others were friends.

Jean Prysock, the wife of the late jazz musician Arthur Prysock, said she often puts on jazz when she volunteers to help the disabled.

"I believe in music in everything I do," she said. "You don't have to be on your feet. You can use your eyes; you can use your head. You've got to sway to the beat of the music."

Prysock joined Hinton and Estella Williams, the daughter of jazz great Fess Williams.

"Everybody knows each other," Prysock said. "It's like a family."

Phil Schaap, curator of jazz at Lincoln Center and music professor at Princeton University, grew up with that family.

At the age of 6, Schaap, a Hollis resident, had already developed a love for jazz and he took it upon himself to introduce himself to the talents in the neighborhood.

"I got lucky," Schaap said. "I got a jazz education that can't possibly be obtained today."

He called St. Albans "the absolute bedroom community of jazz."

"They weren't gigging here - this is where they lived," he said. "And a lot of their descendants are still in the neighborhood."

A range of different music groups entertained the crowd, playing well after the sun set.

One of those groups was The Casey Benjamin Band, making its debut.

Casey Benjamin, the head of the group who was raised in Jamaica, described their music as "eclectic."

"It's a fusion between jazz and rhythm and blues and funk," he said.

Benjamin said modern jazz musicians incorporated the sounds of hip-hop and other music styles into their playing.

"My generation hip-hop is everything," he said. "I'm just taking my influences from the cats I am used to listening to."

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300 Ext. 141.

Posted 7:20 pm, October 10, 2011
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