Merlene Davis: Jazz concert to help First African Foundation purchase church

LaVon Williams' art, commissioned by the First African Foundation, will be given to the first two recipients of the William E. Thomas Music Awards: Clarence "Duke" Madison and William B. Ray.
LaVon Williams' art, commissioned by the First African Foundation, will be given to the first two recipients of the William E. Thomas Music Awards: Clarence "Duke" Madison and William B. Ray. Herald-Leader

Instead of the traditional wood or acrylic plaque or inscribed keepsake, the board members for First African Foundation commissioned sculptor LaVon Williams to fashion pieces of art to commemorate the first William E. Thomas Music Awards.

"We wanted to give the recipients something different," said Jim Embry, foundation board member who is in charge of Deep Roots Tall Trees, a benefit jazz concert at the Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center, during which the awards will be given.

"So we reached out to LaVon Williams," Embry said.

The awards will be given annually to one living and one deceased Lexington musical artist with stellar careers. This year's recipients are the late jazz saxophonist Clarence "Duke" Madison and opera singer William B. Ray.

Madison's award, which will be presented to his widow and son, is a wooden sculpture of a man playing a sax. Ray's is of a man singing, and he is scheduled to be on hand to receive it.

But what would music awards be without music?

Surrounding the presentations will be a concert featuring musicians who got started in Lexington, including jazz pianist Kevin Harris and the popular quartet Charlette's Web.

Originally, jazz trumpet player Michael Cruse, also a Lexington native, was scheduled to perform, but he won a role in the upcoming film Miles Ahead, directed by and starring actor Don Cheadle, which has started production. It focuses on five years in the life of jazz icon Miles Davis. The movie is being filmed in Cincinnati where Cruse is in his third year at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.

Although he is disappointed in the cancellation, Embry said, "Those experiences are what we want young people to do. ... We hope we can host the movie at the Lyric."

But Harris is no slouch when it comes to jazz, and the women of Charlette's Web have been performing for nearly four decades.

Charlette Thompson said her daughter Danielle Easley joined the group this year when Ramona Thompson retired.

"She has been wanting to be a part of the group since she was young," Charlette Thompson said. Easley recently released her first CD, Amazing.

Harris graduated from Bryan Station High School and Morehead State University before earning a master's degree from the New England Conservatory in Boston.

He teaches piano, jazz ensemble, summer theory classes and piano labs at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

During a benefit concert last year at which Harris performed for the foundation, people had to be turned away.

"It was standing room only," Embry said. "There were about 20 people in the lobby (of the Downtown Library) and we had to lock the doors.

"This year we decided to take it to the Lyric," he said.

Proceeds from the concert will help the foundation purchase the former First African Baptist Church building at Short and Deweese streets, an effort started by William Thomas for whom the awards are named. Thomas was a former cellist and conductor, and former chair of the music department at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

The building, where Thomas attended church as a child, was constructed and paid for by slaves in the 1850s.

The foundation plans to renovate the building, which is currently the home of Central Christian Child Care Center, to house a 300-350-seat concert hall, space for rehearsals and music education, and exhibit areas.

"If there is any building in Lexington that we ought to be thinking about preserving, this is the one," Embry said.