Anyone who frequents the local music scene knows that we are blessed with extraordinary talent. Preston Jackson, Judy Page, and Breanna Thomas are just a few of the artists who have kept Jazz alive in Central Illinois. Someone else who should be on our radar hails from Galesburg and has been swinging for more than 40 years. Semenya McCord is a Jazz legend, and recently I had the opportunity to see her perform with a dynamic quartet and small chorus at Knox College.
“We are cultural preservationists”, she reminded one of the band members as they prepared to take to the stage at the Kresge Recital Hall. The program was entitled ‘A Love Supreme, The Spiritual Face of Jazz’, and featured songs by Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, and Horace Silver. It didn’t surprise me when I learned that McCord is not only a Jazz Singer but a Minister as well.
“There were many Jazz artists who took a deeper approach to music and worked to invoke consciousness and spirituality in their work”, she said. “The songs of our Ancestors compel us to learn from, preserve, and share them. They are still relevant today.”
Up to the task were bassist Andy Crawford, drummer Wes Julien, percussionist/storyteller Garry Moore and pianist Frank Wilkins, who McCord played with during the time she lived in Boston. “I learned Jazz from my father. He was a fairly successful Jazz Guitarist who played the chitlin’ circuit and other venues back in the day. My mother may not have approved, but I kept my spiritual foundation.” Not only did she keep her foundation, Semenya worked it into her music with a smooth empathetic voice and emotional phrasing that rode the waves of Wilkins brilliant keyboarding.
“Semenya is special,” said Wilkins who makes it a point to stop in Galesburg whenever he can to reconnect with McCord. “Whatever she has going on, we all want to be a part of it.”
As an audience member, I’m glad I was a part of it! It was a Jazz Church, where we learned that Come Sunday (Ellington), we can experience A Love Supreme (Coltrane) with Seven Steps to Heaven (Davis) and find Peace (Silver), knowing that God bless(es) the Child Whose Got ‘their’ Own (Herzog, Holiday).
LaFelda Jones is a Peoria-based Educator, Radio Announcer and Travel Writer