By all means, look behind the curtain. The Mystic Order of the Jazz Obsessed’s Jazzalea Awards honor behind-the-scenes personnel who make stage magic possible.
The 2016 award went to entertainment reporter Lawrence Specker, whose work magnified Azalea City jazz for more than 20 years. Bob Spielmann’s numerous decades of service in various jazz organizations earned him the 2017 award.
This year’s Jazzalea goes to J.C. McAleer III, Mobile Jazz Festival founding member and initial executive director. He guided the event from its 1965 birth, then handed the reins to Spielmann in the late 1980s.
McAleer was executive director of the Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees) in the mid 1960s when “dear, dear friend” Autry Greer proposed the festival. The Jaycees had a full plate already.
“They said we just can’t take on another project,” McAleer recalled. “In the 1960s they had the Azalea Trail, just started the Junior Miss Pageant, Greater Gulf State Fair, Soap Box Derby and the Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, all with volunteer help.”
So, Greer and a handful of others made the festival its own entity. McAleer’s term at the Jaycees’ helm was over, so he jumped into the new event.
According to an Oct. 16, 1966, article in Billboard magazine, a call was issued to 800 colleges and universities seeking applicants for the inaugural event to take place April 2-3, 1966. Spring Hill College and the University of South Alabama were named as sponsors, with the finals slated for ABC radio network coverage.
The national advisory board included such names as Pete Fountain, Dave Brubeck, Al Hirt, Cal Tjader and Henry Mancini. The article stated the 1966 budget was $36,000 and the projected 1967 budget $134,000.
“Our funding came from the city and county primarily, the local and state arts councils. Eventually we made a contact with the National Endowment for the Arts and got money there,” McAleer said.
Once colleges spread the word, high schools wanted in on the act.
“We would bring in clinicians, studio musicians from New York primarily and acknowledged jazz educators. The total emphasis was education,” McAleer said.
A May 28, 1972, Mobile Press-Register article said about “250 high school stage band musicians from 13 states were expected to participate in the first All-American High School Stage Band Festival, presented by Spring Hill College and the University of South Alabama. Mobile Jazz Festival President J.C. McAleer coordinated the festival.”
The event became famous thanks to one high-energy outfit from Houston. Typical of urban public schools, Kashmere High School optimized slim budgets. When music instructor Conrad “Prof” Johnson arrived in the 1960s, he stirred student enthusiasm by ceding their big-band jazz to inject soul and funk arrangements. Renewed vigor heightened students’ diligence.
“I can see Conrad Johnson like he’s standing in front of me right now. Just a delightful man and you could just see the respect those high school kids had for him,” McAleer said.
Kashmere hit the Azalea City like a hurricane, determined to land the grand prize, a Hammond electric organ.
A 2011 Houston Chronicle article described the final scene: “…the Alabama judges deliberated for more than an hour, dithering, before finally, in a hushed voice, they awarded the national championship to Kashmere: the first black band ever to win it.”
“It just chapped me that race came into things. That didn’t have a thing to do with it. That band was smokin’! The other band was just as good,” McAleer said.
Years later, entertainer Jamie Foxx saw a TV documentary on Kashmere and was inspired to produce a feature film-length version. The resulting testimonial to arts education — “Thunder Soul” — includes the storied Mobile competition.
MOJO will screen “Thunder Soul” on April 19 at 6:30 p.m. in Bernheim Hall at Ben May Public Library (701 Government St.). Entrance is free.
Despite Greer’s protestations, the festival ended the competitive format after 1972. The director of North Texas State’s renowned program advised “it’s art, not sport” and cooperation was key.
“Then kids from all over got together and had a better time when they weren’t competing. We had spontaneous jam sessions and it really changed the whole format,” McAleer said. Mobile Jazz Festival would go on to include top professional acts in public concerts.
McAleer’s award presentation is April 23, 6:30 p.m. at Gulf City Lodge (601 State St.). Theodore Arthur Jr.’s Big Band will play while luminaries and honored guests will fete McAleer.
Entrance is $15, $12 for students/military and $10 for MOJO members. A light jambalaya dinner is included, and a cash bar is available.
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