If “mighty oaks from little acorns grow,” then let’s add one more big thing that grew from something small at the base of a tree. I guess it’s a sign unintended consequences can sometimes be better ones.
The idea started in the summer of 2011 when local star and former Duke Ellington vocalist Lil Greenwood passed away that July. The 87-year-old was treasured by area music fans, and aficionados in the Mystic Order of the Jazz Obsessed (MOJO) wanted to honor Greenwood.
It was decided to dedicate a tree in Greenwood’s honor. As the designated epicenter of the arts district, Cathedral Square seemed the perfect location. It was where the Greater Mobile Art Awards were handed out annually, something Greenwood received in 2007. It was also the locus for the Arts Alive festival, in which Greenwood performed.
Calls were made to the city’s department of Urban Forestry, asking whether MOJO could buy a tree to be planted there for Greenwood. The park’s plans had no room for additional plantings, but they were more than happy to dedicate an existing tree for the purpose, thinking it would create more interest and concern in the trees.
MOJO decided since metal thieves were always a risk, a stone marker would be more secure than a metal plaque. Forestry merely asked that it not interfere with mowers.
A granite stone, roughly 12” by 12” by 3” was acquired by MOJO carved with the words: “This tree dedicated to the memory of Lil Greenwood, Mobile’s First Lady of Jazz and Blues, 1923-2011, The Mystic Order of the Jazz Obsessed.” In the spring of 2013, the Gulf Coast Ethnic and Heritage Jazz Festival asked MOJO to coincide the dedication with the day of an Aug. 3 concert dedicated to Greenwood’s memory.
Parks and Recreation were contacted and they agreed with Urban Forestry. Everything was set.
As MOJO president, I then received a call from an influential Mobilian, someone who once worked for the city but no longer does, though they still carry a lot of weight. They told me they had been part of Cathedral Square’s planning and asked we not place the marker. They feared it would start something that would end with a veritable hodge-podge of markers throughout the square.
They told me there were blank stones in the paved middle portion of the park that were suitable for memorials for anyone who could purchase one and pay for the engraving. I realized they were missing the point, that the reason we wanted to do something extraordinary is because Greenwood’s talent and experience was just that, extraordinary.
The MOJO board was flummoxed. We had gone through the proper channels, had approval from the departments that mattered.
Days later, we were contacted by the mayor’s office. We were told the person who called me also reached out to the mayor’s office to express those same concerns with them. Now, they wanted us to cease our plan.
Apparently someone was indeed seeking to build a somber stone memorial in Cathedral Square dedicated to a violent death. As it was explained, I foresaw a slippery slope, something counterproductive to downtown’s success.
But the mayor’s office, Barbara Drummond to be exact, had another idea sparked by the impasse. What she conceived was a Walk of Fame to be installed in the sidewalk on Joachim Street, outside the Saenger. She put the idea in current Saenger manager Greg Cyprian’s head and he contacted yours truly.
I met Cyprian and pair of city engineers in front of the Saenger within days. We looked at the sidewalk and batted around a few ideas. Within minutes, we were tossing out names for a steering committee and setting times for meetings. We’re kicking this idea along with both feet.
Thus far, the mayor’s office is pushing, too, and wants the Friends of the Saenger to have a prominent role. Representatives from the Downtown Business Alliance, the Mobile Arts Council and other cultural players are included.
Mobile has a host of famous performing artists, most of whom have yet to receive their just due in their hometown. In 2007, this column space listed the musical stars alone and pondered why we didn’t have a local music hall of fame.
As it stands now, each plaque will be cast with the name of a Mobile performing arts great along with a brief description. The aim is for the plaques to eventually stretch in both directions from the Saenger entrance and as the decades pass and more stars are made, to keep expanding it around the block.
The names being batted around for the inaugural plaques are three of the most accomplished musicians Mobile has ever produced. The splash made from the unveiling and accompanying event will be big.
This is one of the best cultural ideas I’ve heard in Mobile in a long, long time. Its permanence, what it will add to public awareness of our stars and the impression it can leave on tourists, is weighty. In fact, I can’t think of a downside to it.
It’s our dream that as long as the Saenger stands, far beyond my life or any of the others involved in this project, the Grand Lady of Mobile venues will remain encircled by a galaxy of stars worthy of her association. And one deserving of our pride.
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