COVID-19 pandemic. While not known as a happening scene, the Universal Temple of the Arts has annually presented some of the best jazz in the city, now celebrating its 33rd year.

This year’s JAZZ festival will feature an assorted canvas of jazz hues from the bold edge of Nikara Presents Black Wall Street; the ignited fire of Winard Harper & Jeli Posse; straight-ahead with Canadian trumpeter and vocalist Bria Skonberg; melodic beats of the African diaspora The Leopoldo F. Fleming Afro Caribbean Ensemble (longtime percussionist for Nina Simone); some stride piano from pianist/composer Danny Mixon & Antoinette Montague sings fiery blues; Dal Segno Trio with trumpeter Michael Morreale and the soul jazz master saxophonist Houston Person and leader/drummer Darrell Smith; and The Universal Temple of the Arts Jazz Ensemble led by Dr. Darrell Smith with vocalist Jeannine Otis, saxophonist Sylvester Scott and rounded out with local jazz talent. Hosted by WBGO radio host Sheila Anderson. The festival will take place at the St. George Theatre at 35 Hyatt Street, in Staten Island from 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.

The JAZZ festival under the auspices of the Universal Temple of the Arts (UTA), a non-profit organization providing cultural programs to Staten Islanders for more than 50 years, will celebrate the life of Sajda Musawwir Ladner, the former executive artistic director and founder of the Staten Island JAZZ Festival, who transitioned in 2021.

Under Ladner’s three-decade leadership, the JAZZ Festival featured the Afrofuturism pioneer bandleader, composer Sun Ra Arkestra, NEA Jazz Masters: Reggie Workman, Barry Harris, Randy Weston and Kenny Barron as well as Staten Island’s own talented musicians. Ladner, who grew up in Harlem before moving to Staten Island, believed that audiences of all ages should experience jazz in all its glory and presented educational workshops and forums taught by prominent scholars, visual artists, dancers and poets. Many of these artistic programs taught to Staten Island students began in 1967 when the artist Maurice Phillips founded The Universal Temple of the Arts with founding members Andrea Phillips, Sajda Musawwir Ladner, Sheila Rohan (Dance Theater of Harlem dancer), artist and musician Edward Ladner and Asheber Hicks. These early programs and a love for the music led to Ladner’s founding of the JAZZ festival. “Maurice and my parents along with the founding members wanted to ensure Black people of Staten Island an opportunity to become actively involved in the creative arts and related educational programs,” said Artistic Executive Director I.A Rashida Ladner-Seward. Similar to the Black arts programs of the 1960s by Amiri Baraka in Newark and Harlem’s Jazzmobile founded by Dr. Billy Taylor.

The art of Romare Bearden has been used to promote seven Staten Island JAZZ Festivals, thanks to the late Nannette Rohan-Bearden, who was a supporter of the organization and sister-in-law of Romare Bearden.
In addition to her work with UTA, Ladner worked extensively with young people as a cultural enrichment specialist. She was on the staff of Doing Art Together at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1995-2006 and was a longtime art educator with the Staten Island Museum.

Ladner was a fashion/costume designer and owned a boutique, Saadia Fine Art Fashions. She created costumes for such dance companies as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Repertory and The Nanette Bearden Contemporary Dance Theatre, where she served as resident costume designer and wardrobe mistress from 1977-1996. In her multifaceted career, she was a professional dancer, specializing in jazz improvisation. As a member of the On the Rock Dance Theater, UTA’s resident dance company, she served as a mentor and instructor to younger dance students.
The organization has stayed true to its mission of providing free afterschool programs offering community workshops, dance and instrumental instructions, visual arts and sewing at various schools and churches. Prior to COVID-19 pandemic, UTA had an arts and education residency at the local public schools. In 1990 UTA purchased a building (425 Jersey Street) which is in need of renovation that they are currently discussing with architects. They are cautiously returning to schools with the ongoing regulations set by the CDC.

“I am glad to have worked with my mom to help keep the tradition of UTA and her legacy alive,” stated Ladner-Seward. “I worked with the organization for the last 15 years and have intimate knowledge of its direction. I am looking to see us grow to a higher level and continue the legacy of my mother.”

For more information or tickets visit the website utasi.org or info@uta.org. General admission tickets are $35.

After relocating to Harlem from California, the vocalist Melba Joyce was looking for a worthwhile project that would propel the community’s interest. “New York City and Harlem had everything but I noticed there were no jazz festivals that highlighted the talent of Black women jazz singers and musicians,” noted Joyce. “In 1992 I presented my idea to the chief of the Schomburg Center for Culture in Black Research, Howard Dodson. He liked my idea and the Schomburg became home to the Women’s Jazz Festival. We became partners with the Center and they have supported us all these years.”

In its 30-year span the festival has become the shining beacon in celebrating Black women in jazz. For this Women’s History Month the festival will continue its inspiring tradition of presenting an array of performances from established to emerging artists, who combine straight ahead jazz with the ancestral soul of the African diaspora from March 7, 8, 14 and 21.

On March 14, clap your hands pat your feet or feel the tears roll down your cheek at the sweet bold sounds of vocalists Renée Neufville and Laurin Talese, is it jazz straight up soul or just good Black music.

The Women’s Jazz Festival comes to a finale on March 21 with a “Salute to Black Women Composers” featuring bassist/composer and band leader Endea Owens.

“We have some great singers this year and over the years the talent of these exceptional young women has escalated to unexpected heights,” explained Joyce during a recent phone interview from her home in California. During the early years of the festival Joyce invited her fellow jazz musicians to perform such as alto saxophonist and vocalist Elvira “Vi” Redd, who performed with Count Basie and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the veteran elder-states-woman is 93 years of age, living in California; pianist and vocalist Dorothy Donegan, a protégé of Art Tatum and was known for her flamboyant style, playing stride piano and boogie woogie; trumpeter Cora Bryant and vocalist Carrie Smith.

Joyce is a self-taught vocalist learning a lot from her father Melvin Moore, who was a jazz singer (inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame). “I inherited my father’s style,” said Joyce. During her six-decade career, she has toured 60 countries including a stint with the Count Basie Orchestra, she says performing with a band of 19 men could be inconvenient at times. Her daughter Carmen Bradford is currently the vocalist for the Count Basie Orchestra under its director Scotty Barnhart.

“My most memorable gig was sitting in with Louis Armstrong: after hearing I was a singer, he invited me to the stage. He liked me so much I sang for the second set,” she recalled with laughter. “He later asked me to go on the road with him but at the time I had a nine-month old and twin boys. People thought I was crazy not to accept his offer but I couldn’t leave my babies.”

After living for years in Harlem, a few months ago she moved back to California where she is currently working on a CD. She is deciding if it will be released on her six-year independent label Barachah Records. Since returning to California she has connected with her good friend and fellow jazz vocalist Barbara Morrison, who founded the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center in South Los Angeles. Joyce will be involved in instructing young students in vocal and jazz history classes.

“My idea for the festival was to keep jazz singing alive while introducing Black female jazz musicians,” said Joyce. “Now, it has become an institution; I am so grateful to the Schomburg Center for keeping it going and supporting me during these 30 years.”

All concerts will be held at Schomburg 515 Lenox Avenue. For more information and tickets visit jazzmobile.org

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