Russell Malone Quarter
The free music festival that began in 2008 continues to bring out music lovers to enjoy big-name headliners each year.
Raphael Semmes has been a familiar face in music circles in the Jackson area for decades. The Grenada native and recipient of the 2021 Governor’s Arts Award for “Cultural Ambassador,” Raphael plays with his band, The Raphael Semmes Quartet, at Hal & Mal’s in Jackson every Tuesday night, at the monthly jazz event at Fusion Coffee House in Ridgeland, as well as special events around town.
When Tripp Douglass opened Fusion Coffee House in the Township at Colony Park in Ridgeland, he worked with the late Michael Barranco, a local musician and architect, on the design of the space. The idea was always to have live music in the shop, and when Raphael first saw the big red circle painted on the floor near Fusion’s front windows, he declared it “the Jazz Spot.”
Raphael has coordinated music monthly for the spot since the early 2000s. The jazz events draw music lovers to Fusion for coffee, tea and tunes. After three years of hosting the top-notch live jazz sessions, Raphael and Tripp cooked up the idea of taking the music “out of the box.” It took a couple of years to get the Jazz Festival off the ground, until Kerioth Corporation (the developer of the Township) provided the financial support needed to produce the event. The support of dozens of local sponsors followed.
“Our formula is simple,” says Raphael. “Offer a full spectrum of jazz artists, from national recording artists to up-and-coming professionals, and even student musicians, in a clean, safe environment, all for the low-low price of…free!”
Thanks to corporate sponsors, including the title sponsor, Morgan White Group, folks can come listen to an entire days’ worth of first-class music at no charge.
The first Jazz Festival was held in May 2008, with over a thousand people in attendance. The crowds have grown each year as the festival has attracted big-name headliners including Mose Allison, Jason Marsalis, Delfeayo Marsalis, Ezra Brown, Astral Project, Benny Golson, Eddie Henderson, and Nicholas Payton.
The secret to the event’s longevity, according to Tripp, is that it is free.
“It’s a different type of event,” he says. “We set out to create a good, family-friendly event. We aren’t event promoters. We aren’t out there trying to sell tickets. Thanks to our sponsors, we are able to provide something positive for the community. Raphael and I love doing it. We love the music, and we love the community. It’s such a nice thing to see people, many of whom aren’t big jazz aficionados, there to enjoy the music. People are kind to each other.”
Lisa Palmer, owner of Summerhouse in the Township, was there when the event started.
“Our first year we put up a tent in the parking lot in front of Lisa’s store,” recalls Tripp. “She is an excellent jazz singer, and she performed the first few years of the festival. It’s nice to see our merchants in the Township get involved in the event.”
This year’s Jazz Fest will be held Saturday, April 1 from 11am to 7pm. The family-friendly event is held on the front lawn of the Township, located 1111 Highland Colony Parkway. It’s a rain-or-shine event, although it has been mostly shine during the past 15 years. The stage is situated under a large tent with theatre-style seating. There is plenty of space on the sides of the tent for those who wish to bring blankets and lawn chairs. Pets are welcomed, as well. But coolers and outside food and drink are prohibited. There will be food trucks on site as well as a bar.
The line-up at this year’s Jazz Fest is impressive. The festival will open with the Madison Central High School Jazz Band.
“They were a crowd favorite last year,” says Raphael, who has invited them back this year for an encore.
Next will be The Mississippians, the jazz ensemble from the University of Mississippi under the direction of Dr. Michael Worthy. The Mississippians are celebrating one hundred years as a jazz ensemble.
Next up is the Mississippi National Guard 41st Army Band, also back by popular demand, playing swing music. The Raphael Semmes Quartet will play a set, followed by Mississippi’s premier soul jazz group, The Vamps, led by guitarist Barry Leach.
An afternoon Guitar Summit will feature musicians from Memphis to New Orleans, a natural route for jazz lovers the world over to take when they come to this part of the country. This special set will feature top guitar artists from the Southeast, including the Joe Restivo Trio from Memphis, Barry Leach from Jackson and Russell Welch, a Jackson native who has been a popular musician in New Orleans for many years.
The festival’s highlight will be a performance by The Russell Malone Quartet. Known as one of the top guitarists in the country, Malone was already an accomplished performer in his twenties, playing with Harry Connick, Jr.’s big band, Dianna Krall, Branford Marsalis, Benny Green, Terell Stafford, Ray Brown and others.
The festival will close out on a high note with Mississippi’s favorite big brass band, Southern Komfort Brass Band, who will lead festival goers on a parade around the festival site.
“Raphael does such a great job of putting together a lineup that is varied,” says Tripp. “There really is something for everyone. This music is approachable, and people come back to enjoy it year after year.”
Learn more about Township Jazz Festival here.