Jimmy "Mr. Jazz" Fleenor has played traditional jazz and blues for 71 years throughout Southwest Virginia, Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina.
At age 86, Fleenor continues to faithfully and tirelessly carry the torch for the preservation of, appreciation for and continued exposure to true jazz music, a uniquely American art form. A resident of Abingdon, Va., Fleenor often teaches "Jazz Revisited" classes in the College for Older Adults program at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center and, in addition to performing "paid gigs," has continually volunteered to play for community programs and senior centers.
In 2006 Milligan College hosted a tribute to "The Statesmen of Jazz" - Fleenor and two longtime friends, Charles Goodwin (keyboard) and Bill Gamble (saxophone), both of Kingsport, Tenn.
"These musicians are the 'statesmen of jazz' for our region," says Rick Simerly, a renowned jazz trombonist and associate professor of music at Milligan College, who frequently plays with Fleenor and the other "statesmen." "Because of the influence of these three gentlemen, America's only true art form has enjoyed a high degree of popularity in an area best known for bluegrass and country music. Through their performances and collaborations with nationally recognized jazz artists, they are largely responsible for the early exposure of jazz and the proliferation of this musical genre in our area. As long as I can remember, jazz has always had an audience and somewhat of a following in this region. [Fleenor and friends] were some of the first musicians to secure that following."
The tribute concert featured selections from the libraries of Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Tito Puente, Horace Silver and Sonny Rollins. Among Fleenor's personal musical idols and influences are jazz greats Pee Wee Russell, Edmond Hall, Irving Fazola, Ben Webster, Kenny Davern and Zoot Sims.
When he was 12 years old, Fleenor was listening to late night jazz on the radio and by age 13 began collecting jazz records. He joined the first William King High School Band in 1940, knowing he wanted to play the clarinet. Over the years Fleenor has played tenor sax and flute, but the clarinet is still his favorite.
The day after his high school graduation in 1944, Fleenor took his horn along with him when he went into the Navy and played with various groups. Returning from service, he attended college in North Carolina where he formed a quintet called The Moonliters, performing in the Raleigh-Durham area. When he returned home to Abingdon, he formed The Highland Quintet, now known as the Highlands All-Stars, which has been performing in our area for more than 45 years.
In 1968 Fleenor was asked to form a jazz band to play on the lawn of Abingdon's historic Martha Washington Inn at the conclusion of a luncheon. The performance was so well-received that the band was asked to play for that year's Virginia Highlands Festival and every year since.
The popularity of these performances gave birth to a separate Highlands Jazz Festival in 2001, and the 2005 Jazz Festival was dedicated to Fleenor, who regularly served on the board of directors, advising on choices for future events as well as playing in the concerts, both as a soloist and in ensembles.
In 2005, Fleenor also received three honors for his contributions to the field of music: Instrumentalist Magazine presented him with the prestigious Woody Herman Jazz Award; a certificate of excellence from the Black's Fort Chapter of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution; and a key to the Town of Abingdon. That same year, an article in the Potomac River Jazz Club newsletter proclaimed "that Dixieland jazz flourishes in this unlikely locale [the Appalachian Mountains] owes itself to one man - clarinetist James E. Fleenor."
Fleenor also plays with Bristol's Dixieland Band. Longtime member Dr. Jack Butterworth says Fleenor has been the featured soloist for two decades: "He has served as the primary attraction for the group, taught style and manner to the members, and is loved by each member and held in high respect for his music ability and his genuine fondness and respect for his fellow man."
Rick Simerly adds, "Jimmy is one of the finest persons I know. He can swing with the best of them and his solos always sound 'happy.' I don't know anyone on the planet who enjoys playing music any more than he does. [When I visited Jimmy in Abingdon] I recall seeing pictures of him with Louis Armstrong, Scott Hamilton, Milt Hinton, and a lot of jazz legends. Jimmy would never show you those photos because he's too modest, but he has certainly been associated with many jazz greats. However, his greatest quality is the fact that he is such a warm, caring individual, and you hear that quality come out of his horn every time he plays."
Charles Goodwin says, "Jimmy and I go back at least 50 years, and we have played together many, many times. For the last several years, both [my son] Fred and I have played for Jimmy at the Virginia Highlands Festival in Abingdon, and plan to do the same this year. When my 'big band' did a concert with the Symphony of the Mountains in Abingdon, sitting on the front row was Jimmy. Besides being a super musician, Jimmy is a loyal, forever friend, and we will probably work together until our last breath." (To read a story about Goodwin, visit www.artsmagazine.info)
Eddie Dalton, adjunct faculty at Milligan College and a percussionist who plays with several bands, says, "I feel honored to have been able to play music with such a great musician. I have been playing with Jimmy and his Highlands All-Stars at the Virginia Highlands Festival for more than 15 years. This is one job I can honestly say I look forward to each year. Even though we only play for an hour, it is definitely an enjoyable experience.
"Jimmy has always been very open and willing to share his experiences with anyone who will listen. He is always willing to share any aspect of his career to help another player. Jimmy has a wealth of knowledge dating back to the infancy of jazz. Whether we are performing on stage, in a classroom as a concert lecture, or just waiting to perform, I always leave a conversation with Jimmy saying to myself, 'I didn't know that.' And when it comes to song selections, I never know what Jimmy is going to come up with next. Each time we play together, he always comes up with a tune that I have never heard. He is a virtual encyclopedia of jazz music."
• Next Performance - Look for Fleenor and his Highlands All-Stars at the 2011 Virginia Highlands Festival on July 24 at 5:30 p.m.
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