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Jazz & Poetry Featured on Juneteenth

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

with Jesse Hameen II Jazz Quartet & poets Marilyn Nelston, Kate Rushin, Rhonda Ward & Antoinette Brim-Bell

Witness Stones Old Lyme’s 2023 Juneteenth Celebration of Jazz & Poetry, planned for the lawn of The Side Door jazz club, moved to the Congregational Church on June 17 when rain threatened. The Juneteenth event commemorated the date in 1865 when enslaved Blacks in Texas received long-delayed news of their emancipation. Presented by the Witness Stones Old Lyme Partnership, the program also honored those who lived enslaved in the local community. Words of welcome from Rev. Laura Fitzpatrick Nager, historian Carolyn Wakeman, and Side Door manager Chris Beaudry introduced the celebration.

Band leader and percussionist Jesse Hameen II, age 82 and born in New Haven, used his own family’s history to remind the audience that slavery occurred in the recent past. His inspirational jazz quartet included Rodney Jones on guitar, Zwelakhe Bell Le Pere on bass, and Joe McWilliams on piano. Their rousing interpretations of songs treasured over generations by those enslaved filled the Meetinghouse. A dazzling rendition of Wade in the Water highlighted the musical tribute, with a surprise guest appearance by legendary jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut.

The voices of Old Lyme’s renowned Witness Stones Poets blended with the jazz selections to bring vividly to life the women, men, and children enslaved in this town. The verse tributes by Marilyn Nelson, Kate Rushin, Rhonda Ward, and Antoinette Brim-Bell rely on historical details to convey the everyday experience of Pompey, Temperance, Jack Howard, and others commemorated by Witness Stones plaques on Lyme Street. Brim-Bell, who serves as Connecticut’s 8th Poet Laureate, captured their dignity and humanity as she described Arabella making soap for the town’s first minister and Humphrey preparing for General George Washington’s visit to Lyme in 1776.

The Juneteenth celebration received generous support from The Side Door, the Florence Griswold Museum, and the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme.


Jesse Hameen II
New Haven jazz legend Jesse Hameen II. Photo Jesse Hameen II.

Drummer Jesse Hameen II, born in New Haven, CT, is a musician with a mission to be beneficial to society. Jesse has recorded and performed internationally with countless world-famous Jazz artists during his 60-year career. He is a recipient of the prestigious 2023 Ellington Fellows Award for Jazz Masters from Yale University. Jesse is an educator and Commissioner for Arts and Culture for the City of New Haven. He is an instructor and director of the Neighborhood Music School’s Summer Jazz Program, on the Board of Directors of Jazz Haven, and is involved in other community cultural initiatives.


Poets Antoinette Brim-Bell, Rhonda Ward, Marilyn Nelson, and Kate Rushin at the 2022 Witness Stones Old Lyme Juneteenth Celebration
Poets Antoinette Brim-Bell, Rhonda Ward, Marilyn Nelson, and Kate Rushin at the 2022 Witness Stones Old Lyme Juneteenth Celebration. Photo Frank Poulin.

In 2021 Witness Stones Old Lyme partnered with four distinguished Connecticut poets, Marilyn Nelson, Kate Rushin, Rhonda Ward, and Antoinette Brim-Bell, who created a tribute in verse to those remembered with Lyme Street plaques. The verse cycle was selected for publication in Poetry magazine's November 2021 issue. The poems capture the unheard voices of those once enslaved, bringing to life experiences, attitudes and emotions long ignored and then forgotten. These reflections in verse allow Cato, Humphrey, Temperance, Arabella, and others to speak to us today about their years of servitude in Old Lyme.

Marilyn Nelson, Connecticut's poet laureate from 2001 to 2006, is the award-winning author or translator of more than 20 books and 5 chapbooks of poetry for adults and children, including The Meetinghouse, a verse reflection on the history of Old Lyme's Congregational Church. Born in Cleveland into a military family, she is the daughter of one of the last of the Tuskegee Airmen. Nelson is Professor Emerita at the University of Connecticut.

Antoinette Brim-Bell, Connecticut’s 8th State Poet Laureate, is the author of three full-length poetry collections: These Women You Gave Me, Icarus in Love, and Psalm of the Sunflower. She is a Cave Canem Foundation Fellow and an alumna of Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation. A prolific writer, collage artist, educator, and speaker, she is a Professor of English at Capital Community College.

Kate Rushin is the award-winning author of The Black Back-Ups and “The Bridge Poem.” Her work is widely anthologized and is included in African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song. Her ancestors escaped bondage on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and took the free name Arthur. They joined the community of Snow Hill, later called Lawnside, the first incorporated African-American town in New Jersey. Rushin is Professor of English and Poet in Residence at Connecticut College, New London, CT.

Rhonda M. Ward served as the inaugural Poet Laureate for the City of New London from 2017 to 2021. Her poems have appeared most recently in Poetry, Connecticut Woodlands, Cape Cod Quarterly, and online at the Academy of American Poets' Poem-a-Day Project. She co-hosts the annual Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading.

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