New Haven's Jazz Legends Get Their Flowers

Elena Unger | November 14th, 2023

New Haven's Jazz Legends Get Their Flowers

Audubon Arts  |  Jazz  |  Music  |  Arts & Culture  |  Neighborhood Music School  |  Arts & Anti-racism


James "Dinky" Johnson,  who owned and ran Dinkie's Jazz Club, with a new bust celebrating his imprint on New Haven jazz history. Coral Ortiz Photos. 

The audience murmured in anticipation as artist Susan Clinard approached the first veiled sculpture. With one swift motion, she tossed the black cloth back, revealing a staggeringly lifelike clay recreation of living jazz legend James “Dinky” Johnson. The crowd roared with cheers of recognition. 

Clinard’s unveiling was one component of  “Living Jazz Legends,” held Saturday night at Neighborhood Music School on Audubon Street. The event honored  New Haven jazz greats Willie Ruff, Houston Person, Jesse “Cheese” Hameen II, Hank Bolden, and James “Dinky” Johnson, all of whom transformed the city’s musical landscape in the last century, and have continued to play and pass the craft on in this one. 

The evening, which received support from the city’s allocation of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to the Department of Arts Culture, and Tourism, included a presentation of sculptures and paintings by Susan Clinard, Jasmine Nikole, and Katro Storm; the screening of a documentary by Iman Hameen, Jesse Hameen’s wife; and a live concert by Houston Person, Jesse Hameen II, and Hank Bolden, with Nat Reeves and Lafayette Harris.



Top: Jesse "Cheese" Hameen. Bottom: The audience included friends, family members, and New Haven arts luminaries like Bill Fluker, Babz Rawls-Ivy, and IfeMichelle Gardin. Coral Ortiz Photos.

Throughout, attendees acknowledged the five men as cultural icons, integral to establishing New Haven as Connecticut’s jazz mecca in the 1960s.

“There was something happening in Bridgeport and Hartford, but New Haven was on top at that time,” Jesse Hameen said with a smile. 

As he took the stage to speak, Hameen recalled his initial hesitance when Clinard asked to sculpt him; he didn’t feel deserving. When he eventually said yes, he insisted that Clinard include other artists in her project. Over the course of a year, Clinard sculpted Hameen, Johnson, who owned Dinkie's Jazz Club, and Bolden. The project grew, and Nikole painted a portrait of Ruff while Katro Storm painted Person.  

“I’m honored. I’m humbled by all these beautiful souls,” Clinard said as she spoke on her experience sculpting. “It’s one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had as an artist.”

The audience experienced that power as they witnessed the commemorative and concretizing effect of Clinard’s work for the first time. People jumped out of their seats, eager to take photos of the living legends sitting before their sculptures. 


Hank Bolden with sculptor Susan Clinard. 

“I don’t think the studio has ever seen so much joy,” Clinard said in reference to Hameen, who at 82 years old was the self-proclaimed “baby of the group.”  

As artists and Neighborhood Music School staff moved the exhibition pieces to the side, the crowd prepared for the second component of the night: a premiere screening of Iman Hameen’s documentary. The film centered on the process of capturing the living legends’ essence in artwork. Taking the stage, Hameen recalled accompanying her husband to Clinard’s studio to watch the sculpting process. 

Originally, she brought in her iPhone with the intention of being a "fly on the wall" and capturing a five-minute video, she later said in an email to the Arts Paper. But as she watched the process, and as the number of jazz legends increased, she felt moved to make a longer work of art.  

"As the list of legends grew and the idea of an exhibition was floated about, I was 'nudged' into including the film in the project, which called for the length of the film to grow," she wrote. 

A hush fell over the audience as Neighborhood Music School Executive Director Noah Bloom brought down a screen and dimmed the lights. For the next 20 or so minutes, the crowd got intimate insights into the military service, artistic journeys, and meaningful friendships the five legends shared. 



Top: Noah Bloom greets Diane X Brown. Bottom: Jesse and Iman Hameen. Coral Ortiz Photos. 

“Long legend, long legend, amen,” shouted a woman in the audience as a close-up of Johnson’s face flashed across the screen. 

As the documentary screen rolled up, Bloom invited audience members to take a five-minute intermission as the musicians prepared for their set. Shortly, a brilliant quartet took the stage: Hameen on the drums, Harris on the keys, Bolden on the sax, and Reeves on the bass. 

The men on stage traded solos as they played the music they have been learning and loving for decades. The low pluck of the bass combined with the rhythmic hit of the cymbal created the perfect backdrop for the saxophone’s wails. Audience members closed their eyes and felt the music resonate within them. Bolden’s last solo got a standing ovation from the entire house. 

“With all the chaos going on in the world, the most important thing for us to do is come together. And there's no better way than taking this moment to spread the love with us and spread the joy that we all need to spread,” said Bloom.



Houston Person with a painting of his likeness by the artist Katro Storm. Coral Ortiz Photos. 

Halfway through the set, Bolden and Person traded places, and the music continued. People in the back row got up to dance, and those seated in front swayed along.

The crooning timbre of the saxophone blended with Hameen’s rhythms and Harris’s scales to create a sound that, at heart, was a distillation of artistic passion. 

“There's a social scientist named Benjamin Barber and he always says, supporting the arts is not an act of philanthropy, but it's an act of ensuring our own existence,” Bloom said. “So we gotta keep doing this.”

To learn more about New Haven's history of jazz, click here, here, and here. Video by Elena Unger.