“Unsung Heroes” Get Their Due At NXTHVN

Marie Sanford | February 14th, 2023

“Unsung Heroes” Get Their Due At NXTHVN

Black History Month  |  Culture & Community  |  Jazz  |  Music  |  NXTHVN  |  Arts & Culture


Ryan Sands, William Frank Mitchell, and Jesse Hameen II. Delores Greenlee, the daughter of Monterey owner and proprietor Rufus Greenlee, joined virtually. Marie Sanford Photos.

Jazz clubs may no longer line Dixwell Avenue, but the heart of jazz in New Haven is far from dead. And as another generation takes up the tradition, it’s not going anywhere.  

That takeaway was one of many last Thursday night, as over 100 New Haveners gathered at NXTHVN for a screening of Rebecca Abbott’s Unsung Heroes: The Music of Jazz in New Haven. As attendees poured wine and scooped cheese and salami onto paper plates, the room hummed with anticipation. By the time Programs Manager Victoria McCraven called for people to settle down, all seats were filled. 

In attendance were parents with their young children, New Haven musicians old and young, and several seasoned artists who likely knew many of the documentary’s subjects firsthand. Many spilled over into the built-in auditory seating in the hall.  

"It’s pivotal that New Haven’s music history is uplifted and put on the world stage,” said McCraven in a comment after the screening. “When people think of jazz they don’t necessarily think of New Haven, but this city and in particular the Dixwell neighborhood has such a rich music history, from its bandstands and jazz clubs to modern-day performances and jam sessions. One of the best ways to understand a place is to celebrate its artists and view its history through the lens of the arts, and Unsung Heroes does just that."


NXTHVN Programs Manager Victoria McCraven. Marie Sanford Photos.

Unsung Heroes tells the story of New Haven’s African American community and thriving jazz scene from the turn of the 19th century into the present day. The film opens with a tribute to Bobby and Eddy Buster, two local musicians and mentors famous for jazz organ, before delving into the history of jazz’s rise in New Haven.

As the film outlines, there was always a small Black community in New Haven, but the first World War brought industry and jobs to the city that spurred a large wave of Black migration from the American South. With many in the Dixwell and historic Oak Street neighborhoods working morning, swing, and night shifts at the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, jazz clubs became a central fixture of urban living. 

For men working long and hard shifts, music was “nurturing” and as one interviewee said, could soothe “a savage beast.”

Concurrently, big band jazz—and later bebop—was exploding around the country. Positioned between New York City and Boston, New Haven became a common stopping point for famous musicians such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny “Hammond” Smith and Billie Holiday, to name a few. These musicians played clubs up and down Dixwell Avenue, including the Golden Gate, Dinkie’s Jazz Club, The Democratic Club, The Musicians’ Club, and most famously, The Monterey

New Haveners weren’t just drawn to big names; they also were formidable musicians in their own right. As the documentary rolled Thursday, audience members audibly reacted to seeing footage of the Buster brothers on the screen. Oohs and fingers pointed towards the screen continued as local legends such as Allen “Rubbs” Wilson and Reginald Jackson appeared in the film. 


A capacity crowd (and then some) for the event. Marie Sanford Photos.

“It was great because many of the folks were experts just because they had lived a life and they had been participants,” said William Frank Mitchell, co-writer of the film, in an interview before the event. “There just aren't that many projects you get to do where everybody is an authentic expert and some people are amateur musicians, but even they are authentic experts.”  

The non-hierarchical nature of the interviews recalled an important tenet of jazz itself—musicians are on a sonically level playing field. In the film, Abbot gives equal if not more airtime to New Haven names over mainstream musicians. In addition, while she notes the segregated musicians unions that kept many great Black musicians from booking gigs, the film also acknowledges that both Black and white musicians made an impact on Dixwell Avenue’s jazz scene. 

As one interviewee said, “In the arts, people relate to what you play.” As long as you could keep up, you were welcome on New Haven’s jazz scene. 

Following the screening, Mitchell welcomed New Haven musicians Jesse Hameen II and Ryan Sands as well as Delores Greenlee, the daughter of Monterey owner and proprietor Rufus Greenlee, for a panel discussion. Hameen is a prolific New Haven drummer who recently won the prestigious Ellington Award, and Sands is a former student of his and now a formidable drummer in his own right.

Instead of a hyper-academic discussion on the history of jazz, the panelists spent most of their time together honoring New Haven-raised musicians. After Mitchell asked the panelists who they’d like to see receive the Ellington Award, the trio paid homage to both living legends and past musicians whose impact could not go unrecognized—many of whom were featured in the film but are no longer here. 

As names such as Wayne Boyd, Rohn Lawrence, Jeff Fuller, Hank Bolden, Wayne Escoffery, and Sands’ older brother, the jazz pianist Christian Sands, rang out, the audience applauded for their friends, mentors, and musical inspirations. 

Later, the panel morphed into a forum as panelists and audience members alike discussed how to continue the legacy of jazz in New Haven today. Particularly important to audience members was how to expose New Haven youth to jazz. 

Hameen spoke to resources in New Haven that already exist: an all-ages summer band camp at the Neighborhood Music School, programs in select public schools, and the ability of parents to play jazz at home for their kids. 


Victoria McCraven, Ryan Sands, William Frank Mitchell, and Jesse Hameen II.

Hameen also stressed the importance of New Haven players giving back to their community. Sitting forward in his seat with his hands splayed over his chest, he told the audience, “I give everything I have to my students.” Sands echoed this, telling his fellow musicians to always engage young kids they see at gigs. 

Marcella Monk Flake, a longtime educator and founder of Monk Youth Jazz and STEAM Collective, Inc., pointed to jazz programming for youth at the Trowbridge Environmental Center in East Rock. There are programs for kids as young as nine years old, she said. Monk Flake also leads a STEAM summer learning program at Davis Street School each summer, in which jazz music is a woven into the curriculum. 

Patricia Escoffery, mother of Wayne Escoffery, spoke to the importance of encouragement. When Wayne was younger, she said, she wanted him to be a lawyer or a doctor. When she realized how serious he was about his craft, she wholeheartedly supported his tutelage in saxophone. 

Musicians may stay in your house a bit longer, she said to audience laughter, but if parents and mentors support them, they can make it.

Speakers also pointed to the future of the Monterey Club, which the city bought from mega landlord Ocean Management in a $1.3 million deal last month. Greenlee said she hopes that the site remains a jazz venue; Hameen suggested using the site as housing for jazz musicians. There is currently very little subsidized housing for artists in the city. 

Hameen also emphasized the importance of a “for us, by us” mentality, saying he didn’t “want to see us be observers and consumers” when it comes to Black New Haven institutions. Conversations around the future of The Monterey have been ongoing; as proceedings continue to unfold, Greenlee implored residents to make sure their voices are heard. 

Overall, the evening was both informative and generative. 

“[Unsung Heroes] does suggest that there's an opportunity to reimagine how we make culture and to kind of privilege and chase the more intimate to the extent that you can…be in a room with people that's tightly packed, breathing their breath,” said Mitchell. “There was something important about that and the ways that it helped to build neighborhoods and that it made people connected.”