Las Cruces Celebrates the New Mexico Juneteenth Jazz Arts Festival -

One of America’s newest national holidays with a long history falls in June as an official celebration of community, showcasing the power of jazz, history, and Black Movements. To kick off this weekend, the Branigan Cultural Center and New Mexico Music Commissioner Derrick Lee team up for the opening concert of the New Mexico Juneteenth Jazz Arts Festival. Presented at the Rio Grande Theatre in Las Cruces, on Friday, June 16, from 6 – 9 p.m., the kick-off event is free and open to the public.

Jazz Masters Return

Now in its third year, the New Mexico Juneteenth Jazz Arts Festival continues to use music to bring awareness and compassion to the ongoing struggle of our Black brothers and sisters. Slated to perform during the kick-off of the festival on Friday evening are Jazz favorites the Colin McAllister Group, from Colorado, and the Billy Townes Group, from El Paso. Both are renowned for their mastery and innovative treatments of the form, from unforgettable standards to freshly composed masterworks.

A dedicated performer of contemporary repertoire, Colin McAllister’s performances as a guitarist and conductor have been hailed as “sparkling . . . delivered superbly,” by the San Francisco Chronicle, “ravishing,” by the San Diego Union-Tribune, and “an amazing tour de force,” by the San Diego Story.

El Paso’s own multi-talented composer and keyboardist Billy Townes celebrates 35 years of innovative, funky, and ever-evolving musical vibrations, which have been called “spirited, graceful, and melodic,” by Jazziz Magazine, “innovative and sophisticated,” by the El Paso Times, and “contemporary jazz perfection,” by Backstage Pass.

Festival organizer and New Mexico Music Commissioner Derrick Lee explains that “this music is rooted in the traditions of improvisational expression, storytelling, and community, and has a rich history that has shaped our nation. This music is alive, and as it evolves, it continues to evolve us. Jazz history is Black history. Jazz history is American history.”

Continuing the Celebration

Continuing the weekend will be a full slate of events, including a Saturday morning performance on June 17 by Lush Life Quintet at the Branigan Cultural Center, from 10 a.m. to noon. An NAACP Banquet will be held at the Las Cruces Convention Center at 6 p.m., June 17, featuring music by the Derrick Lee Group and an appearance by New Mexico Senator Harold Pope Jr. Following that event, a concert will be given at the ASNMSU Center for the Arts, from 7 to 9:30 p.m., by legendary Jazz bassist Nat Reeves and friends.

Monday wraps things up with a Nat Reeves clinic and Q&A at the NMSU Atkinson Recital Hall, from 1 – 2:30 p.m. The master musician will then take the same stage again, for another Nat Reeves and Friends concert from 7 to 9 p.m.

For those who value a historical perspective with their music, The Branigan Cultural Center will host a free presentation on the history of Juneteenth by Roy Collins III, General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer of New Mexico State University, on Thursday, June 15, starting at 12 p.m. Part of the Center’s Pull Up A Chair series, this is a valuable way to learn about the impact of the Juneteenth holiday and how it is a celebration of not only one day, but an important era in history, from a Galveston native.

About Juneteenth

Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865, the 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery in our country. But it was from the reading of General Order Number 3, by General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, that the observance of that date as Emancipation Day (initially issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863) became a tradition commemorating African American freedom and emphasizing education and achievement.

Though originally celebrated among friends and families, where food, games, and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation were integral elements, some cities began holding larger events, including parades and festivals, to commemorate the date. Juneteenth officially became a federal holiday when President Joe Biden signed it into law on June 17, 2021. One hundred and fifty-eight years later, the celebration continues!

For more information on The New Mexico Juneteenth Jazz Arts Festival, visit the website.

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