Fort Mose plans major jazz and blues series

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Some of the biggest names in jazz and blues will perform on the grounds of Fort Mose over a three-week period in February in an event that will honor the site’s history and celebrate its cultural significance.

The event will also help local preservationists reach their fundraising goal for the construction of a representational fort at the historic state park.

The inaugural Fort Mose Jazz & Blues Series will be held Feb. 11-25. The lineup includes two-time Grammy Award-winning jazz artist Gregory Porter, two-time Grammy Award-winning blues musician Taj Mahal, seven-time Grammy Award-winning jazz bassist Christian McBride, the legendary 18-time Grammy Award-winning Count Basie Orchestra, breakout Americana and roots singer-songwriter Amythyst Kiah and New Orleans’ deep-groove R&B and jazz group Tank and the Bangas.

One of the organizers for the event, St. Johns County Cultural Events Division General Manager Gabriel Pellicer, said he was surprised when he learned that a lot of the artists already knew about Fort Mose.

He quoted Scotty Barnhart, director of the Count Basie Orchestra:

“Fort Mose is one of the most important places in American history, and especially African-American history. It represents the ideals of freedom, democracy and the aspirations of people to live their lives fully and to participate in a society with all rights and privileges afforded to them as equal human beings.”

The idea for the series began last year during the lockdown for the pandemic. Pellicer asked St. Augustine Distillery CEO and co-founder Philip McDaniel if he would support a jazz and blues event. McDaniel readily agreed. Pellicer spoke with representatives of the Fort Mose Historical Society about holding such an event on the grounds of the historic park, and the series was born.

“St. Augustine Distillery is dedicated to helping local cultural organizations like Fort Mose flourish and tell their story to a growing audience,” said McDaniel. “This concert series presents a unique opportunity to share their message and celebrate America’s most beloved jazz and blues artists on the grounds of one of the country’s most important historical sites.”

“Being on site at Fort Mose really provides you with a sense of how special this place really is, and the performing artists shared the same enthusiasm,” said Pellicer. “This series will not only provide our community with exceptional live performances, but it will also highlight the site’s historical significance. We’re very much looking forward to February.”

February, appropriate enough, is Black History Month.

Fort Mose is the site of the first legally sanctioned free African settlement in what is now the United States.

Its beginnings go all the way back to an edict issued in 1693 by the king of Spain granting African slaves freedom in Florida if they became Catholic and joined the militia.

“It was a beacon of hope,” said Fort Mose reenactor James Bullock, who portrays militia member Francisco Menendez at the site.

Fort Mose was established by the Spanish governor of Florida in 1738, and an estimated 100 Africans made it their home and sanctuary in seeking liberation from English enslavement in the New World.

In 1994, Fort Mose was designated a historic national landmark and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But visitors seeing the site for the first time always ask, “Where’s the fort?”

Unfortunately, that structure was destroyed during the Battle of Bloody Mose in 1740. But now, the Fort Mose Historical Society, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is working to construct a full-sized, onsite representation of the fort. Proceeds from the jazz and blues festival will support that project, as well as development of additional interpretive resources.

But beyond the fundraising aspect, the series will further highlight the significance of Fort Mose.

“We hope that the Jazz and Blues Series coming up will assist us in helping to tell the story,” said Thomas Jackson, vice president of the Fort Mose Historical Society and a founding member.

And beyond the site’s history, society President Charles E. Ellis sees its relevance in current times.

“The Fort Mose Historical Society believes sharing this amazing and powerful story is a way to help heal the lingering racial divide in our nation today,” he said.

He expressed gratitude for the widespread support in telling the story of Fort Mose.

The site “celebrates the courage, initiative and ingenuity of the Mose founders who risked everything in order to be free,” he said.

The recent announcement of the series attracted a large group of interested local residents, including Gigi Best Richardson who, with husband Skip Richardson, runs a new cultural establishment in downtown St. Augustine, the Best Richardson African Diaspora Literature & Culture Museum.

The Fort Mose Jazz and Blues Series is being produced by the St. Johns County Cultural Events Division with support from St. Johns County Tourist Development Council, St. Augustine Distillery, St. Johns Cultural Council, Fort Mose Historic Society and Flying Saucer Presents.

Tickets for the series are available now at The St. Augustine Amphitheater box office and online at Ticketmaster.com and discoverfortmose.com.

For the latest developments on the series and its lineup, go to discoverfortmose.com.

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