“The African American Musicians Heritage Foundation was formed to recognize the life and legacy of local African-American jazz musicians,” says Hollis Hassell. “It’s a part of the dynamic ministry,” he says, “of the Church of Christ of San Diego.”
Hassell, a drummer and a singer, is 87. He was president of the AAMHF from 2002 to 2009.
Fro Brigham was the first inductee in 2000. “And Walter Fuller…those two,” says Hassell. “And then each year, you know, we select one or more African-American musicians who have displayed ongoing musicianship and leadership in the San Diego community. That person — or persons — is inducted into the Hall of Fame.” Along with the honor, “You get a little trophy,” he says.
This year’s inductees are blues guitarist Tomcat Courtney, Eddie Ellis, and jazz singer Deejha Marie Pope.
“John Kearse,” says Deejha Marie, “called me and said that I was being inducted into the AAMHF, and I was, like, me?”
John Kearse is the Foundation’s acting president and secretary. He is also a deacon at the Church of Christ. He says that the selection process is made via ballots that are sent out to previous inductees as well as area musicians. A panel of AAMHF officers totals the ballots.
“Then, we ask for a bio — who they are, what they did. We take all of that into consideration,” Kearse says, “before we make our decision.”
Lead vocalist in Sue Palmer’s Motel Swing Orchestra for nearly a decade, Pope says her professional career was launched years ago after she and her all-vocal group Pieces sang their way to victory on a now-defunct network television game show.
“We won The Gong Show. I still have the trophy at my house.”
On December 12, Pope, Ellis, and Courtney were inducted in a ceremony at the Elementary Institute of Science in San Diego and joined an artist roster of honorees that includes local luminaries Hollis Gentry, Jimmie and Jeannie Cheatham, Cynthia Hammond, Barbara Jamerson, Charles McPherson, James Moody, Jesse Davis, and dozens more.
“I used to go sit in their audiences,” Pope says, “and just, like, dream of being up onstage with them.… I feel like I’ve accomplished something in my life.”