Skipper Lee Frazier stood in the chapel of the Eternal Rest Funeral Home and glanced at his watch. "It's about time to get started," he said. "I'm just waiting for Lanny to tell me who the first band is." But after 18 years as master of ceremonies at the SumArts gigs that Lanny Steele brought to Houston, Frazier was on his own this time. "Well," he said, "let's make some noise." One by one the musicians rose from their pews and took their places at the foot of the coffin. Drums and upright bass shuffled a rhythm around jazz piano as the trumpet player fitted a copper mute into a chrome horn and wailed a soft, sad goodbye to the man responsible, year after year, for the largest free blues festival in the world.
Lanny Steele -- jazz musician, music teacher, promoter -- passed away after a lengthy illness on October 21. He was 60 years old. Although his first love was jazz -- he was pianist for the late Arnett Cobb, and while at Texas Southern he created the TSU Jazz Ensemble -- the contribution to his hometown that he is most likely to be remembered for is the Juneteenth Blues Festival. This annual commemoration of the liberation of Texas' African-Americans from slavery presented, year after year and always on a shoestring, an astounding array of talent that performed free for the people of Houston and the world. Such artists as Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Milt Larkin, the Sam Brothers, Marcia Ball, Johnny Copeland, Albert Collins and the Icebreakers, Rockin' Dopsie, Buckwheat Zydeco, Albert King, John Lee Hooker, Larry Davis, Lavelle White, Big Walter Price, Koko Taylor, Alex Moore, Taj Mahal, Roomful of Blues, and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown -- and that was just Juneteenth '83 -- were brought together by Steele on an annual basis. And every year, after all the inevitable hassles with financing and scheduling were brought under control, Steele would walk from backstage to the top of the hill at Miller Outdoor Theatre and look out over the thousands of music lovers to remind himself that the result was worth the hassles.
The energy that Steele expended on the Juneteenth Blues Festival and the Houston Jazz Festival could have, in the private sector, made him a wealthy man. Instead, he devoted his considerable talents to bringing the best music possible to the largest possible audience. It was not discovered until his death that Steele had refused to draw a salary from SumArts, and that he had invested his own assets -- in their entirety -- in the organization to keep it afloat. Basirah Dean, the acting executive director of SumArts, is planning to set up a trust fund in Steele's memory to continue his life's work. Those interested in donating money or volunteering their time to keep SumArts, the Juneteenth Blues Festival and the Houston Jazz Festival alive after their founder's death may do so by calling SumArts at 626-8000.
-- Jim Sherman