Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, Rhiannon Giddens, Christian McBride Headline February’s Fort Mose Jazz & Blues Series

Collage of Fort Mose Jazz and Blues Series headliners
Headliners for this year's Discover Fort Mose Jazz and Blues Series (clockwise from left) Rhiannon Giddens, Christone Ingram, Gladys Knight, Valerie June, Christian McBride's New Jawn, Mavis Staples | Courtesy of the artists

Established as the Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose in 1738, Fort Mose was the first settlement for free Blacks in American history. Slaves fleeing South from British-controlled territories had been taking refuge among Spanish settlers since 1687, growing from an initial group of just 11 to more than 100. Once the British absorbed Florida, though, all such dreams were firmly deferred; the people left, and the fort itself was mostly forgotten for nearly 200 years.

Fort Mose Historic State Park was designated a US National Historical Landmark in October 1994. Its value has only continued to grow as Northeast Florida has been taking greater ownership of its own history. Monetizing that history has been crucial to the region’s explosive growth, particularly in St Augustine, where Fort Mose is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. 

Fort Mose is probably best known for the historical reenactments they stage there. But history is being made this month, fresh and new, as the Discover Fort Mose Jazz and Blues Series returns for its second iteration, with six concerts booked over nine days from February 9-19. The lineup includes both legends and future legends, all of whom are bringing a high level of artistry to a high-end clientele. 

The series begins on Friday, February 10 at 7pm with Mavis Staples, a true icon of American music. She rose to fame as a member of The Staple Singers, a family business led by her father from 1957 to 1969. Born in 1939, she was the youngest of three sisters in that quartet, all born and raised in Chicago, and she is the last one left. Staples’ self-titled solo debut was released by Volt/Stax way back in 1969; her 13th, We Get By, was released just four years ago. Those numbers don’t count the more than two dozen albums she had also recorded with her family. Opening for Staples will be singer Aslyn Baringer McTaggart, leader of the trio Aslyn and the Naysayers; she also runs a popular video production company in the region. Her debut album, Blue Plate Special, was released last year.

The following night, Saturday the 11th, is essential viewing for jazz fans. Christian McBride is currently keeper of the flame for a tradition of upright bass that runs nearly a century through almost the whole of jazz history. Based on critics’ and fans’ over the years, he might be considered (with the key exceptions of Ron Carter and William Parker) the world’s preeminent jazz bassist. He also hosts his own show on Sirius XM radio. Opening for McBride is singer/guitarist Alberto Cebollero, best known for his work in Ramona and the Riot, who will also be playing there on the 17th. 

The second weekend is the last weekend for the series this year, but they’re finishing strong with four concerts in a row, starting with Valerie June on Thursday night, February 16. Her fifth album is The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, released by Fantasy/Concord in 2021. Opening for her is the Soulo Lyons Trio, whose leader has been active in and around the local scene. 

Friday, February 17, sees probably the most iconic of all these acts: Gladys Knight, whose work with The Pips is the stuff of legend. Opening for her is MJ Baker, a fixture in the scene for over two decades. Unfortunately, that show is already sold out. 

Rhiannon Giddens takes the stage on Saturday, February 18. She quickly rose to national prominence as a founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose members have done yeoman work in helping to diversify the American roots music scene, while also bringing that unique subset to the attention of mainstream audiences. She’s released five albums with that group since 2006, as well as eight solo albums and two EPs. She’s also collaborated with a wide range of other artists, including Bhi Bhiman, Lara Downes, Renee Fleming, Bill Frisell, Ben Harper, Alison Krauss, Kronos Quartet, Amanda Palmer, Allen Toussaint and Yo Yo Ma. Opening for her will be Ramona + The Riot, which is arguably the most quintessentially St. Augustine-y band there is.

The 2023 series ends on Sunday, February 19 with Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, who became that rare overnight sensation after a series of blistering guitar solos went viral a few years ago. His debut album, Kingfish, was nominated for a Grammy in 2019. His second was 662, which won a Grammy in 2021 and established the Clarksdale, Mississippi native as the standard-bearer for a new generation of electric bluesmen (and women) in the 21st century. But his appeal goes way farther than that, having been ingratiated into jazz, rock and Hip Hop circles from his youngest days. He’s done guest spots on “Luke Cage”, and even backed up Rakim on his epic Tiny Desk concert. Ingram done so much, and he only turned 24 last month. Opening for him is Tinsley Ellis, a native of Atlanta who’s carved out his own unique niche in the business. 

Each concert runs from 7pm to 11pm. Tickets are $62.50, which VIP packages going for $92.50. Sponsors include St. Augustine Distillery, the St. Augustine Amphitheater, the Fort Mose Historical Society, the St. Johns County Development Council and Flying Saucer Presents (whose founder, the late great promoter Tib Miller, was an active proponent of the series from the start).

These shows are all interesting, in widely different ways, but the best part really is the setting. Fort Mose is vitally important not only to local history, but to American history, in general. It’s hard to think of a better way to spend part of Black History Month than to go right to the source of much of that history, while enjoying music from certified icons of the culture. Who knows? Maybe you can make some history of your own? 

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