NEW YORK -- It was a meeting of great American cultural institutions on Sunday as the students of Stax Academy brought a bit of Memphis soul to New York City's famed Lincoln Center.
A contingent of 16 students from the academy performed as part of Lincoln Center's summer "Out of Doors Concert Festival." Several thousand people -- music fans, families, tourists and curious onlookers -- packed the center's plaza to hear the crew of singers and dancers work up a selection of Stax and Memphis music standards, from the Bar-Kays to the Box Tops to Al Green.
Later in the evening, Stax Records legend Mavis Staples followed with a concert at neighboring Damrosch Park. In mid-August, the same venue will host a two-day event dedicated to Memphis music history.
Sunday's event also provided a perfect platform for Stax leadership, including Soulsville Foundation president and CEO Kirk Whalum and COO Mark Wender, who were in attendance to make a case for the academy to several key arts philanthropists in the city.
"People from New York, New Jersey, from all over, they can recognize those great soul songs and say that's a part of my culture, that's American culture," said Whalum, who performed with the students, along with Vaneese Thomas, daughter of Stax legend Rufus Thomas. "When they see these kids celebrate that history and also progress and create forward momentum, that's an important thing."
The performance was the highlight of a whirlwind 72-hour trip that found the students going backstage to meet and sing with the cast of the Broadway musical "Memphis," and touring the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem.
For all but one of the students, it was their first visit to the Big Apple. "It's no small thing for those kids to be here in New York City outside of the microcosm that they live in to experience the macrocosm of world culture in such a major city," said Whalum.
For the kids of Stax -- most of them aspiring performing arts students -- the setting for Sunday's concert was especially meaningful as the stage was literally in the shadow of the illustrious Juilliard School.
"All the kids look at Juilliard next door and that's where they want to be," said Wender. "Hopefully, this will instill something in them and they'll grow bigger and better, study harder. I think it will."
While the students return to Memphis later today, Whalum and Wender will stay on in New York until midweek in order to meet with potential donors, many of whom attended Sunday's performance and came away impressed.
"There were some people here that have the capacity to make a real difference to Soulsville. And if the show touched the heart of just one of them, it could be a very good thing for us," said Wender. "But that's the beauty of Stax. It's bigger than just Memphis; it's a legacy that's worldwide"
--Bob Mehr: (901) 529-2517