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Upcoming gala celebrates legacy of jazz educator Clarence Acox

Clarence Acox, Co-Artistic Director
Jim Levitt
KNKX File Photo
Clarence Acox with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra.

It’s not every day that a 94-year-old endeavors to put on a gala and raise half a million dollars in honor of a friend. But Robert Radford, a retired educator and lifelong jazz fan, is committed to celebrating his pal, retired Garfield High School band director, drummer, and jazz education advocate, Clarence Acox.

“I just felt that with all of his accomplishments, there was very little being done to recognize the man himself,” Radford said.

After months of hard work, Radford’s vision comes to fruition on Monday, Feb. 5, when Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley hosts the First Annual Clarence Acox Gala – A Legacy Fundraiser. The event is presented by Onyx Fine Arts Collective, a Seattle-based nonprofit with the mission of highlighting artists of African descent from throughout the region.

The gala will feature performances from the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra with special guests Jacqueline Tabor and Riley Mulherkar, JazzEd 2nd Line Brass and Percussive, a combo from the GHS jazz program, and others. There will also be a silent and live auction during the event with an array of big ticket items up for bid.

The primary objective of the night, aside from bringing together Acox’s friends in celebration, is to raise $500,000. Seventy percent of the money raised will go to three local music organizations chosen specifically by Acox.

Those organizations include: Seattle JazzED, a jazz education hub for students grades 4 to 12; SRJO Jazz Scholars, a jazz coaching program for kids in need; and The Garfield Jazz Foundation, a nonprofit, parent-run booster group which helps support the jazz program at Garfield High School in Seattle's Central District. Organizers plan to put the remaining funds toward the commissioning of a statue of Acox, which they hope to install in front of GHS’s Quincy Jones Performing Arts Center.

Acox has left an indelible impact on the local music community since he first moved to Seattle in 1971 to revive the GHS band program. Until his retirement in 2019, the New Orleans native nurtured the now-nationally renowned jazz program at GHS, co-led the Seattle Reparatory Jazz Orchestra (SRJO), and performed widely with his own quintet. He also founded several jazz education nonprofits throughout his career, including Seattle JazzED and SRJO’s Jazz Scholars.

Retired educator and lifelong jazz fan Robert Radford.
Robert Radford
Retired educator and lifelong jazz fan Robert Radford.

Radford first became aware of Acox in the 1970s, as the GHS jazz band began to repeatedly dominate at competitions throughout the country. From 1994 until 2008, Radford worked as a principal in the Seattle school district. During that time, he asked Acox and the GHS jazz band to perform at several school fundraising events and for his students during lunchtime.

“I knew the band needed an audience for rehearsal, in addition to rehearsing in their music room, [and] they needed live audience practice. So, I invited them to come to the schools where I've been principal over the years, so that the students could hear that acoustical feeling, the audio and the visual,” Radford said. “That's how we became friends, because he believed in what I was trying to do for kids.”

Acox and Radford have remained close over the years. To this day, they talk about twice a week, and Radford has provided Acox moral support since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years ago. While Radford carried out the actual organization of the gala and auction, he deferred to Acox when it came to where the money raised should go.

The benefitting organizations, each of which support music education for school-aged kids, were chosen by Acox because he had a hand in their creation and they’re important to him. Acox told KNKX his decision was also influenced by school district budget cuts that have threatened music programs throughout the region. (Though GHS jazz has escaped cuts so far, their feeder middle school’s jazz program had to be saved by funding from Quincy Jones and Seattle’s Nesholm Family Foundation just last year.)

The statue, on the other hand, is Radford’s big goal. For Radford, it’s about giving Acox his due and honoring the contributions of Black people in the United States and beyond. Acox has given so much to the region and country, Radford said, and recognizing him with a statue in Seattle’s historically Black neighborhood inspires Black pride.

“There are very few times that monuments are erected showcasing us,” he said, noting the resonance of erecting a statue to a Black man during a time when monuments to confederate soldiers are being torn down. “I think it would be fitting at we say, inflection point of monuments and statues.”

The music performed at the gala will also showcase Acox’s legacy. SRJO, the jazz orchestra co-founded in 1995 by Acox and University of Washington saxophone instructor Michael Brockman, will be performing some of Acox’s favorite tunes in their repertoire. SRJO will also perform a new song composed by Brockman in honor of his friend entitled, “The Acox Ramble.”

“Though Clarence is no longer involved in SRJO, his legacy lives on in our band and we think about him quite a bit,” Brockman said.

Additionally, SRJO’s performance will feature trumpeter Riley Mulherkar, an alumni of Garfield High School jazz who went on to become the 2020 recipient of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Emerging Artist Award, and singer Jacqueline Tabor, who’s performed with the orchestra many times.

Throughout the night, a live and silent auction will be woven around the music. According to auctioneer Matt Lorch, the auctions will involve top-notch local art, notable sports memorabilia, and several unique trips and experiences. One experience up for grabs is a chance to have dinner with Seattle Supersonics forward and seven-time NBA All-star basketball player Jack Sikma, catered by a former Sonics player John Greig, who now owns Heirloom Catering.

The night’s big-ticket item is a special drum set that belonged to Acox, who will be in attendance.

“That is expected to be the coveted, key item of the night for all its history and personal value,” Lorch said.

With top-notch music, featured speakers, and an auction all in honor of Acox and his advocacy for jazz education in our region, the gala guarantees to be a special event for Acox, his friends, and supporters of local jazz.

The First Annual Clarence Acox Gala - A Legacy Fundraiser is Feb. 5 at 6:45 p.m. Tickets are $109, and can be purchased through Dimitriou's Jazz Alley.

Alexa Peters is a Seattle-based freelance writer with a focus on arts & culture. Her journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Downbeat, and The Seattle Times, among others. She’s currently co-authoring a book on the Seattle jazz community with jazz critic Paul de Barros, due to be published by The History Press in 2026.