The four musicians have decades of experience. From left to right, Chris Walker, Regina Belle, Bob James and Kirk Whalum.  (Photos by Jacob Phillips)

Four veteran musicians participated in a music master class at A.C Flora High School Thursday as part of the annual Auntie Karen Foundation’s “Legends of…” series. 

Jazz artists vocalist Regina Belle, pianist Bob James, musician Chris Walker and saxophonist Kirk Whalum took part in a Q&A with Richland One students.

They then performed, teasing what spectators will get to experience during Friday’s “Legends of…” concert at the Koger Center.

“Why would I not come up to do something fantastic and inspiring like this,” James said. “ I wish there were actually more of them like this. We love what we do.”

Flora’s performing arts department started the event, showcasing what it has planned for its spring shows.

The theater department did a segment of its upcoming play, and the choir performed a song for the crowd. 

“From my students’ experience, they were super nervous about the fact that all these people were gonna be in this theater,” Flora Fine Arts Department Chair Katy Dallas said. “But again, (it’s) a really great opportunity for students … to see them in a different light than maybe they’re seen at lunch every day.”

Belle led the crowd in a singing of Whalum’s song “Falling in Love with Jesus,” while Whalum played his saxophone. James wowed the audience with his skills on the piano, and Walker followed, displaying his vocal and piano talents.

“I thought it was really awesome,” Dallas said. “These artists were really incredible. They did a phenomenal job in showcasing their talent.”

Richland One Superintendent Craig Witherspoon surprised audiences when he took the stage and showed off his skills with the saxophone. 

Columbia’s Auntie Karen Foundation was founded in 2001 by Karen Alexander-Banks. She wanted to find ways to attract youth to the arts and created the first master class in 2006. 

“The arts are such a powerful tool,” Alexander-Banks said. “It really connects communities, and it’s non-threatening. But it also triggers creativity and hope. … That’s what we do with the masterclass. We expose them, we train them, and then they go on and do that for somebody else.”

The “Legends of …” series is not just a master class and a concert. It’s a series of events, including a lunch-and-learn, a silent auction and a trip to the Columbia Museum of Art. 

The series has featured multiple Grammy award-winning artists, including Kenny “Baby Face” Edmonds in 2011, George Duke in 2009 and Al Jarreau twice, in 2006 and 2016. 

All four artists this year have decades of industry experience and achieved numerous accolades throughout their careers. 

Belle is an Academy Award winner and multiple-Grammy award-winning artist. Perhaps her biggest claim to fame is her vocal performance on Aladian’s theme, “A Whole New World.”

James has created many types of music since getting his start in the 1960s. He is also a multi-Grammy-winning artist who has had parts of his songs sampled by hip-hop artists, such as the Wu-Tang Clan, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince and Run-D.M.C. 

Whalum began his musical journey in Memphis in the ‘80s. James discovered Whalum’s talents in Houston and eventually helped him earn a deal with Columbia records. Since then, he’s released 22 different studio albums. 

Walker released his first solo album in 1991. He has released four solo albums since, including 2019’s  “We’re In This Love Together – A Tribute to Al Jarreau.”

This year’s “Legends of …” series is also a tribute to Jarreau, who passed away in 2017. The idea to honor Jarreau is what got this year’s group of artists to come together.

“That formative epic of my life and career – Al Jarreau was such a central figure of it,” Whalum said. “I literally wrote him a letter when I was just trying to get my career started. Later on, when I got to meet and perform with him, … I kept that in mind.”

Walker and Jarreau go way back. Walker served as Jarreau’s musical director, co-vocalist and bassist for more than 20 years. 

“Al was like a second father to me,” Walker said.  “(He) took me under his wing, and his music changed my life. I’ve been in debt to him forever.”

Alexander-Banks is hoping to honor Jarreau and spread passion for music the same way Jarreau did in his life.

 “I loved his passion for making sure that this platform stays alive,” Alexander-Banks said. “I’m talking about jazz, and that the next generation gets exposed to that type of music.”

The exposure to different types of music and artistic talents is why the “Legends of …” series began back in 2004. 

Alexander-Banks and this year’s group of artists know the power music can have. They think it’s important to spread that knowledge with hopes of inspiring someone to get where they are. 

“You never know what it takes for somebody to be inspired to do this,” Belle said. “Whatever I can do in terms of pushing somebody ahead, I want to do it. You know, if it’s showing up, I’m here.”

Richland One Superintendent Craig Witherspoon surprised attendees when he took the stage to play his saxophone while Chris Walker sang. 

Whalum has been playing the Saxophone professionally since the ’80s. He was discovered by James, helping him earn his first major record deal. 

Musician Bob James has years of experience in the music industry, dating back to the early ’60s. James, Belle and Walker are all avid Jazz fans who hope to inspire the next generation.

This year’s “Legends of…” series will honor the life and legacy of Al Jarreau. Jarreau was a legends of guest twice in 2006 and 2016.

Karen Alexander-Banks started the Auntie Karen Foundation in 2001 to motivate children to pursue a future in the arts.