The SpotLight

Story G. E. Light

For years the standard venue for outside events in downtown Starkville was the plaza at the corner of Main and Jackson in front of the Cadence Bank building.

But recently a long blighted lot at the corner of Gillespie and Montgomery directly across from the old Borden Plant (now home to the Central Station Grill, an interior design showcase, bike shop, storage et al.) has been filled with a grand new Renasant Bank building and a larger public plaza made up of multiple terraces and planter boxes. The space is the new go-to locale for outside downtown events. Among the favorites there are free concerts put on by various groups affiliated with the MSU-Starkville Symphony.

Perhaps the biggest draw has been the series of Jazz at the Renasant concerts, especially those featuring big band tunes. Under the direction of Dr. Michael Brown, a moderately-size big band comprised of MSU students, faculty and local volunteers play a nice array of jazz styles until fading light makes their musical charts no longer legible.

The most recent gig kicked off, as they all do, with the band’s theme song, their own adaptation of “Sweet Georgia Brown” (the Harlem Globetrotters have nothing on these cats). They cover a range of styles from Miller to Basie to Ellington and even venture farther afield into works by the likes of Sonny Rollins. Following the traditional big band style, soloists stand at their positions to perform; while for a few pieces, smaller sub-groups gather ’round an announcer’s dais.

For an early October show the plaza was filled to overflowing almost an hour before ”curtain.” Renasant Bank had thoughtfully provided free drinks and cookies. While the crowd trended more toward the senior set (this, after all, was their generation’s music), there was a mix of all ages including some young families, introducing new generations to the syncopated swing of one of America’s homegrown musical styles.

To honor arguably its most famous former student, Mississippi University for Women holds both the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium and the Welty Gala each fall. The latter specifically serves as a fundraiser for the Eudora Welty Chair in the Humanities. This year’s Gala was another in the fine blue tradition of The W and included keynote speaker Robert Edsel, perhaps best known for his book (and subsequent major motion picture), The Monuments Men.

After a cocktail and appetizer hour featuring an array of hors d’oeurves served by W students, we migrated to the Mary Ellen Weathersby Pope Banquet Room. While a fine meal of chicken, pasta, and sautéed veggies was being served, a lot of pre-speaker business took place, including a welcome from MUW Foundation Chair Ruth Petty Jones, the presentation by university President Jim Borsig of an original representation of The W’s famous clock tower by acclaimed Mississippi artist Wyatt Waters to various major Gala benefactors, and finally, acknowledgement of Welty Symposium authors by Dr. Kendall Dunkelberg.

Fortunately the press table was near the front of the room with good sightlines to the screens showing both slides and videos as part of Edsel’s fascinating multimedia talk. Speaking without aid of notes, Edsel performed a unique triple talk recounting his own personal biographical narrative re: his interest in the art and monuments of Europe generally, and Italy specifically, and how they survived World War II’s vast destruction; how this led to his writing a trio of books focused on various aspects of the looting of art by the Nazis and its recovery and return by special Allied Monuments Men; and then a universal discussion of the problem of art theft (for example, what happened in Baghdad at the National Museum), culminating in his work as founder and president of the Monuments Foundation for the Preservation of Art (and receiving a 2007 National Humanities Medal for it). The evening closed with a spirited question-and-answer session followed by a lengthy book signing session by Mr. Edsel.