Family, friends and the jazz community gathered on Saturday at Bethel Community Baptist Church to pay their respects to jazz aficionado Rick Gee who passed away March 1st.
“He was a true blessing that touched so many lives,” said Valerie Gillespie a jazz musician/singer fortunate to play alongside Gee at his Jazz Jamm, a corporation dedicated to bringing quality jazz to the Tampa Bay area. “He saw something in many musicians deep inside that others didn’t see, even the musicians didn’t see themselves.”
A long list of accomplishments in his life, Gee had a myriad of talents. A champion swimmer, he was revered throughout his high school in Newark, N.J. and at Howard University where he won many medals and was nicknamed “Boy Porpoise.” And although he earned his degree in accounting, Gee pursued his love of swimming by competing on the Master’s swimming circuit, earning prestigious awards in his age group.
Here in St. Petersburg, however, Gee is well respected and renowned for his contribution to reviving jazz in the Tampa Bay area.
“He was a good man, always reaching out,” said longtime friend Dr. Robert D. Rehnke. They’ve known each other for over 60 years meeting at Howard University. “There are some people they call a man’s man, a lady’s man…he was everybody’s man. He was just cool.”
Rehnke remarked on the unexpected friendship between them. Gee was nearly a generation older and although race wasn’t an obstacle in their friendship, they came from different backgrounds. But it was what they shared in common that strengthened their bond, the most powerful connection being their mutual love for music, musicians and the shared entrepreneurial spirit of wanting to support them and get them on stage.
The opening concert at the Manhattan Casino back in 2005 was just such an event. Working on a shoestring budget, Gee was able to use his personal connections in the jazz arena to bring big names such as Dizzy Gillespie’s All Stars to town, as well as resurrecting seasoned musicians while showcasing a variety of newcomers to the jazz scene.
“Rick Gee, he did keep jazz alive. The rest is now with us,” Rehnke said.Gee’s daughter Gina read letters from various friends of the family all wanting to pay their respects for the local legend. They spoke of his honesty, integrity, and his outgoing nature. Gee was known for his respectfulness towards others and lived his life like a true gentleman, his faith strong and evident to all those who knew him.“Getting to know him as an adult, as the talented, outgoing, charismatic man that he became allowed me to understand why so many people loved, honored and respected him,” said Gina Gee.
Known as the go-to-guy when it came to guiding talented young musicians in need, Gee touched many lives with his mentoring. Including that of Rodney Rocques, a drummer in the Jazz Juvenocracy Group. Rocques was inspired by Gee to put together a band at the age of 16 and was even responsible for getting him his first gig.
“It’s great that I can see Rick Gee in everyone here,” he said looking around the room.
Now 22, Rocques credits Gee with putting him on the right path in life and in his musical career. Currently a student at Berkley College of Music in Boston, Rocques is looking to work fulltime at the school when he graduates and is composing music such as the musical melody, “I Will Never Forget Rick Gee,” which he performed at the funeral.
Rocques’ own father left him at just nine months of age and he truly believes that God sent him Gee when he needed him most.
“Though we can’t hear the Lord speak to us personally, he sends angels to surround us,” said Rocques. And to those that knew Gee, he was just that.
Upon moving to St. Petersburg in 2003, Gee almost immediately began to make an impact on the jazz scene. He joined the board of the Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association as publicity chair; however, it was no time before he was filling the position of president. His ability to revive jazz and make it current and hip again excited the jazz community. He was diligent in his efforts to organize concerts throughout the Tampa Bay area and longed to promote a jazz festival.
A jazz enthusiast, Gee also served on the board of directors with the Sarasota Jazz Club. He soon was voted in as vice president and helped organize local annual events such as the recent Jazz in the Park event and the Jazz Boat Ride.
Rick Gee’s legacy to the jazz community and the youths he mentored is the love he had for jazz and his passion to share this classic art form with others. He will be greatly missed.
The service came to a close with Pastor Frank Peterman of Rock of Jesus Missionary Baptist Church conducting his eulogy. The Bay Pines Veteran Administration also performed a color guard ceremony to honor Gee’s stint in the military. Family and friends were also treated to a recorded musical selection of Gee on the flute playing “Coming Home.”
Gee passed away due to complications from surgery. He is survived by his two daughters, Gina and Ginger Gee, extended family members, friends and his companion of many years, Yvonne Alsup.