Ojeda Penn, 79, Atlanta jazz musician, dies in accident

Credit: Susan J Ross

Credit: Susan J Ross

Mentored many local musicians

Atlanta jazz artist and educator Ojeda Penn never stopped learning, teaching and sharing his love of music, musical history and philosophy. At 79, he had showed no signs of slowing down.

“If you were to see his mastery of the keyboard, you’d be amazed by his agility,” said Atlanta jazz vocalist Kathleen Bertrand, who used to sing with Penn. “He was ageless when it came to his musicianship.”

While taking a morning walk on January 25 through his College Park neighborhood, Penn was hit and killed by a vehicle. Grieving friends and family, fellow musicians and music lovers were in shock.

“Ojeda was a kind and brilliant man,” said Camille Love, head of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs in Atlanta. Penn helped her find great musicians for the Atlanta Jazz Festival, she said, “and we endeavored to bring the best to Atlanta, going near and far, but Ojeda himself was one of the best.”

Penn played the 2022 Atlanta Jazz Festival, “and we had some of the largest crowds we’ve ever had,” Love said. “People were excited to get back out with their families, to share and to listen to musicians like Ojeda.”

Penn stayed current in musical techniques and social consciousness. Recently, he composed “A Prayer for the Ukrainians.” Other recent compositions included “Trayvon’s Lament” and “Je Suis Charlie.”

Years ago, when she came to Atlanta, Love lived in the same College Park neighborhood as Penn and got to know him as a friend and neighbor. “We knew that he was a musician, but we were too young to understand the greatness he would achieve. He was just a gentle giant, very tall and intelligent.”

Ojeda Penn was born in Montgomery, Alabama. As a child, he played clarinet, and, like his mother, the piano. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Alabama State College and in the late 1960s moved to Atlanta, where he wrote jingles for Coca-Cola Co., among other businesses. He earned a master’s degree in American Studies from Emory University and taught jazz history there as an adjunct for 20 years. He also taught English at Atlanta Metropolitan State College and taught at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

“He had a certain way of thinking about jazz as an African American cultural expression,” said the Rev. Dwight Andrews, professor of music theory and African American music at Emory. Penn had been teaching jazz history at Emory when they met. “He wanted students to understand the roots of the music as well as to play the music themselves. They needed to connect the dots to have the requisite respect for the music and its creators.”

After vocalist Michel Jons finished her studies at South Carolina State University, she was teaching in Athens. She was introduced to Penn, who listened to her sing and then encouraged her to “put together some songs you want to sing.” The next thing she knew, she was debuting at a jazz club on Old National Highway.

“I was the new kid on the block, and I learned a lot. Ojeda was just a great musician and a great mentor,” said Jons, who now sings full-time with the Michel Jons Band.

“Years ago, I just started calling him daddy,” she said. “He was a great reader and a great creator. He loved music and he loved his family.”

Kurt Mitchell, the son of the house band leader at Dante’s Down the Hatch in Underground Atlanta in the 1970s, remembered meeting Penn when Penn’s band the Ojeda Penn Experience was playing. “I gravitated toward him, wanting to get more into jazz,” Mitchell said. “The things my father didn’t teach me, Ojeda did. How to maneuver and get around in jazz music, how to have a solo. He was just cool.”

Jamal Ahmad, a host on WCLK 91.9, the radio station associated with Clark Atlanta University, remembered meeting Penn — ”a quintessential Renaissance man” — at the radio station when Ahmad was a Morehouse University student. “He came and sat with me, just a teenager. He told me to follow my heart,” Ahmad said. “As an elder, Ojeda took the time with me, and it helped me to become the person I am as a personality on the radio. He was always meeting young people where they are.”

Ojeda Penn is survived by his wife, Angie Neely Penn, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Dortch-Williamson Funeral and Cremation Services in Riverdale is handling arrangements. The family will share details about Penn’s service later.

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