As a kid growing up in Leeds, NBA great Charles Barkley recalls seeing Bernard Lockhart running through the community. At the time, Lockhart was a star point guard on the Leeds High School basketball team with dreams of going pro.
“You know how hot it is in the middle of summer, but Bernard was running and training all of the time,” Barkley said. “We just wanted to play ball, but Bernard showed us it takes hard work if you want to be great. He had this amazing work ethic.”
Friends and family said Lockhart applied that same ethic in tackling almost every project, especially Magic City Smooth Jazz and its flagship project, Jazz in the Park.
Sometimes, he would get up in the middle of the night to scribble his ideas and sketch plans for the nonprofit arts and entertainment series, said his wife, Jackie Lockhart.
But then in November, the 59-year-old Lockhart was confronted with a challenge he could not overcome — even with his strong determination to survive.
On Dec. 21, Lockhart — a husband, father and community leader — died at UAB Hospital from complications related to COVID-19. He had battled the virus for about a month. He was among the 51 Jefferson County residents who died that week from the virus.
Since the pandemic began in March, almost 800 people in the county have died from the disease and about 5,300 statewide.
Jackie Lockhart recalled when her husband was diagnosed with COVID-19.
He was sick the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. They thought it was a cold or the flu until he became confused and delirious.
“We had to call the paramedics, but we couldn’t go with him into the hospital. It was Wednesday morning when he called and said, ‘They say I have COVID,’” Jackie Lockhart said.
A couple of days later, he was discharged with prescriptions, but once he returned home, his condition worsened.
From his hospital bed, Lockhart continued telling his wife and children he was fine and would be all right.
“But when I talked with the nurse practitioner, I got another story. They told me on the outside my husband seemed fine, but on the inside, his body was fighting a battle,” Jackie Lockhart said.
Lockhart had two health issues that made his fight with COVID-19 even more difficult. He was a diabetic and he had kidney disease, his wife said.
Research shows that blacks with diabetes and kidney disease are more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19. The morbidity rates also are high.
When Lockhart’s oxygen level reached 70, instead of the 95% to 100% considered normal, he was placed on a ventilator, his wife said. That was on Dec. 13, and it was the last time she spoke with him. Still, she hoped and prayed, supported on social media by the many people whose lives Lockhart had affected over the years.
Jazz flutist Kim Scott recalls getting a boost from Lockhart when she first started her career as a professional performer. Since then, she’s had several hits on the Billboard Smooth Jazz charts.
“I’d never played jazz for an audience until I played at Jazz in the Park,” Scott said. “It was around 2010 at Patton Park, just off Interstate 59.
“He said he was honored to give me that platform. It was just exciting for me to see how he brought people together, just for the sake of art itself.”
Jackie Lockhart said her husband didn’t play an instrument, but he had a passion for jazz.
As a young man in the Navy, he was stationed on the West Coast and enjoyed outdoor jazz concerts. Years later, when he married his sweetheart from Birmingham-Southern College, they would travel to other places to hear jazz outdoors.
“When we went concerts at places like Chastang Park in Atlanta, he would always say, ‘We need something like this in Birmingham,’” Jackie Lockhart said.
Lockhart had worked with event planning at Southern Progress. In 2008, when that job ended and other opportunities were slow to come, he found time to sit down and work on his dream – Magic City Smooth Jazz and Jazz in the Park.
He and wife applied for grants and wrote letters to arrange support from local and national arts foundations. There also was support from local government leaders, including Lashunda Scales, now a Jefferson County Commission member.
“Bernard believed our communities were missing the arts. He wanted to make music available in communities that were often left out of the arts and entertainment,” Scales said.
“When he asked me about it, as a Birmingham City Council member, if I would be supportive, I quickly jumped on board because I understood the mission behind the music,” she said.
Over the years, the council, and more recently the commission, have helped underwrite the concerts. Other city governments throughout the state also supported Jazz in the Park as it expanded into their communities.
Jackie Lockhart said her husband wanted to use music to bring people together from all walks of life.
“He would say, ‘I want to get people going to the park again — and feel safe in their communities,’” she said.
Lockhart’s bright smiled would beam when he announced artists and hosts from a stage while looking out of diverse crowds.
Now, Jackie Lockhart said, she’s thinking about what’s next for the Magic City Smooth Jazz Foundation and Jazz in the Park.
“We want it to continue,” she said. “Right now, I’m waiting on God’s guidance. Jazz in the Park was Bernard’s brainchild.”
In addition to his wife, Bernard Lockhart is survived by his daughters, Bernadette and Rachel; his son, John; and many friends and relatives.