Despite Memphis’ well-deserved basketball reputation, Memphis is also traditionally a strong football town, particularly at the prep level. People turn out to see both the ball game, and also the battle between the bands and drumlins as well, and certain stadiums are historic locations for Memphis Black high school football, such as Booker T. Washington Stadium in South Memphis or Melrose Stadium in the center of Orange Mound. On Friday, September 19, 2014, I went out to the latter stadium to see the game between Whitehaven High School and the Melrose High School Golden Wildcats. Both schools brought their marching bands to the game, which isn’t always the case in Memphis these days, but Melrose seems to have declined in numbers in recent years, and its band, though it sounded good, was far smaller than I remembered in the past. Whitehaven, on the other hand, is one of the city’s premier high schools, academically, athletically and musically. Its band marches more than 100 members, and looks and sounds better than many colleges. The football game was a runaway for Whitehaven, but the band battle was more evenly matched, although I would have to give Whitehaven the advantage there too. Both bands pleased the crowd by playing a number of current hits, including Memphian Snootie Wild’s “Yayo”.
For some reason, the city of Memphis is full of amazing drummers, and has been for as long as I can remember. At least some of it has to do with the gospel music legacy in our city, as for many years we were the headquarters of the Church of God In Christ. Much of it may also be a legacy of the excellent band programs that used to exist in Memphis’ inner-city high schools such as Manassas, Booker T. Washington and Hamilton. But each year, when the Guitar Center has their national drum-off competition, the Memphis preliminaries yield some amazing performances from some amazing young drummers. Although I missed the first round, the second round, held on September 16, had some incredible musicians, including Shawn Payne, who has already made a name for himself, an outstanding young female drummer named Shakira Jackson, and a 17-year-old named Marquise Moore. Ultimately, these last two advanced to the store finals on September 30.
The annual Southern Heritage Classic is far more than a football game. Each year, on the Saturday morning of the game at 9 AM, the Southern Heritage Classic Parade begins from the corner of Park Avenue and Haynes Street, and proceeds along Park through Orange Mound to the Lamar-Airways Shopping Center. The parade usually includes the Jackson State University and Tennessee State University bands, along with majorettes, drill teams,drumlines, Cowboys and Steelers fan clubs, car clubs and many others. There used to be more marching bands in the parade as well, but for the last few years, the parade has conflicted with the Southern Heritage Classic Battle of the Bands in Whitehaven, so there have been fewer bands recently, but the hometown favorites, the Melrose High School Sound of the Mound Marching Band always closes out the parade. It’s always a lot of fun, family and food.
Memphis musicians were shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of a young drummer, Mario “Yoggi” Stewart, but on September 10, a number of musicians and relatives came together to honor his memory in the most appropriate way possible, with music and song. The setting was the Blue Worm AKA The Blues Night Club, a neighborhood fixture on the backside of the Lamar/Airways Shopping Center in Orange Mound. The band was anchored by three drummers playing three sets on stage, with “Cowboy” Neal on guitar and my homeboy Danny Peterson on bass. I had intended to observe, enjoy and film, but I got called to the stage to play keyboards. Other guest musicians and singers included Tony Gentry, Deij’rah Terrell, Gerod Rayborn and Terry Wright. The night closed with a drummers’ shout shed in memory of Yoggi, and Cowboy thanking all of those who came out. It was a great night of Memphis music, with nothing but love and respect between the musicians.
The final event for the Core DJ Retreat in Jackson was a cook-out and Mississippi Rap Showcase on the outdoor patio at Freelon’s, held on Sunday afternoon, September 7. DJ D-Matic was the Dj for the occasion, and a number of Mississippi artists performed, including Jackson rapper Dolla Black from BDE Entertainment. The weather was perfect for the event, and it was a great way to close out the conference.
At the third and final day of the Core DJ Retreat in Jackson, the afternoon showcase was sponsored by Atlanta-based Good Life Music Group, and was hosted by the venerable Jacksonville DJ Bigga Rankin, who has broken many a new artist in his day. After the showcase, there was an informal wrap-up led by Tony Neal, recognizing those who helped put the conference together, before we all headed out to Freelon’s for an afternoon cook-out and a final rap showcase.
While the media turns its huge spotlight on hip-hop whenever something tragic, criminal or salacious happens, they are conspicuously absent when rappers and people in the hip-hop industry do something positive, which happens all the time. On Sunday morning, the third and final day of the Core DJ Retreat in Jackson, Mississippi, conference attendees turned out en masse to feed homeless people in Jackson’s Smith Park, an urban park near the conference hotel that literally sits a block from the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion. It is disconcerting that Jackson has a severe problem with homelessness, but I suppose all cities do these days. At any rate, we brought food, but we also brought our DJ’s, and thus music and dance. Hopefully, we not only nourished bodies but also refreshed spirits as well.
When I left Hal and Mal’s, I headed on over to F. Jones’ Corner, where something called the Dexter Allen Blues Band was playing. Despite the name, Dexter Allen seemed to perform more soul than blues, but I was quite impressed with his first set, as he did two of my favorite songs. The first one, “Cruising”, is a difficult song to do right, as it immediately invites comparison with Smokey Robinson’s original, which is sheer perfection. However, it’s not one of those songs that just should not be covered, and Allen did a tremendous job of making the song his own, and his band gave it a slower, funkier gospel and neo-soul feel. He also performed Bobby Womack’s “Harry Hippie”, not a Womack song that gets covered frequently. Of course, everyone knows it, and one of the beautiful things about F. Jones’ Corner is that in a place like that, everyone will sing the hook together.
After dinner, the Core DJ Retreat had another party, but it was at a strip club in South Jackson, and I don’t go to strip clubs, so I decided to head over to Hal & Mal’s, where the Southern Komfort Brass Band was scheduled to appear. I had heard this band at Underground 119 last year, and was quite impressed with them, as they are one of the few brass bands not from New Orleans to measure up to the standards of that city’s brass band tradition. I had not expected an opening act, but saxophonist Ryan Raziano proved to be a decent contemporary jazz musician, and his backing band was first rate indeed. Of course, the Southern Komfort Brass Band rocked the house, just as they had last year, and while they played some familiar brass band standards like “Do Whatcha Wanna”, they also played some tunes I have never heard done by a brass band, such as Sade’s “The Sweetest Taboo.” After a rousing set of music, they were followed by Jackson saxophonist Ezra Brown, who was celebrating his birthday. But I wanted to catch Dexter Allen at F. Jones Corner, so I headed out.
The neighborhood where the new Offbeat Arts gallery is located is called the Midtown Arts District, and is Jackson’s fastest-growing arts community. Unlike Fondren, where rents are soaring, Midtown still has affordable buildings, but it is rapidly becoming the hippest neighborhood of Mississippi’s capital. Although the emphasis is on the visual arts, there are a few places that involve music, including the Soul Wired Cafe, Offbeat and TurnUp Studios.