Jazz is the forgotten piece of the Memphis music puzzle. People who are familiar with Isaac Hayes, Al Green or Otis Redding have likely never heard of Frank Strozier, Booker Little, Joe Dukes, Jamil Nasser, Sonny Criss, Charles Lloyd, Harold Mabern or Phineas Newborn Jr. Yet the histories of jazz, blues and soul are interwoven in Memphis. A young Phineas Newborn Jr played on some of the early Sun blues records. Free jazz saxophonist Frank Lowe played with Con-Funk-Shun in the early 1970’s. Isaac Hayes’ first LP was a jazz trio record with Duck Dunn and Al Jackson Jr, and elements of jazz would be present in all his career. Much of our city’s jazz history springs from one particular high school, Manassas High School in North Memphis, which was home to Jimmie Lunceford, Jimmy Crawford, Frank Strozier, Booker Little, Harold Mabern and George Coleman, and much of that great legacy was the result of an incredible musician and band director, Emerson Able, who recently passed away. So when Johnny Yancey told me that there would be a jam session at the Blue Note on Beale Street in honor of Mr. Able, I decided to head down there, and found the club filled to overflowing. An all-star group of musicians was on stage, including Bill Hurd on saxophone, Sidney Kirk Sr. on piano, Sidney Kirk Jr on drums, Ralph Collier, Johnny Yancey and Mickey Gregory on trumpets and others. At least part of the purpose was to raise funds for instruments for the Manassas band program, and if it proved nothing else, the amazing Thursday night of music proved that Memphians will turn out to support authentic jazz in an accessible, welcoming environment. The jam sessions will continue to be held on the first Thursday of each month.
Blue Note Bar & Grill
341 Beale St
Memphis, TN 38103
Audie Smith has been well-known around Memphis as an extraordinary keyboard player, so when I saw that his band Prime Cut was playing at the Southwind location of Huey’s on Sunday night, I made plans to go and check them out. Although Audie’s background is jazz, Prime Cut plays primarily neo-soul and R & B, although in a rather jazz-inflected way. His keyboard skills are absolutely tremendous, and the band featured a really soulful singer as well. Particularly impressive were jazzy takes on “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” and Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It”, neither one of them tunes usually associated with jazz. The music was great, and a decent crowd was in the house as well.
Although the Friday night shows had been harassed by storms, no such problem occurred on the Saturday of the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic. In fact the day was a bright sunny blue one, with fairly cool temperatures compared to what we had been having, and it was the perfect setting for a full day of Hill Country blues. The gates had opened with R. L. Boyce at 10:30 in the morning, but by the time I arrived, Joseph Burnside was on stage, with Duwayne and Garry Burnside backing him up. He was followed by Bill Abel, then Cary Hudson of the band Blue Mountain, and finally Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band from the Gravel Springs community near Senatobia, one of the last Black fife and drum bands in America. Garry Burnside and his band went up on stage after that, and then I left to go to dinner at Lamar Lounge in Oxford. In addition to the live performances, there were lots of arts, crafts and clothing for sale at various tents up on the hill, and a raffle, which was being held to raise money for a gravestone for the late bluesman Robert Belfour. And the whole day’s proceedings were broadcast live by New Orleans’ superb radio station WWOZ.
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The North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, sponsored annual at Waterford, Mississippi by Sarah and Kenny Brown, is arguably the most important annual event in the world of Hill Country Blues. It helps preserve the legacy of R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, and allows their descendants and disciples an opportunity to perform in the county where it all began, and takes on aspects of a music festival, a jam session and a family reunion all in one. But this year’s festival got off to something of a rocky start due to a series of violent thunderstorms, with lightning and hail that caused the festival grounds to become a mud-bog, and which caused a significant delay in the schedule. Fortunately, it all passed over eventually, and indie-blues/country/rock star Jimbo Mathus came out to perform with his band, followed by David Kimbrough Jr’s band, although David’s brother Kinney handled the vocal chores since David had a touch of laryngitis. And finally, Friday evening’s lineup was closed out with Duwayne Burnside fronting his newest band, which was extremely tight indeed, and which sounded great. Just as they were leaving the stage, the first flashes of lightning from a new round of storms appeared, but no rain could bring anyone down after all that great Hill Country blues.
Jazz is getting increasingly harder to find in Memphis these days, and if that wasn’t bad enough, it recently got voted the least-popular genre of music in America, although that dubious distinction was based on downloads, and I could argue that we jazz fans prefer to buy discs or vinyl. But at any rate, it becomes more crucial than ever for us to support the jazz events we do have, and a great one happens every Thursday night at a quaint nautically-themed bar in the Broad Avenue Arts District called The Cove. Ed Finney is of course a legendary jazz guitarist around Memphis, and Jeremy Shrader is a younger trumpet player and singer, and together this duo performs a satisfying mix of jazz standards and original tunes each week from 9 to midnight. It’s nothing loud, or brash or bombastic, just a cool, hip aural ambiance. It’s definitely worth checking out, and although I didn’t eat, I’ve been told the food at The Cove is remarkably good as well.
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I was really not familiar with Tawanna Campbell at all, but I was in Little Rock on business, and saw that she was performing at the Afterthought Bistro and Bar, which is Little Rock’s oldest jazz club, and that her drummer was Cliff Aaron, so I decided to swing by and check out the show before driving back to Memphis. The band was first rate (Cliff is an amazing drummer) and Tawanna Campbell proved to be a great vocalist and an exquisite show personality on stage. The crowd was engaged through both sets, and unlike so many neb-soul shows, I was amazed at how diverse the crowd was- young and old, Black and white. The Afterthought is a wonderful venue, and this particular Friday night show was worth coming from Memphis to see.
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A few days after the Tate Street Block Party, the anti-violence group Freedom From Unnecessary Negatives (FFUN) sponsored a youth rally at Foote Homes, the only remaining public housing project in Memphis. Toys were distributed to the younger children, hot dogs and chips were given out, and horseback rides were given to young people. A DJ provided the music for the occasion, and of course some politicians showed up as well.
Each year in B. B. King’s hometown of Indianola, Mississippi, deep in the historic Delta region, the great bluesman returned in late May for an event called the Homecoming, where he performed for the people of his original hometown, and on the occasion of the 2014 Homecoming, he stated that that year’s event would be his last. The old man’s health was fading, and the travel was hard on him. But none of us could have imagined that he would not live to see the next one. This year’s Homecoming, coming a week or so after B. B. King’s death, was a sad occasion, and yet an opportunity for many great blues musicians to come together and honor King’s life and legacy on the grounds of the museum that bears his name. Just as the occasion was both joyful and sorrowful, the day was alternated by periods of heat and sunshine and downpours of rain, but in between the showers came a diverse array of performers, including Greenville blues diva Eden Brent, youthful St. Louis blues star Marquise Knox, Lil Ray, son of the Louisiana blues star Raful Neal, and the North Mississippi All-Stars, with Cody and Luther Dickinson, featuring Sharde Thomas on the keyboards and fife, and Lightning Malcolm on the guitar. The crowd ebbed and flowed due to the weather, but at its strongest seemed to be about 200 or so, equipped with lawn chairs, blankets and picnic baskets, and even sparklers. The North Mississippi All-Stars had barely finished their outdoor set, when the rains came a final time, more decisively, and some of the crowd headed around to the Club Ebony for the indoor evening performance. There really couldn’t have been a better way to honor B. B. King.
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The Saturday afternoon event on A3C’s main stage was billed as the DuckDown Bar-B-Que, which provoked a fair amount of consternation, as there wasn’t any bar-b-que, only the usual food trucks. But it was sponsored by DuckDown Music, and was basically a concert, at which Jarren Benton, someone from Louisiana named Young Roddy, and Smif-N-Wessun performed. Jarren Benton I had seen before, a couple of years ago at SXSW, but I was far more impressed with him at this performance. He is quite lyrical and satirical, and at times is reminiscent of early Eminem. Young Roddy I was not at all familiar with (and I usually try to keep up with Louisiana artists), but I thought he was a decent performer. Obviously it was Smif-N-Wessun that most people came to hear, and when they started doing Black Moon material, I was especially thrilled, as I hadn’t expected that, and as Black Moon was one of my favorite rap groups and albums of all time. Hearing such gems as “Enter the Stage” and “Shit Is Real” made my day.
When I got to Atlanta, I went immediately to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, which last year had been the Melia Hotel, and registered for the A3C conference. Although it was only the first day of the event, the hotel was already crowded with rap artists, industry people and fans. After getting checked in at my hotel, and eating dinner, I headed down to the Edgewood Avenue area to attend showcases, ending up first at the upstairs stage of a building called Erosol or the Department Store, where an artist named Nate was on stage. He was soon followed by a Maybach Music Group artist named Torch, but the venue was extremely crowded, so I walked down Edgewood to the Music Room, where the Atlanta rapper Money Makin Nique was on stage. I had heard him first several years ago, but I was extremely impressed with the new material he performed this year, and spent some time talking with his manager on the sidewalk outside. But my homeboy Fort Knox was emceeing an event at Enclave, a club on Spring Street not far from the conference hotel, so I got the car and drove back over to the hotel, but ended up going into the Quad instead of the Enclave, and saw the rapper Cash Out on stage with his entourage. I realized that Fort Knox wasn’t hosting that event, and decided to go around the corner and into Enclave, but by then, the latter venue was closing and wouldn’t let me in. I got a brief chance to speak with Knox before he headed out, and I rode back to my hotel as well.