I got an invitation on Facebook a week or so ago from a musician friend, trombonist Victor Sawyer, to come to the debut performance of a new Memphis brass band called the Lucky 7 Brass Band, which was being held at Growlers, the former location of the Hi-Tone on Poplar Avenue across from Overton Park. Memphis has had a couple of other brass bands, the Mighty Souls Brass Band and the Memphorleans Street Symphony. But, because we are not a city that has Mardi Gras (or even the Cotton Carnival any more) and because there is no real second-line culture here, our brass bands are more concert ensembles, and none has the separate snare and bass drums that characterize the average New Orleans brass band, and they may include indoor instruments like a drumset, a keyboard or even an electric guitar or bass. In that regard, the Lucky 7 Brass Band was true to form, including an electric bass rather than a tuba, and a drumset rather than the traditional separate snare and bass drummers. But what it did bring to the table was more of the street edge that the Crescent City bands have, and a tight and clean ensemble sound. For their debut performance, which was all too short at just under an hour, they played cover tunes exclusively, but these ran the gamut from New Orleans standards to contemporary hip-hop, and a good-sized crowd came out (with the threat of bad winter weather hanging over Memphis) to cheer them on. The Lucky 7 Brass Band is one we will likely be hearing a lot more about in the future.
My friend and I had visited my cousin in the Handsboro neighborhood of Gulfport, and then we had headed on east into Biloxi. We noticed a festival going on at Point Cadet close to the bridge, but I had intended to go on to Ocean Springs, which has become a charming little artists’ colony since Hurricane Katrina, and to a waterfront bar and grill called Da Bayou Bar and Grill in Gulf Park Estates. Unfortunately, clouds were gathering and rain beginning to fall, so eating at a restaurant that primarily seemed outdoors was not an option, so we headed back to Ocean Springs, where rain was pouring. To our amazement, the heavy rains were continuing throughout Biloxi, where the outdoor festival we had seen was breaking up, and in Gulfport as well. Nevertheless, we had to eat somewhere, so we decided to park in downtown Gulfport and pick a spot for dinner.
Gulfport’s downtown had fallen on hard times long before Hurricane Katrina, emptying out rapidly in the 1970’s due to the opening of Edgewater Gulf Mall on the border between Gulfport and Biloxi. Despite occasional new openings and numerous plans, nothing really made a difference in downtown Gulfport through the early 1990’s, not even the building and opening of a massive Hancock Bank headquarters there. Even the casinos did more harm than good, as their buffets and restaurants brought hard times to other restaurants, including some that had been coastal icons for decades. But finally, during the 12 years since Katrina, downtown Gulfport shows signs of finally turning the corner. The opening of restaurants like the Half Shell Oyster House (where we ate dinner) and live music venues like the Thirteenth Street Jazz Bistro is beginning to make Gulfport’s downtown a destination for food and fun. We were also thrilled to discover an alley of brightly-colored painted murals called Fishbone Alley that runs between a number of the establishments. In fact, the difficulty for us was not finding a place to eat, but rather choosing from a number of downtown places that were available. Despite the rain, we left Gulfport full and contented.
New Orleans’beloved Jazz Fest celebrates the wide diversity of New Orleans music, but the Memphis equivalent, the Beale Street Music Festival generally does not feature Memphis’ musical culture or history, despite the occasional appearance of a big Memphis or Mid-South act, such as Yo Gotti or the North Mississippi All-Stars. So people who want to delve deeply into the musical culture of Memphis and the surrounding area must look elsewhere, and fortunately, there is a festival geared particularly to the indigenous music cultures of the Mid-South, the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival. Founded in 1982 by a non-profit called the Center for Southern Folklore, the festival is a free event across two days and six downtown Memphis stages (four of them outdoors) where the best in local soul, blues, jazz, gospel, bluegrass, indie rock, fife-and-drum music, majorettes and drumlines are presented. The line-up is always surprising and enjoyable, but this year’s Saturday schedule involved a number of artists from the Mississippi Hill Country, including veteran Como bluesman R. L. Boyce, who recently released his third album Roll & Tumble on the Waxploitation label out of California, who was joined by guitarist Luther Dickinson at the Center for Southern Folklore stage. The highlight was a song that Boyce improvised on the spot for the victims of the flooding in Houston, entitled “We Can’t Drink This Water.” Young up-and-comer Cameron Kimbrough, a grandson of the late Junior Kimbrough, performed on the same stage with drummer Timotheus Scruggs and some assistance on tambourines from his mother Joyce Jones and R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena. Jones, affectionately known as “She-Wolf”, was herself featured with her band on the Gayoso Stage later in the day, performing several of her original songs, including “Poor Black Man” and “Juke Joint Party”, and Sharde Thomas, granddaughter of the late Otha Turner, performed with her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band on the large Peabody Place stage to a decent-sized crowd. These were just a handful of the hundred or so artists that performed each day on the various stages, and while the donation cans were passed around frequently, there were no VIP areas, no fenced-in areas, and no stages requiring tickets or wristbands. A day spent at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival will immerse you in the diverse cultures of the people of Memphis and the Mid-South.
After getting off work, I changed clothes, packed my car and headed out Interstate 55 into Mississippi. My friend, the trombonist Edward Jackson had asked me to come to New Orleans and record on his album, so I decided to head down for the weekend, passing through a fair amount of rain as I headed through Jackson and into Louisiana. When I got to New Orleans, my friend Darren Towns, the bass drummer for the To Be Continued Brass Band told me that they were heading to a gig at a club on St. Bernard Avenue, so I met them there, and afterwards he and I headed to the Port of Call on Esplanade for a steak dinner. But it was TBC’s second gig of the evening that I had been looking forward to, a birthday party at midnight at the Sportsman’s Corner uptown on the corner of Second and Dryades. The place was literally standing room only, and TBC brought the kind of energy they always bring, particularly when they are playing for the hood. After about a 20-minute set for the 100 or so people that were inside the club, they headed back outside and disbanded. It was my first time inside this bar, which serves as a headquarters to the Wild Magnolias tribe, and it was an awesome brass band experience in my favorite city.
Lafayette’s Music Room is a reincarnation of one of Memphis’ best-beloved music venues of the 1970’s, but the latter-day version has something of a New Orleans tinge, both with the cuisine and often with the music as well. This past Wednesday, both featured bands presented different aspects of the musical traditions of the Crescent City. Multi-reedist Breeze Cayolle, a distant relative of jazz great Sidney Bechet, has a group called New Orleans, whose musicians are ironically some of Memphis’ best-known jazz musicians, including Tony Thomas on piano, Tim Goodwin on bass and Tom Lonardo on drums. They play traditional New Orleans jazz, occasionally venturing into the world of jazz standards as well, and have developed a following at the weekly brunch at Owen Brennan’s in East Memphis. Some of that same crowd was in evidence Wednesday night, sitting at the tables nearest the stage and even getting up periodically to dance. Cayolle is a first-rate saxophonist and clarinetist, and he sings with a husky tone that exudes the flavor of New Orleans. The Mighty Souls Brass Band on the other hand is something rather different, although they share Tom Lonardo with Breeze Cayolle’s group. The Mighty Souls take their cue from the brass band revivalism that started with the Dirty Dozen and the Rebirth in New Orleans, with the main difference being the occasional covers of Memphis soul tunes, such as Rufus Thomas’ “Memphis Train” or Willie Mitchell’s “20-75.” Like some New Orleans brass bands these days (notably the Stooges), the Mighty Souls replace the separate snare and bass drummer with a set drummer, and add a guitar, at least indoors, but there is a tuba and plenty of horns, and if they lack the hardcore street edge of the younger, Blacker bands in New Orleans, they compensate with consummate musicianship and plenty of good spirits. Although Memphis does not have a modern brass band tradition by any means (W. C. Handy notwithstanding), the MSBB has developed a very loyal following, and have released a debut CD called Lift Up Your Mighty Souls on the University of Memphis-related Blue Barrel label.
Jazz is not an immensely popular music style in Memphis, so opportunities to hear authentic jazz in our city are few and far between, but some local jazz musicians are branching out and starting their own events. Recently, jazz saxophonist Kelvin Walters and drummer James Sexton have started holding jam sessions on Sunday evenings from 5-8 PM on the first three Sundays of each month at the Midtown Crossing Grill in the burgeoning Crosstown neighborhood one block over from the venerable Hi-Tone Cafe. The building where the grill is located has been all kinds of things, once having been home to Bobby Q’s barbecue restaurant and later Foxcee’s Sports Bar. As a jazz venue, it has the necessary intimacy, and despite its small stage area, it functions fairly well. Walters is at a young age already a decent saxophonist, and James Sexton is one of the city’s best drummers, and the jam session format gives young musicians from Memphis an opportunity to hone their skills in a performance setting in front of an actual crowd. As for the food offerings, the Midtown Crossing Grill has artisan pizzas, and they are pretty decent and reasonably priced. The jam session is not held on the fourth Sunday so as to not conflict with the monthly Sax on Sundays event at Neil’s out in East Memphis, which is another opportunity to hear jazz in Memphis. Take advantage of these events and enjoy.
Those who know me know that I love New Orleans brass band music. Given the fairly short distance between Memphis and New Orleans, it seems odd that we so rarely have an opportunity to hear authentic brass bands in our area, but on the rare occasions that they do come up here, I try to be there. The Rebirth Brass Band is really the band that picked up where the original Fairview Brass Band left off, and made sure that the photo-revival of brass band music in the 1970’s would be permanent and not merely a footnote of history. Their performance at the Main Stage at Helena’s King Biscuit Blues Festival was absolutely perfect. The breezy, warm night was a perfect setting for an outdoor show, and brass band music is intended for outdoor settings. The crowd was literally standing room only. And Rebirth played all of the hits for which they are famous. Before it ended, people were standing up and dancing in the aisles.
My homeboy Darren Towns plays bass drum for the TBC Brass Band, which in my opinion is New Orleans’ greatest brass band. They don’t play a lot of gigs in night clubs these days, but they get called for a lot of birthday parties, wedding receptions, funerals, and second-lines, so when I heard that they were playing over in the 9th Ward, I couldn’t wait to get out there to see them. Any TBC performance is an experience, and in the Crescent City, even a birthday party is a really big deal.
The years have not been kind to jazz. In fact, the wonderful creative music that has been called “America’s classical music” was dubbed “the least popular form of music in America” last year, receiving that dubious honor just below its cousin, the Blues. Defenders of the art form point out that the claim of jazz’s current unpopularity was based upon the number of digital downloads broken down by genre, and claim that jazz fans are more likely to prefer vinyl or compact discs. Still, jazz clubs have been closing, too, most recently the Bohemian Caverns in Washington, DC and the venerable Afterthought in Little Rock, Arkansas. The situation is far grimmer in Memphis, a city where jazz never had all that much of a foothold, and that despite a legacy of producing great jazz musicians. The first great trumpet star in the pre-Louis-Armstrong era was a Memphian, Johnny Dunn. Jimmy Lunceford, Jimmie Crawford, Joe Dukes, Frank Strozier, Charles Lloyd, Harold Mabern, Booker Little, Frank Lowe, Sonny Criss, Hank Crawford, Phones Newborn Jr, Donald Brown, James Williams, Jamil Nasser, Tony Reedus and Mulgrew Miller were all either born in Memphis or developed their careers as young men in the city. But from a high-water mark in the 1960’s and 1970’s where jazz could be heard at The Sharecropper,Bill’s Twilight Lounge, or the Gay Hawk, or Sunbeam Mitchell’s hotel, the opportunities to hear live jazz in Memphis on a regular basis have largely dwindled down to one location: Earnestine and Hazel’s on Sunday nights. And the location is oddly appropriate, as Earnestine and Hazel’s was once a second hotel belonging to the same Sunbeam Mitchell who had his main hotel and club on Beale Street. Although Mitchell was said to detest beboppers, most of the city’s great jazz musicians played there on a regular basis. Nowadays, jazz musicians from around the city, including students from the University of Memphis and Rhodes College come down on Sunday nights to sit in, play some standards, and perhaps enjoy a beer or a famous “Soul Burger.” On a recent night in March, a special guest came through, an incredible drummer and former Memphian, Aaron Walker, who for many years was the great Abbey Lincoln’s drummer. Now resident in Wilmington, Delaware, he conducts drumming and percussion classes for young people and continues to perform in the Baltimore/Philly/DC area. Such guests come through frequently, and the jam session scene at Earnestine and Hazel’s on Sundays is not to be missed if you are traveling to Memphis.