Back in the 1980’s, Henning, Tennessee became famous as the hometown of writer Alex Haley, whose genealogical novel Roots was a best-seller in the late 1970’s and which was later made into a television mini-series. A museum was opened on the Main Street of the little town just across the Forked Deer River from Tipton County, and residents of Henning waited for the tourists they hoped would be coming. They even renamed State Highway 211 “Chicken George Trail” after one of the characters in Haley’s novel.
But the tourists never arrived, and Henning seems to be in the grip of a depression, for some reason. Abandoned houses and ruins are everywhere in the little town, and many of the downtown storefronts along Main Street are vacant, or seem to be so. A block west of Main is a street lined with abandoned juke joints that were undoubtedly once full of large crowds, as Henning was a party destination for Covington, Ripley, and even Dyersburg and Brownsville. A couple of the bars seem to still be open, such as Sonny’s Smooth Jazz and Old School, or Uncle Charles’ Place, which has an elaborate painted mural that mentions Prince’s old movie Under The Cherry Moon, but the town has clearly seen better days.
The Oxford Blues Festival was not held on the Square this year, as I would have expected, but rather on the Grove on the Ole Miss campus, and a good thing, since the entire Mid-South was under a heat advisory and the sun was beating down fiercely. Perhaps as a result, when I first got there, the crowd was rather small, and that despite the fact that the festival was also free. But as the day progressed, from the jazz of Doc Prana, to the bluesy rock of the Zediker Brothers, to the folk blues of Bobby Ray Watson (who had studied with Mississippi Joe Callicott), the crowd grew steadily in numbers and enthusiasm, and ever so slowly the heat began to subside. Female blues singer Joyce Jones was in the audience, and was called up on stage by Bobby Ray Watson and by Cadillac Funk to feature on a couple of songs. Then the Como Mamas came on stage to do some a cappella gospel numbers, and the afternoon was closed out by Blind Mississippi Morris as the sun was setting. Although there was a headline act for later in the evening, the people I was with wanted to head back to the Square for dinner. Despite the outrageous heat, it was a fun day of blues in a beautiful, shady setting.
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Radio Memphis is a superb internet radio station that for the last four years has been supporting Memphis music and musicians. So for their fourth birthday, they threw a party at their studios with food and music, and broadcasted the music live on the air. The performers covered nearly all genres, from the folk of Mason Jar Fireflies, to the funky organic hip-hop of Tunica rapper Jay DaSkreet, who was backed by D-Squared, consisting of Donnon Johnson on drums and Devin Jordan on keyboards, to the country of Ciera Oulette, to the authentic blues of Zeke Johnson (who studied with the late Furry Lewis) and Sturgis and Mandy Nikides of Low Society. Rarely has so much great Memphis talent been in one building at the same time, and it led to some startling serendipities, as when Donnon Johnson got on the drums backing Mason Jar Fireflies as they played an instrumental riff as a warm-up. It was a great way to celebrate Radio Memphis and what it means to the local music community.
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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
A year or so ago, Joshua McCain & The Soul Seven were playing every week at a place in Hickory Hill called El Toro Loco, but were left without a regular home when that place quit booking live music. Now they have ended up right around the corner at Los Cabos on Quince, where they hold forth every Tuesday night. Featuring vocalist Gerald Bailey and keyboardist Joshua McCain, the Soul Seven performs a mix of instrumental originals and covers from Memphis’ favorite R & B artists, such as Bobby Womack, Willie Hutch, Frankie Beverly and Michael Jackson, and usually draws a crowd anywhere they play. With two birthday parties on this particular night, the audience was even larger than usual.
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Los Cabos Mexican Bar & Grill
6542 Quince Rd
Memphis, TN 38119
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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2559 Broad Av
Memphis, TN 38112
Although Memphis’ live music scene is not as healthy as it should be, one of its redeeming features is the occasional opening of new live music venues, often in the inner city. When these spots appear, they often feature the authentic soul and blues music for which Memphis is known, so when I saw that a place had opened on Brooks Road called Kings Sports Bar and that they featured a band every Thursday night called Since 5, I had to make the trip to Whitehaven to see what was what.
As it turned out, King’s Sports Bar was in a small strip mall in a place I recall as a club years ago when I was in college, across the street from what was then Club Obsession. Back then it was a rap club, but nowadays it is a small and nondescript local sports bar attracting a small older crowd of locals, including a handful of vocalists who come to sit in with the band. Memphis is literally full of great musicians, and although I had not encountered the Since 5 Band before, they proved to be a gifted group of musicians, switching seamlessly from contemporary jazz and funk to soul and blues, and backing three different female singers, including Lisa Cook, a gifted vocalist who performed a blues and a Chaka Khan cover during the course of the evening. Even better, Since 5 played some original compositions, something that very rarely occurs with a lot of Memphis R & B bands these days. Kings Sports Bar features live music every Thursday night beginning at 8 PM, with free admission.
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Kings Sports Bar and Grill
949 E Brooks Rd
Memphis, TN 38116