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.
Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer celebrated the Halloween holiday with an all-star Heaven and Hell bash at the legendary Earnestine and Hazel’s downtown. Music for the night included The Sheiks, Jack Oblivian and Memphis’ rap godfather Al Kapone. By the end of the night, so many people had entered the building that it was nearly impossible to move! It was an epic evening indeed.
I was on South Main downtown one evening because I was to speak at a hip-hop conference at Leadership Memphis, but I wanted a coffee before it started, so I started walking down toward the nearest coffee bar, hoping it would be open. To my surprise, much closer to the Leadership Memphis offices, I came upon a sign that said “387 Pantry- Coffee”, so I ventured inside to discover one of Memphis’ newest retail establishments. It’s hard to say exactly what the space at 387 South Main actually is, as it is a little bit of everything. I suppose the main space is called Stock & Belle. Primarily it is a fashion boutique, with designer clothing, but also some really cool local art for sale on the walls. Upstairs there is a salon. But another section of the space has been walled off to form a small grocery store known as the 387 Pantry. Gourmet foods and rare brands of coffee beans are the draw here, and within it is a small counter called Brews, where cups of coffee are available, made from the amazing $11,000 coffee machine known as a Clover. Clovers reproduce the French Press process in a machine, and have been said to produce a more flavorful cup of coffee. So I had to try one, and I was quite pleased with it. I also could not resist buying boxes of Velo brand Colombian Tierradentro and Guatemalan Waykan coffee beans. The employe informed me that the store’s brands of coffee beans will change monthly, so it’s probably a good idea to buy what you see that you want when you see it.
Stock & Belle/387 Pantry/Brews
387 South Main
Memphis, TN 38103
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Every Monday night, musicians, singers and poets head down to a Latin club and restaurant in Memphis’ South Main Arts District for a weekly open mic event called The Word. Hosted by Memphis singer Tonya Dyson, The Word usually features a live band which backs up the singers, rappers and poets, and on the particular Monday night I was there, the band in question was Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, Memphis’ best local reggae and dub band. The main drummer for CCDE is Donnon Johnson, but on this particular night, he traded out with my homeboy Otis Logan on certain tunes, and Otis was featured on an amazing drum solo over a keyboard vamp. Several singers and poets performed, including Tonya Dyson herself, who had an incredible reading of the Jamaican festival classic “What A Bam Bam”.
One of the cooler things about building renovations is that sometimes they uncover pieces of history, such as old plaques or advertising signs. Such was the case with the building being converted into residences next to the Webster Avenue Stage in Memphis’ River Arts Fest. I had been standing beside it for a couple of hours or so, and hadn’t noticed anything about it, but when the afternoon sun hit it a certain way, I could clearly make out an old sign: “Chero-Cola Bottling Company.” What on earth was Chero-Cola, I wondered? As it turns out, Chero-Cola, founded by a grocery store owner in Columbus, Georgia in 1915 was the predecessor to the far better-known Royal Crown Cola, or RC, the beverage that went with a moon pie in the Southern past. The founder was trying to find a replacement for Atlanta-based Coca Cola when the Columbus distributor for the latter refused to give him a volume discount he felt he deserved. Although the first Royal Crown beverages appeared earlier (a ginger ale and a root beer), Chero-Cola (did it perhaps include cherry flavoring in the formula?) first appeared in 1915, and only lasted through about 1921, when a court ruled that the designation “cola” could only be used by Chero-Cola’s famous competitor, Coke. Without being able to designate their signature drink as a cola, sales flagged, and the company was renamed from Chero-Cola to Nehi. By the time it introduced a new cola formula in 1933, the name had been changed again to Royal Crown or RC. A court in 1944 overturned the old 1921 decision, and RC’s became officially “colas” again. But the coolest thing is that the relatively-short time that Chero-Cola existed helps us place the Memphis building in time between the years 1915 and 1921. A really cool discovery indeed!
The final act to appear on the River Arts Fest’s Webster Avenue Stage was Memphis’ only local dub band, the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, or CCDE. Like 4 Soul, the CCDE has occasionally backed up local rappers, but for the most part, these musicians have chosen the harder path of upholding the banner for dub music and reggae music in a city where these style are not particularly popular. Nevertheless, they are always a crowd-pleaser, whether calling out oppressors on songs like “Tyrant” or spreading the feel-good vibes on their single “Heavy Meditation.” Perhaps the band’s most unique attribute is their ability to see the reggae potential in the most unlikely of songs, such as Norwegian band A-Ha’s “Take Me On.” The Chinese Connection Dub Embassy closed out Saturday’s River Arts Fest on a high note.
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Tyke T was already an up-and-coming Memphis rapper when the local radio station K-97 proclaimed him the “Next Big Thing” after he won a contest they sponsored. Since then, he has been to New York and several other places for concerts, and although he might not be nationally known yet, he is part of a growing movement of Memphis rappers who seem to be more positive, more upbeat and more lyrical. He is also part of a growing local trend to rap with live musicians instead of just recorded tracks or a DJ, and for his performance at the River Arts Festival, he chose one of Memphis’ best up-and-coming bands, 4 Soul to back him, along with live singers, and guest appearances from other Memphis rappers such as Li’l Cam and S.O.U.L. Altogether it was a rap performance that could appeal even to people who don’t usually like rap, and that was probably precisely the point. Tyke’s lyrics avoid the negative tendency of the local artists that lean more to the gangsta style, and the live band gives him an appeal to those whose musical preferences lean toward other genres.
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The Side Street Steppers are a Memphis-based band whose repertoire consists mainly of music from the 1920’s and 1930’s, an era that has largely been forgotten. It is significant that Memphis’ first recording industry occurred during those years, in which record companies from the north rented rooms at the Peabody Hotel and recorded Black bluesmen and gospel choirs, country string bands and hillbilly musicians. This activity in Memphis continued until the Great Depression put a stop to the early independent record labels. Much of this kind of music finds its way into Side Street Steppers shows, and they are both accomplished musicians and fun to hear.
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Memphis indie duo Deering and Down wear their Memphis influences on their sleeve. Yet the 13-year-old duo of Lahna Deering and the Rev. Neil Down started not in the Bluff City, but in the unlikely town of Skagway, Alaska, when Deering’s mother introduced her to Rev. Down, who was known in the community as a musician and band-leader. The quick friendship led to an album, a cross-country tour that included a stop in Memphis, and eventually an album recorded at Yellow Brick Studios in Memphis in 2007. Shortly, thereafter, Deering and Down relocated to Memphis, cutting yet another album, 2009’s Out There Somewhere at the legendary Royal Studios, working with Willie and Boo Mitchell, Teenie Hodges and other Memphis musical legends. Memphis music was always part of Down’s musical vision, and Deering and Down pull off the seemingly impossible, reconciling alternative/indie music with soul in a way that doesn’t seem forced or contrived. Given the rise of other soul-inflected indie bands over the last couple of years, it could be truthfully argued that Deering and Down were ahead of their time.
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Given the immense and growing popularity of craft beer and micro brewing, it comes as no surprise that there is also a craft soda movement, but the craft soda movement has been a little more subdued and not as well-known. So when Love Pop Soda Shop opened up a pop-up shop in the vacant lot next to Ernestine and Hazel’s during the River Arts Fest, I was amazed at the selection of craft sodas available, all made with natural ingredients and sweetened with nothing other than pure cane sugar. I was even more amazed when a friendly employee told me that the selection exhibited at the festival was nothing compared to the choices that the permanent store will have when it opens. The Love Pop Soda Shop opens November 22, 2014 at its new digs at 506 South Main, right in the thick of the South Main Arts District, and will definitely be worth a visit.
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