photograph by Bettmann/Corbis
The Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra in 1935.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, 359 miles due south of Memphis in a dance hall in a seedy section of New Orleans called Storyville, a man named Buddy Bolden stepped away from his band, wandered off stage-left, and took a solo on his cornet. We now call this improvisation — a breakthrough, that tangential and unteachable musical leap-of-faith that would become the foundation of “America’s indigenous art form.”
Bolden and his band, according to lore, are thought to have been the originators of the brassy stuff that would become “jazz,” a word of uncertain origins that seems to have evolved (believe it or not) among early twentieth-century California baseball writers who used it to describe players who were “lively.”
Lively the music certainly was. It blew through the polished horns soldiers brought back from the Spanish-American War as a mixture, a gumbo stew of African, Haitian, and Creole cooked up in a pot boiled on the fire first lit by John Philip Sousa.
“Throw everything together in the pit of society and something new and beautiful comes out of it,” says John Bass, executive director of the Mike Curb Institute for Music at Rhodes College.
At the same time as this art form began to take shape, if not shortly before, sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta, the children of slaves, were telling their own stories handed down through song and gospel, and put to music made with a six-string and upturned bucket. When mechanization began taking over the work of shoulder and back, and drought turned the mud to dust, the blues would work its way from those front porches that rose no higher than a cotton boll, up Highway 61 and into the big city called Memphis, and onto a street called Beale.
And thus did Memphis become the Home of the Blues, and rightly so. But on the way, it would have to squeeze out the music that first filled those clubs. W.C. Handy, a master of the new New Orleans “stuff” who had been steeped in the blues, came up the road from his hometown of Holly Springs, and did his part to give jazz a Memphis home, but that Delta music had a tenacious grip and let go begrudgingly. The sidemen playing his brassy rags after hours, late into the night, knew that the blues in Memphis paid their bills. It mixed with the smog of barbecue paste and dander from cotton bales along Cotton Row.
Jazz, so it happened, was the music I went after as I grew up in Memphis. I had to chase it down the way others had to seek to learn of foreign literature, the masters of art, or about seminal films. Jazz was everywhere as I was growing up, of course, in films as background scores, in commercials and in stock footage of Broadway or New York nightclub scenes on television. I had been to New Orleans where the notes seemed to rise from the cobbled streets of the Quarter with the steam from a new day. But alas, I grew up in Memphis and, while the nascent notes of a jazz combo might float past like springtime pollen, the Delta blues, Sun Studio rock-and-roll, and Stax soul were in my face from childhood.
And rightly so. The blues are at home here, everywhere on the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff. Home at all the places previously mentioned, as well at Hi and Royal and Ardent. Home with Jerry Lee Lewis. Home with Justin Timberlake.
But Memphis is also the home of Manassas High School.
Almost three decades after Buddy Bolden stepped into the “jazz” spotlight, Jimmie Lunceford came to Memphis after studying music at Fisk University in Nashville. He became the football coach, taught English, and without any established curriculum and without much more than a love of the “new” music and more than a little know-how, he created what would become the modern-day high-school music program in Memphis.
It was 1927, and Lunceford by now had put together the “Chickasaw Syncopators” from among his Manassas students, eventually taking that group on the road and to New York, into the Olympus of jazz venues — the Cotton Club in Harlem — where the Syncopators would displace Cab Calloway’s as the house band. Following Lunceford from the halls of Manassas were George Coleman (saxophone), Charles Lloyd (saxophone), Frank Strozier (saxophone), and Booker Little (trumpet). All later would play with Memphis jazz pianists Phineas Newborn Jr. and Harold Mabern.
But who are these men? What do their names mean to us as Memphians? These are names that don’t have much weight in the fast-forward pop culture of the twenty-first century. They count for little next to those of Elvis, Johnny, Carl, B.B., Otis, and Isaac.
But consider this: Glen Miller (surely his name still has some cachet!) once said of that former football coach from Manassas High: “Duke is great, Basie is remarkable, but Lunceford tops them both.”
Then consider this: Phineas Newborn Jr., who played piano behind B.B. King on Beale Street and with Willie Mitchell at the Plantation Inn in West Memphis, has been placed in the pantheon of “Jazz Greats” alongside Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum.
Perhaps third time’s the charm: Miles Davis, whose album Kind of Blue is still considered, yes, the most influential jazz album of all time, put together a new band in 1963, and found himself with more than a little piece of Manassas.
From his 1989 autobiography Miles: “Before I left for New York, I had had tryouts for the band and that’s where I got all those Memphis musicians — Coleman, Strozier, and Mabern. (They had gone to school with the great young trumpet player Booker Little, who soon after this died of leukemia, and the pianist Phineas Newborn. I wonder what they were doing down there when all them guys came through that one school?)”
What were they doing? John Bass, whose Mike Curb Institute at Rhodes is dedicated to the research and archiving of Southern regional music, particularly in Memphis, has a theory: They were coming up through church. “You had people playing music in front of audiences from a very early age, and just getting used to the idea of getting up in front of people and playing and honing your skills at a young age,” he says.
In addition, there were the other places to play, the sin as yin to the church’s yang. Places like the Cotton Club in West Memphis, and streets like Lamar and Beale, presented the opportunity to play even at an early age. Charles Lloyd won an amateur competition at The Palace on Beale at the age of 10. (Lloyd told this story at a recent homecoming show at Rhodes last March, saying that Phineas Newborn Jr. approached him backstage after the awards presentation and said, “You need lessons bad.”)
Manassas High School would continue its tradition of music with Professor William Theodore McDaniel taking over as director after Lunceford and mentoring the Manassas Rhythm Bombers with other future successes such as Calvin Newborn Jr., Sonny Criss, and George Cowser. Director Matt Garrett led the band in the 1950s. His daughter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, would go on to become a successful jazz singer in her own right, fronting Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and winning a Tony Award for her role as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz on Broadway.
In the same year that Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton moved their fledgling recording studio into the old Capitol Theater on McLemore Ave. and christened it Stax, and smack in the middle of Elvis’ two-year stint in the Army, a group of Memphis musicians assembled to record an album. The first cut on the album Down Home Reunion, recorded on April 15, 1959, at Olmsted Studios in New York City by a band touting itself as “The Young Men From Memphis” — Booker Little, George Coleman, Charles Crosby, George Joyner, Louis Smith, Phineas Newborn Jr. and brother Calvin, and Frank Strozier — is titled “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be.” And certainly they were not. It was a true reunion, many of the players having grown up and played together. That record — get yourself one when you can! — is a love letter of sorts for our hometown.
While driving through Midtown on a rainy spring morning earlier this year, the soundtrack was a warm saxophone accompanied by piano that competed with the raindrops on my windshield to tap out a melody. As I pulled into the parking garage at the University of Memphis, the deejay back-announced the tune as “Dinner For One Please, James.” It’s a track given voice in the 1950s by the great Nat King Cole, yet played with just as much feeling and heart on this day by saxophonist Eric Alexander, from Touching, his latest album.
My destination was the radio station I was listening to, WUMR-92. I was going to what might be the heart of jazz in Memphis these days, one of the few FM stations in the country devoted strictly to the sound.
The old masters are great, of course, but jazz is still being made today and a computer printed sign taped to the wall of the closet-like broadcast booth at the station reminds student and veteran jockeys alike: “Be sure to tell the listeners when you play Memphis Music that you are playing or have played Memphis Music. Thanks.”
Which brings us back to “Dinner For One Please, James.” Eric Alexander is a 44-year-old saxophonist from Galesburg, Illinois. The pianist on this new release, the deejay told me, was Harold Mabern, born in Memphis in 1936, and an alumnus of the previous heart of the city’s jazz scene, Manassas High School.
WUMR-92 has been doing what it does since 1974, when it shared space on a tower located at Rhodes College, pushing 250 watts probably not much farther than the Parkways. When a construction accident put that tower out of commission, the University of Memphis lobbied the FCC for more wattage and now has 25,000. From a small basement bunker in the Theater & Communications building on campus, general manager Malvin Massey, who has been with the station since 1988, leans back in his ergonomic chair to indicate a rack filled solely with CDs of Memphis musicians. He gestures like a beauty queen displaying the automobile of the future and, with that familiar husk of a voice that accompanies me and many others on drives to the grocery store or picking the kids up from school, says, “We’re here to introduce the new people.”
“My daddy listened to Nat Cole growing up, and was way into big bands,” Massey says. His father went to live jazz shows at the Hotel Men’s Improvement Club at Beale and Hernando. Massey himself played tenor sax with Eddie “Pug” Dandridge at the Hawaiian Isle on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Occasionally, he says, Calvin Newborn or Junior Pettis would sit in with them.
Massey is immersed in the local jazz scene, and his assessment is that it’s alive and well in Memphis, pointing to recent big-name shows such as Charles Lloyd and guitarist Pat Martino, as well as the local players who, he says, are finding more work these days with their instruments and may not need the second jobs they traditionally did. He also points to another printout on the opposite wall. It’s a list of more than 30 countries where he knows that people are tuning in WUMR via live, internet streaming.
The problem locally, Massey continues, is a lack of promotion, especially on the part of the city and the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, which has it in the tourist trade’s best interest to promote, understandably, blues and rock. Conventional wisdom tells us you dance with the one who brung ya’. Massey maintains that “jazz has just as much a place in Memphis music as anything else.”
Memphis has seen a resurgence in live jazz of late, fueled by social networks and venues such as The Cove and Alfred’s on Beale hosting live, late-night music. The Germantown Performing Arts Center regularly presents world-renowned jazz artists as does Rhodes College, which also puts on regular shows around town featuring student musicians. In addition to housing the radio station, the University of Memphis hosts its own Jazz Week each spring with faculty and student musicians performing, and welcoming big names to host workshops and play, for free, in front of the public.
This past spring at a festival alongside the river, the Jeremy Shrader Hot Five played for a crowd of people tapping their feet, swaying their hips and nodding to each other at the music they may not have known by heart, but knew in their soul. It was on Mud Island, right out in the Mississippi River, that stream of tears that washes the blues away, down through the Delta and into New Orleans, the Home of Jazz. The scene overlooked the Wolf River Harbor where water whorled with mud and history.
At Charles Lloyd’s recent show at Rhodes, he spoke of the “water of Memphis” and intoned from behind sunglasses and with saxophone glinting in the spotlight, “Great masters have come from this water.”
Shrader arrived in Memphis from Clarksville, Tennessee, to study jazz at the University of Memphis, but his decision to become a musician came at the age of 15. He has been a working musician since 2004. The key, he says, is versatility, noting that “if you can play jazz, you can probably play anything.”
On his bill are regular Thursday night gigs at The Cove, street festivals, private parties, and weddings where he’ll work his chops with standards from the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties. “I love all forms of jazz,” says the 36-year-old Shrader. “There’s almost an endless supply of songs. Every time I learn a few there’s still a couple of dozen I’m interested in.”
Jazz in Memphis is something to seek out and study as though it's a college course. This is not to say that jazz is too highbrow, an adjective saddled upon the genre as the hard sounds of be-bop and Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk shifted the music into the realm of art. Quite the opposite, jazz was born of the working man, the soldier, the entertainer, and street performer. Shrader appreciates the fans and the regulars at The Cove, but it does his heart good, he says, to welcome that new jazz junkie from the wedding reception dance floor into the fray.
As Preston Lauterbach explains in The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll (W.W. Norton, 2011), bandleaders like Jimmie Lunceford who didn’t want to play by the rules of the syndicates and unions that ran the music scene in the larger cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles could find a reprieve on the Circuit in the smaller towns of the South. Those outlying areas were too remote to make a blip on the radar screen of promoters to the north. While there may not be such illicit syndicates and extortion-like contracts today, Shrader says it still might be easier for the working musician to find steady gigs in a place like Memphis as opposed to New York.
“There is a scene, but it’s certainly not like New York or Chicago,” he says. “I think maybe in a way it’s a little easier here. I have plenty of friends who live in bigger cities and there’s almost over-saturation because there are so many musicians, it’s really hard to make your own presence unless you’re just some phenom virtuoso. In Memphis I think it’s just big enough to where it is supported, and there’s enough to go around to where you can easily integrate into the scene.”
High school is where so many first pick up an instrument, turn it over in their hands, and marvel at the gleam, the valves, the bell and mouthpiece. A reed goes here, a mute there. Blow in this end, let your fingers dance, and away we go. It’s where Shrader first picked up an instrument as did his Mighty Souls Brass Band colleague and trombonist Victor Sawyer, who chose his instrument strictly because he was the one with arms long enough at Ridgeway Middle School to manipulate the slide. He eventually graduated from the Manhattan School of Music and came back home to work and play.
In school auditoriums throughout the city, combos take the stage and what happens can be electrifying. To see those young people stand for solos and applaud each other, cut up and have such fun with music that was first written a century before they were even born is inspiring. These may be some of the best live shows in the city, and the programs are a testament and lesson in teamwork as the kids keep pace with each other, and one of confidence as they take their solos and improvise.
“When we talk about how we prioritize jazz in the curriculum, to me there is no greater musical and intellectual pursuit than watching and hearing a kid in the tenth grade navigate chord changes and improvise,” says Dr. Dru Davison, performing arts coordinator for Memphis City Schools. “It takes everything throughout the history of music progression and it all comes to light right there in the moment, and that’s just the kind of stuff you just cannot capture in a standardized test. You can’t bubble that down; you try and put that in a bubble and the paper will explode.”
The high school band room and auditorium is as fitting a place as any to develop the technique as well as the appreciation of the music style, and the fervor for which the students handle their lines is respectful to names they may never have heard. Jazz greats. Memphians. Buster Bailey. Jimmy Crawford. Jamil Nasser. Hometown girl Lil Hardin would marry Louis Armstrong. A jazz pianist in her own right, she recorded with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, and she dropped dead at the piano during a televised tribute concert to her late husband in 1971.
Current Manassas High band director Demetrius Pearson is another in a sustained note of tradition. While strains of jazz in those hallowed hallways have been quiet as of late, Pearson is in the process of morphing musicians from his marching band into a jazz combo. “Most of the students have some kind of background, either from a middle school program or maybe they played at church and they’re familiar with some of the other instruments like piano, guitar, or the drum set,” Pearson said. “That’s where the initial interest in the jazz band got started. Once that interest was there, I was able to teach them more theory about chord structure and improvising.”
Getting working musicians and experts on theory into the schools is paramount. For students to see and hear that music as a career is more than just folly; that it can be a job, albeit one that takes more heart and tenacity than others, is a priority at the college level and in high schools alike. “We think this is extremely important,” says Gregory Billings, administrator for creative and performing arts and university academies at Overton High School, the city and region’s preeminent performing arts school. His program has produced a big band, the smaller 52nd Street Combo and the voices of the Jazz Divas. In the past year, the school has hosted Ron Carter, professor and coordinator of jazz studies for the Northern Illinois University School of Music, as well as trumpet player Ingrid Jensen.
“The way you learn jazz is by hearing great jazz artists, and we’ve had a living legend such as Ron Carter who is out there doing it for a living,” Billings says.
Children first begin learning through music, their minds malleable to melody. This begins with wanting to know about the people — why Duke was called Duke, where Jelly Roll’s name came from.
Says Pearson: “They laugh at the names, but once they get into learning about where the songs and titles come from, and the history of the artists, they seem to really enjoy it.”
“The understanding of jazz and the teaching of jazz, it does come a lot from high school,” Billings says. “This music, if it’s not taught, if it’s not continued to be put in front of the younger generation, it’ll die and pass and we’ll lose a treasure that we have. This is the true American music, there is no other music like it.”
This isn’t about one genre being better than another, but all about stitching them together in the rich fabric of Memphis music. At his most recent concert, Charles Lloyd called saxophonist Kirk Whalum — Grammy winner, hometown hero, and current chief creative officer of the Stax Music Academy — onto the stage at Rhodes, and the result was a volley of notes in which only the audience could be deemed winner. “Please understand,” Lloyd said as he thanked Whalum, “this isn’t about competition. We have to keep bringing this music on because we come from a rich place for music.”
The next generation of musicians from Memphis is scooping up a heaping helping of jazz along with their rhythm-and-blues, soul, and rock-n-roll because music, as it turns out, is not necessarily geographic. Memphis has been blessed with more than its share of great music and great players and innovators, but we aren’t limited to a brand, or what the city leaders promote. We may be hundreds of miles upstream from the spot where Buddy Bolden first stepped out and improvised, but we’ve made our own name and those names deserve the recognition they’ve earned, and Memphis jazz deserves a big, brassy note of its own.
Richard Alley is a regular contributor to Memphis magazine, The Memphis Flyer, The Commercial Appeal, and many other local publications. His short story "Sea Change" was the winner of the 2010 Memphis Magazine Fiction Contest.
The Language of Romance
At 54 years old, Kirk Whalum is the crown prince of the modern-day saxophone in Memphis. Having grown up at the tail end of the age of the jazz masters, he has graced stages all over the world with music that crosses over from genre to genre like a greatest hits album of pop music favorites. And now, as the chief creative officer of the Stax Music Academy and Stax Museum of American Soul, Whalum is helping to shape the next generation of Memphis musicians, note by note. All while remaining a working musician in his own right, recording and touring with the likes of Whitney Houston, Al Jarreau, Barbra Streisand, and Quincy Jones.
Brought up inside a musical cauldron of jazz, R&B, soul, and gospel from his father’s church on Southern, Whalum’s musical path seemed preordained. (He’s also an ordained minister himself.) As a student at Texas Southern University, Whalum cut his teeth and found his chops in the Houston nightclub scene where he was picked up to tour with pianist Bob James. Soon he was a star, recording his first solo album at the age of 27. Over the years, he has worked with Columbia Records, Warner Bros., Sony, Rendezvous, and Mack Ave. Records. He has been nominated for a Grammy award 12 times and and in 2011 won in the “Best Gospel Song” category.
Last year’s album, Romance Language, is a soulful love letter to those who came before. Specifically, this is a track-by-track homage to the 1963 recording John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, with Kirk Whalum playing the part of Coltrane and brother Kevin taking the vocals to emulate Hartman. To continue the musical ride, the Whalums round out the original album’s six tracks with four others. The music website.allaboutjazz.com says of the effort: “Romance Language reflects the stature that the Hartman/Coltrane recording has held for almost 50 years. Doubtless, it will continue to be an inspiration to future generations.”
Doubtless, too, Whalum will be a shining example for future jazz artists from Memphis and beyond. His passion for music can be heard in his recordings, as it could be witnessed on stage with Charles Lloyd in a recent spring concert at Rhodes College when Lloyd, the Manassas High colossus, bowed out to let the Melrose High alum, Whalum, take the solo and the spotlight for a time. — Richard Alley
Rhythm is Our Business.
James Melvin Lunceford was born June 6, 1902, in Fulton, Mississippi, just outside of Tupelo, and raised in Denver. He studied music at Fisk College in Nashville and at the City College of New York. His music career began in 1927 when he returned to Memphis and took a job at Manassas High School teaching English and coaching football. While there, he began what would become the first music program in a city school in Memphis. And from these modest beginnings he would form the Chickasaw Syncopators. It was a group he then molded into professionals, taking them on the road to places such as Cleveland and Buffalo, as well as recording studios. In 1934, Lunceford and his Syncopators entered the pantheon of swing, Harlem’s Cotton Club, where he unseated Cab Calloway’s house band.
In his 2011 book, The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll, Preston Lauterbach writes: “The Lunceford band had Harlem credibility, thanks to the glorious Cotton Club run, and country panache, thanks to the Memphis boys in the band …”
The 1930s and 1940s were full of great working composers and bandleaders such as Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Count Basie. But Lunceford, bringing with him a discipline from his days as schoolteacher, led a fastidious group of showmen who looked the part and could swing with the best behind the compositions of arranger Sy Oliver. With the band’s slogan, “Rhythm Is Our Business,” he used a distinctive two-beat rhythm as opposed to the standard four-beat. This deviation would come to be known as the “Lunceford style” and Fats Waller would christen him the “king of syncopation.” To further their appeal, the shows featured choreographed movement and the music and lyrics a sense of humor.
The band was eventually renamed the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra and recorded regularly on the Decca and Columbia labels. Wildly popular in the late 1930s, the band’s biggest hits included “My Blue Heaven,” “I Got It,” “Muddy Water (A Mississippi Moan),” and “Uptown Blues.” The core band broke up in 1942 over internal conflicts (Lunceford lived lavishly but paid his musicians poorly — at the same time donating large sums to further music education throughout the South). The band leader continued to tour until July 12, 1947, when he died of cardiac arrest at the age of 45 while signing autographs before a show in Oregon. There was speculation that Lunceford was poisoned earlier that day by the owner of a diner unhappy at having to serve a “Negro” in his establishment. Other members of Lunceford’s group became ill as well. — Richard Alley