An innovative music project hopes to bring new life to the Soulsville neighborhood.
A recent Memphis Music Magnet concert paired the Memphis Symphony Orchestra with (left to right) Booker T. Jones, Susan Marshall, Wendy Moten, William Bell, and Kirk Whalum.
photograph by Andrea Zucker
Music was floating again down the streets of Soulsville, but this time, it was the Memphis Symphony Orchestra providing the soundtrack for a neighborhood fighting for its future.
With six concerts over six months, classical symphonic music now feels as much at home on McLemore Avenue as classic soul music. Near the vacant grocery store that doubled as symphony hall for the orchestra, the home of music legend Memphis Slim began renovation as the centerpiece of the Memphis Music Magnet project.
It’s the story of a struggling neighborhood fighting to reinvent itself that’s attracting national attention, which led to a grant of almost $700,000 from ArtPlace for Symphony concerts and Memphis Music Magnet’s conversion of Memphis Slim’s house into a multifunctional space for musicians that includes a studio, videocasting, oral history labs, office space, and a collaboration lounge.
In a neighborhood whose history is full of stories of the unexpected, few would have predicted that the Symphony would be an agent of change for Soulsville. And yet, playing to sold-out concerts that featured the uncompromising music of Gustav Holst co-billing with the North Mississippi All-Stars, the concert series did its job, according to Memphis Music Magnet leaders.
Eric Robertson, president of Community LIFT, the nonprofit group administering the grant, says, “People were coming into the neighborhood again. People were changing their perceptions of the neighborhood. Audiences for the symphony concerts are a combination of the residents of Soulsville, people coming to the neighborhood for the first time, and others who haven’t been to the neighborhood in years. These events really began to open minds and imaginations. They inspire people to think about what’s possible in this neighborhood.”
Charles Santo, director of the University of Memphis Graduate Program in City and Regional Planning, whose class developed the Memphis Music Magnet concept, says, “The cool thing was that it was a different audience for every concert, and the audience told us something positive every time. There was a Midtown demographic with lots of kids at one. That was totally different than the audience for the North Mississippi All-Stars. The gospel show had an audience that was really decked out. People will come if the right amenities are in place. It was also about residents celebrating their neighborhood, and they didn’t have to drive out of it to do it. All in all, it was something really special.”
Memphis Music Magnet was developed to build on the neighborhood anchors of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Stax Music Academy, and to augment the redevelopment of the Soulsville neighborhood by making it a community of choice for musicians, music-related creatives, and other artists. The Memphis Symphony Orchestra was looking for opportunities to expand its outreach programs into neighborhoods where residents would not ordinarily be exposed to its concerts.
Rhonda Causey, MSO’s director of grants and innovation, learned about the Memphis Music Magnet in a chance meeting with Santo. “He told me about it, and it made a lot of sense to me,” she says. “We wanted the symphony to be part of it because we are committed to being relevant in our community. We are proud to be considered one of the most innovative symphonies in the country, we were interested in applying for an ArtPlace grant, and it was meeting Charlie [Santo] that led to a conversation about combining efforts.”
Because of the working arrangement, she says the symphony “reached new people, and people in the neighborhood call our players by their names. Mei-Ann [Chen, music director] is serious about the symphony serving a multicultural audience. Culturally, orchestral music is the last bastion of whiteness, and we want to be part of breaking down that barrier. Inclusiveness sounds trite, but it’s about being part of a movement.”
“Memphis is a magical city of music, and Soulsville is one of the most magical neighborhoods of all,” says Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, who pledged $150,000 for the Memphis Slim renovation. “Memphis is showing how cities can use arts and culture as the vehicles for creative placemaking that can turn around neighborhoods, and that’s why other cities are watching what we’re doing very closely.”
Drawing on his academic training, Santo says: “Traditionally, cities came about because of clustering for trade, and cultural amenities were the side effects. The things that used to be side effects are now critical to the economy. They have gone from being the icing on the cake to being the cake itself. That’s what the Memphis Music Magnet is all about.”