All That Jazz in the Land of Blues
The music we never knew.
(page 2 of 5)
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.”