All That Jazz in the Land of the Blues

Feature story for Memphis Magazine

June 2013


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 . . . (read more)