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.
On the first Sunday of each month, Brinson’s in downtown Memphis sponsors a free event called First Sunday, which seems to be something of a music showcase and a trade show all at once, with live performances and exhibits of locally-sourced products. This month, my homeboys in the 4 Soul Band were scheduled to perform, so I went to support them. 4 Soul is one of our city’s best neo-soul/funk/jazz bands, performing in a number of local venues, and behind several local rap artists.
As I posted last week, the Memphis metropolitan area has an amazing level of talent when it comes to drummers, and that was obvious again during the third round of the Memphis Drum-Off at Guitar Center on September 23rd. Two winners from each of the rounds advance to the store finals on the 30th, from which one will advance to Nashville for the state competition, from which one will advance to Atlanta to battle for the regional award, and one drummer from the South will go to Los Angeles for the national championship, which includes a drum set, endorsements and $25,000. And yes, a Memphis drummer has won nationally in the past.
After dinner, the Core DJ Retreat had another party, but it was at a strip club in South Jackson, and I don’t go to strip clubs, so I decided to head over to Hal & Mal’s, where the Southern Komfort Brass Band was scheduled to appear. I had heard this band at Underground 119 last year, and was quite impressed with them, as they are one of the few brass bands not from New Orleans to measure up to the standards of that city’s brass band tradition. I had not expected an opening act, but saxophonist Ryan Raziano proved to be a decent contemporary jazz musician, and his backing band was first rate indeed. Of course, the Southern Komfort Brass Band rocked the house, just as they had last year, and while they played some familiar brass band standards like “Do Whatcha Wanna”, they also played some tunes I have never heard done by a brass band, such as Sade’s “The Sweetest Taboo.” After a rousing set of music, they were followed by Jackson saxophonist Ezra Brown, who was celebrating his birthday. But I wanted to catch Dexter Allen at F. Jones Corner, so I headed out.
While the Cutting Edge NOLA hip-hop showcase was going on at Cafe Istanbul, a music industry mixer and showcase was also going on a few blocks away at Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club, so I stopped by there after I left the Istanbul. The next band to go on stage after I arrived was led by a young drummer named Jamal Batiste, whom I had seen play a couple of years ago with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and percussionist Bill Summers’ at Mayfield’s second jazz club at the W Hotel. His band this year included members of the Yisrael Trio, a really talented contemporary jazz group that I had seen during last year’s Cutting Edge when they played at a club called Mojitos. Not surprisingly, this group sounded really good indeed. But I had intended to drive further up to Louis Armstrong Park, because the New Orleans South African Connection (NOSACONN) was supposed to be sponsoring some sort of second-line from the park to Sweet Lorraine’s, and I had originally planned to park the car and get it in. But it was outrageously hot, and when I neared the park, I saw that the second-line had only a few musicians and buckjumpers, maybe about 10 in all. So I decided to go uptown and grab dinner instead, and then maybe head to something called the Mid-Summer Mardi Gras that was listed in the event calendars.
Vaughan’s is an out-of-the-way neighborhood bar in the Bywater neighborhood just across the Industrial Canal from the Lower 9th Ward, and the last time I was there, the great Kermit Ruffins himself was playing on a Thursday night to a standing room only crowd. Ruffins gave up that gig not long after, and Vaughan’s has tried a succession of different bands and groups since then on Thursdays, which is the only night that the bar features live music, but Ruffins’ shoes are hard to fill. However, Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill, though hardly as well-known as Ruffins, is a brilliantly-gifted trumpet player with the mastery of his instrument and the self-assuredness to attempt to fill the slot, and does a good job at it, ably backed by his band, known as the Heart Attack. Hill’s repertoire is younger and less traditional than Kermit’s, but in some ways, that’s a good thing. After my arrival, his first set included a funked-out version of the brass band standard “Always There”, and a far more traditional reading of the classic “Backatown Blues”. Such versatility should stand Hill in good stead, and I suspect we’ll be hearing far more from him going forward. As for Vaughan’s, unsuspecting tourists should not be fooled by the signs out front. The bar does not offer po-boys, although they do have red beans and rice on Thursdays.
My first stop was at the jazz showcase of Cutting Edge NOLA, which was going on at Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club on North Claiborne Avenue, a neighborhood venue that also serves as headquarters for the social aid and pleasure club known as the Black Men of Labor, whose logo is prominently displayed on the premises. Though not as well known as the city’s other jazz club, Snug Harbor, Sweet Lorraine’s proved to be a beautiful and spacious club for live music, with a large stage and a beautiful grand piano. The band that was performing was that of Jairus Daigle from Lake Charles, a young jazz violinist with two albums under his belt already who is about to head to the Berklee School of Music in Boston this fall. Many of his band members are family members, as the Daigle family name is well-known in Lake Charles for jazz, soul and funk. Although the jazz style Jairus performed was fusion and contemporary jazz rather than traditional, straight ahead jazz, I was still very impressed by the young man’s facile mastery of the violin.
I knew that live music went on at Brinson’s in downtown Memphis, but it had been years since I had been there, so when I read that the Concrete Soul Band would be playing there, I decided to drive down and check it out. Concrete Soul proved to be a very funky, tight band, playing both smooth jazz and some neo-soul, and after the intermission, we got a special surprise as former Memphian Arean Alston came on stage to perform. Alston had been in Memphis all week, and had performed elsewhere, but it was great to see her in the city again.
My bass-playing friend Monte Butts had asked me to come down to Tupelo and play a gig with him at the Linc Center, and when the gig was over at 9:30, I didn’t just feel like turning around and driving back to Memphis. So I used my Hangtime app on my phone, and saw where a band called the House of Funk was playing at Woody’s Steakhouse on Gloster Street. I had always thought of Woody’s as an upscale steakhouse, and not the sort of place to book a band with a name like House of Funk. But I dutifully headed over there anyway, and discovered that far in the back of Woody’s is a place called the Captain’s Den Lounge, with a stage area for bands, and there the House of Funk was, playing a delightful mix of soul and rhythm and blues, with a room full of their fans in the bar. They took an intermission, but only a brief one, and soon returned with a fiery latin instrumental, and then performed a couple of vocal originals that were actually really great songs. I was actually disappointed when their performance ended for the night.
When Memphis’ African-American repertory company the Hattiloo Theatre moved to new digs in the Overton Square area earlier this year, many probably wondered what would become of their old location on Marshall Avenue, closer to downtown. Those questions were answered recently when a portion of the space became the Dizzy Bird Lounge, a place that states its intention to become a jazz club in Memphis, something that our city has badly needed since the closure of Cafe Soul a couple of years ago. The space is relatively small but comfortable, with a downstairs lounge decorated with African-American artwork, and a small upstairs loft with tables and chairs. Although the theme of the place is jazz (“Dizzy” refers to Dizzy Gillespie, and “Bird” to Charlie Parker), the music on stage the night I visited was a soulful singer-songwriter from Memphis named Barbara Jenice, who was performing with keyboardist Timothy Moore and a percussionist, as well as a couple of special guests who sat in. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, the Dizzy Bird intends to have spoken word or neo-soul type events on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and more mainstream jazz on weekends. They currently offer fruit and cupcakes, and are otherwise BYOB, at least for the time being.
The Dizzy Bird Lounge
652 Marshall Av
Memphis, TN 38103