Although Memphis has a legacy that includes some of America’s greatest jazz musicians (including arguably the greatest jazz pianist ever, Phineas Newborn Jr.), it is rare to hear authentic jazz in Memphis nowadays. Such jazz as there is generally occurs at Bleu Restaurant in the Westin Hotel downtown, particularly on Friday nights. This past Friday night featured pianist Steven Lee with his trio, including young up-and-coming drummer Nigel Yancey, son of local veteran trumpeter and big band leader Johnny Yancey. The final set became something of a jam session, as it often does, featuring Johnny Yancey on trumpet and Kyle Lee on tenor saxophone. For those that want traditional, straight-ahead jazz rather than the smooth or neo-soul variety, Bleu on Friday nights is the place to be.
On November 23, 2013, two of the greatest jazz musicians to ever come out of Memphis, pianist Harold Mabern and saxophonist George Coleman appeared in concert at Blount Hall on the campus of Rhodes College. For both musicians, it was their first time back in Memphis in many years, and ended up being something of a reunion of Manassas High School alumni in the audience, including activist and former Manassas and Rhodes student Dr. Coby Smith. Despite suffering a stroke some time ago, George Coleman sounded as good as ever, and his son George Coleman Jr. was the drummer for the evening. But perhaps the highlight of the evening (for those who stuck around) came after two sets of great jazz music, when Harold Mabern spoke to the few of us left in the hall about his good friend and mentor Phineas Newborn Jr, who was also a Memphian, and arguably the best jaazz pianist ever.
After I left the block party in Crosstown, I headed out to The Grindz Coffee in Cordova because I had heard that they occasionally have jazz there on Friday nights. On this particular Friday night, they were not featuring jazz, but they did have a live neo-soul/funk band called PurElegance that was rather impressive. Unfortunately, the live music on Fridays at Grindz only runs until 9 PM, so I only got a chance to check out three tunes or so as I enjoyed my latte. But the atmosphere is comfortable, and Grindz features good music and coffee.
Donald Harrison Jr. & The Congo Square Nation perform two Black Indian standard songs at their performance at Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans during the weekly Jazz In The Park series on May 23, 2013.
Memphis music is a RENEWABLE resource. The way we renew it is by mentoring and encouraging young people who want to play an instrument. Seeing young men such as these come to sit in at a gig is very encouraging.