My senior year and especially the spring semester had started an argument that proved to be the most serious disagreement I ever had with my parents. When I took the SAT test and the ACT test, I instructed the test service to send my results to Grambling and Jackson State as well as to the University of Tennessee at Martin. My preference was to attend a historically-Black college, and early on, I had considered Morehouse as well, but I realized that even with a scholarship, my parents would be unable to afford the tuition at Morehouse. I know that many people wonder even now why I was so interested in attending a Black college. Part of it was my growing love for and fascination with Black culture. Part of it too was my desire to live the ideals I said I believed in—integration of the races, and the full inclusion of Black Americans in our country. I always felt that one should live their ideology. Part of it too was my love of jazz music, and my belief that a Black college would be more conducive to a quality education in it. And part of it was that I had given up my lifelong dream of being a lawyer (the media was full of television stories about the "lawyer glut"), and had decided to try to be a high-school band director. As the "corps-style" marching done by predominantly-white schools was quite different from the "show-style" preferred by Black schools, and as my desire was to teach in the inner city, I wanted to attend a "show-style" college and learn that marching band style. Needless to say, my parents did not agree. I had been offered a scholarship from Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee for choir, but that school did not have a marching band, and I was not interested in attending a school that neither had football nor a band program. I also had been offered a scholarship from Auburn, but it was in science, a field in which I had no interest whatsoever (although apparently I had scored highly in it on my tests). Most of my family had ties to Mississippi State University, but that school did not have much of a music program. Jackson State was really my preference, as the Sonic Boom of the South was an excellent marching band, and the jazz program was also excellent, under Doc Russell, as he was known. And (possibly because of my race) they were willing to pay everything....even board. Nevertheless, I could not convince my parents. My mother feared that my presence at JSU might be resented by other students, and my dad felt that a degree there would not mean what a degree from Auburn would mean. Having never lived far away from home for any length of time, I really set my sights too low, because I now realize I could have chosen Julliard, or UCLA, or Tulane. But as for the latter, I didn't realize in 1986 what I realize now, that I love New Orleans more than any other city. So I did what my friend Joe Jefferson was doing, and what other Bartlett students were planning on doing, and I decided to go to UT-Martin. This satisfied my parents, but it really didn't satisfy me. And I sadly look back now and wish that #1. I had not given up my dream of being a lawyer and #2. that I had stood my ground with my mom and dad and gone on to Grambling, or Jackson State or maybe Southern in Baton Rouge, which had a law school.
The one thing I recall most about the Summer of 1986 was that it was a summer full of basketball, and it was a summer that I spent more time hanging out with Ricky Fields, who had been the star of our 1985 and 1986 basketball teams, along with his friend Darryl Carroll, whom people called "Fife" or "Fifi Cuna" for some reason. Ricky would have me pick him up and ride down with me to the new ball courts which the city of Bartlett had put up at Altruria Park, behind the new city hall and the Bartlett branch library. These new courts drew huge gatherings of young men all summer, including former Bartlett players like Alex Morris and Paul Edwards, Ricky and Darryl, Bobby Merriweather and old friends of mine like Lynwood Guy. Once in a while the runnings would be at Freeman Smith, or on at least one memorable Sunday, at Shadowlawn gym, but Altruria Park had become the gathering place. At some point years later, the city took the goals down and did away with the courts in that park as well as those at Freeman Park, presumably because they were attracting too many young men from Memphis.
It was also the summer that Memphis lost some of its innocence. All through my high school years, there had been rumors of gangs, but that was about the extent of it, talk. Every year, on the last week of school, kids would start saying "The Bone Family is going to come up here the last day of school." The Bone Family was supposedly some sort of gang in Memphis, but I came to believe there was no such group, because we never saw the Bone Family at Bartlett on the last day or any other day. Only years later in adulthood did I realize that the point of the rumors was to scare parents so that they would tell their children they could stay home from school on the last day! Al Kapone, the rapper, later made me understand that there really was a gang called the Bone Family, even if we never saw them. But when Run-DMC, L.L. Cool J, Whodini and the Timex Social Club came to the Mid-South Coliseum on June 7th, things took a darker turn. Gangs of young men snatched chains from around people's necks, people were beaten, and damage was done to the coliseum itself.
I wasn't able to go to the concert, but I had been on the Fairgrounds earlier because of a flea market, and what I had seen during the late morning did not bode well for the concert. There were vast lines of people waiting to purchase tickets when the show became a sell-out, and many of these people remained without a ticket, and their mood turned ugly. Jam Master Jay, the DJ, came out to talk to some of the people who had been unable to purchase a ticket, but that didn't entirely console them. It just so happened that I was wearing a bright red shirt with black shorts, and a black Kangol hat which I had purchased from a store in Gulfport in May. It didn't occur to me right away, but to people in that crowd I must have looked like someone associated with the tour, and soon people were begging me for tickets! I had to explain to them that I was a fan and had come over in the hopes of seeing some of the artists, but that I had no more ability of getting them a ticket than I did of getting myself one.
Later in June, the drummer Aaron Walker from White Station High School had called me and asked if I wanted to jam with him at Memphis State, and so I met him down there, and we did some improvising, such as it was. Aaron was far ahead of me as far as jazz was concerned, and he was on his way to Howard University in Washington, DC, which he thought might have been a good place for me. In addition to doing some playing, we also talked on a number of issues of the day, and I have to say that it was Aaron who first made me understand why the issue of apartheid in South Africa was relevant to us in America. Never again would I see that issue as something "over there." I also recall that after I left Aaron, I spied the basketball player Vincent Askew on the campus, riding in a red Iroc with a guy that I later learned was named Tony Starks. Starks later formed a record label called MegaJam Records and had some brief success for awhile with records by Chris McDaniel and Phelan, who was the producer Jazze Pha.
By August, Joe Jefferson and I were making plans to go to UT-Martin in the fall, and were starting to hang out more often. I wanted to ride down to Hamilton High School to check out their band camp (their director at the time, Jimmy McKinley was the husband of Andrea McKinley at Bartlett who was the Streamliners adviser), so Joe decided to ride with me, on a very hot afternoon indeed. I don't recall a whole lot about the camp except that the band was playing and practicing on the park behind the school, and that one of the tunes they were playing was called "Durango." But the bigger thing I recall was two b-boys/break dancers that were hanging in the parking lot outside the band room. They saw my Nikon camera (my parents had given it to me for graduation) and asked me to photograph them, which I did. They were among a handful of pictures I took that summer with the camera before it was stolen from my car in Martin the first week of college.
The last week of August brought sort of an end to my youth, and the beginning of something else. My musician partner agreed to ride down with me to Crump Stadium to see Hamilton High play South Side. It would be my last Memphis experience for nearly two years, other than the summers, and of course my point in going was the bands. We sat directly beside the Hamilton drummers, and ran into Phillip "Playboy" Lewis, a Bartlett student who was there with his girl. What was different is that I had brought my large boom box, and was recording the drummers and their cadences. I thought these drum grooves were worthy of study and research, and without even realizing it, I was becoming an ethnomusicologist. I was fascinated by the different pitches of the bass drums, the tenors, the tri-toms, and the various syncopations and polyrhythms. The young men called out the names of cadences like "TSU" (which I later learned was a cadence that Tennessee State called "Psychotic Funk") and "Pickahoe" (which was their name for Jackson State's cadence "Laws"). This was the beginning of my practice of recording Black marching bands, and especially Black drumlines and cadences. What was I looking for? Early on, I am not sure. Eventually, I hit upon the theory that there could be a direct connection between Black drum cadences in the United States and West African or Caribbean drumming. When I entered graduate school in 1999, that was somewhat in my thinking. Nowadays, I am not as concerned about whether the actual rhythms or patterns are similar, but whether the social function of African-American drumming resembles the function of West African or Caribbean drumming. I have to do far more study, but I strongly suspect that it does.
Unfortunately, that would be my last Friday night in Memphis for quite awhile, as I had to move into the dorms at Martin and go through band camp. I would soon be preoccupied with school, and my efforts to document Black drumming and other aspects of Black culture would basically grind to a halt until I returned to Memphis for good in 1988.