Sunday, October 25, 2020

Summer 1986: Raising Hell

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.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Spring 1986: Everybody Wants to Rule The World: Bartlett Basketball, Spring Break and Graduation

The new year of 1986 brought a new milestone to my life in January when drummer Joel Tate arranged for us to play a gig for a wedding reception at a small building on Beale Street about a block east of the old Universal Life Insurance Company headquarters. This was the first real public gig I recall playing, and it was just piano and drums, but the families of the bride and groom said they enjoyed it. I really don't recall what tunes we played, but it was a beginning, of sorts. A week later, I made the All-West Tennessee Jazz Red Band, despite the fact that Bartlett didn't have a jazz band, and I had no experience as an improviser.

As in the previous school year, I remained an equipment carrier for the Bartlett basketball team, and since I was still writing for the Panther newspaper, the job gave me an opportunity to travel to the away games, and report on the team from within. Now the road trips were even more fun, however, since I had a big boom box, and most of the time, I would let Ricky Fields hold it and be the DJ. He had tapes from Club No Name that Ray the Jay and DJ Sundown were giving him, and his taste in music was exquisite. However, on a Friday evening in February where we were headed to Somerville to play Fayette-Ware, I had arrived at the Bartlett gym fairly early, and, as I recall, the weather was unusually warm, so I sat outside the front doors with my box, searching on the radio dial until I was caught by an absolutely luscious piece of classical music on WKNO that I didn't recognize. The beautiful piece seemed to match the Spring-like weather we were having (out of season), and although some students wanted me to change to a different station, I couldn't do it before getting to the end of the piece and finding out what it was. As it turned out, it was the Fourth Symphony of the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, a work subtitled "Deliciae Basiliennes" that was composed in 1946. Although I knew of Honegger, and loved his piece "Pastoral d'Ete," I had not heard the symphony before that afternoon. Once we were on the bus and on Highway 64 however, Ricky put on the new cassette album by a rapper named L. L. Cool J, and I was enthralled. Over two albums, the group Run D.M.C. had seemed to move toward a harder, more stripped-down sound, and now Cool J's album "Radio" carried that to its logical conclusion. The beats were basically nothing more than percussion and scractches, over which the 15-year old rapper from Queens delivered his cocky lyrics. Even the song "Rock the Bells," the clear single, was basically built around timbales rather than bells, the sparse drum-based aural landscape suggesting the gritty urban environment of New York City. It was easy to imagine J as a young streetwise B-Boy. This album would remain on my playlist throughout the rest of the semester.

Also in February, just in time for the first cool snap and snowstorm of the year, some of the choir members traveled to Martin, Tennessee for the UT-Martin Honor Choir. This was a trip that allowed me to consider Martin as a potential college destination for the fall, and while I was there, I met many of the music faculty, and I also caught up with Paul Edwards, a former Bartlett student who was going to UT-Martin. However, the dreary winter weather did not make the trip enjoyable, nor did the behavior of the two other Bartlett choir members who attended with me. Our old choir director, Ed Riddick had gone back to the University of Mississippi for his master's degree, and his replacement was a man in his 70s who had been choir director at Rosemark Academy. He did not choose to travel to the Honor Choir in Martin, so my fellow Bartlett singers skipped the rehearsals during the day, and when I came back to the hotel room, I found a pharmacopia of drugs. I considered music almost something sacred, and it was more in outrage over their failure to recognize the high calling of music than any laws broken that I flushed all their drugs down the toilet. When I returned from the performance (which as I recall they also skipped), they had locked me out of the room while freezing rain was falling. I had to get a chaperone from another school to get me back into my room. Not a word was said between me and the other two Bartlett students, but when I awakened the next morning, they had stolen $40 out of my wallet. I let the matter drop. About the only high point of the trip was a piece we sang called "I Beheld Her, Beautiful As A Dove," by the Canadian composer Healy Willan. It was absolutely lovely, and I have loved it ever since. A few days later, I had to decide whether to compete for a singing chair in the All-State Tennessee Chorus, or whether to compete as accompanist. I decided to go for a singing chair instead, and won second-chair baritone statewide, for a concert and convention that would be held in April.

Although we did not have a jazz band, we did have a percussion ensemble, and a few of the pieces we played, particularly one called Pentatonic Clock had a piano part. Such percussion ensembles were not common at the high school level in our area, although I think that Overton High School had one, as they were a performing arts high school in the city. So it came as no surprise that we were scheduled to perform at the Percussive Arts Society's Day of Percussion in March at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. Our band director Mr. Cooke drove us to Murfreesboro the night before, where we checked into a hotel, and then he took us to Tower Records in Nashville. I had never seen such a record store before (nothing in Memphis came anywhere near it) and soon I had found an album by the jazz drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson called Pulse.

Perhaps my fascination with drums and drummers, despite being a keyboard player, came from my encounter with the Fayette-Ware High School drumline back in 1984, but it was also fueled by my growing interest in jazz, particularly as I listened to Ed Horne's Sunday afternoon jazz shows on WLOK. On his programs, I routinely heard drummers like Billy Higgins, Ben Riley, Eddie Gladdens, Tony Williams, Idris Muhammad and Ed Blackwell, and I was amazed by the way these drummers made use of not only rhythm but pitch. I also had read Valerie Wilmer's book As Serious As Your Life and Amiri Baraka's Black Music, which had discussed Black drummers in jazz, especially the avant-garde, and occasionally in terms that suggested that the liberation of drummers in jazz was analogous to the liberation of Blacks in American society. I had done enough reading in Black history to know that the Southern states had made efforts to keep Blacks from having drums, so I was coming to view Black drummers as "culture rebels" and "culture heroes." They were of course also "culture bearers," but it would not be until my adulthood, when I began a serious study of New Orleans music, that I would encounter that term.

Although I had encountered solo drum tracks on jazz albums, such as Max Roach's "Conversation" off the Deeds, Not Words album, Ronald Shannon Jackson's Pulse was the first solo drum album I had encountered, even if some of the tracks featured spoken word, either by Jackson or by poet Michael S. Harper over the backing drum solos. Perhaps surprisingly, Pulse (the reissue was named Puttin' On Dog) has remained one of my enduring jazz albums, despite being almost strictly drum solos. Only a talented and creative drummer like Ronald Shannon Jackson could sustain interest over the length of an album with just a drumset and his voice, and he does exactly that. The opening solo "Circus of Civilized Fools" starts out with the "Mop-Mop" pattern derived from Max Roach's famous solo "Four Big Sid" before reaching a passage where Jackson coaxes long deep tones with rolls on his five pentatonically-tuned toms. An extremely-fast section follows, which then dissolves into a fierce section of triplets and cymbal crashes over a bass drum pattern which seems derived from Roach's "The Drum Also Waltzes." When this subsides, Jackson sets up a 3/4 rhythm with his bass drum and hi-hats, to which he then adds rolls on the snare and toms. After eight bars of this, Jackson switches the rhythm of the snare and tom rolls to 2/4 while keeping the bass drum and hi-hat pattern in three, which sets up a polyrhythmic aspect. A fast cadenza closes with hard-hitting rolls on the toms to end the piece. Immediately, this is followed by the eleven-minute-long "Richard III, The Raven," which sounds as if it grew out the first piece, but it is a far more harrowing listen. Jackson's humming amplifies to growling and groaning over a basic groove that is suddenly interrupted by a brutal assault on the snare, bass drum and toms, while Jackson's vocal utterances become frantic yelps. Bits of words he seems to speak are incoherent. When he does finally speak noticeable words, they are lines from Shakespeare, "I that am curtailed of fair proportion." Jackson seems to take the words as a cue, seeing in "curtailed of fair proportion" a suggestion of Blackness, but the words are meant to suggest the rhythms he is playing on the drums. He adds a blues-like aside, "Good Lord knows I didn't want to be born." When the fury temporarily subsides, Jackson sets up a pattern of repeated eight-notes on the bass drum, over which he plays snare and tom rhythms which frame the words "Sent into the world before my time." The second part of the piece, built around Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven," is if anything bleaker and more subdued, but the rage remains below the surface, bursting forth at Jackson's interporlation "I have been tired and weary." In a bluesy passage (Jackson grew up hearing blues in juke joints and dives of his native Fort Worth), the drummer states "Nevermore experienced this weary soul the blues, but to say, It ain't supposed to be that way!" whereupon he concludes the piece with a second-line section, a series of hard cymbal rolls, then tom and bass drum attacks, and finally a West-African-sounding tom-tom and bass drum dance which dies away. The remaining tracks are shorter; the solos represent African culture in "Hottentot Woman," Native American resistance to imperialism in "Geronimo's Run," and Jackson's Buddhist beliefs in "Tears For The Earthbound." The poems, Sterling Brown's "Slim in Atlanta" and "Puttin' on Dog," Richard Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," and Michael S. Harper's "Bessie's Blues Song" about Bessie Smith further the overall theme of the album, Black frustration with racism. From Jackson's "It ain't supposed to be that way," to Brown's "laws against N-gg-s laughing outdoors," to Bessie Smith dying in Mississippi after a car crash because a white hospital refused to admit her, Pulse suggests that Black Americans were in fact dissatisfied with Ronald Reagan's America.

As a senior, I was required to write a senior paper, and had had a difficult time in finding a subject to write about which my English teacher would approve. My initial plan was to write a history of Shadowlawn High School; after all I had done much research on the subject, and had even been to the library at the School Board offices to see what they had about Shadowlawn, but my teacher refused to approve the subject. So I finally hit upon the idea of writing a history of the drum and bugle corps known as the Memphis Blues Brass Band, affectionately called MB3 by its members, friends and fans. This she did approve, and my senior paper entitled The Parades of Summer: The Memphis Blues Brass Band 1980-1983 was the result. Viewed from today's perspective, it was overly dependent on the Commercial Appeal and magazines like Drum Corps World, and short on interviews with people who were actually there. All the same, it was basically my first work of historical and musicological research. Perhaps at some point I will revise and improve it.

Spring Break was always a big deal each year for Bartlett students. The majority of white students typcially went to Panama City Beach, but my parents forbade me to go, because the events were unofficial and unsupervised, and they felt I might get into trouble. But the predominantly-Black Streamliners club of which I was a member was sponsoring a trip to Orlando and Daytona Beach from March 26-30, and because Mrs. McKinley, our sponsor, was going, along with other parents, my parents felt more comfortable about me making that trip. I remember having my jam box, sitting in the charter bus, waiting for our trip to get under way. It was warm and sunny, and a new song came on K-97 called "The Screams of Passion" which sounded exactly like Prince. It was actually by a band called The Family, which had emerged out of the breakup of Morris Day and the Time, but Prince had produced it, and this short-lived band also introduced the Prince song "Nothing Compares 2 U." We were listening to L.L. Cool J's album as we headed down Highway 78 in Mississippi, but eventually one of the parents put on Bobby "Blue" Bland's Members Only album. It's hard to imagine that I wasn't a blues fan then, but I really wasn't. I was into jazz, and I was into classical, but I had not learned to appreciate blues. By the time that I did, it was really too late; both R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough had died. We stopped at some sort of buffet in Montgomery, Alabama, and after that, I fell asleep.

I don't recall everything we did every day, but I remember that we spent a busy day at Walt Disney World, and it was really quite enjoyable. I remember also going to the mall in South Orlando, where we checked out clothing stores and record stores. I also remember that I took pictures of Rhonda Holloway and others on that trip, but I no longer know what happened to the pictures. The next day, we were to have gone to Sea World, but there was something of a rebellion. We made Mrs. McKinley understand that we would prefer to go to Daytona Beach instead and go swimming in the Atlantic, and she agreed, so we made the trip on the day we otherwise would have gone to Sea World. I thought it was a good decision, and we all had a ball. The next day, as I recall, was Easter Sunday, one of the few I ever spent away from family. Mrs. McKinley insisted that we have a sort of devotional and prayer beside the swimming pool at our motel, and I found that wholesome and comforting. Then we began the long journey back from Orlando to Bartlett. Although we were tired, we had lots of fun, and there was not even one untoward incident.

By April the end of school was upon us. Joel Tate had recruited a couple of lead guitarist (one was Derek Harris) and a bass guitarist for our band, and for a brief time, I was serious about trying to make it work. Ultimately, there were just too many different directions of different people, and Joel ultimately lost interest in music altogether. At the same time, I spent a lot of time continuing to research the Shadowlawn High School history, interviewing people along Ellis Road, Appling Road, Ellendale Road and Old Brownsville Road who had attended the school. Although I never found any copies of the old yearbook, or pictures of the Shadowlawn teams, band or cheerleaders, I did get lots of stories about the realities of Shadowlawn High School from former students, and eventually from former teachers as well. One former student, Andrew Nolen, was in fact a groundskeeper at Bartlett High School, and he told me about a sad incident in which some Shadowlawn students were suspended for singing Shadowlawn's alma mater at a Bartlett school assembly in 1970 or 1971, after their school had been closed by the Federal courts and they were forced to transfer to Bartlett. The head of our building maintenance was a musician from Fayette County named George Dean, who was well-known as the leader of a quartet called the Gospel Fours; in fact he sometimes drove the group van to work. By April or early May, the song I recall is "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," which was on radios and loudspeakers everywhere. Its reliance on a major seventh chord was not particularly common in popular music, and it had a pleasant, hot, summertime vibe to it. And almost without warning, there I was, walking across the stage at the old Mid-South Coliseum to receive my diploma. There was some heckling in the balcony when my name was called (not everyone took kindly to my hanging with Black students), and I was sorry that my parents had to hear and witness that, but I had graduated and it was on to bigger and better things.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Fall 1985: Hoppin' Knights Rock the World

My perspective of the football season during my senior year at Bartlett High School was different, as for the first time, I was in the marching band. I wasn't actually marching, but I was in the sidelines pit as a keyboard player, so I could neither be the fan in the stands, nor a photographer on the sidelines. Just about every weekend was a marching festival out of town in addition to our Friday night ball games, so I was far busier than I had been in previous years. I recall that my job was primarily to play the keyboard parts on the song "Axel F" from the movie Beverly Hills Cop.

One of our first out of town tournaments, if not our first, was at Milan, Tennessee on the weekend of September 14, and it was memorable for a couple of reasons. We had a student who had transferred in from out of town named Perry McCall, who was quite a breakdancer and stepper, and had been accepted into the Rho Psi Kappas, the unofficial fraternity we had at Bartlett. (I had hoped to also be accepted into that group, but was rejected.) At any rate, when the band performed at Milan, Perry got out on either the field or the sidelines and breakdanced, which I don't think pleased our director Mr. Cooke much, although I remember thinking it was cool indeed. But the other thing that I recall was an organization called the Milan Knights, whose members were everywhere around the festival. They were an all-Black group (at least as far as I could tell) and wore jackets with a season and year on one side (Fall 1985, for example) and the letters HKRW on the other, as well as nicknames like "Sporty T," "Cool Rock C" and "Andre." However, what they actually had to do with the band festival was never clear to us. When we left the festival, we stopped at a Burger King down the street for food, and I recall that the Knights had followed us down there, and were deep in the restaurant. I don't recall that they started anything with us, but I think some of our members thought they might.

A couple of weeks later, we ran into the Milan Knights again when we went to another festival at Rothrock Stadium in Jackson, Tennessee. This stadium was in East Jackson, across from an abandoned college campus complete with abandoned dormitories, which we found out was the former location of Union University before it had moved out on the 45 Bypass. I found it a rather forlorn and sad place, but in the twilight as we arrived, Jackson Central-Merry's band was warming up on what had been the Quadrangle of the old campus, and to my amnazement, they were playing the same arrangement of "Precious Lord" that the Bartlett Chamber Choir had sung to win an award at Opryland in 1984. (I didn't know it at the time, but that arrangement was made by a former Jackson State University student from Chicago named Arnold Sevier. It was unpublished at the time, but since has been published and is now readily available everywhere). There were plenty of Milan Knights in the stands of the stadium in their blue-and-white attire, but we noticed quite a few other students in the stands wearing fraternity regalia as well. Most of the organizations seemed patterned after the Black college fraternities such as Phi Beta Sigma, Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi and Omega Psi Phi. Someone told me that the "HKRW" on the Milan Knights' regalia stood for "Hoppin' Knights Rock the World," but I never independently verified that. I honestly don't recall how we did, but I remember that we had fun, so we must have done well.

On October 11, signs had gone up about a Sophisticated Gents party at the Raleigh Skateland, but it ended up being postponed because of the Memphis State homecoming events, which included a Bar-Kays concert. In fact, the Rho Psi Kappas had discussed throwing a party and decided against it because so many of their members wanted to attend the homecoming events at MSU. The next day, as we headed out on the band buses to Murray, Kentucky for yet another marching festival, Eddie Oliver, one of our drummers, was giving us a thorough review of the Bar-Kays show, which he had attended. The Sophisticated Gents skating party was rescheduled for October 18, but that was also the date of a party being sponsored by two other organizations, the Lambda Psi Deltas and Phi Nu Kappas at the Rodeway Inn on Alston Avenue near the Old Bridge. Most of the Rho Psi Kappas were planning to attend that party, and as I was not much of a skater, I decided that I would likely attend that one as well.

When the day came, Joel tate, who was the drummer in my band, and I rolled first to the Fairgrounds, where Tech and Treadwell were playing football, but since there wasn't any crowd, and no impressive bands or drummers, we headed over the Crump Stadium, where Northside was playing South Side. There was a large crowd there, and when that game was over, we headed further down to Beale Street, and then ended up at the Rodeway Inn where the Phi Nu Kappa party was in progress. Since Rhonda Holloway and Chrystal Robinson were on the door, we had no difficulty in getting in, but there did not seem to be a whole lot going on, and we ended up leaving.

The next day proved to be a tragedy. As we were heading down Stage Road from the band room on our way to Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi for a band festival, a boy crossed the median of the road and slammed into our equipment truck, which Mr. Cooke, the band director, was driving. The boy turned out to be a Briarcrest student named John Mitchell who had been at a church lockin the night before, and had fallen asleep at the wheel. The police kept all of us at the scene for several hours as they investigated what happened, before we were finally allowed to proceed to Oxford. The wreck had damaged some of our pit instruments, and I recall nothing about our performance that day. What I do remember is that we eventually got word that the boy who struck our truck had died.

That fall I also had formed a band with the saxophone player John Tate and his brother Joel Tate, who was a drummer. Early on, we called our band City Commission. Later Joel lost interest, and we briefly joined up with another Bartlett student named Madure, but after creative differences, we separated from him, and eventually Marlas Franklin became our drummer. Our guitar player was from Treadwell High and was named Derek Harris. Sadly, we never really got anywhere, and were somewhat working at cross purposes. Even though we all liked Prince and Morris Day and the Time, I was becoming more and more enamored of the British band The Style Council, and similar bands like the Blow Monkeys and Swing Out Sister, as well as old-school soul and blues. Derek and I ended up going separate ways. I did a bit of playing with Mojo Buford on Beale (he always disparagingly called me a "be-bopper" because of my alternate blues changes) and Derek eventually ended up on the road with Albert King.

Another interest of mine that fall was that I finally started seriously researching the music of the classical composer Joaquin Turina, whose La Procesion del Rocio had so impressed me at the Tennessee All-State in Nashville back in 1984. Having developed an exchange of letters with the composer's son-in-law Alfredo Moran, I learned a lot more about the composer and was sent some manuscript copies and out-of-print scores and recordings. I also wrote to his publisher Union Musical Espanola, since the American agent G. Schirmer could never seem to fill my orders for Turina's music, and they allowed me to make purchases from them in Spain. I was thrilled beyond words when in the mail on November 5, I found a package from Madrid, which contained the piano scores for Turina's Danzas Fantasticas and Fantasia Sobre Cinco Notas. The "Preludio" from the latter work had first introduced me (or should I say seduced me?) to Turina's music.

The Rho Psi Kappas had planned a large party at the Ramada Inn on Union Avenue downtown, on November 16, which was the same night as Snowflake, Bartlett High School's winter ball. In the event, I didn't go to either event. Snowflake was open to all Bartlett students, at least in theory, but there was a lot about it that discouraged Black students from attending. It was held at a country club, and tickets were expensive. Furthermore, if I understand correctly, the entertainment was invariably a rock band. As for why I didn't go to the other event, I really cannot recall. I might literally have not had the money for a ticket.

By November, basketball season had started, and I recall that on the 19th, we rode the team bus down to Germantown High School for one of the first games of the year. I was both an equipment manager and a reporter for the Panther, so I had the unique and enviable position of being an embedded reporter with the team. What I recall though was that Ricky Fields had been to Club No Name down on Lamar at some point, and had gotten a cassette tape from DJ Sundown (was that an earlier name for DJ Soni D?)which he was jamming on his box. That was the first time I ever heard the Memphis party anthem "Set It Off," or at least the first time I ever recall hearing it. Indeed, I have never heard that song anywhere outside of Memphis, but here it is still heard at parties, even after all these years.

Peculiarly, I don't recall marching in any Christmas parades with the Bartlett band. It may be because I played in the pit and would have had nothing to march with on the streets. I do remember one year when for my birthday, my parents bought me a jam box that could play compact discs, and a couple of compact discs of my choice, one of which was Arthur Honegger's oratorio Le Roi David and the other of which was Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Violin Concerto. I also recall that they took me downtown to the lighting of the city Christmas tree, which was on an open square in front of the Morgan Keegan Tower, and that there was a parade of high school and junior high bands, including Hamilton High School and Trezevant High School, and that may have been in 1985.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Summer 1985: A Sophisticated Gents Party, Summer Camp at Springdale Lakes, State Student Council Camp at Kingston Springs, and Bartlett Band Camp

Once school was out, summer was always my favorite time of year. With nothing I had to do, I spent most days walking out Highway 64 to Oak Grove to chill with Jessie Yancey, Dennis Person or other friends of mine. I recall one day that I walked much further out Billy Maher Road instead, to Old Brownsville Road, where I recall running into Frederick Smith, and I remember it being one of the hottest days of the year. I also vividly remember the elderly people on their porches saying "Good Evening," which confused me as it was only about one o'clock in the afternoon! I eventually learned that for older African-Americans, there was no afternoon, only morning and evening. One older woman that Frederick and I stopped to talk to stated that the world was in the final days, as it had never been so hot in June before. She spoke on the subject with firm conviction.

As I recall, this was also the summer I took driving lessons at Bartlett High. After one of the lessons, as I was leaving the campus, a friend of mine named Anthony Crawford called down to me from an upstairs window that the Sophisticated Gents were having a party on July 12 out on Ellis Road. This was a social club that seemed to center around James Chaffin and some older guys that had gone to Bartlett High School before us. I had attended one of their parties before, but it had just begun to really get under way when my parents had expected me to come back home. Even so, I tried to attend their events when I could. Later that afternoon, I walked out to Oak Grove and found James Chaffin out in front of his house working on the blue Impala that he had purchased from Ricky Fields, and he also reminded me about the event on Friday night. Ricky and Kevin Burns drove up right around that time to see what James was doing with the old car, and then Terrence Kelley pulled up with flyers and posters for the event. Although I had wanted to attend the party, I don't recall being there, so I probably wasn't able to go.

That month I also had summer camp at Springdale Lakes at Myrtle, Mississippi near New Albany. This had been my church's presbytery camp grounds for a long time, and was much beloved. It had three spring-fed lakes, one of which had a sort of beach, and although the facilities were somewhat primitive, we always enjoyed ourselves. I didn't know of course at the time that we would never be back. The presbytery for some reason turned the camp and facilities over to the New Albany Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, which could not afford to maintain and keep it, so it was sold and closed. We eventually had summer camps in other locations, but nothing was ever the same after we lost Springale.

The very next week was state leadership camp at Kingston Springs, Tennessee, sponsored by the Tennessee Association of Student Councils. I had imagined it would be a fun few days, but it quickly got off to a bad start for me, because one of the workshops involved a scenario where a boat only had room for four people, and we were to decide who to keep and who to leave behind to I recall one of the characters was a Black woman on welfare, another was a research scientist, and so on. Maybe if I had not just come from my Christian summer camp, I might have gone along with the program, but as it was, the "workshop" was immoral and disgusting, and I said so. In my opinion, it was entirely inappropriate to have high school students make value judgments about who should live or die in a disaster or crisis under the guise of "leadership training." I think the director of the camp got fairly disgusted with me, but I held my ground that as a Christian I could not participate in that particular exercise, and as I recall a few other high-schoolers agreed with me. I recall that Rhonda Holloway was also at the camp, and things ended up getting better before the week was out. At the campfire one night, a young man from Franklin County named Tracy Kinslow and his friend Tracy Hayward started rapping the lyrics to old rap songs, inlcuding "Rapper's Delight," which I hadn't thought of in years. We ended up becoming friends, at least during the camp days. Some years later, when I had occasion to drive through Winchester and Decherd, I tried to look Tracy up and could not find him. My mom and dad were originally supposed to pick me up from Kingston Springs, but they found that Rhonda's dad, Dr. Sammie Holloway was going up to pick her up, so he agreed to bring me back as well.

The following week I was in Gulfport, Mississippi with my grandparents, and as usual, I ventured across the tracks into the Black neighborhood called Soria City to shoot basketball and hang out. My grandmother didn't like the neighborhood much; she called it "Sewer City," but I never felt uncomfortable there. On the other hand, on one particular day, I encountered a group of youngsters who told me, "You in Soria City, now. Act right, homeboy!" I didn't quite know what to make of that, but they laughed and didn't seem malicious about it. Then one of them asked me if I was from California. That truly did surprise me, because I couldn't imagine why anyone would think I was from California.

Still a week later, I was back in Bartlett for band camp, although school had not yet started. In those days our practice field was behind the Bartlett United Methodist Church, and behind a row of houses on Shelby Street, which did not sit well with some of the people who lived in those houses. We had an amusing incident early when Mr. Cooke, the band director, backed his pickup truck into the wooden podium where the director or drum major was to stand and knocked it down. He was as good-natured about it as we were, although it left the directors and drum majors with no elevated place to stand for conducting. Not as funny was a lawsuit brought by a man living on Shelby Street against the band, complaining that since he worked nights and slept during the day, our afternoon rehearsals were depriving him of sleep or rest. Fortunately, when his case came to court about the end of August, the judge dismissed it. By then school was back in session.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Spring 1985: Bartlett Basketball, All-West Tennessee Jazz Band and the Renegades Redux

Bartlett's basketball season in 1984-1985 was a far cry from the previous year. Under new coach Hubie Smith, the team had a much better look, and Ricky Fields and Darryl Carroll were not only stars of the Bartlett team, but attracting notice elsewhere in the county as well. In January, we again headed out to Somerville for a game with Fayette-Ware, but this year's experience was quite different from the year before, as Fayette County had built a new, elaborate high school campus. Although I ran into Edward Thompson Jr and Reynaldo Powell from Fayette-Ware's drumline, the drummers did not play at the game this year as they had the year before, and the atmosphere was quite different in the new spacious gymnasium from the old, crowded one we had seen in 1984. A week later, we were in Munford, at a game that was somewhat poorly attended because Prince was in concert at the Mid-South Coliseum. We ended up defeating Munford, which did not sit well with one of their players named Amos Somerville, and we narrowly escaped a fight in leaving the gymnasium to our bus.

Prince was the epitome of music for most of us that winter, but we also loved Sheila E's "The Glamorous Life," UTFO's "Roxanne," the Real Roxanne's answer to that song, "Tears" by the Force MD's and Kurtis Blow's song "Basketball," which of course was immensely popular with members of the Bartlett team.

In February, I auditioned for the All-West Tennessee Jazz Band at Central High School for the first time, despite the fact that I could not improvise at all in those days. I could read charts, and amazingly, I ended up making it, but I was woefully inadequate as a jazz musician, to put it mildly. However, I met a young drummer from White Station named Aaron Walker, who had been warming up on a samba rhythm on the set before his audition. His dad, Dr. Walter Walker was the president of LeMoyne-Owen College, and I found that we had a lot of shared interests when it came to jazz.

On the first really warm week in March, my dad had to go to Covington to a presbytery meeting at the Covington Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and I decided to ride with him. While he was in the meeting, I walked all around Covington, eating at Lil Porky's Bar-B-Que, and walking up to the Black business district on North Main Street, where there was a cafe and pool hall called Isaac Elam's Cafe No. 2, with a considerable crowd of people inside, despite it being a Tuesday. A sign in the window announced a picnic out in Tipton County somewhere at which a DJ called Master Blaster was supposed to provide the music. (Later, when I attended the University of Tennessee at Martin, I met Isaac Elam's nephew Patrick Tipton). I also recall of that night that I had just become aware of Aaron Copland's Piano Concerto and Music For The Theatre and that I was listening to a cassette tape of them all the way home from Tipton County. I was beginning to pay attention to the impact of jazz on classical music, even back then.

In April, Bartlett got its first high school fraternity. Memphis schools had fraternities, like the Omega Preps and the Kappa League, and there were also old Memphis social clubs like the Sons of Douglass, the Grand Dukes of Carver or the Central Gents, but the Shelby County Schools frowned on fraternities, and when the Rho Psi Kappas did appear at Bartlett, they were of course not officially recognized by the school authorities. All the same, the Royal Knights, as they were also known, made their debut at a Key Club dance at Bartlett High, and as I recall, they stepped and carried canes like the Kappa Alpha Psis in college.

The All-West Tennessee Jazz Band performance was in some ways disappointing, as my friend Aaron Walker, the drummer, had to withdraw from it due to a schedule conflict with the Memphis Youth Symphony of which he was a member. However, I was impressed with his replacement, a drummer from Central High named Reginald Taber, and the show went well. Reginald even had a solo feature on one of the charts, and he sounded good indeed. Around the same time, there was a Student Council workshop at White Station, which I had to attend, as I had been elected Vice-President of the Student Government for the next year, 1985-1986. The only thing I really recall about the event was that I met an attractive and very impressive girl named Robin Israel from Melrose High School, who was on their student council, and that we had gone to lunch together during the event. I lost contact with her after that, and always regretted it.

The approaching end of the school year brought a number of arts events. I had been asked to play the piano for the theatre performance of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park and had meant to compose original music for it, but ran out of time, so I ended up using the first movement of Milhaud's Suadades de Brazil which had something of the right character and mood. The Symphonic Band concert caught my interest as well, because of two pieces they played, the Chant and Jubilo by W. Francis McBeth, and the Chorale and Cappriccio by Vittorio Giannini. These works made use of the kind of modern harmonies and procedures that I was learning to like in classical music. The last week of school saw the reappearance of the Renegades organization, for the first time since the previous school year. They paraded down hallways, and as before, some students claimed they had been "jumped" or "initiated" by them. And just like that, it was summer.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Fall 1984: El Gato del Sol, The Esquires and Jungle Love

The fall brought a return to Bartlett High School, but things were really different. My friend Jessie Yancey had graduated and was now down at Northwest Mississippi Junior College in Senatobia playing football, and I spent a lot of time checking out the marching band, who were working on a Latin-tinged tune called "Suncat" that caught my attention. My homeboy Eddie Oliver was one of the tri-tom players in the percussion section.

Dances seemed a bigger deal that fall as well. There were more of them, and I went more often. The cheerleaders sponsored one in August to set off the school year, and nearly everyone came out for it. Even Jessie came back from Senatobia, and it was good to see him. Another dance in September was sponsored by the Streamliners, a predominantly-Black social club at our school of which I was a member. Unfortunately, since we were sponsoring the event, I had to work and didn't really get to enjoy myself, but it was also well-attended.

Around that time, a new unofficial social club appeared on campus called the Esquires. The group was founded by Eddie Oliver, Earnest Greenleaf, Tony Payne, Herbert Jones, Calvin Logan and Garrett Smith, and identified themselves by wearing grey T-shirts with the Playboy bunny logo and the word "Esquires" underneath. As I recall, their names were on the back of the shirts, and they tended to show up to dances in groups.

Unfortunately, Bartlett High School was soon at the center of some really bad city-wide publicity, which started with two young men who were not students walking onto our campus. I had seen them, one white boy and one Black boy, walking onto the campus as I looked out the window of the choir room, and knew I didn't recognize them, but didn't think very much else of it. However, later that day, a young female student who had transferred to Bartlett from Kirby claimed that the boys had forced her into a restroom in the main building and raped her. The accusation brought fear and sheer panic to students and parents alike, and soon the local news media was crawling all over our campus. Angie Carraway had been interviewed on Channel 3 news, and Bartlett's reputation was dragged through the mud for a week. And all for naught, as eventually the girl admitted to Bartlett Police that she had made the story up, because she was unhappy at having to leave Kirby High School.

Our star basketball player that fall was Ricky Fields, a friend of mine who drove a blue 1973 Chevy Impala, which he had tricked out with a jerry-built sound system made from house speakers, which nevertheless packed a huge punch. On warm afternoons after school, he could be heard around the football field jamming popular tracks like Whodini's "Five Minutes of Funk" or "Friends", or the Bar-Kays "Sexomatic." Of course, around that time, the big stars were Prince, with songs like "When Doves Cry", and The Time, with "Jungle Love" and "Ice Cream Castles."

In October, I recall going to see Bartlett play football at Millington, and I remember being impressed that the Millington High School Band came out playing "Push The Button" by Newcleus, which was one of the popular jams of the day. It was the kind of thing I would have expected from Hamilton High School or Westwood, but not Millington, which is probably why it made such an impression. Later that evening, there was a highly-advertised house party at Reginald Thompson's house on the Ellendale Road out from Bartlett. When I arrived, it seemed that there were more people out on the lawn of the house than there were inside at the party, but a lot of people I knew attended, including one of our female track stars Wendy Jackson, Ricky Fields, and an old friend of mine named David Manghum that I had not seen since we went to Shadowlawn Middle School together in 1978. I recalled that the Manghums had lived in an old weatherbeaten house on the grounds of Davies Plantation in those days, and both David and Priscilla had been at Shadowlawn. Also, one of our football players, Patrick Jordan, who everyone called either "Lackalo" or "Lolackum" for some reason, showed up toward the end of the night as the party was beginning to break up. As I recall, it began raining, and I don't remember ever making it inside. But I do recall that the DJ kept playing a rap song called "Rock Military" which was based on running cadences and which was clearly the most popular song around that time.

In November, my family headed out to Jackson for our annual family reunion. This year, it was quite a doozy, with four college football games in Jackson on one weekend including the one we were going to, Mississippi State vs. Alabama. On the Friday night, after eating dinner in the Passport Inn's restaurant, my dad, my granddad and I all headed out to Brandon, Mississippi to see Brandon High School take on Rolling Fork. I had especially wanted to go to that game to check out the Rolling Fork High School band, and I was not disappointed. Rolling Fork's band was all-Black, and their drumline played funky cadences through nearly the entire game. When the band played, they played "When Doves Cry" by Prince and the theme from the movie "Ghostbusters," and the football game was interesting as well. Of course, my granddad had to go down to the Rolling Fork bench, meet the coaches, and try to convince some of the boys to consider Mississippi State! He would have made a great recruiter. The next day, Saturday, featured games with Millsaps and Georgia Southern, Mississippi State and Alabama, and Jackson State and Texas Southern. My grandfather used to wear a houndstooth hat remarkably similar to Coach Bear Bryant's, and at breakfast, when he left it on a table outside the Passport Inn's restaurant, people began to suspect that Bear Bryant was in the restaurant. When my granddad finally went to retrieve it, the desk clerk said, "Oh, sir, please don't move that hat! People think Bear Bryant's in there, and they've been going in there all morning!" Because Mississippi State and Jackson State both had to play their games in Mississippi Memorial Stadium, ours was an afternoon game, and Jackson State's was at night which meant we could have attended both. But State lost to Alabama 24-20, and although I begged him, Dad didn't feel like going back to the Jackson State game, so after dinner, I listened to some of it on the radio, but of course the broadcast tended to exclude the marching bands or the drumlines. Normally, Mississippi State and Alabama would have been the game that everybody was talking about, but on this particular weekend, it was rather a huge Sunday game between Mississippi Valley and Alcorn State that people were pouring into Jackson for. Valley had hired a coach called Archie Cooley, who was nicknamed "The Gunslinger", and he started a kind of offense called the "Run-and-Shoot," and Valley had been scoring 70 and 80 points on opponents. On the other hand, Alcorn had a coach named Marino Casem who as I recall had once been coach at Southern in Louisiana. I didn't get to attend that game either, as we were checking out of the hotel and driving back to Memphis. But a record crowd of 63,000 turned out to Mississippi Memorial Stadium, the largest crowd in that facility's history.

November of 1984 was about when it became apparent that rap was catching on in Memphis. Ricky Fields used to talk about a club called No Name somewhere out on Lamar Avenue that he used to go to, and he would have mixtapes from a DJ named Sundown that he said used to DJ there, and he would play those mixes on the basketball team bus whenever we would go to an away game. I was a team manager at the time, and since I also worked for The Panther as a staff writer, the job allowed me to function as an embedded reporter with the team. On November 17, the city had the first really big rap show that I recall, which was billed as a Rappers' Convention. Ricky had told me about it, and I would have liked to have gone, but I knew my parents weren't going to take me down to the Coliseum for a rap show, so I went to the dance up at Bartlett instead, and the crowd was fairly small, as everyone had gone to the rap show.

The semester ended with something of a bang, at least at our basketball game with White Station in the Bartlett gym. One of the younger team managers turned the engine on to move the practice goals to the roof, and then forgot to turn it off. Once the goals were stowed flat against the roof, the engine kept running and running, and during the first quarter of the girl's game, I noticed a burning smell. I went to Glenn Essary, the building superintendent and warned him that something smelled like it was burning, but he said it was just that they had turned the heat on. Right at that moment, we both heard screams coming from the gym, and White Station cheerleaders were pointing at the roof and screaming "Fire!" Indeed, the practice goal motor had run and run until it burst into flames on the roof, and the game had to be halted. In those days, the Bartlett City Hall and Fire Department were right across the street from the school, but it still took them about five minutes to come over to the campus, by which time the fire had burnt itself out. But a nasty pool of black oil had poured out of the engine onto the court, and cleaning that up took almost 15 minutes. Thankfully, nobody was hurt, and there was no significant damage.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

July 1984: Basketball in Brunswick and A Christian Youth Conference

I had always been somewhat aware of the rural Black community in the Brunswick area, as the young people from that community, through an odd decision in the school desegregation cases of the early 1970's, were assigned to Bartlett Elementary School. So I had gone to elementary school with Herbert Jones and others who lived along Independent and Society Roads, although it would be many years before I learned about the Independent Pole Bearers Society that built the subdivision and named those roads. But at some point, the Shelby County government had built a park across Brunswick Road from the Head Start center and the Bush Grove Missionary Baptist Church, and had named it for Freeman Smith, who had been a community leader in the Black communities north of Bartlett. During the summer of 1984, the new park with its basketball courts became a popular hangout for a lot of my friends who lived in the area. On one July Saturday, a huge crowd had gathered at the park including friends of mine like Herbert Jones, Jessie Yancey, Antonio Chaffin and Bobby Moss. What had drawn the crowd was that the pick-up game included Sylvester Gray, who was widely considered to be the best basketball player in our part of the county. He had been a part of the 1983-1984 Bolton High School team which lost in the state championship game for Division A. (Gray went on to a successful career at Memphis State University and had a brief NBA career as well).

Also that month was a huge Christian conference downtown at the Cook Convention Center called the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts. My mother was at the time a big fan of Bill Gotherd, and she registered herself and me as well for the event downtown. Although I was (and remain) a committed Christian, I had some reservations about Gotherd because of his views on popular music. Still I attended most of the sessions, and on one occasion, some friends of mine that I knew from the main library on Peabody, Steven and Kevin Young were there. They were African-American musicians, about my age, whose dad, if I recall correctly, was a preacher, and they were also attending the conference. We entered the session where Gotherd was talking about the "problem" of rock music, which, in his mind, did not merely stem from the lyrics, as one might expect. Rather, he suggested that the "beat" of rock music came from "the heathen jungles of Africa" and was related to the drumbeats used in pagan worship. At that point, Kevin, Steven and I all walked out of the room in disgust. We ended up walking down the Mid-American Mall (today's Main Street) talking about the subtle racism in Gotherd's pitch, before noticing a poster in a window that was announcing a new album from Morris Day and the Time to be called Ice Cream Castles. That information was very interesting to all of us, and we walked back up to the convention center in a much more enthusiastic mood.