Coffee in Natchez/A Requiem for Lee Street/The Death of Port Arthur

Al Kapone had arranged for me to get access to the South By Southwest Music Festival in San Antonio, where he was performing this year, so I headed out early in the morning down I-55 across Mississippi. At Madison, I stopped for coffee, but since Jazz & Java had closed in December, I had to settle for Starbucks, and then I started down the Natchez Trace into Natchez. Although the city had seen better days, there were still a lot of old, historic buildings downtown, many with the upstairs balconies that people often associate with New Orleans. On Franklin Street, I found the Natchez Coffee Company, which was filled with a mix of tourists and local people enjoying sandwiches and coffees. I ordered a latte, and then noticed a bookstore across the street, but I felt that if I went in there, I would lose at least an hour of time, so I went back to my car and drove back out to the bypass, across the Mississippi River, and into Vidalia, Louisiana. The drive from Ferriday to Alexandria was hot and boring, and it was 5 PM when I finally got to Pineville.
I didn’t want to stop in Alexandria, but I did want to drive down Lee Street, since, judging from old city directories, it had been the center of Alexandria’s Black night life. As recently as 1984, there had been a couple of record stores on the street, but as I drove down it in the early evening, there was very little left. Urban renewal had taken its toll in Alexandria just as it had everywhere else, but there were some clues to the past along Lee Street. I noticed a building with signs indicating that it had been a hotel, a nearby tire shop, a couple of night clubs that looked as if they might still be open, a few older Black men gathered out in front of the buildings. Still, Lee Street was now more vacant lots than buildings, and I wondered if anything was being done to preserve the historic buildings that remain.
Heading south on I-49, I exited onto a state road that led to the town of Eunice, where the first thing I noticed was two young Black kids on horseback riding south toward the downtown. There had been a couple of record stores in Eunice, but one of them was closed for good, and another was closed for the evening. Across the street from it was yet another coffee bar, where I ordered another latte, while watching the same young kids I had seen earlier as they rode their horse down the main street of town. Highway 190 was good road to the west, and the sun stayed with me until I crossed into Texas.
The Holiday Inn in Beaumont where I had booked my room was across the street from a Pappadeaux’s, but I had decided I wanted steak instead, so after checking in, I drove down to Crockett Street, Beaumont’s entertainment district, where I ate dinner at a steakhouse called Spindletop. They were having a pre-South By Southwest party at the rock club next door, but I decided to drive down the streets that had been entertainment centers for Beaumont’s Black community back in the 1960’s. Urban renewal had devastated Black communities everywhere, but in Beaumont, there had also been hurricanes, so streets like Gladys and Forsythe were almost completely vacant. I had hoped to catch of glimpse of what life must have been like in those streets’ hayday, but I could see nothing. Disappointed, I drove the expressway southward into Port Arthur, thinking I might find some kind of live music going on along Gulfway Drive. But Port Arthur proved to be an eerie, ghostly city almost entirely abandoned. It had seemed troubled but still alive back when Al Kapone had been booked to perform there back in the 1990’s, but now there seemed to be nothing left. As I drove down the main street downtown, I came upon the abandoned Sabine Hotel first, and then street after street of abandoned business buildings. Boarded up department stores, boarded up furniture stores, an abandoned World Trade Center, an abandoned federal courthouse. The apocalyptic landscape was made all the more strange by the brilliant streetlights with bathed everything in this area (the residential areas were pitch-black, with few streetlights at all), as well as the strange mist and fog that hung over the city.
I drove back along the Twin City Highway, now thoroughly depressed, wondering how a whole city of 70,000 people could be so thoroughly abandoned. Catching Washington Boulevard, I drove across the Peach Orchard neighborhood, noticing a new Screwed Up Records store that hadn’t been there the last time I was in Beaumont, and The Unit store, which sold mostly clothing but a few compact discs. Realizing that I wasn’t going to find any live jazz, blues or soul, I decided to retire to the hotel and to bed.

3/7/09: Rap Conference in Leland

I had been asked to speak at a music conference in Leland, so, although winter weather was being predicted for Memphis, I headed out driving down Highway 61, stopping in Cleveland at a coffee bar called the Bean Counter. Further down the road in Greenville, the weather was grey and overcast, yet warmer, and after driving around the nearly-deserted downtown area, I stopped at Gino’s Hamburgers for lunch. McCormick’s Book Inn was already closed for the day, so after I bought a few books at a flea market, I drove down historic Nelson Street, filming the juke joints and R.I.P walls with my flip video camera, and then I headed on out to Leland. The music conference was in the National Guard Armory at Leland, and it was strangely hot and stuffy inside the building. I was surprised to see Donnie Cross and Charlie Braxton there when I got inside, and we spent some time catching up before I spoke to the crowd. Then, with rumours of bad weather to the north, I told the organizers that I needed to head out, and I drove northward into Cleveland, where I stopped for dinner at the Airport Grocery. When I came back out to my car, the rain was falling as sleet instead, and I began to worry about making it home. At Clarksdale, with no coffee bars available, I stopped at McDonald’s and bought a latte, which, if not as good as Starbucks, would at least serve the purpose. At Tunica, road conditions began to severely deteriorate, and I had to go rather slowly on I-69, which was largely elevated roadway. Where 69 joined with 55, there had been a huge accident in the lanes headed toward Tunica, and the highway patrol had shut down the road. Once I was in Memphis proper, however, there was more rain than sleet, and I got to the house safely, if exhausted.

2/16/09: Breakfast at Wild Eggs, and Raphael Saadiq’s New Album

wildeggs07Headed to breakfast at Wild Eggs, which always has a waiting line, no matter what day or time, and then went by Ear X-Tacy, where they were playing a CD that sounded like a Motown reissue, but which proved to be Raphael Saadiq’s most recent album The Way I See It. I was so impressed with it that I had to buy it. I didn’t find anything this time at Underground Sounds, and after that, I headed back to Memphis.

02/15/09: Tucker’s in Over-The-Rhine/Sitwell’s Coffee House/Kymp Kamp Conference in Louisville

Tucker’s Restaurant was in a rough-and-tumble ‘hood called Over The Rhine, and the endless blocks of vacant board-ups was anything but reassuring as I parked my car on a nearby side street and walked to the restaurant. Inside, though, the place was a bustle of activity, with yuppies and street entrepreneurs alike starting a bright, blue Sunday morning with coffee, bacon, eggs and pancakes. After breakfast, I got in touch with Abdullah, who agreed to meet me at Sitwell’s Coffee Bar near the University of Cincinnati campus. Always a fan of Edith Sitwell’s Facade, I was somewhat amazed and thrilled to be sitting in a coffeehouse named for her. Abdullah met me there with another partner of his, and we hung out there talking for awhile, and then I headed over to Shake It Records again, where I bought the Jamie Liddell album that contained the song I had heard the night before in Rookwood Pavilion, and a King Records retrospective CD. The weather was anything but pretty when I headed out from Cincinnati toward Louisville, but the trip only took and hour and a half. I checked into the Hampton Inn where my room was, and then walked a couple of blocks down to the conference, which was being held at a nightclub. After the panel discussion I was on had ended, I drove across the bridge to Jeffersonville, Indiana to the Longhorn Steakhouse for a late dinner, and then stopped by the Highland Coffee Company on Bardstown Road for a coffee before heading back to the room.

02/14/09: Valentine’s Day in Cincinnati

I drove up to Cincinnati on Saturday morning to spend a day there before the Kymp Kamp Music Conference in Louisville the next day. The drive up was relatively uneventful except for the twisted, broken trees everywhere caused by the recent ice storm.
It was already dark when I got to Covington, Kentucky and I drove straight up to Shake It Records on the Northside of Cincinnati, but they were having an instore concert, and the store was so crowded that it was hard to move.
Back at my car in the parking lot, I used my iPhone to call restaurants, but with it being Valentine’s Day, everyone was on a long wait. I finally found a restaurant called Rookwood Pavilion, which was up on Mount Adams east of downtown, and they told me that there wouldn’t be a wait, so I drove over there as quickly as I could, and found that the restaurant was in an old pottery kiln with a view of the river to the south and downtown to the west. Inside, futuristic dance music was playing, and some of the tables were inside the old brick kilns. I had a strip steak with frites, relaxing while some sort of cool neo-soul was playing overhead. I pulled out my iPhone to capture it with Shazam, and found that it was a song by an artist I’d never heard of named Jamie Liddell.
After dinner, I had called Abdullah, my friend from Elementz Hip Hop Youth Center in Cincinnati, but he was about to take a friend out to eat, so we agreed to meet up the next day, and I headed downtown to the Blue Wisp Jazz Club, where there was live music going on. After midnight, I drove out to the Holiday Inn in Sharonville where I had reservations and checked in.