A Day With the TBC Brass Band in New Orleans

With my birthday falling on Monday December 2, I decided to celebrate a day early by going to New Orleans for the Dumaine Street Gang second-line, since I knew that the To Be Continued Brass Band would be playing in it.

The TBC Brass Band, as it is usually called, is one of the bands that first attracted me to New Orleans’ street brass band culture, and is the band that most typifies the modern brass band sound and style. Although the band has a youthful, defiant hip-hop swagger, its music is firmly rooted in both the brass band tradition and the standard soul tunes of the Black community.

Waking up at 8 AM in Jackson, Mississippi, I had to stop for breakfast, which I did at Cultivation Food Hall, where I had chicken and waffles at a place called Fete au Fete, which I didn’t realize was a branch of a New Orleans restaurant chain. However the food was great, and with a cup of coffee from Il Lupo Coffee I got back on the road headed for New Orleans. Unfortunately, the parade was set to begin in the Treme neighborhood at noon, and I only made it across the causeway at 11:45, and by the time I made it to Treme and found a place to park (under the I-10 overpass on Claiborne), the parade was already underway. However the weather was a pleasant 70 degrees, and the sun was out, and as a result, crowds were everywhere. The club members and bands were just coming out of the Treme Community Center when I arrived, and although I would have liked to have grabbed a coffee at the Treme Coffeehouse before following the bands into the parade, I decided it was better not to be left behind.

As it turned out, TBC had not yet come out of the community center, and they were marching behind the Divine Ladies, a social aid and pleasure club that apparently parades with the Dumaine Street Gang every year. This year’s parade actually featured no less than five bands, and as we headed out Orleans Avenue, with the sun beaming, I felt the wave of exhilaration that I always feel when starting out on a second-line. At first there were fewer onlookers along the sidewalks, but eventually the crowds picked up, including those on horseback that always seem to appear at any downtown second-line. One difference with this particular second-line was that there were almost no route stops at all, and the bands and marchers had little time to rest. One exception was a brief stop along Broad Street, where a group of Mardi Gras Indians began setting up a chant “They got to sew, sew, sew” with tambourines, which Brenard “Bunny” Adams, the tuba player for TBC, ended up picking up, and soon the whole band was playing their brass band version of it. Not long afterward, the Divine Ladies instructed their members to move forward, and we were soon on the march again.

Walking down Esplanade, I noticed the ruins of Le Palm Ballroom, at which once I had seen TBC play at a funeral. Now the roof had caved in, and the building seemed destined for demolition. Heading up Claiborne Avenue, past Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge, we came to St. Bernard Avenue and headed up it past Celebration Hall and the Autocrat Club, where a lot of motorcycle clubs had posted up with their bikes. The parade went as far as the Dollar General and T-Mobile stores, and then u-turned to head back down toward Treme, with TBC breaking into a joyful and upbeat song that I had heard them play before but which I didn’t know the name of.

However, I was filming video footage with my iPhone 7, and it soon ran out of battery life, so when the second-line started down the final push along Claiborne, I fell out of the line and went to my car, in order to begin charging the phone. I had thought that I could grab a coffee at Treme Coffeehouse, and meet up with Darren Towns, the bass drummer for TBC, but I was frustrated on both counts. About 5000 or so people were at the second-line, and the resulting gridlock and chaos made getting anywhere impossible. The police had the whole area around the community center and coffeehouse blocked off, and not only could I not get into the area, but Darren could not get out. The end result was that he could not go with me for my birthday dinner in New Orleans.

Instead, I headed across the river to Gretna to the Liberty Kitchen Steak and Chop House, which was one of the few steakhouses open in New Orleans on a Sunday afternoon. Darren and I had eaten at one of their sister restaurants in Metairie a few years ago; that location had closed, but we had been impressed with the food. I was impressed again on this particular evening; my filet mignon was delicious, as were the sides. The food was not cheap, but I have had inferior meals at higher prices, and the easy access and free parking were an added benefit.

After dinner, I wanted dessert, so I headed over to Freret Street to a place called Piccola Gelateria, where I had a peanut butter and fudge gelato in a cup, and by then, it was time to head back over to Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge, where the TBC Brass Band was playing their weekly Sunday night gig.

The Mother-in-Law Lounge was founded by the late Ernie “K-Doe” Kador, who named the place for his biggest recorded hit ever, “Mother in Law.” After he passed away, his widow had kept it open until she also passed away. Kermit Ruffins, the world-famous trumpet player who is also well-regarded as a chef, had closed his jazz lounge in the Treme neighborhood, but when the Mother-In-Law Lounge closed, he acquired it, restored it and soon had it back open. There was already a significant crowd in and around the lounge when I got there, despite the fact that the live music had not yet started. Somewhat incongruously, the center of attraction was at first a DJ playing New Orleans rap and bounce. But it was the older, classic stuff and contributed to the feel-good vibe of the place, which was painted in vibrant colors and with numerous slogans and quotes from the late K-Doe.

Although I feared that the weather would turn colder, at least when I arrived, it was still fairly warm and pleasant out on the patio where the stage was located. The TBC members had largely stayed in the area, as they could not get out of the massive traffic jam that had accompanied the end of the second-line, and they soon began trickling into the club and setting things up on the patio. There was a large television screen outside with the Sunday night NFL game on, but most of the attention was focused on the stage once the To Be Continued Brass Band started playing. Ruffins’ love of marijuana is no secret, and when the TBC band played a new song about “getting so high,” Kermit suddenly appeared on the roof and shot off fireworks, to the thrill of the patio crowd. The band also broke out with a new song, “I Heard Ya Been Talking,” which is aimed at the Big 6 Brass Band, a newer band that has allegedly been talking smack against TBC. Such rivalries, which resemble rap group rivalries, are a usual thing in the New Orleans brass band culture.

As the night progressed, things got chillier on the patio, and TBC broke out with some smoother sounds, a pleasant reading of the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” and Smokey Robinson’s “Quiet Storm.” Then they closed out, all too soon, with a funky version of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” that seemed to owe something to the Jackson 5’s “The Love You Save.” It was a great way to end the evening.

But by now, it was fairly chilly indeed, and fog was developing. I met Darren Towns in Marrero, and we headed back over to the French Quarter in New Orleans to the Cafe du Monde for cafe au lait and beignets. In previous years, my move would have been to the Morning Call at the Casino in City Park, but the City of New Orleans had evicted Morning Call in favor of the Cafe du Monde, but the latter had decided to not be open 24 hours a day in City Park, and the location had already closed for the night. Fortunately, we were able to find a free parking place along Decatur Street, and we sat at the table enjoying our beignets and coffee. Bunny had called Darren from Frenchmen Street, but he didn’t come through where we were, and so when we left, we drove down Frenchmen Street to see if anything was going on, but there really wasn’t much of anything, and the fog and chill were in the air. Ultimately, we headed back across the bridge to Marrero. But it had been a great day to celebrate my birthday with my favorite brass band in New Orleans.

A Delta Journey: Early Sunday Morning in Rayville and the Ruins of Thomastown

As I headed east on Old Highway 80 from Monroe on a sunny Sunday morning, I decided to spend some time looking for things to photograph in Rayville and Delhi, primarily. One reason was that I had already thoroughly documented Tallulah a few years ago, so I decided that I should look more closely at other towns in the Delta. At first glance, Rayville looked promising. A sign at the edge of the Black community read “Tribe of Judah Block Club” and there were a number of juke joints on the east side of the town south of the railroad tracks. But I was soon disappointed, as there were a number of men sitting out in front of Queens Hall and Club Suga Ray’s. I don’t generally photograph jukes if people are sitting or standing in front of them, as the people generally don’t want to be photographed. They tend to be suspicious of outsiders in general, and white people in particular, and often seem to think that I must be the police. So I only shot a couple of pictures of the cafes that were closed and didn’t have anyone around them, and then I headed on to Delhi, which was even more disappointing than Rayville. There were no clubs or jukes in Delhi, only the old 80/20 club that used to be outside of town, and it was not something that would look cool in a picture. But at Thomasville, west of Tallulah, I came upon an abandoned church called Peter’s Rock Missionary Baptist church, and the sprawling ruins of abandoned Thomastown High School. The latter school had been merged with McCall High School in Tallulah in 2001, and then that school had also been closed and abandoned when Madison High School was opened. Both McCall and Thomastown schools have been simply allowed to rot. At Thomastown, a nearby farmer is using the campus to store his hay, but the vines have grown up all the way over the two-story building, which is truly sad and shocking. Doors to the dangerous buildings are wide open, and there is evidence online that explorers have gone inside and taken photos. Judging from what they found, books and equipment were simply left behind to rot with the building. All of this represents a considerable amount of taxpayer expenditure in what is one of the poorest counties in America. The powers that be will tell us that the children of the eastern part of Madison Parish are better off this way, despite the forty-mile round trip to school each day. They will point to the newer and more modern building at Madison High School, and the larger enrollment. But is it really better? Louisiana is full of such abandoned schools, rotting along rural roads, almost all of them former Black schools before integration. Is there a correlation between closing and consolidating schools and worsening student performance? I think it is worthy of study.

A Delta Journey: Lake Chicot and Old Juke Joints in Eudora

Across the Mississippi River Bridge from Greenville, Mississippi, a traveler immediately gets a view of a beautiful blue lake to the northwest. This long lake, for which the Chicot county seat of Lake Village is named, is a former channel of the Mississippi River, and is known as Lake Chicot. Lake Chicot is what is known as an oxbow lake, a lake formed when a meander stream cuts off loops and bends in shortening its channel to the sea. This particular lake is lined with gorgeous houses and boat docks, as well as an occasional motel, restaurant or bait shop. Boating and fishing seem to be the main attractions.

Some twelve miles to the south is the town of Eudora, an old and fairly-typical Delta town that has clearly seen better days. Once a refuge for people escaping river flooding, Eudora has a history of racial conflict, and in more recent years, white flight, mysterious arson fires, and wholesale abandonment of the downtown area. Like so many towns in eastern Arkansas, Eudora has also had its schools closed by the state, and its children are bused to Lake Village. But the stretch of old juke joints and cafes along Armstrong Street has always made me believe that Eudora might have blues stories to tell. One of them, Harris Cafe, still remains, although whether the place ever features live bands is unclear, and there are a couple of buildings nearby that look as if they once were clubs. Although the available newspapers do not tell much of the story of Eudora’s nightlife, aside from an occasional shooting or stabbing, I am hoping to eventually determine some of the community’s music history.

A Delta Journey: Dawn in Rena Lara and Breakfast in Greenville

I had agreed to drop off a co-worker at work on my way out of town, so I ended up getting on the road at 5 in the morning. I had intended to grab breakfast at the well-known Blue and White Cafe in Tunica, but I found them closed, as they don’t open until 7 AM, and while there was a breakfast restaurant in Helena, Arkansas, I didn’t know a lot about them. So, after looking on my Yelp app and seeing a place called Jim’s Cafe in Greenville, I decided to head that direction, and at Lula, I got on Highway 1. The morning had been totally dark up until that point, but as I approached the community of Rena Lara in Coahoma County, beams of light began to appear just above the horizon of the flat Delta land. The Great River Road Country Store was open, and I stopped there for a soft drink before continuing down the road. Each mile brought an increase in light to the east. Dark lakes, bayous and swamps were steaming in the winter cold, and the road passed through occasional clouds of dense fog. At Beulah, the sun finally appeared, and I stopped there to take pictures of an old, decrepit general store.

When I finally reached Greenville, I came upon Nelson Street, which had a different look than when Sherena Boyce and I had seen it a few years ago. This street had of course been the Main Street for Blacks in the Delta, serving a similar role in Greenville as Beale Street had in Memphis or Farish Street in Jackson. While the redevelopment of such streets in bigger cities have become political briarpatches, in Greenville, nobody has ever really discussed redevelopment of Nelson Street in any normal sense of the term. The Flowing Fountain, its most famous blues club, had burned several years ago, and although a building was rebuilt on the site, it remains closed. Several other sports bars, clubs and cafes remain, all seemingly intended to serve the residents of the nearby neighborhoods. No tourists venture to Nelson Street anymore except to go to Doe’s Eat Place.

Downtown Greenville shocks these days by its emptiness. There were hardly any cars at all, and free parking still does not attract shoppers or visitors to the area. An old Elks Lodge on Washington Avenue was collapsing, despite its obvious historical value. It had been surrounded by a fence to protect passersby and nearby buildings. Jim’s Cafe was in the next to last block before Lake Ferguson, and was relatively crowded. Some men with northern accents were sitting at a table talking about the upcoming elections. I could not tell if they were reporters or political consultants for one of the candidates. Jim’s specializes in breakfast, and I was not disappointed. It is of course not a fancy place, but my bacon, cheese and mushroom omelette was delicious, and they gave me so many hashbrowns that they had to use a second plate for them! The biscuits were great as well.

After breakfast, I walked around the area shooting some pictures. The opening of a brewery and the Downtown Grille a couple of years ago had led me to believe that Greenville was experiencing something of a downtown renaissance. I learned on this morning that nothing could be further from the truth. The brewery closed in late 2018, and although the Downtown Grille has remained open, many other places were closed, including the former Key West Inn, which was boarded up, the adjacent Cajun Shot Gun restaurant, and the Columbus and Greenville Railroad depot, with its old kitchen equipment left outside to rot. A block to the north of Washington Avenue on Broadway was a beautiful Victorian wood-frame house which had also been abandoned and left to rot. One of the eaves had a beautiful rising sun pattern in the woodwork, and the house was clearly historic, despite the lack of a historic marker, or any effort at preservation. The current state of Greenville is tragic and depressing, especially considering the area’s deep cultural and music history, and the considerable tourism potential of the city. Clarksdale has learned how to leverage its culture and history for tourism; Greenville seems unable or unwilling to do so.

A Fall Celebration on Mason’s Lower End

Every October, the town of Mason in Tipton County, Tennessee sponsors a Unity Fall Festival on the square, in front of what is left of a row of old juke joints known as the Lower End. Last year’s festival was a large celebration, with a stage and live music, as well as numerous vendors. This year’s event was sadly smaller, as the town government was not the sponsor this year. The festival was instead sponsored by the Whip Game Car Club, which of course had far less money to spend on it. They chose to have a DJ instead of a band, and there were fewer vendors this year, and the attendance seemed smaller as well. On the other hand, the weather was warmer, and people seemed to be having a good time.

Sadder is the loss of most of the old “cafes” (as the juke joints were euphemistically called, since Tipton County was dry). The Black Hut collapsed last winter, and is now only a vacant lot, and Saul Whitley closed his Blue Room at some point in the early months of this year, and it has morphed into a more hip-hop-oriented club called Queen and King Lounge. As for the two old historic jukes, the Green Apple and the Log Cabin, they drew fairly large crowds during the day. As always, I would have liked to have taken pictures inside the jukes, but the opportunity just didn’t present itself. The cafes are relatively private and draw a regular clientele, one that probably would not feel comfortable being photographed. On the other hand, I fear that if I don’t get an opportunity to photograph them soon, they may not be there down the road. It would seem that the city is slowly condemning everything and tearing it down.

An Old and Forgotten Rural Community on Memphis’ Henrietta Road

It was a blistering hot summer’s day, probably about 1977 or so. The ice cream truck had come past our house but I missed it, and I managed to convince my dad to take me out in the Mustang to see if we could catch up with it. It had turned left from Sycamore View onto Raleigh-LaGrange and then promptly disappeared. Dad supposed that it had turned onto a road called Henrietta, so he turned down that road and into something neither one of us have ever imagined was thereā€”a rural Black community, frozen in time, right within the city of Memphis.

We never found the ice cream truck, but there was an old grocery store. It wasn’t open, and I can’t recall the name, but I can still remember the Coca-Cola signs on it. Next door was a church, and I can recall that a sign in front proclaimed it Washington Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. Not finding what we came for, my father turned around and headed back out toward the house.

I never knew what the name of the little community was, and still don’t, but I had occasion to visit it another time when a woman in my church, Ruby Kaufman, went to visit her employee, an older Black woman who lived off of Henrietta on a street called Twine Street. I recall the woman’s house as being a wooden house off the ground on blocks. I remember her telling us that the older people were quiet and decent folks, but that there were younger people at the back of the community who were into drugs and were wild. The neighborhood had something of a sinister reputation.

When I got old enough to ride my bike, I rode down Henrietta one day. I don’t recall what I saw, except that I remember a group of younger people in front of a house, and one of them saying, “Where you riding to so fast, white boy?” I had begun to remember the old lady’s words, and began to feel I should not have ridden down there. The neighborhood sort of continued across Raleigh-Lagrange along a road called Joe Brooks. But I could never determine exactly who Joe Brooks had been.

I literally don’t think I had been down that road again until September of this year. It occurred to me that the old church building, which had been abandoned even back in 1977, and the old store, if they were still standing, were landmarks that I ought to photograph, lest they disappear like so much else has. So I went, and found them still standing, although all signs and markers are gone. It is a quiet neighborhood now, a far cry from the wildness and drugs that people warned about in the 1980s. There is only one way in and one way out. But I was saddened by the fact that not only was the church sign I had recalled gone, but the cornerstone had been removed as well, a fairly selfish act that obliterated history. I had hoped to find a date of founding for that church, and a list of the deacons at the time it was built. But it was not to be.

I suppose the community is historic, and I hope to one day figure out what it was called and when it was founded. It has held out against all odds.

Commemorating a Holy Site of the Bentonia Blues

2019 was the 71st anniversary of a community institution in the town of Bentonia, one of the last Mississippi juke joints. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’ family opened the Blue Front Cafe in 1948, and from that point forward, it has been a place for great food, friendship and great blues. Duck is not young anymore, but he can still perform, and the cafe is doing as well as ever.

The anniversary took place on the weekend of September 20 and 21, and featured appearances by a number of blues and Southern Soul artists, including R. L. Boyce, who performed with his daughter Sherena and Duck on Friday night in the small cafe, which was packed to overflowing. One unique feature of the event was that the cotton gin next door to the cafe had been restored, and was being used as a much larger concert venue for the southern soul acts that were playing with full bands.

There were food stands around, but I prefer to sit down to dinner, so I drove a few blocks away to a place called Bentonia Bugs, which was also packed to overflowing. There I had a filet mignon and baked potato which were absolutely delicious, and then I headed back to all the fun at the Blue Front. As it turned out, R. L. played late into the night. He was feeling good, and really was not ready to go to the hotel. But we were, and we did!

Toll Gate: A Hidden and Historic Cemetery in Bartlett

While browsing online one afternoon, I came upon a 1965 United States Geological Survey topographical map of the Ellendale area east of Bartlett, and along Highway 64, this map showed there being a cemetery called Toll Gate Cemetery close to modern day Wolfchase Mall. Having never seen a cemetery in that area, I wondered if it had been built over, or if the bodies buried there had been relocated. After searching the name on Google however, I discovered that although thoroughly hidden behind car dealerships, a lighting company and a Lowe’s store, the Toll Gate Cemetery, also called the Oak Grove Cemetery and the Ellis Burying Ground, still exists. The name Toll Gate seems to refer to the cemetery being close to a toll booth on the Old Stagecoach Road, which in early Tennessee history was a toll road.

This cemetery, which thousands of motorists drive past daily without knowing it is there, is one of the oldest in Shelby County, and seems to have been a burial place for both white and Black residents. At least one grave is of a Confederate soldier named Berryhill, for whose family Berryhill Road must have been named, and another is for a woman named Erma Dorsey. A man named Thomas Dorsey owned a juke joint on Germantown Road north of Highway 64, and the family name is associated with the Black community of Oak Grove. Also, at least one grave bears the Ellis name, for whom, presumably, Ellis Road was named.

Although the cemetery does not belong to them, the members of Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church have voluntarily made a point of picking up the trash in the hidden and forgotten burial grounds, but more and greater preservation efforts are needed. A historic marker should be put up, and efforts need to be made to maintain the location, and prevent any further encroachment on it.

The Human Jukebox and the Mighty Sound of the South Fight It Out in Memphis

The historically-Black college band tradition of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and the corps-style tradition of the University of Memphis are vastly different, and while Memphis often plays SWAC schools in basketball and other sports, it does not appear that they had ever played a SWAC-member college in football until this fall, when they played Southern University of Louisiana on September 1, in what amounted to a sort of early Southern Heritage Classic. Needless to say, the Liberty Bowl was full.

In the old days, such a band matchup would have been pointless, as Memphis could not have held their own against any SWAC band. As it is, the Mighty Sound of the South has started borrowing elements from the HBCU band tradition, including playing “I’m So Glad” after touchdowns, and including more current popular hits in their repertoire. Even so, although Memphis sounded clean and well-rehearsed, they also sounded truly small and puny against Southern’s much larger numbers. The Human Jukebox was able to blast the stadium with tremendous power, and still sounded in tune and relatively clean. Memphis surprised to some extent by playing a Willie Hutch tune (they certainly would not have done that in my day) and an Adele song. But they proved to be no match for the Human Jukebox.

After the game was over, Southern’s band played their school’s alma mater, which is a mandatory tradition for all historically-Black colleges after a football game. To my surprise, Memphis’ band played their school’s alma mater as well, something that does not usually happen in predominantly-white college bands after football games. Clearly Memphis seemed to have done some scouting of SWAC band traditions. But when Southern kicked off the traditional Fifth Quarter of band battling after the game with a rousing, upbeat tune, we looked over to see how Memphis was going to respond and they were gone, having left the stadium quickly after the final buzzer. Evidently, they wanted none of the competition, and Southern fans were quick to say that the Mighty Sound of the South made the right decision rather than face the musical beat-down that was coming their way. Still, it was a milestone in Memphis band history, and Memphis’ band didn’t look as bad against the Jukebox as they would have in 1989 or so.

The Last Black Fife and Drum Picnic in America

Fife and drum music was once found in Black communities throughout the South, but by 1970, it was found only in Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee, and by 1981, only in several Mississippi counties. With the recent retirement of Calvin Hurt of Panola County from playing,the Hurt Family Band seems to be a thing of the past, and there is really now only one Black fife and drum picnic in the United States, the GOAT Picnic sponsored by Sharde Thomas and the Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band, which nowadays takes place in Coldwater, Mississippi, after many years at Otha Turner’s farm near Gravel Springs.

This year, on Saturday, the event was hampered to some extent by storms and lightning, but there was enough breaks in the rain that the performers were able to come on stage, and there was a decent crowd outside the Northwest Shrine Club in Coldwater, which was the site of the festival this year. The evening opened with female blues singer Andrea Staten, who covered classic songs by Senatobia artist Jessie Mae Hemphill and longtime Como resident Mississippi Fred McDowell. She was followed by R. L. Boyce, who performed with an Australian blues musician named Dom Turner, who was visiting Mississippi,and with Kesha Burton from Brownsville, Tennessee on drums. Afterwards, the band 78 from Memphis came up to play a mix of originals and Hill Country standards.

Between the bands, Sharde Thomas brought out her Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band, and they marched through the crowd with fife and drum, attracting a group of dancers behind them. The second time the Rising Stars played, they marched onto the stage and were joined by Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars. That impromptu jam session was memorable indeed.

Unfortunately at that point, the thunder and lightning that had been visible to the southwest started approaching nearer to the festival grounds. With bad weather eminent, and having to drive back to Brownsville and then Memphis, I left the event early.