Friday, July 26, 2002

local beat

local beat

Posted By on Fri, Jul 26, 2002 at 4:00 AM

According to the folks at 926 McLemore Avenue, Stax is back. Fifteen months after breaking ground for The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, things are looking good. An event on June 29th that celebrated the lighting of the Stax marquee and the Soulsville U.S.A. sign was attended by hundreds of well-wishers from the surrounding community, while the museum's projected opening on November 15th promises to be a landmark event.

But The Stax Music Academy is perhaps the most important ingredient in the Soulsville enterprise. A training center for budding musicians, the academy fulfills part of the Stax legacy. The record company's original run was driven by neighborhood talent, and it seemed that anybody could become somebody at Stax -- something the academy is determined to make a reality once again for the Soulsville community.

"We believe that music helps build character through hard work, discipline, and team effort," says Deanie Parker, executive director of Soulsville U.S.A., the nonprofit corporation behind the project. "Why not use music as a creative way to change the lives of thousands of children?"

The academy occupies 27,000 square feet of the Stax complex. Practice rooms and classrooms take up the majority of the space, which is augmented by a sizable choir room, a band room, and a multimedia lecture hall. A library that also houses a collection of Stax-related archives, music books, scores, and periodicals anchors the building.

For the last two years, the academy has operated as the Snap! Summer Music Camp, a six-week day camp held at LeMoyne-Owen College. More than 750 children, many from the Soulsville neighborhood, have attended Snap! lectures and workshops while honing their musical skills. Snap! admits children in the fifth through eighth grade, while other programs like the Stax Rhythm Section and the SMA Percussion Ensemble offer more specialized lessons to older kids. Two vocal programs, a gospel ensemble called the Spirit of Soulsville Singers and Street Corner Harmonies, which targets at-risk youth, round out the academy's services.

Many teachers at the academy see their jobs as a way to pay tribute to their benefactors in the local music scene. Stax session men Nokie Taylor and Errol Thomas are both on the staff, as is Memphis jazz and blues veteran Calvin Newborn, a lecturer at the academy. "I've been to the mountaintop, and I've seen the promised land," Newborn jokes in reference to his venerable New York jazz career. "Now, I'm coming down to earth in good ol' Soulsville U.S.A."

According to Taylor, "Seeing these kids learn is incredible. I'm able to share things that I've learned from all the professional musicians I've worked with -- music lessons and life lessons. It's interesting to see them go back into the community and teach what they've learned from me."

For Scott Bomar, another instructor at the academy, the benefits of his job are twofold. "I'm on both sides of it, working with guys like Nokie and Errol and Skip Pitts, three musicians I've always looked up to," he explains, mentioning erstwhile producer and academy co-worker Jonah Ellis as another mentor. "I feel like I'm learning and teaching at the same time."

The Stax Music Academy's Grand Opening ceremony is on Wednesday, July 24th, at 10 a.m. On Thursday, July 25th, Soul Classics 103.5 FM will be broadcasting live from the academy, while tours of the facility will run from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. On Friday, July 26th, the academy's Grand Finale will take place at The Orpheum theater at 7 p.m. Ticket prices range from $5 for general admission to $25, which includes a VIP reception. More than 225 kids will take the stage for the show, with all proceeds going straight back into the academy.

Former Memphian Rosco Gordon was found dead in his New York home on July 11th. Born and raised in Memphis, Gordon got his musical start as a teenager after winning an amateur contest at the old Palace Theater on Beale Street. In the late '40s, he was a member of the famed Beale Streeters, agroup that included such talents as Johnny Ace, B.B. King, and Bobby "Blue" Bland.

At Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service, Gordon cut a handful of songs featuring his signature piano beat, including the seminal blues hit "No More Doggin'." Gordon accented the offbeat on the number, creating the shuffle sound that became the foundation of Jamaican ska music. Though that single was released on Vee-Jay, he also recorded for the Chess, Duke, and Sun labels.

After taking early retirement in the '60s, Gordon returned to the stage in the '80s. Recent appearances included the 2002 Handy Awards, where he reunited with fellow Sun alumni B.B. King, Ike Turner, and Little Milton for a scorching version of King's "Three O'Clock Blues."He also headlined a show at the Young Avenue Deli three nights later. Despite his passing, it's certain that Gordon's musical legacy will continue to endure.

Andria Lisle will cover local music news and notes each week in Local Beat. You can e-mail her at

Friday, July 12, 2002

Downtown Overkill

Is the rest of the city being shortchanged?

Posted By on Fri, Jul 12, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Just what Memphis needed: more special pleading for downtown.

State Rep. Larry Miller, in a guest column in The Commercial Appeal, says that even though an estimated $2 billion in downtown projects are underway, "we need at least that much more in new projects to complete the turnaround. Another $100 million is needed in infrastructure improvements downtown and in the Medical Center."

Miller is one of many politicians and government employees who have figured out that it is a lot more fun, prestigious, and lucrative to climb on the downtown bandwagon than it is to muddle around in Nashville or the rest of Memphis. He is past chairman of the Center City Commission (CCC) and a member of the New Memphis Arena Public Building Authority (PBA) in addition to being -- ho hum, how boring -- one of 99 representatives in the General Assembly.

The list of downtown boosters now includes the CCC, Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), PBA, Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Memphis Development Foundation. Should they stumble, they can expect help from able developers like Henry Turley, Jack Belz, and John Dudas (a former head of the CCC). Five newspapers, one television station, three of the city's largest advertising agencies, and the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce have their main offices downtown.

Helping to run those agencies is a growing list of full-time and part-time government employees, including three former city division directors (Benny Lendermon of Public Works, John Conroy of Engineering, and Dexter Muller of Planning and Development), two former city council members (Pat Halloran and Jeff Sanford), one former county department head (Dave Bennett of Engineering), and assorted assistants and appointed board members like Miller and state Sen. John Ford. If you want to get something done downtown, you no longer politic the city council. You politic the CCC or the RDC or the PBA.

Why worry about running the whole cumbersome city and county when you can focus all your efforts on a piece that constitutes about 1 percent of the more than 300 square miles in the city of Memphis?

As Memphis annexes yet another chunk of land, it's becoming clear that geographic size has its problems. With a population of just over 600,000 people spread from the river to Cordova on the east and from Raleigh on the north to Whitehaven on the south, there is no common cause and no critical mass of energy and influence to get things done in older, deteriorating parts of the city.

So Midtown sits on the Sears Building, Crump Stadium, Tim McCarver Stadium, and the Fairgrounds. Whitehaven starves for retail development. Raleigh, Frayser, Fox Meadows, and Hickory Hill watch their public school enrollment decline and their shopping malls close. Frayser needs a railroad to give up an abandoned line so it can replace old factories with golf courses for kids.

All these far-flung places from the past have lost their luster and are no fun to talk about anymore. And nothing's being done about them because there are always newer places, more glamorous places, more promising places to go when your city is bigger than St. Louis, Atlanta, and Birmingham combined. Stonebridge needs streetlights and police officers. Cordova needs new schools. And downtown needs another $2 billion-plus and may well get it because it has the combined influence of politicians, consultants, the media, and private citizens like Dean and Kristi Jernigan who, as reported here nine months ago, are moving to Europe for an extended stay.

Things are changing so fast in our disposable city that even relatively recent additions like The Pyramid are in danger of becoming obsolete when the new arena opens in two years. The Pyramid shows what can happen when a city channels its taxes and resources into dedicated projects and taxing districts instead of into the general fund. For eight years, it made a modest operating profit. Then, last year, despite the presence of the Memphis Grizzlies and 41 home games, it lost money. There was more money coming in, but it was allocated differently among the Grizzlies, the University of Memphis, the managers of The Pyramid, and the city and county.

A proposal is coming up before the CCC that would make all of downtown a special taxing district, with incremental revenues earmarked only for downtown.

That will be great for downtown residents and all those consultants and boosters who make a living off of some downtown project or cause. But it won't be much comfort to people in North Memphis, Midtown, Raleigh, Fox Meadows, Cordova, Whitehaven, or Orange Mound.

There is another way to go: Focus on small, relatively inexpensive projects instead of huge ones like a downtown taxing district, the new arena, the trolley, and a land bridge to Mud Island.

Give Mud Island a chance to work as a free park with improved pedestrian access and marketing. Fix its southern tip so it doesn't look like a sandbar.

Make Joe Royer, dedicated outdoorsman and founder of the Great Mississippi River Canoe and Kayak Race, the unofficial commissioner of riverfront recreation.

Build the riverboat landing at the foot of Tom Lee Park at the entrance to the harbor.

Rebuild the boat ramp for fishermen at the north end of Mud Island.

Invite Memphians and tourists to enjoy the great new sidewalk along Riverside Drive between Tom Lee Park and Jefferson Davis Park. Complete the trail from the National Ornamental Metal Museum to the Mud Island Greenbelt.

Experiment with putting traffic back on the mall.

Knock down the old Baptist Hospital so Pitt Hyde can get to work on something new.

This would help downtown continue to grow and not shortchange the rest of the city. And it wouldn't cost another $2 billion.

Friday, July 5, 2002

One Million, One Vote

County commissioner Walter Bailey remains a force to be reckoned with.

Posted By on Fri, Jul 5, 2002 at 4:00 AM

As a smallish 210-pound offensive lineman at Southern University some 40 years ago, Walter Bailey once had to block a giant from arch rival Grambling named Ernie Ladd. Ladd, a future all-pro and professional wrestler, stood 6'9" and weighed over 300 pounds.

Bailey recalls his coach preparing him for the big game with that chestnut about how "the other guys put their pants on just like we do, one leg at a time."

True enough, but Ladd's pants were a lot bigger, and he flattened Bailey like a bug.

Even so, the gridiron advice stuck to Bailey long after he hung up his cleats and became a civil rights activist, courtroom lawyer, and Shelby County commissioner. Status be damned, he has always been game to take on a powerful moving force whether it be segregation, a courtroom adversary, popular sentiment for an NBA arena, or, most recently, rich and powerful people trying to take control of Shelby Farms.

Bailey still gets flattened now and then, but other times, he holds his ground and makes the block. So far, that's what he's done to Ron Terry, Shelby County mayor Jim Rout, and other proponents of the Shelby Farms conservancy plan. After initially being approved by the commission on a 9-2 vote, the plan to pump at least $20 million in private donations from individuals and foundations into the park is in limbo due to a surprising 6-4 reversal in June. Bailey was one of the two dissenters the first time and, in his carefully chosen words, "participated" in swaying enough of his colleagues to send the proposal back to the drawing board. The commission could take it up again as early as next week or later on in the next three months if, as expected, a deadline for commission action is pushed back from July to October and -- this part is less certain -- the state legislature signs off on a transfer of authority to the conservancy.

On both counts, Bailey is a man to reckon with. He has served on the commission and its forerunner since 1971, making him the longest continuously serving elected official in Memphis or Shelby County. In addition to longevity, Bailey has speaking skills honed in the courtroom and good relations with his colleagues.

A maverick who picks his spots, Bailey freely admits he tunes out issues that don't interest him and more or less rubber-stamps others. He can be a lonely champion of lost causes, good for a quote or a sound bite to give balance to a story, as he did in the arena fight where he played the gadfly to Pitt Hyde and the NBA Now crowd.

The Shelby Farms plan is different. It interests him a lot, though he is not a tree-hugger, a developer, or a park-user. There is no public uproar. No one's rights are at stake. No big building project is being proposed. Private interests are offering to give money for public use -- just the opposite of the Grizzlies and the arena. But the underlying issues go to the heart of Bailey's principles and hit a few of his personal hot buttons too.

"I am very jealously sensitive about public policy and property being in the domain of those who were not chosen to make decisions about it," he said in an interview at his home overlooking Martyr's Park on the South Bluff. "I would have been far friendlier to the foundation if it had been a diverse group of people. But control is commensurate with your pocketbook. The documents I have seen from the proposed conservancy have a list of exclusions of what they won't tolerate if they put up the money. It lists exclusions that are alien to their vision. That goes far beyond wanting to preserve the park."

The way the proposal was presented to the commission for action by July 1st bothers Bailey even more:

"The presumption is that if we don't freeze the use on the property, politicians down the road will compromise it. As a public officeholder, I find that very offensive. That's why there is a rush. Act now before the politicians do something alien to our vision. I am a Jeffersonian on democracy. Politicians are the real representatives of the people and reflect the will of the people rightly or wrongly. I am very much opposed to elitism."

Conservancy proponents find that a little precious. They say Bailey and other veteran civil rights activists know better than anyone how unjust and wrongheaded the established political order can be. But Bailey says the remedy is within the political process:

"Ron Terry could run for public office, but he chose to work behind, as I call it, an invisible government."

Terry, former chairman and CEO of First Tennessee National Corporation, got involved at the urging of Rout and has raised commitments for $20 million, including $500,000 of his own money.

Politics has been near and dear to Bailey his entire adult life. His younger brother is Judge D'Army Bailey, a former candidate for mayor of Memphis. His high school classmate at Booker T. Washington was Willie Herenton. And his closest colleague in his early years on the commission was Jesse Turner, a banker and NAACP leader.

Terry's involvement raises another festering issue for Bailey -- Memphis Country Club. Terry is a member of the exclusive club, which, according to members, recently admitted its first black member. Whether that caveat innoculates club members who seek to enter the public arena as judges or politicians remains to be seen. County mayoral candidate George Flinn is a member, but his opponent, A C Wharton, has not personally raised the issue, even though his associates have. To Bailey, any association with the country club smacks of elitism.

Could Bailey change his mind or compromise on Shelby Farms? Nothing, after all, is more political than that. It appears that he could, but only if the board is expanded to include more political appointees and the lease is shortened from the proposed 50 years.

"I don't have a problem with that kind of structure," he said.

Proponents do, however, so don't look for a deal, if there is one, until after the August county mayoral election and the installation of the new mayor and commissioners. Bailey will be there in any case and downplays dire predictions about the turnover:

"I have seen vacancies due to suicide and death and resignations for everything from going on to bigger and better things to going to jail. On balance, we have had good government and a very democratic process. That is all people can ask for -- a level playing field where their views can be heard."

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