Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Supreme Saxophonist

Kirk Whalum on Streisand, stars, and smooth jazz.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 24, 2010 at 10:51 AM

On Thanksgiving, give thanks for Kirk Whalum, the Memphis-born, Memphis-raised, lives-in-Memphis jazz saxophonist.

Whalum, 52, is the CEO and president of the Stax Museum and the Stax Music Academy, where they're producing future Kirk Whalums, David Porters, and Carla Thomases. He's the cover subject of the next issue of MBQ magazine, one of our sister publications. The complete interview will be out in December.

Meanwhile, here's a taste of what he had to say about some of the many jazz and pop music legends he has played with during his 30-year career. He didn't drop any of these names. That's not his style. I did, though, as throwaways at the end of our interview, and they turned out to be keepers.

Barbra Streisand: "She heard my version of 'For All We Know' and wanted me to be a part of the movie The Prince of Tides. In the studio, she sang it and I played the solo. Everybody was sort of holding their breath, because she can be a perfectionist. She looks over at me and says, 'What do you think?' Yeah, I'm a boy from Memphis sitting there in Hollywood and Barbra Streisand is asking me what I think. A moment that will live in infamy."

Whitney Houston: "When we toured together, my nickname was 'Bishop' because I did Bible studies. I remember one Bible study we did in Barcelona in my room. This particular time, we didn't have a lesson, because the Holy Spirit visited. I remember her sitting in a chair with her head in her hands just weeping. It was like she was purging the hurt and pain of riches. It was the soft underbelly of fame that most people will never know.

"I've been told that the saxophone solo that to this day has been heard by more people than any other is my solo on 'I Will Always Love You,' which she sang in the film The Bodyguard."

Luther Vandross: "He once said to me, 'You know, I don't really like the saxophone.' And you can see that in his records. There is very little saxophone."

Saxophonist Hank Crawford: "I played at Hank's funeral. His daughter and I graduated high school at Melrose. David Sanborn and Hank did an interview in Downbeat magazine, and Hank asked him who he liked of all the young guys. And David said, 'Kirk Whalum.' So Hank says, 'That's outrageous. His grandmother taught me music at Hamilton High School.'"

Al Green: "The first time I met him was in Montrose, Switzerland, at a jazz festival. Here we are on the other side of the world, and I finally meet someone who profoundly influenced me and my community. A few years ago, at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland, he was on the bill and I heard him. Of all the artists at that festival, Al Green was the Man."

Jazz guitarist Larry Carlton: "He claims he was riding on the freeway in Los Angeles and heard the saxophone on a song called "After Thought." He pulls off the freeway, goes to a pay phone, and calls the deejay and says, 'Who is that?' So he sets about trying to find me, and I wound up going to L.A. and playing on his records."

Wayne Shorter and Weather Report: "I studied every note he played. In 1979, I was living in Paris and playing the streets and in the Metro. I would play 'Birdland,' and people loved it."

Jazz artist Michael Franks: "I did a couple of Christmas tours with Michael and played on one of his records too, 'I Bought You a Plastic Star for Your Aluminum Tree.' Great song, tongue-in-cheek, typical Michael Franks satire. He lives on a farm and is a very quiet guy. In concert, you're playing off the energy of everybody else onstage, that's just how it works. Michael's energy is not giving you anything back. That's his shtick, that's his style. It was always fun."

Kirk Whalum and smooth jazz: "You have to be who you are. And for me, that's part of Aretha Franklin, Hank Crawford, and 'Oh Happy Day' by the Edwin Hawkins Singers. This is my reality. And for that matter, Nat Cole and Chaka Khan and all of that. So I'm happy with where I am. And I think the really smart critics, even jazz purists, know that is a legitimate and beautiful expression."

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Midnight Magic

Tigers work the graveyard shift to beat Miami, and fans love it.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 17, 2010 at 11:39 AM

"Ridiculous, with a capital R."

University of Memphis basketball coach Josh Pastner said that three times in his post-game interview with reference to the 17,783 fans who showed up, most of them wearing blue, to watch the Tigers beat Miami 72-68 at FedExForum in a game that ended at 1:30 a.m.

He meant it in a good way, of course. It didn't look like there was any padding in that crowd figure, which would exceed attendance at most Tiger football home games this year and last.

And in case anyone had ideas about leaving at half-time to get some sleep, the Tigers and Miami kept it close right up to the end.

"Don't let this go to overtime," said my friend Al Wise, with a little over a minute to go.

It didn't. Chris Crawford made a three-pointer to give the Tigers the lead, the Tigers made their free throws and corralled a key rebound in the final minute, and polished off a big, rough Miami team that plays in the stellar Atlantic Coast Conference. But 17,783 people leaving FedExForum at once meant a 20-minute wait in the parking garage and a post-2 a.m. ETA in East Memphis.

The game started at 11 p.m. to accommodate ESPN's "24 Hours of Basketball" and Monday Night Football. Memphis had the honor of a nationally televised late-night tipoff for the second time in three years, and both times it was a near sellout.

At lunch the day of the game, I ran into Kevin Kane, head of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau and a hardcore basketball fan. A naysayer he is not, but Kane predicted a crowd of 10,000. I mentioned the big crowd the last time they did this and predicted 15,000.

"You've been drinking the Kool-Aid," he said.

Some of the credit for this success story must go to U of M athletic director R.C. Johnson, who is apparently no relation to the athletic director of the same name who presides over the debacle that is the Tiger football program. Basketball Johnson was at courtside shaking hands with former Tiger star Penny Hardaway and soaking up the roar of the fans and the Tiger pep band. Football Johnson lives in a parallel universe where the Tigers and the University of Tennessee put only 28,000 people in Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium a couple of weeks ago, ESPN is wishful thinking, and a 2-10 finish would be miraculous.

The University of Memphis basketball team will take away some of the sting of the losing football team and the small crowds. John Calipari and most of the players he recruited are gone. Pastner is his equal as a recruiter and patrols the bench and courtside in stylish serenity. He says "gosh" a lot and has not sworn since hitting his thumb with a hammer in 1998. There is iron as well as kindness in him. When a star recruit repeatedly got himself in trouble this fall, Pastner cut his losses and let him go.

Like Calipari, Pastner has a quick hook and played everyone on the team. With the exception of bruiser Will Coleman, most of the current Tigers are thin, quick, and young. They don't rebound very well, but, unlike previous editions, they made 77 percent of their free throws and worried Miami into missing most of their shots, which was enough to get a win. Freshman Joe Jackson is a rising star. In one sequence, he faked a bigger defender into the seats, spun around and scored, then scored again on a fast break. He also missed a dunk, but nobody's perfect.

About the only thing missing at FedExForum was the 2008 NCAA Finalist banner, a casualty of the Derrick Rose investigation. There was a small space between the 2007 and 2009 banners. You really had to look to see it. With any luck, there will be two or three new ones by 2013 and no one will notice.

In his radio wrap-up, Pastner said his young team of former high school stars does not yet realize how hard it is to consistently win games at the college level. He expressed confidence that they will learn quickly, however. Experience is a great teacher. Or they could just talk to their classmates on the football team.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Bass Pro Deal

Package price for Pyramid, Pinch, and Lone Star: $111 million.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 10, 2010 at 10:59 AM

There is no delicate way to say it. The Bass Pro deal is an attempt to make chicken salad out of chicken shit on a grand scale.

Like that joke about the whore, now that we have established what we are, all we have to settle on is the price.

The price is $111,750,000 for gutting the Pyramid and buying and demolishing some of its surroundings. That's if the bonds are issued this year. Otherwise, the price, which was $63 million about 15 minutes ago, goes to $121 million.

The bonds and the interest on them will be paid with a rebate of state sales taxes within downtown's Tourism Development Zone. The city's finance department says this magical revenue source is projected to exceed $24 million annually. It is other people's money that would go to Nashville instead. At least that's the mantra.

"This is the most important and largest project we have had in the city of Memphis," said Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb.

If you think you're nervous about it, you're not as nervous as Bass Pro. Its home, Springfield, Missouri, is about as unlike downtown Memphis as you can get. For five years, the Bass pros checked out the Pyramid. They fretted about crime, demographics, community support, access, the neighborhood, earthquakes, and floods. As if to punctuate their fears, their store in Nashville flooded last spring. And Haiti got hit with an earthquake. In August, they finally signed a lease.

The City Council resolution said "allocate an amount up to and including $63 million to the Pyramid and Pinch District redevelopment."

It will cost a bit more than that. The funding allocates $53 million to the Pyramid; $10 million to buy the Lone Star Cement property and silos south of it; $27 million for infrastructure projects such as parking garages and property acquisition in the Pinch District east of the Pyramid; $3.2 million for expenses already incurred; and $9.5 million to replenish the city's debt service reserves.

The price includes fees of 4 percent for program management, 10 percent for construction management, 6 percent for architecture and engineering, and $1.5 million to the bond underwriters at Morgan Keegan. That buys a lot of community support. The City Council will vote on November 23rd.

Construction will take two years. The seats will be removed from the Pyramid. The observation deck may or may not stay. If it stays, the city will pay for an elevator.

Lipscomb said Bass Pro draws 4 million visitors a year to its flagship store in Springfield.

"Because of our location, we have a chance to do better," he said, adding that 4 million means out-of-towners, not locals.

Buying the 34 properties targeted in the Pinch District for the budgeted $7 million might not be so easy. Some of them are parking lots or vacant buildings owned by speculators, but some of them are going concerns.

"I have 12 years in my building," said lawyer Steffen Scheiner, who shares it with two other attorneys. "I have spent many long evenings in there playing amateur painter and carpenter. It has been a very good location for my business. The assessed value is not the true value of the property."

If you want a sneak peak at what the inside of the Pyramid will look like two years from now, drive 30 minutes to Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge, Meeman Shelby Forest State Park, or the Ghost River. Or ride a bike on the new Greenline to Shelby Farms. Remember, though, that what you will see are natural trees, swamps, and critters, not real replicas.

Don't tell me about the curse of the Pyramid. I have been writing about it for 24 years. I remember Sidney Shlenker and Isaac Tigrett's hidden crystal skull. I have sworn it off many times, pledging to write no more, but it keeps coming back.

I have an attic full of ammo and camo from my son's days as a guide in Alaska, and I like an overstuffed camouflage recliner and sturdy cargo shorts as well as the next guy. I've taken my wife and a carload of girls to the Gulf Coast many times and dropped them off at the outlet malls. Unlike the convention center, FedExForum, AutoZone Park, Mud Island, or Tiger Lane, Bass Pro Shops are open almost every day.

Writing is a riskless activity, but cities have to take risks. The only question is our price.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Morning After

The only path to consolidation is a financial calamity.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 3, 2010 at 11:10 AM

They say it's better to say nothing and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and leave no doubt. Well, it's also better to be thought a hopelessly divided community than to hold an election that proves it.

What else can you say about a referendum that united blogger Thaddeus Matthews and Shelby County commissioner Terry Roland? And Shelby County school board member David Pickler and Al Sharpton? And suburban mayors and the Shelby County Democratic Party?

United they stand, on one thing: Say no to consolidation. The victory party should be interesting. So much for "One Memphis."

It didn't take Sharpton parachuting into town last week to dance on the grave to tell us consolidation was dead on arrival. No majority-white suburban county has ever consolidated with a major majority-black city. And even in the cities where consolidation passed, as noted by Suzanne Leland and Kurt Thurmaier in their book City-County Consolidation: Promises Made, Promises Kept?, black voters feared the loss of political power.

The lawsuit that could delay certification of the results is a long shot. Separate city and county referendums, as the authors note, are not unusual. The consolidation scorecard shows about 40 successful consolidations in 120 attempts.

This is the third time Shelby County voters have rejected consolidation with Memphis. On Monday, a group of reporters were talking about when and if it might come up again. Someone said two years from now, but I think it will take a financial calamity before we have another consolidation discussion. And if that happens, consolidation is more likely to be mandated somehow than voter approved.

Calamity means an actual calamity, as in municipal bankruptcy or a move by FedEx to another city. The threat of some future calamity won't do it. The unpopular mayor, Willie Herenton, tried that. The popular mayor, A C Wharton, tried that.

The Metro Charter Commission and Rebuild Government had an impossible job. A piece of legislation that gets loaded up with something for everyone is called a Christmas tree bill. The charter authors tried to do that, but it backfired. Opponents found something not to like. The second option was to go negative and run an all-out fear campaign, like several congressional candidates did in the closing weeks of the campaign. But that would have meant beating up on Memphis even more. It made more sense to call off the dogs. A split referendum was not going to pass, period. There was no urgency to an idea that wouldn't take effect for four years and whose tax impact would not occur for seven years.

If there was any silver lining to this cloud it was that some young black activists like Andre Fowlkes, Darrell Cobbins, and Wendi Thomas stepped up. The black voting bloc that Matthews, Sharpton, and AFSCME long for is a crock.

"Something good came out of this," said consolidation supporter and former city councilman Jack Sammons. "For the first time in my adult life, the community paused to reflect about where we are going."

What now? The suburban mayors and commissioners hole up and vilify Memphis. The municipal unions treat government as a jobs and benefits program. The Shelby County Democratic Party drives off the last remaining white Democrats. Memphis will continue to lose population and middle-class families.

FedEx founder Fred Smith said Plan B would be for the city and county mayors to make the separate governments smaller and more competitive. But in a recent meeting with reporters and bloggers, Wharton was skeptical about two-headed government even when the mayors are in broad agreement, and he has held both mayoral jobs.

There might have been a time when Smith's view would have counted for something. The political boss of Memphis for the first half of the 20th century was E.H. Crump. His biographer, William Miller, wrote this about him: "Whether it was a consequence of his Old South heritage or just nature, he was an absolutist. There was right and wrong, truth and error, and one man's point of view was not always as good as another's."

Not any more.

Memphis and Shelby County and the two school systems won't make serious cuts or pull together until there is a crisis. Warnings and appeals to idealism and a better future won't do it. There will have to be a calamity. And then it will be too late.

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