Shared History - April 2015
The Mississippi Blues Trail
Read Part One of this series by clicking here.
Blues and jazz music also has an illustrious history at our neighboring town across the Bridge, Pass Christian. The Pass’s most famous “native son” was alto saxophonist Captain John Handy. (The “Captain” moniker reportedly was earned from Handy’s authoritative band leadership style.) With the Louisiana Shakers, Handy and his brother toured throughout the region. In the later part of his life, Handy recorded several albums and played often at Preservation Hall in New Orleans, in addition to touring worldwide.
Among the local Pass clubs that featured blues, jazz, and R&B were the Dixie, the Savoy, and the P. C. Club. In 2011, a Blues Trail marker was dedicated along Highway 90 to commemorate Blues and Jazz in the Pass.
Every May from 1999 to 2005, the Pass had celebrated its rich African American musical heritage with its "Jazz in the Pass" festival. Temporarily discontinued for several years after Hurricane Katrina, “Jazz in the Pass” has been back in business since 2011!
Gulfport – especially the North Gulfport area - once supported vibrant blues/R&B venues. In fact, New Orleans jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton used to play played the Great Southern Hotel in the 1900s. Gulfport was also an occasional stop for rambling bluesmen and women such as Robert Johnson and Ma Rainey, the famous “mother of the blues.”
Gulfport has been fertile territory for musicians who not only turned the Coast into a hotbed of blues and R&B, but also impacted popular music on an international scale. Allman Brothers Band members Johnnie Lee Johnson (better known as Jaimoe) and Lamar Williams both were raised in Gulfport and performed in many clubs along the Coast during their early years. Other Gulfport residents included pianist Roosevelt Sykes, guitarist Blind Roosevelt Graves, pianist Cozy Corley, and singer Albennie Jones.
In those days, the scene at the Hi-Hat Club and other North Gulfport blues hotspots like Ebony and Night Owl, was known to be on the wild side, as the clubs then all were outside Gulfport police jurisdiction.
Gulfport was also an important location for disseminating the blues to the rest of the world by radio. After World War II, the African-American community across the country relied on radio for entertainment and news, and Gulfport radio was taking the lead in “Broadcasting the Blues.” In 1994, blues promoter “Rip” Daniels launched WJZD radio in Gulfport, making it the first African American-owned FM station on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In 2000, Daniels took the blues concept further using satellite and Internet technology to launch the American Blues Network (ABN) to listeners around the world. In 2007, the Blues Foundation dedicated a “Broadcasting the Blues/ABN” Blues Trail marker in Gulfport.
The “Four Corners” intersection in north Gulfport, at the intersection of Arkansas Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., was a central blues location in the decades when the African American communities in and around north Gulfport supported many nightclubs that operated outside the old city limits. Now, it is the site of the most recent Mississippi Blues Trail marker to be dedicated on the Coast, installed in January of this year.
In Biloxi, the stretch of Main Street that catered to the African American trade in the years during and after World War II has been designated as “Biloxi Blues.” Biloxi’s musical culture was particularly influenced by that of New Orleans. (Indeed, New Orleans jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton lived in Biloxi in the early 1900s). During the war years and after, airmen from Keesler Field often participated both as audience members and musicians. Local blues musicians from Biloxi included Cozy Corley, and Carl Gates and the Decks. A Blues Trail marker was dedicated in 2010 in Biloxi at the intersection of Main and Murray Streets.
Other notable sites along the Mississippi Blues Trail that are only a short drive from the Gulf Coast include Hattiesburg, which rock historians have credited as being one of the birthplaces of rock and roll music, and which is home to a number of important historic blues venues, and Laurel in Jones County, home of Blind Roosevelt Graves, and the Laurel Mother's Day Blues Festival every May since 1987.
In Hattiesburg, the original Hi-Hat Club was built in the 1950s and was an important stop on the “chitlin circuit” for famed African American blues and soul performers such as B. B. King, James Brown, Otis Redding, Ike & Tina Turner, Sam Cooke, Al Green, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Louis Jourdan, Guitar Slim, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and many others. One of the largest clubs in Mississippi, the Hi-Hat sometimes drew crowds of over one thousand reveling blues lovers.
In addition, Mobile Street in Hattiesburg was a historic African American business and entertainment district where many of the blues musicians lived and worked, and the center for several blues and gospel record labels. One studio on Mobile Street was the site of a 1936 historic series of recording sessions by Mississippi blues, gospel, and country performers, including the Mississippi Jook Band and the Edgewater Crows.
In Europe Too?
Interestingly, the Mississippi Blues Foundation has arranged for a few Blues Trail markers not only outside of the state of Mississippi (particularly in Alabama and Louisiana), but also for two markers to have been placed in Europe! One is in Cahors, France, where Blues first reached France in the 1920a and 30s via touring African American groups, and the other is in Notodden, Norway, sister-city to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and site of a hugely popular blues festival that draws top Mississippi-born blues artists. Mississippi blues really gets around!
Whether you're a die-hard blues fan or a casual traveler, keeping an eye out for these Blues Trail markers is guaranteed to teach you new things about the music and its inspirational founders, and to lend a new appreciation for the spots that gave birth to the blues.
To donate to the Mississippi Blues Foundation, or for information on how to purchase a Mississippi Blues Trail license plate, see www.msbluestrail.org. Your money will assist the Benevolent Fund, which helps Mississippi blues artists in times of need, and will help communities pay for and maintain the Blues Trail Markers.
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