Last year we dedicated a Mississippi Blues Trail marker to jazz bandleader Jimmie Lunceford in his hometown of Fulton, in northwest MS. He only lived there briefly, but later moved back to the Mid South, where he pioneered music education programs for the city of Memphis’ school system through his service as the band director at Manassas High School. Alumni include musicians Gerald Wilson, George Coleman, Booker Little, Hank Crawford, Frank Strozier, Charles Lloyd, Emerson Able Jr., Harold Mabern, Howard Grimes, and Isaac Hayes.
On Thursday, November 15 the Mike Curb Insitute at Rhodes College in Memphis is hosting the event “Celebrating Jimmie Lunceford and the Music of Manassas High:” the timing is based on the 110th anniversary of Lunceford’s birth.
Thursday, November 15, 2012: Rhodes College
5:00 p.m. – Reception and viewing of Rhodes Student research on Manassas (Crain Reception Hall)
6:15 p.m. – Panel Discussion featuring Emerson Able, Jr. and Ron MBA Herd II (McCallum Ballroom)
7:30 p.m. – Concert featuring the Rhodes Jazz Band with special guest vocalist and Manassas alumna Earlice Taylor (McCallum Ballroom)
Also, a related event: On November 14 Emerson Able, Jr., who also served as a bandleader at Manassas, will be presented with a Beale Street Brass Note at the Historic Daisy Theater on Beale Street.
Here’s a piece on Able written by our good friend Preston Lauterbach for the Memphis Flyer.
The man who kicked Isaac Hayes out of the high school band
High school bandleaders have had an influence on Memphis music that is huge and overlooked. To name just two, the great jazz orchestra leader Jimmie Lunceford taught at Manassas in the 1920s, and Harry Winfield tutored future Stax luminaries at Porter Junior High.
Emerson Able started teaching music at Manassas in 1956 and instructed many, including Grimes, who became prominent musicians. The most famous of his former pupils is the one who got away.
While a student at Manassas, Isaac Hayes couldn’t decide between Able’s band class or voice class. “I told him, ‘Go on,’” recalls Able. Hayes didn’t hold it against Able and later hired his old teacher to join the Isaac Hayes Movement. “Hayes introduced me on stage as the man who kicked him out of the school band,” Able says.
“I was not one of the musicians that hung around Stax. I had a job. They had been doing a lot of ‘head’ tunes at Stax [i.e., a song played from memory or verbal instruction rather than sheet music], and that can be very time consuming. A head tune is like ‘Last Night,’ a simple tune that they can pick up on. Basically, that was the Stax sound.
“Musicians didn’t always get credit for what they had recorded at Stax. They were doing what they called demos. You’d go down, record a demo, and they’d pay you 12 bucks. They have you to believe that it was only a demo, and they’d have you back to cut it [i.e., record for the purpose of releasing the material rather than practicing on a demo]. Then they’d [release] it and have you believe you’re not on there. Some of us could identify our errors, and we knew it was us.’
“Another game they’d run, they’d make a demo, then play it on WLOK for a while. If [African Americans] in Memphis like a record, we’ll like it anywhere. So they’d test it on black listeners here, and if it got a lot of requests, they’d make a record out of it.
“Onzie Horne [Hayes' arranger] brought me into Hayes’ band. That’s when we hit the road. We had charts, he had accomplished musicians, and we never would have gotten through all of that shit had it been a ‘head’ thing.
“We lost the music [traveling] between San Francisco and Los Angeles for Wattstax. We didn’t know it was missing until it got there. We assumed the airlines lost it. We had to write the music from memory before Wattstax.
“The other thing that happened, the tune we originally did for Wattstax was a Burt Bacharach tune [probably "Walk On By"]. After we recorded it at the Coliseum in L.A. and got back to Memphis, we had to go back out there. Bacharach would not give permission to use the tune [in the Wattstax film]. They fixed up the Coliseum, and we shot again.
“We’re supposed to be getting monies off of that, but we ain’t getting shit.”