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Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame Remembers 9th Street

   Few motorists driving down Ninth Street realize that it once claimed a reputation rivaling that of Memphis’ Beale Street or Kansas City’s Fifth and Vine. But as part of Arkansas’ Heritage Month, Little Rock’s “Main Street of Jazz” will soon receive its due.

   The Arkansas Jazz Heritage Foundation, the Old State House Museum and the Old State House Museum Associates will host “Remembering 9th Street: A Night of Jazz,” Saturday, May 22 at 7 p.m. in the Old State House Museum at 300 W. Markham in downtown Little Rock. The event features guitarist Eddie Fisher, who will be inducted into Arkansas’s Jazz Heritage Hall of Fame along with Scott Joplin (posthumously) and a yet-to-be announced winner of the Foundation’s Author L. Porter Lifetime Achievement Award.

   “Jazz has its roots in African music traditions, Negro spirituals, work songs and military brass bands. Jazz is such a broad term. A lot of things fit into what we call jazz,” Foundation President CeCe Rich says. “Jazz is the only American music. Everything else comes from somewhere else.”

   Visitors will enjoy appetizers and libations prior to the festivities. After the ceremony, the award-winning exhibit “Send You Back to Arkansas: Our Own Sweet Sounds II” will remain open for visitors to tour. With limited seating for about 250 people, the $20 tickets are not expected to last long. Purchase tickets by calling Gerry Soltz, special events coordinator, at 501-324-8647.

Down On The Line

   In its heyday, Little Rock’s Ninth Street hosted jazz luminaries including Duke Ellington and Count Basie, as well as Arkansas’ own Art Porter Sr. and Pharoah Sanders, among others. From the Dreamland Ballroom to The Diplomat, the reverberations wafted through the district running from High Street (now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Drive) to Broadway in the area known as “The Line.”

   “When we’d go out we’d say we were going ‘down to the Line’,” Jazz promoter Sal Bonner says. “Down on the Line you would see the best-dressed black males and ladies in their finest.”

   Echoes of those times can be heard at the Hall of Fame event, with music ranging from Ragtime to modern jazz. The evening features a tribute to Ninth Street by KABF’s John Cain, with a musical tribute provided by Walter Henderson on flugelhorn, John Bush on saxophone, Dale Kriner on piano, Joe Vick on bass and Dave Rogers on drums.

   “It’s the kind of songs that would have been played on Ninth Street,” says Rich, a former West Coast jazz vocalist and owner of Capitol Keyboard. “The Hall of Fame night musically will be a wonderful night. This will be broad enough that I imagine everyone will find something they particularly like about it.”

   One of the most popular corners rested in the center of the district at Ninth and State. In the building now housing Arkansas Flag & Banner, the Dreamland Ballroom commanded the top floor, where Basie, Ellington and a lot of big black bands enticed the crowds to dance through the night. One floor down, the Waiter’s Lounge served as the after-hours club for the service community to wind down. The ground floor housed GEM Pharmacy, where the black community purchased its prescriptions from the 1940s to the 1960s.

   “One time Count Basie and his band were stranded for six weeks in Little Rock,” Bonner says. “They would play on weekends so the guys would have money to eat.”

   Around the corner on State between Ninth and 10th streets, The El Dorado Club featured Blues artists including the legendary L.C. “Tootsie” Davis. Next door, the popular Flamingo Club featured live entertainment four-to-five nights a week. Upstairs, the Flamingo Hotel boasted of live entertainment and a restaurant serving “Soul Food” with dishes like chicken, fish and pork chops with black-eyed peas, turnip greens and potatoes on the side.

   The Diplomat Club, located between Gaines and Arch streets on the north side of Ninth, featured live jazz entertainment in the early 1960s by Art Porter Sr., Henry Shead, Pharoah Sanders, John Puckett and Thomas East, among others. The GEM Theater sat halfway between State and Gaines, and the Dixie Theatre sat in the Mosaic Temple Building, the “jewel of the black community,” at Ninth and Broadway. The Mosaic Templars Preservation Society started planning the Ninth Street Renaissance in October 1992, with a focus on rehabilitating the Mosaic Templars headquarters building. The Masonic lodges, including Mosaic Templars’ Building and Taborian Hall, provided settings for dances or balls, meetings, conventions, ball games, concerts, musical entertainment, school and other social activities.

   More than just an entertainment strip, Ninth Street housed the heart of the black community. Churches in the area included First Congregational, Allison Presbyterian, 1st Emmanuel Baptist and the Church of God. Business include lawyers, dentists and doctors offices, confectioners, grocery stores, pharmacies and drug stores, barber and beauty shops, cleaning services, shoe shine shops, shoe repair shops, hotels, taxi companies, jewelers, auto repair shops, service stations, newspaper publication offices, print shops, mortuaries, delivery services, athletic centers and restaurants.

   “African Americans lived parallel to white society and didn’t need to frequent white businesses because they had everything they needed on Ninth Street,” according to the Mosaic Templars Preservation Society’s Web site. “This separate ‘Negro World’ illustrated the possibility of positive achievement in a racially divided state. This high level of self-sufficiency and community had not been achieved before or since the rise and fall of Ninth Street.”

   Urban renewal begin changing the district in the mid-1960s. Though plans for Interstate 630 called for it to follow Ninth Street, the Wilbur D. Mills Freeway ended up following 10th Street instead. Though the “Main Street of Jazz” exists primarily in memories, jazz is not dead in Little Rock.

   Since 1982, Bonner has brought in jazz performers ranging from Eddie Harris, the Betty Carter Trio, Mark Murphy, Spanky Wilson, and Count Basie’s vocalist Dennis Rowland at the Afterthought, to other notables including the Buddy Rich Orchestra, the Woody Herman Thundering Heard Orchestra, Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard, Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson, Lou Rawls and Jon Hendricks. KUAR, FM 89, now features jazz Sunday through Friday from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Rich passionately states that she believes people must continually push jazz to be heard.

   “Historically it’s an important part of this state,” Rich says. “It’s an important art form that needs to be kept alive. … Once it’s heard, people tend to like it.”

Hall of Fame ceremony

   As if the music and tribute to Ninth Street weren’t enough, the Arkansas Jazz Heritage Foundation will induct guitarist Eddie Fisher and the father of Ragtime, Scott Joplin, into the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame, along with this year’s winner of the Arthur L. Porter Lifetime Achievement Award.

   The award honors Pine Bluff pianist Art Porter Sr., recipient of the Foundation’s first Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993 prior to his death from cancer. In 1994, the Foundation changed the award’s name to the Author L. Porter Lifetime Achievement Award, stipulating that recipients would gain automatic induction into the Hall of Fame. Otherwise, two criteria determine a candidate’s eligibility for the Hall of Fame:

  1. The candidate must be an Arkansas native or have established residence in Arkansas.
  2. The candidate must have a history of significant accomplishments and/or contributions to the jazz arts within the state or on the national/international level. A candidate may be a musician, composer, educator, writer or major contributor to the jazz field.

   Previous Hall of Fame inductees include Joe Bishop (1995), Pat Davis (1995), Bob Dorough (1998), Clarence Aaron “Tonk” Edwards (2000), Herb Ellis (1994), Earle Hesse (2000), Al Hibbler (1995), Buddy Jones (1996), Louis Jordan (1994), James Leary (1996), Bitsy Mullins (1995), Walter Norris (1995), Robert Palmer (2002), Art Porter Sr. (1994), Art Porter Jr. (1998), Ralph Porter (1996), Buck Powell (1995), Pharoah Sanders (1994), Doug Stiles (2000), John Stubblefield (1998), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1996), Charles Thomas (1994), Alphonso Trent (1994), Roseanna Vitro (1998), Al White (2002) and Jimmy Witherspoon (1996).

   “Arkansas happens to be very fortunate to have lots of people born here who became involved in jazz,” Rich says. “A lot has to do with the fact that this is such a church-oriented area. The other thing in the state is the country people who grew up in their families playing guitar or fiddle and singing. They started when they were babies. That was a family tradition.”

   After ceremonies in 1994 and 1995, the Hall of Fame went to a bi-annual format beginning in 1996. Foundation secretary James Thomson says the inductees have been limited to three per year since 2000, due to time constraints on the ceremony. This marks the first year the award ceremony has been held at the Old State House.

   “Going to the Old State House, just that alone would be quite something,” Rich says. “(Holding the ceremony) at the State House is wonderful for us. The idea of going to that old building to hear that old music is wonderful, I think.”

Back in the Rock

   Hall of Fame inductee Eddie Fisher returns to Little Rock for the first time in more than three decades to entertain visitors with his jazz guitar. Citing Wes Montgomery, John Coltrane and Miles Davis as some of his many influences, Fisher began his career as a straight jazz guitarist with relatively traditional soul jazz, while his recent releases have been described as “melodic … with a fresh mix of urban funk and classic rhythms.”

   “This is the first time he’s performed in Little Rock since he left for St. Louis,” Bonner says. “He’s looking very much forward to coming to Little Rock for the induction, visiting of friends, and to perform after the induction.”

   Born in Little Rock, 10-year-old Edward Thomas Fisher developed a love for music under the influence and support of his father who played blues guitar. After graduating from Horace Mann High School in 1962, Fisher moved to Memphis and joined Robert Talley’s band. In addition to learning composition, arrangement and musical theory from Talley, he also learned while playing on the Memphis recording circuit with Isaac Hayes, Steve Cropper and Willie Mitchell.

   Fisher toured with Solomon Burke for a while, then returned to Little Rock and worked with bassist Larry Davis. The duo soon received an offer to play with blues guitarist Albert King in St. Louis. While Davis returned to Arkansas, Fisher stayed with King and soon became his bandleader. Yet he yearned to play jazz.

   After settling in St. Louis, Fisher joined with Leo Gooden, owner of the renowned Blue Note Club at 42nd Street in East St. Louis, to form the band Leo’s Five, playing with the likes of David Sanborn, Oliver Nelson, Sonny Stitt, Jimmy Smith and Michael McDonald. Fisher originally composed the single “The Third Cup” for a Leo’s Five recording, but Gooden’s death led him to record at Gateway Studios.

   The original 45 of “The Third Cup” on the Vanessa label sold more than 5,000 copies, leading Chess to release an LP of the same name on its Cadet label in 1969. Fisher reunited with high-school friend Bonner in 1971, when Bonner lived in Detroit. Bonner began promoting the “Third Cup” album, and booked Fisher in clubs throughout the Midwest, including Detroit and Chicago.

   Out of print for over 20 years, “The Third Cup” commands high collector’s prices among vinyl collectors. While it seems MCA has no interest in re-issuing “The Third Cup,” they have re-issued his second album, “Eddie Fisher & The Next One Hundred Years.” Both albums have received international acclaim. While dustygroove.com describes “The Third Cup” as “stripped down jazz with a small combo … (that) creates this super-dope style that’s light years ahead of its time,” it describes the second album as “very trippy guitar funk” with “a perfect batch of kick-back stoner funk numbers that go on and on and on.”

   Fisher’s success with All Platinum Records, where he recorded his third album “Hot Lunch,” led him to establish his own record label, Nentu Records. Under this label, Fisher produced “Fisher” and “The Promise” (1986). Following a 15-year recording hiatus, Fisher released “42nd Street” in 2001, touted as smooth jazz with plenty of soulful licks.

“I think the time is finally right for me now musically,” Fisher says in a 2002 interview with riverfronttimes.com. “You just try and be yourself… and hope at some point the recognition comes.”

   If playing with the giants of jazz is any indication, Fisher’s time has come. According to his Website, Fisher recently played with jazz legends Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ahmad Jamal Russell Guinn and Johnny Johnson at the Miles Davis Arts Festival in East St. Louis. From now on, Fisher will be known as one of the giants of Arkansas Jazz.

   “(Fisher) was overwhelmed by his selection into the Hall of Fame,” Thomson says. “He plans to bring his video crew and tape (the ceremony).”

   Bonner says Fisher could not have chosen a better time to be selected for the Hall of Fame, noting “He’s being inducted with a legend.”

“Father of Ragtime”

   Scott Joplin will be posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame, with Old State House Museum director Bill Gatewood receiving the award for inclusion in the “Send You Back to Arkansas: Our Own Sweet Sounds II” exhibit.

   “We should have honored him a long time ago,” Rich says. “It was just an oversight.”

   Joplin grew up in Texarkana in the 1870s. Julius Weiss, a German music teacher, allegedly inspired Joplin to become a classical composer. After leaving Texarkana, Joplin played in Texas and Missouri, where he settled for awhile in Sedalia.

   Joplin’s career brought him back through Texarkana in 1891 while touring with a minstrel troupe. Though his conducting, singing and trumpet-playing took him to Chicago and as far east as Syracuse, N.Y., his song-writing brought Joplin fame in August 1899 with a Ragtime composition in honor of Sedalia’s Maple Leaf Club. With the aid of a lawyer and publisher John Starks, Joplin published “The Maple Leaf Rag,” recognized as the greatest and most famous of piano rags.

   Copies of the piece sold for 50 cents, with Joplin receiving a 1-cent royalty for each sold. While some 400 copies sold the first year, sales increased with the second edition published in St. Louis. Ten years after its original publication, sales reached a half-million copies. Though it did not make Joplin rich, “The Maple Leaf Rag” provided an estimated $360 annually for the rest of his life.

   Joplin married three times. He met his second wife in Little Rock in 1903. Known as the only woman Joplin ever truly loved, 19-year-old Freddie Alexander inspired him to write “The Chrysanthemum,” which he portrayed as “An Afro-American Intermezzo” rather than a rag as many circles considered Ragtime to be a disreputable form. Tragically, Freddie died from pneumonia 10 weeks after their wedding.

   Joplin memorialized both her and his mother in his second opera, “Treemonisha,” published in May 1911. Based on his idea that education would lead to racial equality, Joplin described Treemonisha’s education through her parent’s labors in a white-owned home. Joplin allegedly claimed to have played pianos in the homes of white residents while his mother did domestic chores. He paid tribute to Freddie by using her birth in September 1884 when setting the story in a plantation community not far from his childhood home in Texarkana.

   After a review in The American Musician and Art Journal declared “Treemonisha” to be the most American opera ever composed, Joplin attempted to stage the opera, but its complete performance did not occur in his lifetime. Joplin died from tertiary syphilis on April 1, 1917, after a three-month hospitalization from the physical and mental effects of the disease. America’s entrance into World War I on the same day stole the headlines, while jazz overtook Ragtime in the music industry.

   A “Ragtime revival” peaked in the 1970s as new recordings of Joplin’s music set classical sales records, while the notated music became available through reprinted collections. Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” first published in 1902, became the theme to the 1973 Oscar-winning movie “The Sting,” leading to Ragtime’s cross-over into the disco and pop markets. Two years later, “Treemonisha” finally reached Broadway, leading to a posthumous 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Joplin’s contribution to American music. The United States Postal Service honored Joplin with the issuance of a commemorative stamp on June 9, 1983.

Our Own Sweet Sounds

   After the performances and induction awards end around 9:15 p.m., visitors are invited to view and hear Arkansas’ contributions to American popular music within the confines of the oldest surviving state capitol west of the Mississippi River. “Send You Back to Arkansas: Our Own Sweet Sounds II” won the Arkansas Museum Association’s “Best Exhibit” award in 2003, while the Old State House Museum garnered the Association’s “Museum of the Year.”

   The exhibit features a piano owned by Joplin while he lived in New York. The family of an Irish immigrant who used to tune the piano donated it to the exhibit. Joplin gave it to the immigrant when he could no longer use it, according to Old State House public relations specialist Amy Peck.

   “He composed a lot of his music on this piano,” she says.

   The five-gallery exhibit features the stories and sounds of Joplin, Louis Jordan, Sonny Boy Williamson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Al Green, Howlin’ Wolfe, Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Black Oak Arkansas, Levon Helm, Evanescence and Jimmy Driftwood, among others. Peck hinted that the exhibit may feature paraphernalia from the Hall of Fame inductees following the ceremony.

   “What usually happens from this type of event is once the artist goes through the exhibit, they feel the need to give us something,” she says, noting that Lucinda Williams recently contributed to the exhibit after viewing it.

   More than 1,700 artifacts from folk, blues, jazz, gospel, country and rock music genres are featured in paintings, stage costumes, hand-written song lyrics and sheet music, instruments, album cover art and recording contracts. For history buffs, the exhibit features the oldest-known photograph of an Arkansas musician and the oldest-known recorded sound in Arkansas of a 1928 Ozarks string band. Touch screen kiosks, DVDs and surround sound components add to the experience. When the exhibit concludes in April 2005, Peck says some of the artifacts, including the historical papers of Louis Jordan, will be donated to the Mosaic Templars Preservation Society for inclusion in the Mosaic Temple’s cultural center.

   While Peck says the galleries will remain open until 9:30 or 10 p.m. on the night of the ceremony, regular museum hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Guided tours are available to small groups of individuals until 4 p.m. seven days a week. Group tours for a specific exhibit should be booked at (501) 324-8643. Admission to the museum during normal hours is free.

   For more information:

  • The Double Tree Hotel (next to the Old State House) offers special rates for visitors to the Arkansas Jazz Heritage Foundation’s Hall of Fame ceremony. Contact 501-372-4371.
  • Visit the Old State House Museum online
  • Learn about the Ninth Street renaissance at the Mosaic Templars’ Building Preservation Society online
  • Visit the Arkansas Jazz Heritage Foundation online at http://www.arjazz.org/, featuring the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame. Want to become a member of the Arkansas Jazz Heritage Foundation and help support “America’s classical music” in Arkansas? Purchase memberships online, ranging from $15 for individuals to $25 for a family. Student memberships cost $5 with a valid student ID. For $100 or more, individuals can attain benefactor status, while corporate status is available with a donation of $500 or more.
  • Visit Eddie Fisher’s Web site at http://www.fisherjazzsound.com/ or read Terry Perkins’ article in the Riverfront Times. Fisher’s CD “42nd Street” can be ordered at http://www.cdbaby.com/fisherjazz or http://www.dustygroove.com
  • Visit the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation at http://www.scottjoplin.org/ or view his opera, “Treemonisha.” For those experiencing Web trepidation, read Edward A. Berlin’s “King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era” (New York: Oxford, 1994) or visit Texarkana’s Museum of Regional History, home of the Scott Joplin files.
  • For the neophyte, try the Jazz Primer for Rock People.

This article originally appeared in the May 1-31, 2004 issue of the Little Rock Free Press.
Word count: 3,389 words