Partial Transcript: [McGraw: Today is October 16 2018. This is an interview with James Plunky Branch.]
You have a pretty amazing story. Born into a working-class family on the south side of Richmond in 1947. Your high-school music teacher Joseph Kennedy integrated the Richmond Symphony Orchestra. Many of your music teachers in high school were touring with world-class jazz artists.
You go to Columbia in New York to study chemistry where you start a soul band and then take part in the student occupation in 1968. Then you move to the Haight Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco and are active in Africanist musical experiments and black nationalist political movements, and start the band juju.
All of this deserves a full-length documentary but today I want to ask you specifically about the Richmond music scene and how it has changed over time.
You moved back to Richmond in 1974 and shifted your aesthetic focus back towards soul and R&B, because, as you describe in your memoire, the white and black population in Richmond weren’t exactly receptive to Africanist musics and radical politics at the time. And you become a key figure in changing the scene during the tail end of the Civil-Rights Era, which in Richmond had a longer tail as compared to other parts of the country. You started a lot of non-profit arts initiatives, you got existing non-profits to begin giving the black population in Richmond.
So I’d like to hear your perspective on how the Richmond scene has changed, how it’s remained the same since the Civil-Rights era. I’d be really interested in hearing about particular venues and their connections to particular communities.
Partial Transcript: Well, you’ve summarized my career quite adequately. Thanks for reading my book! All that you say is true. I almost have to start with my start and you’ve pegged it correctly I had the fortune to work with a number of my band instructors early on who were moonlighting as jazz musicians. There are people like Johnny Peyton who eventually started a big band here; he was my first band instructor in the 5th grade in the 50s. If we fast forward to the 2000’s or the 90s I had a chance to play with him in a big band. So, his legacy spanned all the way from pre-Civil-Rights to post-Civil-Rights.
He was a great saxophonist. A friend of his Tuskin Jasper was a music teacher here in Richmond, played trumpet. Royal Singleton was one of my instructors, who played oboe. And of course the great Joseph Kennedy who did help integrate the Richmond Symphony, but was a jazz musician of some renown. He was a violinist, a jazz violinist, played with Ahmad Jamal, and went to Japan and all over the world playing jazz violin. Those musicians were my starting point. I started playing music in Richmond public schools in the 50s, and by the time I was in high school, the Civil-Rights movement was in full vogue, but particularly in the south. The music that I grew up with was kind of an amalgamation of gospel and R&B. Radio in the 50s and early 60s was as segregated as other parts of our society. And black radio, of which there was only one black radio station [in Richmond] WANT. Later we had WENZ and WKIE. But all of them had a similar format, and that was: they played all styles of black music. Which was mostly R&B and later Motown, but a smattering of jazz and certainly gospel on Sundays.
That’s the music I grew up with and that’s the music of Richmond as I know it. Now, let’ me say this about Richmond: Richmond is a peculiar, has been a peculiar marketplace for music. It was once thought that Richmond was such a tough market to convince about music that it became a test market for black music, for black record companies. Legend has it that in the 50s and 60s record companies would use Richmond as a test market. If a record did well in Richmond it could do well anywhere. Even acts like average white band, which is a group from the UK, there record was first released here in Virginia, under that theory. That, we would test it here. Richmond is sort of midAtlantic but south. And so the taste runs from the same taste as Philadelphia down through the Carolinas and into Georgia. So actually, it wasn’t just quirky that they would use Richmond as a test market. Geographically, we sat in a sort of midzone between the midAtlantic states and the south. So that’s what music was like pre-Civil-Rights era. And I’d have to say it didn’t change much in the late 60s and early 70s while I was away.
Keywords: WANT Radio; joseph kennedy, violinst; richmond symphony orchestra
Subjects: Black Radio; Blacks--Segregation; richmond symphony orchestra
Partial Transcript: I went to college in 1965; I didn’t return to Richmond as full-time resident until 1974. That was a 9 or 10 year span where the Civil-Rights movement peaked and then tailed off. And when I got back to Richmond after my 10 years away the music scene had not changed substantially. Um, the city was still segregated, music was pretty much segregate. Though I have to say; there was some crossover to the music. Motown was the first, or one of the major black labels, music catalogues that cross over. The white population referred to the music as “beach music.” It was the music they might not have heard in their school year, but when they went to the beach in the summers this was the “soul music” that they heard. Absent that, there was not so much cross over to the musics both white and black here in Richmond and the midatlantic, unlike places like New York of San Francisco where there was a kind of two-way crossing. Black people listened to the Beatles, and some of the rock era music and white people listened to Motown and some of the soul music, in particular stax.
Keywords: Beatles; motown
Subjects: musical tastes in Richmond
Partial Transcript: For me, I won’t say it posed a problem, but it posed a problem, because my own musical taste was much broader once I left Richmond. Um, I had grown up on soul music but I did get infused with some rock music when I was in New York and Columbia, and certainly by the time I went to San Francisco. Psychedelic rock music was a part of my palette. When I came back to New York—my transition went from New York to San Francisco and back to New York for a few years. By the time I had got back to New York I had become an African jazz artist. Played with a man in San Francisco Ndikho Xaba who was a Zulu from South Africa, taught me a lot about African music also taught me this concept of music being more than just a pastime more than just entertainment. But could be a political force, it could be a force for social change. It could be a dynamic business or economic generator for the black community. I brought that philosophy back to New York and played with the avant-garde jazz scene, which in itself had several different nuances, one of which was an Afro-centric one. My group Juju was one of the Afro-centric groups of that movement. We played African drums, under my wild screaming saxophone. We found some favor in New York with that community. In passing, let me just say, it’s awfully difficult to make it as an artist in New York because there is so much music and so many musicians.
Keywords: Africanist music; Columbia University; Juju music ensemble; Psychedelic rock music
Subjects: Africanist music in New York and San Francisco
Partial Transcript: Eventually I moved back to Richmond with my band and in 1974 I found a scene in Richmond that was post-Civil-Rights in some ways and but not quite finished with Civil-Rights in others.
So, I implanted—and this has somewhat become part of my life’s mission—going abroad, abroad in the broadest sense, some place like San Francisco or Africa, going abroad, learning some things, seeing some things and then bringing back what I have seen to Richmond. I have been in Richmond; I’m a Richmonder. There are people who joke with me in France, when I go there, they say: “all you talk about is Richmond this, Richmond that!” And I do; I’m sort of an ambassador about Richmond. But I’m also an ambassador to Richmond.
Partial Transcript: And so, when I was in New York I had the opportunity to work with Ornette Coleman. He had a gallery in his home. The first floor was a major art gallery in the So-Ho district and I used that concept when I came back to Richmond. I had a roommate Lou Ellen Harrison and we had a house in Church Hill right across from Chimborazo park and we opened what was going to be the first commercial black arts gallery in the state of Virginia. And that art gallery not only presented some major artists beginning with Murray Depillars who would become dean of the VCU school of the arts. He was a Chicago-based Afro-Centric painter.
But we also included music. My group Juju lived in the house upstairs. We had a series of events called Sundays at Sunset and it was through this gallery enterprise that we introduced some of this Afro-centric avant-garde jazz to the Richmond community. The community in the immediate neighborhood was very receptive. It was an open house; it was art; it was arty and they supported us.
Keywords: Afrocentric music; Church Hill; Coleman, Ornette; Murray DePillars
Subjects: Richmond arts scene in 1970s
Partial Transcript: But Richmond at large, either because of the lack of marketing or, was not very receptive to this brand of art music. As a result, I started an organization called Branches of the Arts.
The Branches of the Arts was dedicated to promoting black art, to say it simply. And one of the things we did through that organization was to challenge the state of Virginia, I’m not telling the story chronologically, but this is important. We challenged the state of Virginia, which was giving grants through the Virginia commission for the arts to various arts organizations and for years most of the money went to the Richmond Symphony, the Virginia Museum, the Ballet, and organizations like that. Black organizations received little or none of that funding. We challenged the state, to say that either black arts—neighborhood arts—should be [included] or a separate pool of money should be created, but we had an attorney and we threatened to have an injunction to stop all funding for non-essential programs in Virginia until we got that settled. To make that story go faster, they agreed to create pools of money or at least to incorporate neighborhood arts or community arts to get some funding and Branches of the Arts; we incorporated and we got some grants and we also tried to help others in the community organize and get grants.
Keywords: Branches of the Arts non-profit; Richmond Symphony Orchestra; Virginia Museum of the Fine Arts
Subjects: arts funding; arts non-profits
Partial Transcript: One of the organizations that we helped found was the Richmond Jazz society. The Richmond Jazz Society was founded thirty years ago now right here in this house, in what was my dining room and is now my studio. I put an ad in the paper asking people who might have been interested in forming a jazz organization to come by. And I knew several people, and we invited those eight people that became the founders of the Richmond Jazz Society.
Keywords: Richmond Jazz Society
Partial Transcript: There were other organizations. The Soweto Stage Company, Larry Bland and the Voluntary Choir, Ezibu Muntu African Dance Troupe, which later splintered off into a second group Elegba Folklore Society. And so we helped found these groups, helped put them on a stable footing, we would be their fiscal agent, until they got organized themselves.
So, that’s a very long story—preamble-to our involvement in the arts. Or specifically, music in Richmond post-Civil-Rights era. But it’s an important point; The Richmond Jazz Society was instrumental in fostering an audience for jazz here. Ezibu Muntu and later Elegba Folklore Society were instrumental in introducing African music. Traditional African music and African principles to the community. Larry Bland and the Volunteer Choir was one of those groups that were basically a gospel group, but sort of crossed over into entertainment. I like to think that Larry Bland was one of the first if not the first to institute choreography into the Black gospel choir movement, which allowed him to be commercially successful and book gigs outside of the church even though the music was still rooted in the Baptist tradition.
So those were things that happened post-Civil-Rights. Those were examples of what could happen bringing outside influence son the impact of what was going on in the rest of the world to a city, a town, like Richmond.
Keywords: Elegba Folklore Society; Ezibu Muntu; Larry Bland and the Volunteer Choir; Soweto Stage Company
Subjects: Black arts non-profits
Partial Transcript: Let me say also that, you asked about venues, and because I knew you were coming I did make a list just off the top of my head, just in one sitting, of some of the venues here in Richmond. I’ll start with, in the 60s, in my high school time frame, the two bowling alleys, the two black bowling alleys became venues one was called the North Bowl, which was on North Avenue and the other was Cool Lane. Both of those started out as bowling alleys. They became centers of congregation of young people, and eventually they both became night clubs. North Bowl became the Sahara night club. The Sahara night club on north avenue booked local acts but they also did the Motown review. Actual Motown stars came and played there as a part of what I guess we refer to as the chitlin circuit. Cool Lane also became a night club. And they became a night club because of some physical things. They were large; they had parking lots; people came there for entertainment and the only entertainment if you didn’t have live music was juke boxes. And eventually the live entertainment part of it became more lucrative than bowling.
[McGraw: So, they were doing bowling and presenting acts?]
Not simultaneously. There was some crossover time, but they literally changed the venue from bowling alley to nightclub. They put floors over the bowling alleys. They were going to be bowling alleys no more, the became dance floors; but a stage in. And they were very viable; very happening places, both for teenagers and adults. Different nights; different times. But they became the first night clubs that I personally inhabited and performed in.
Keywords: bowling alleys
Subjects: Black performance venues
Partial Transcript: There was another nightclub called Shade Indigo and I think it was located on first street between broad and Marshall, on the 2nd floor. I went there maybe my senior year in high school. It was a jazz club; fairly well appointed, Very dark; not at all a down scene, much more upscale kind of jazz club. Mostly inhabited by adults, I went there trying to be sophisticated.
Partial Transcript: But I myself got my indoctrination to jazz music through my band instructors but also through my father joining the Columbia tape club. And after he ordered the Johnny Mathis and the Andre Previn’s that he wanted he let me order some albums and I ordered some Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, I’m not sure if it was beyond my wanting to be sophisticated, or even the covers. I bought the albums because of the covers. But some of them were classic jazz albums. Take Five is probably either the first or second most sold album in jazz history. I think it has been surpassed by Miles Davis kind of blue now.
Partial Transcript: But that was my indoctrination to jazz during the Civil-Rights part, because the Civil-Rights movements came to Richmond in the 60s, probably 64 or 65, was when the sit ins happened in the Woolworth’s store on Broad street. [Correction: this was a sit in in the Thalhimer’s Richmond Room on February 22 1960]
Virginia Union University students. I wanted to go participate; my parents thought I was too young. I was still in high school and the probably didn’t want the controversy that these young people were generating. But it was in that time that I was personally blossoming and exploring and looking to jazz music as a way to express or at least hear some of the expressions that were going on.
Subjects: Civil Rights Protests
Partial Transcript: There was a club called Ovoutees. I’m not even sure how it was spelled. But I think it’s, Ovoutees was a private club on Broad St. on the corner of Broad and Foushee, directly on the North Side of broad on what’s now Tarrant's. It’s a vacant building now. They used to hire me. It was one of the few places that would hire my band Juju in my early crossover to R&B; I played there.
There were other very similar private clubs; The Devil’s Club, which was called Die Teufel; still in existence, across from first consolidated bank across from First and Marshall St. just up from First St. The Devil’s club; it was a private club, operating sometimes after hours, but bands played there.
Another club was called the Railroad club on Chamberlain; I never played at the Railroad club but it was a similar club and then there was another club called 533, which was a private upscale Black club that often had live music. Another club, the Military Retirees was a private club. Still is a private club. It was the largest of those venues and even in those early days they hosted local bands, but also some touring Southern Soul type bands and blues groups would play at the military retirees.
Now, soon after the Richmond Jazz Society was formed, they opened a club on Chamberlain called the Richmond Jazz Society club and it was in that same area as the Railroad club: Chamberlayne not so far south as Overbrook. And this club had jazz music; it was one of the first clubs since back in the day with Shade Indigo. And they had mostly local jazz acts and during that time Branches of the Arts also opened a building. We had a building on Clay Street, I forget the exact address it used to be. . . it had at one time been a Black Business school and in that building we had classrooms we had galleries and the main space became a performance space, and we would have jazz music and play there.
Keywords: 533 Club; Devil's Club; Military Retirees Club; Ouvetees Club; Railroad Club
Subjects: Black performance venues
Partial Transcript: After that, there were a string of clubs that I would say maybe, in the 80s and 90s. There was a club called the Third World. The Third World was on Broad Street near Laurel. It eventually had several incarnations. It was the Third World, then it became The Pass then it became Scoundrels then it became Ellington’s then the last it was Ivory’s. So it was a very important building, simply because it had all these different incarnations.
All of which were. . . no, the Third World was a Black club, it was started by four black college students from Virginia State University and it was a Black venue. My group Juju played there on the first floor, it was a very vibrant scene, because it was for and by younger people. People in their 20s. It went out of business; the club became The Pass, it was white ownership, catered to VCU students. Later it became Scoundrels, it was white clientele but upscale. It had been renovated. Later a man, Earl Winn, opened Ellington’s there.
Keywords: Ellington's Club; Ivory's; Scoundrel's; The Pass; Third World Club
Partial Transcript: Now, I should pause and say Earl Winn, before Ellington’s, had another club that was extremely important, it was called the Blues Alley. Now the Blues Alley is the name of a club, a renowned club in Washington [D.C.] but this was the Blues Alley in Richmond. It was on the corner of Sixth St and Marshall. It was across from the Blues Armory Building. So it was called the Blues Alley. Now, part of that story, the folklore of that venue, is that it was very important because it was close to city hall. And it was very upscale; it was very well appointed. Very nicely appointed. And it became a place, a watering hole if you will for the Black political class, and for the black academic class. It was upscale, had live music. It was smallish but the food was great, and the music was very good. I played there every Friday for some time. My band would play every Friday there and it was a hot club. People would be lined up and Henry Marsh and the Black city council members would come to Ellington’s [Blues Alley] to have unofficial meetings. Because the charter of the city—I didn’t know this until later—but the charter of the city was that, if they met anywhere in city hall it would have to be declared a public meeting and they would have to take notes and it would be open to the public so they would retire [ to the club.] They might be having a meeting and then they’d say, oh let’s go up the street to the club and have a drink. It would be informal. That’s where they would make deals and determine what was happening. All to my band backing them up. So it was a very important club.
Footnote to that: that club went out of business when the owner was arrested. And the lore of it was that the owner was set up to be arrested because of something called project one was coming. And project one was where they built the 6th street marketplace in conjunction with Marriott hotel which would link the Richmond coliseum and his club sat right square in it and he didn’t want to sell. And it was holding up the whole project.
[This Segment Redacted]
Keywords: 6th Street Marketplace; Blues Alley Club; Henry Marsh
Subjects: Black performance venues; Richmond Politics
Partial Transcript: And that leads into another venue which became the 6th street marketplace. That area where his club sat became a Mulligans or an anchoring kind of bar and restaurant space: multi-stories. His place had been just a one-story ex-store front. But they made a three-story thing and made it into what they would call the crystal palace. It was enclosed and also as an aside, outside that marketplace, in the space between that crystal palace and the coliseum they would also have live music outdoors and perhaps the, footnote: the largest crowd I ever played before was listed as 30,000 people who came to that site to hear Ray Charles band for free. So, Ray Charles for free! Wasn’t that Plunky was there, we just were the opening act but we got the benefit of his 30,000 people. I mean there were people amassed there; I mean almost, literally hanging off the walls.
Partial Transcript: But that too talks about some of the Richmond activities during this period: 70s, 80s, 90s. Um, because one of the most important aspects that sort of ties together this long diatribe together is that in order for Black music in particular, but music and the arts to have the impact that it has had it required a political set of activities: some politics. The city powers that be had to be open to music. There had to be a crossover effect. For project one and the sixth St. marketplace to even be built, it required some cooperation between the Black community and the white corporate community.
There was an organization called the Federated Arts Council which determined through a series of studies that it would be beneficial to the city if the Black community and the white corporate community could combine on some projects. It was determined that one of the best ways for this to happen; for this bridging to happen, for the tail end of what we call the Civil-Rights movement to take effect, because even after the Civil-Rights movement, Richmond was completely segregated. One of the ways in which it was determined that the community could be brought together was through the arts. This had happened in a number of other cities, so Richmond wasn’t the first, Richmond benefited from some other studies that had gone on and it was determined that we could do something similar here.
And the federated arts council was the organization tapped to make that happen. They had a strong board; they were one of these organizations that was basically an arts council of the arts organizations in town: all white, for the most part. They got grants to be the administrators, the presenters, while the Richmond ballet and the Richmond symphony were specifically geared towards a specific genre of the arts. The arts council was the organization that sort of facilitated the administration and marketing for the arts. And so, I’m making this much longer than it has to be.
The Federated Arts Council determined, because they had a strong board, and, what happened politically was Richmond could not vote for a period of seven years because there was an injunction that went all the way to the supreme court about gerrymandering. One of the ways that the Black community, that possibilities for the Black community had been suppressed was constantly adding or annexing properties from the counties, from Henrico and from Chesterfield. So every time it got to the point that the Black population might be strong enough to vote, they would add a piece of these white surrounding counties. Tooke seven years, but basically the supreme court outlawed that. And annexation specifically to dilute the Black vote would be unconstitutional.
Once that passed, we finally got a Black mayor and a Black majority of city council. But this was not the end that it could have been because the white community either through fear or through prejudice or from not knowing how to chart a course in this new setup were not supportive of the Black majority of the city council or their agenda.
So the arts council was the organization that said, “we can get past this impasse by using our very, I could use the word very five times, very powerful board of directors. They had the who’s who of, at that time Richmond had five to eight of the fortune five hundred corporations. So I’m not just talking about local corporations, I’m talking about mega corporations who were based here. CSX, the train company, what would be Dominion power, the James River paper corporation, they did the boxing for Kellogg’s cereal, they made corrugated boxes, they did news print. These were big corporations and their CEOs, not lower people, their CEOs sat on the board of directors for the arts council. So when the Federated Arts Council said: we are going to work with the city of Richmond, this will give you guys and opportunity to reach out, be supportive, bring the community together.
And so one of the ways that the arts council decided to it, this has been a long way to say, we created festivals. We created June Jubilee, which was the first Richmond downtown festival.
What that did was: on the one hand it allowed the art organizations to present themselves, it allowed the city of Richmond to be a sponsor, and to understand it as tourism, as a way to bring not just people from far away but people from the counties, those close in counties to come to downtown. You won’t be killed because there is a Black mayor. It’s a place where we can have a good time and it worked. June Jubilee was a raging success. Over the course of the first weekend it got 30 or 40 thousand people to come downtown, have a good time and do what? Enjoy the arts, but most importantly enjoy music.
Music was this wonderful thing that could bring people together. Music has always been that. No. Music has been that since the 30s. A way for the white community to interact with the Black community. Now in the south they had times when venues had a rope down the middle and the Black people would be on one side and the white people on the other but they were still enjoying the same music.
And so if you ask me what the most important thing that has happened in Richmond in music since the Civil-Rights era is that music has been a force to bring people together. In the same venue; at the same festival, listen to the same notes, hear the same lyrics, and understand that people can be together and it’s going to be all right.
And so, if you fast forward to this past weekend where we had the Richmond Folk Festival which generated 200,000 people, I would dare say that that wouldn’t have been possible unless we had these smaller festivals to show that: yes, you can have a festival, it can be in an inner city, it can be in an inner city that’s even run by Black people, white people can come and not get mugged, Black people can come and not be arrested, we can actually have a good time in the same space.
Keywords: Federated Arts Council; Richmond Folk Festival
Subjects: Annexation; Arts Councils; Music Festivals; Voter Suppression
Partial Transcript: This even works in venues where we don’t have the music at the same time. Let me explain. You can have a venue like the Mosque. Which was called the music and then it became something else, and now it’s called Altria. There is benefit from people just being able to use the same venue even if it’s not at the same time. And what I mean is: when somebody comes through the Mosque and sees the Richmond Symphony, they see that this is a venue that is upscale. It has Egyptian tiles, it has a wonderful ceiling, it has great acoustics, it has velvet seats, and we come and see the Richmond Symphony. If we also hear that James Brown or Marvin Gaye is going to be there it has the impact of saying: “that music is valid too.” They’re going to be in that same venue. There’s another benefit. When you come to the Mosque to see the Symphony, there’s going to be advertisement of the things that are coming. And you might see that a comedian is coming and you’ll see that James Brown is coming. And again you have this attitude that 1) they must be all right because they’re coming to this upscale place also it means that things are going to happen in a space that I’m already comfortable with. So I, as a patron of the Richmond Symphony, I can come here, I might not go see James Brown at the coliseum, not the coliseum the big one, but there was venue on second street called the coliseum where I doubt white people would have ever have come, because it was in the ghetto, it was in a “bad” section of town. But you bring that same act to the mosque and so now it’s OK for me to see it.
Keywords: AltriaTheater; Blacks--Segregation; Mosque Theater; music venues
Partial Transcript: And so in that way the arts and venues and the presenters, these are the people who are not the content generators but create a milieu where the arts can happen. They become important to the community. Because they bring people here. They bring people together. And I think that the arts have demonstrated the almost unlimited capacity that we have as a human race if we can come together and get past our differences.
Partial Transcript: There was another venue that was extremely important. This was called the New Horizon. The New Horizon was located at the corner of Harrison and Broad. If you know anything about our geography you know that’s the VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University] area now. But the New Horizon was the first club to present reggae on a consistent basis. It didn’t do reggae exclusively but a big part of its presentations were reggae. But it was a club that was important because it was one of those venues that was the first to have rock music on some nights and black music on other nights. I think primarily because of its location. It was right in the center of what would be the VCU area. VCU has expanded, I think that building was torn down or became another building that VCU has just finally gotten control of. But it was always a black club, and it was a crossover club.
There was another club, an upscale club called Tony’s. Tony’s nightclub was on the same block that Channel 6 TV is now. Tony’s was a classic nightclub. It had the look of a nightclub that you would see on TV. Hardwood floors, kind of in the round of semi-circular, tiers. And Tony’s was a club that had white acts but also had black acts. And these acts tended to be the “night-cluby,” I don’t know how to describe it. Kind of middle of the road. Vegas type lounge acts. Lounge is the word. Lounge acts would play there. But some black some white. I don’t know Tony’s last name. I think he was Italian. He also had another club, when Tony’s closed, down in Shockoe Bottom called Scandals. And the last place I would mention is called, I think it’s called Emilio’s. At the corner of Meadow and Broad and for years they have had jazz jams, weekly jazz jams and kind of an eclectic presentation of music, but it’s been important because that’s a place where VCU and university of Richmond jazz students could come and jam. Get their chops together. And that was headed by a guy named Dr. Branch, who’s not related to me, but we always say we are.
Keywords: Shockoe Bottom; Virginia Commonwealth University; jazz; reggae
Subjects: mixed music venues
Partial Transcript: Another important venue is Dogwood Dell. Dogwood Dell is the City’s outdoor amphitheater type venue. And it was important because recreation and parks sponsored music there for some number of years. Let me say: it was a white venue. It was totally a white venue, it only had white acts and at a certain point, my group and Larry Bland and the Volunteer Choir became the first black acts to perform there. The first years we performed there we were not allowed in the bowl itself, we performed on the balcony of the carillon. But that venue is important and its important to the black community because, again, this is in segregated Richmond, and I’m talking at least until ’78 maybe all the way to 1982, segregation lasted that long at that space. And again, this is the city’s; the city owns it and the city books it and the city pays for it. So this is a city venue that was totally segregated. All white. But it became important because when Larry Bland and the Volunteer choir played there on one Sunday in the summer and Plunky and Oneness of Juju played there on some secular night the place would be completely packed. We have gotten there, on different nights 10,000 people. To this place that’s meant to hold 3,000. Now, the reason was not simply because Plunky and Oneness of Juju was so great, and that Larry Bland was so great, it was the only time the black community got to come there! So whereas you might have 30 other performers during the summer, spread out among a bluegrass group, Richmond Symphony, or this or that. When the black group came there, it was the only time, so if the black community was going to come, that was going to be the night that they came. Now that helped burnish my marketability, and my reputation. Because Plunky and Oneness, if you looked in the paper, I have reviews, 10,000 people came to see Plunky and Oneness. So that was an important part of my own development, and Richmond for me post-Civil-Rights era.
Keywords: Dogwood Dell; Juju; Larry Bland; Parks and Recreation Office
Subjects: African Americans--Segregation; desegregation venues
Partial Transcript: I mentioned June Jubilee. There was another series called Friday’s at Sunset. Friday’s at Sunset happened at Kanawha Plaza which was a small park, not far from Brown’s Island. I want to say it was done in response to, but that might be giving too much credit, done in response to a series called Friday Cheers.
Friday Cheers was a Friday afternoon, evening after work experience coming out of that same tradition of Federated Arts Council, June Jubilee downtown festivals doing things to enliven downtown. All these festivals were not done just for integration. It had broader purposes as well: tourism, keeping people in downtown. People would work in the financial district, 5:00 zoom out. A way to keep people downtown, spend money, have beer. Again, to show people they can have fun, give a kind of metropolitan view of Richmond. So they had these series of things. And so Friday cheers becomes a part of post-Civil-Rights Richmond downtown festivals in general.
[McGraw: and when did that start? That’s still going]
It still goes on. And I would think in the middle 80s, to late 80s, this is coming out of the arts council.
Keywords: Friday Cheers; June Jubilee
Subjects: Music Festivals
Partial Transcript: Political History, or administrative history: the Arts Council spun off an organization called June Jubilee incorporated, as a separate corporation. Remember the Arts Council was an administrative, marketing arm. June Jubilee because it was a festival, and they spun that off and said: “you can fund raise yourself.” As part of that same political timing, another set of organizations regenerated. Really what happened was, the idea of the Arts Council and their powerful board working with the city government worked so well, they said, we can do something bigger than just the arts, they created an organization called Richmond Renaissance. Richmond Renaissance was that same board of directors, a new non-profit, but we’re going to do even bigger projects. It was through Richmond Renaissance that Project One, these development projects came about. And spun off from that was an organization called Downtown Presents which was, these were all things that moved out from under the umbrella of the Federated Arts Council. June Jubilee was an organization set up to do just that one festival.
June Jubilee. So they said, this is working so well, we’re going to do Richmond Renaissance, get some of the most powerful whites and blacks in town and we’re going to envision things for the future of Richmond. That was their charter. One of the things they saw was an Arts District. An Arts District which now exists in the exact place that we did a $50,000 study to say where should an arts district be located, 30 years, 40 years ago. It has come to fruition. So they spun off an organization called the Richmond Arts District Foundation which I was the Executive Director of, to create an Arts District in downtown Richmond. It was stopped because of politics when another mayor came in and said “I don’t want to continue that program.” Another organization was spun off it was called Downtown Presents. (I’m so long winded.) Downtown Presents is the same organization, changed the name to Venture Richmond. And that was the festival producer wing [McGraw and that’s the Folk Festival]
Folk Festival, Friday Cheers, Second Street Festival. All those are festivals. Their job is to create festivals to bring people to downtown Richmond.
That’s the history of that.
Partial Transcript: So, 2nd street festival is one of those festivals. Friday Cheers is an ongoing weekly festival during the summer. A black private citizen, Ken Johnson created Friday’s at sunset, which was not a competing festival, it was one that happened to be going on at the same time, a couple of blocks away but it was basically a black music festival. And that in some ways relieved Friday cheers from having to have a set of programs that served both. It worked really well, because, even though the supreme court ruled that separate but equal is not viable, sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s viable. It’s not viable if you don’t have equal resources to work with. But sometimes people choose to have separate but equal things and so Friday Cheers went on for mostly white progressive white acts and Fridays at Sunset did R&B and later smooth jazz. It lasted for some years. Fridays at Sunset became the Richmond Jazz Festival. That man created it. He stopped doing that, his thing grew and grew with smooth jazz on Fridays in downtown, outgrew Kanahwa plaza and [he] said: “I can do the next level, and do a major festival of jazz. Again, that’s history and connections.”
Keywords: 2nd street festival; Friday Cheers; Friday's at Sunset; Richmond Jazz Festival
Subjects: Music Festivals
Partial Transcript: [McGraw: the scene in Richmond is sometimes described to me as peculiar because of laws around ABC and alcohol, or throughout Virginia and that can cause really strange situations say up into the DC metro area where people for a long time have just left Northern Virginia to go into the District to drink and to party. And that the business up there are just losing out. And that you’ve got to, even today, if you want to serve liquor, you’ve got to be selling entrees that get approved by the board and therefore you’re not running a bar, you have all the overhead of a restaurant. And you are going to go in and out of business just like any other restaurant. And you probably have less left over for the musicians the way bars in other parts of the country do. Did that have different implications, or, I’m wondering if there was a kind of differential there between the black music scene and the white music scene, because sometimes I’ve noticed on these riders on the ABC licenses that are posted, that you can’t have certain kinds of music and sometimes hip-hop is specifically listed there and I well, how is that legal, but how did that happen in the first place]
Well, I think, yes, I’ve had relations with the ABC board and yes it does impact the black community and in some ways much differently than perhaps the white community.
Um, some of the sociology of it, to say the obvious. It has long been the case that on average white families have ten times or more resources, economic holdings, than black families. Whites go out to restaurants that can have live entertainment more than blacks. Whites can afford to eat at those restaurants, full service, entrees, whereas blacks would tend to want finger foods and maybe some drinks. So it does impact what we’re able, what we’ve been able to do.
Keywords: ABC board; Alcohol
Subjects: Alcohol; Music Venues
Partial Transcript: There have been ways around it. Remember in my earlier diatribe I had talked about private clubs,
[McGraw: private clubs, which is not experienced, which is not a thing I’ve experienced]
Yeah, see, you don’t need to! But in the black community, the way around some of those ABC laws was that, if you were a private facility, you could serve liquor only, and you could serve liquor. . . there’s this peculiar set of things, the members can have their own liquor. You can have lockers, you can have liquor on premises. And you can serve liquor to your guests. So, when people would come to the Devil’s Club or a private club like 533, or some of the other private clubs, the Railroad club, they would come not as paid public patrons, they would come as the guest of somebody at the private club. Sometimes that was merely a technicality. Sometimes you signed to come in, that you are guest of, sometimes they would assign you as a guest, just to be on the right side of the law. They operated like clubs for all intents and purposes but they were private clubs so that let them out from under some of the restrictions of liquor by the drink, of having to serve entrees and all that because it was a private club.
In the black community you had a lot of b.y.o.b., bring your own bottle type venues. The military retiree still operates like that a lot. They are a private club and they can have, they can rent their facility out and get a banquet license that allows them to get liquor by the drink or bring your own bottle as you choose. These things don’t usually go on in the white community. Though, an organization like the Virginia country club operates under that. They are a private club and there are a number of white private clubs, they are just done for social reasons not necessity.
Keywords: 533 Club; Devil's Club; Railroad Club; alcohol
Subjects: Alcohol; Black performance venues
Partial Transcript: But yes, hip-hop music has suffered because of that. Reggae music less so because reggae, and hip hop now has crossed over. Hip hop now is 30% of the music business. It’s now the pop music of the day. But back in the day when hip-hop was getting it’s start, in its heyday in the early 90s it was very much underfunded because, quite frankly, alcohol sales have been a big part of the music in black community since 1905. In New Orleans, I mean it is said that jazz music started in speakeasies in the bawdy houses, in the nip joints, where you come to get alcohol. And all the way through, all the way to upscale Cotton Club, Las Vegas lounge you are basically funding entertainment through these other vices if you will, drinking and gambling. And so, without that level of support, the music suffers.
So you are faced with a couple of things in Richmond, you leave and go to DC or closest places where you can be a part of a music scene that gets some funding through these traditional realms, or you can become non-profit, and create organizations that can help you get around these restrictions, organizations that create festivals, for example, where you do sell beer, and you know, it’s not unusual. It doesn’t have to be alcoholic beverages. As a part of my job at the Arts Council I was the program director at the Arts Council and part of our research for doing these festivals, one of the first two festivals in the country happened in Pittsburgh, it was called the Three Rivers Arts Festival, and one down in Austin Texas. Both of those festivals, those early festivals, were funded by beverage sales. Soft drink beverages. What they did was, they did this innovative thing, they said, vendors could sell food, but we the festival promoters can sell sodas. And they would generate $50,000 on a weekend just from selling sodas and water. Well, back then they didn’t sell water, but sodas. So you could buy a hot-dog, but the hot-dog vendor, couldn’t, the festival promoter would restrict the beverage sales. So even when it’s not alcohol, beverages and gambling have been part of the financing for music in general. But yeah, black art has in some ways been restricted a little by that. But the music usually finds ways to get itself out there. Radio, other than in live venues, the radio and record sales have been the way to promote the music. And Richmond has been influenced by these outside bands and groups
Keywords: Hip-hop; festivals; jazz; reggae
Subjects: alcohol; black performance venues; festivals
Partial Transcript: [McGraw: But is that part of, that might be part of what the festivals are responding to, that economic dimension that further segregates the music communities even more and so you’ve got to have something to interrupt that, it might be festivals]
Yeah, and festivals have, again, not just in Richmond but festivals in Richmond have been, I often think of Richmond as a festival town. I mean, we probably have thirty or forty festivals, annually, some small, some just neighborhood, all the way up to the international folk festival, which is the biggest.
But festivals are a big part of modern development, urban development, not just in Richmond. Um, I was part of a group that helped formulate, at the national endowment for the arts, it was the one program at the national endowment for the arts that was not genre specific. All the other programs: you had a program for dance, a program for music, a program for visual arts, all these things, but we found that that wasn’t enough. Because there had to be a mechanism to get the arts to the people. And so created . . . an inter-arts program, because there was interdisciplinary arts projects. Things that combined dance and music. Where would you get funding for festivals? Well, in the old days of the national endowment, if you had a festival that had music, dance, visual arts, you went to each of those separate programs and asked for money to support the music dance and art. But oftentimes you were under-funded or not funded at all because the people who were the most established in those artistic disciplines would resist: "oh you can’t give a part of our money to a festival that’s doing all this other stuff." You’re taking from ballet, you’re taking money from the symphony, no we don’t have it.
So we had to create a program that was kind of a catch-all program that would fund interdisciplinary arts projects and presenters, the people who actually got artists to audiences. They were defined as the people who combined audience, art, and venues together, and marketing and so that allowed the national endowment to give money to organizations like that and festivals were a major part of that. Festivals are that place where you cross-pollinate. That’s how you get people who may think that they only like ballet to understand some clog dancing. Because you put in t a festival, and they might come for one thing and be exposed to another. The Folk Festival is the greatest example of that. People will come because Mavis Staples is there, and then they’ll see Sona the African group or something they never expected and get entranced and so festivals help us all. Festivals are a major part of presentation worldwide now.
Keywords: Richmond Folk Festival
Subjects: Music Festivals
Partial Transcript: [McGraw: I was wondering about that connection within the black community between the more Africanist angle that you bringing with Juju and what is typically represented as black music at the folk festival which is the Ingramettes and so to hear that there was a connection through Larry Bland is something that was brand new to me. What was that relationship like?]
Well, let me make a very broad general statement. The name of my group is called Plunky and Oneness, the theory behind that term oneness is that all black music is related. Particularly black music here in the United States and particularly black music in a place like Richmond. And by that I mean: the musicians who taught in the public schools were the jazz musicians by night. And the same musicians who played at the club on Sunday were the same musicians who played at the club on Saturday night. So the connection is already there. The connection is there, across musical genres within the black community. I think, I’m not an expert on the white community, I think that it is possible, if not probable, that there are classical white musicians that don’t play R&B or don’t even play church music. Some classical music is church related, but in the black community those musicians are the same musicians. They are the exact same people, the same bodies. So there is a connection. What I have done personally, I’m not claiming any credit, but one of the things that I have tried to bring to this community is to show the relationship of traditional African music and how it relates historically to blues music and R&B music and jazz music and soul music and funk music to show that those theories, that theoretical African music is the basis for that. My groups were called Juju, then Oneness of Juju, what that was saying was: this concept of African-ness, this African theory or musicology, the African musicology is a through-line. That slaves that were brought here, the people that were brought here and enslaved brought with them a part of culture, their culture was, nothing was done in Africa that wasn’t done with music: farming, battle, weaving, teaching the children, worship, learning, history, all to music. So you brought a people here for whom music was a central part of their culture, and planted them here and say: “you can’t speak your native language, and you can’t play the drums.” Some other places in this hemisphere, you could play the drum, but not here, not with the British. The British said: “you can’t play the drum, the drum makes you wild and uncontrollable. You can communicate with the drum, we know ya’ll can talk with these drums.” The black people would say: “the drums aren’t making us wild and uncontrollable, the drums are connecting us to our power, to our spirituality, to our history.” But the black found that. . . and now I’m in my regular lecture, but the black people found ways to keep that musical heritage alive. They sang while they worked in the fields. This was condoned for two reasons. 1) If you could hear them singing you could hear where they were and 2) it’s documented, they picked more cotton when you let them sing in rhythm than if you keep them silent. So as an efficiency program and as a locational program it’s ok if you do this music and the music that these black people sang in this strange land was African, even when they couldn’t sing their language: they said, you can’t sing “kumbaya but you can sing come by here.” So there is a through-line, a traceable through line of this music and how it developed. And so, when . . . long-winded answer again.
So, for Plunky to show Larry Bland that African connection it’s an aha moment, not a moment that would be resisted. So Ezibu Muntu and Elegba Folklore Society had a direct relationship to the rhythms that Larry Bland and the gospel choirs are clapping and singing. Because it’s basically African music. It’s basically Bible stories put to the blues, not the blues really, it’s the pentatonic scale that’s played on African balafons and thumb-pianos, it’s the same tonality, and black just created a way to be Africans here. So for me, the concept of oneness is that all of that music is one. It all has a through line, the same kind of spirituality, the same kind of usefulness, the same kind of utilitarian valuation system, it’s not the beauty of these notes sound good, no, it’s, did it get us off, did it motivate us to, did it move us, even if it was an ugly guttural sound, did it move us, did it serve the purpose. So that’s a different aesthetic, and that’s the aesthetic of black music and black in general with some exceptions. So, it didn’t meet any resistance, it was more, enlightening people to say, oh, what you think of as gospel music or what you think what I’m doing is so wild and different. It’s really from the same root.
Keywords: Africanist music; Larry Bland; Plunky and Oneness; juju
Subjects: African music aesthetics; Gospel; Rhythm and Blues; slavery