When the first colorful visual I see as I make my way off the plane is a red antique clock, visuals of Dr. Suess-like characters, homemade chocolate chip cookies from yesteryear and old fashioned southern train tracks flashed through my mind. As odd as it sounds and why my mind’s eye went there is hard to say, but truth be told, I was about to spend the next week in a small southern city that was in fact, never on my bucket list. Swing music lovers will know Chattanooga from the song it made famous. For years, my legs and feet went into smooth flowing swing outs to the Chattanooga Choo Choo on hard wooden floors from Catalina Island and Mexico in the west and Boston and New York in the east to dance camps in London and Paris across the pond. Its charming lyrics and rhythms always brought a smile and transformed my mood regardless of where in the world my toes were tapping and hips were swaying.
Eager to learn a bit more about its birth, staying at the historical Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel in the center of town, known as the Southside District, was the perfect place for my first stop. Apparently this busy and happening neighborhood is not just known for its nightlife, cafes and restaurants, but it’s also become a trendy place for locals to live if they want to be “in the know” and close to cultural activities.
The southern drawl wasn’t as strong and distinct as I expected from most of my first encounters, but it was indeed prevalent and I hoped I had enough time to explore both an antiquated and modern Chattanooga far beyond the classic guidebooks. The South is goosed with a deep historical past, some tragic and dramatic that divided neighborhoods. While the most romantic things of old you can conjure up, like cold lemonade stands on street corners, lazy days by the river, afternoon tea parties and festivals where banjo players own the room may be part of that history, in Chattanooga’s Big 9 District, picnicking on lawns was not on the agenda — making heart stopping and rivteing music was however.
The main drag was loaded with bars that bore names like White Elephant Saloon and many of these buildings are where music greats such as Bessie Smith and Roland Hayes once played. For those not familiar with Bessie Smith, she was born in Chattanooga, grew up playing on the city’s streets and is historically known as the “Empress of the Blues.”
In the early days, the area had worker housing and simple bungalows, but it also provided stately houses for prominent citizens. It is the only remaining cohesive area historically associated with Chattanooga African Americans. Today, it’s called the MLK historic district and it borders the city’s central business district, occupying roughly five blocks between Houston and University streets. Other prominent African American figures from that time included William “Uncle Bill” Lewis, Randolph Miller and G. W. Franklin. While Memphis, Nashville and Bristol can take the bulk of the credit for changing the face of American music, it doesn’t mean that other southern towns and cities like Chattanooga weren’t contributing voices and talent. Of course, Bristol is best known for being the site of the first commercial recordings of country music with Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, and is also the birthplace of Tennessee Ernie Ford. Nashville is home to the Grand Ole Opry which we had an opportunity to experience last year and the very impressive Country Music Hall of Fame.
Even as country music became central to Nashville’s identity and music commerce, a string of clubs on Jefferson Street played host to electrifying rhythm and blues and is where Jimi Hendrix cut his teeth and where Etta James ‘Rocked The House’ during her 1964 live recording from the New Era Club. In its earliest days the Grand Ole Opry featured banjo players, fiddle players, and string bands from Middle Tennessee such as Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Uncle Dave Macon, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, Sid Harkreader, the McGee Brothers, Humphrey Bate and his Possum Hunters, Binkley Brothers’ Dixie Clodhoppers, the Gully Jumpers, the Fruit Jar Drinkers, and The Crook Brothers String Band. East Tennessee old-time artists include Clarence Ashley, Charlie Bowman, Uncle Am Stuart, Theron Hale, Curly Fox, and G. B. Grayson. This era obviously influenced the musical talents coming out of Chattanooga. In addition to Bessie Smith, double bassist Jimmy Blanton, member of Duke Ellington’s band, jazz blues pianist Lovie Austin, trumpeter and singer Valaida Snow, multi-instrumentalist and composer Yusef Lateef, and saxophonist Bennie Wallace were also born in Chattanooga. It got its biggest plug in the 1941 big band swing song “Chattanooga Choo Choo” which is still popular today among my swing dancing crowd.
While I sadly didn’t get a Big Band fix while I was there, I did get a taste of banjo player Matt Downer who was part of the Rock City Music weekends, which is particularly popular among families in the summer. Matt has an old world style to his banjo playing and also plays fiddle and guitar as well.
His handle? @oldtimetraveler and oldtimetraveler.com. Have a listen….
There is plenty of banjo and fiddling music happening in Chattanooga, especially in the summer – below, Mala Patterson plays at Rock City on a summer weekend.
We didn’t catch any classical music either, but it’s worth noting that Chattanooga does have a Symphony Orchestra, which has been around for 83 years. In the mid-eighties, the Chattanooga Symphony and the Chattanooga Opera merged, becoming the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Association (CSOA), the first and only symphonic and opera organization of its kind in the United States. While I love both classical and opera music, blues has a special place in my heart and our Delta Blues experience in Clarksdale Mississippi was incredible – be sure to read my write-up on Clarksdale as it exceeded our expectations as a stop on our cross country trip. If you’re a music lover or historian, you must take a tour of the former Big 9 District, which today they simply refer to as MLK. Today, you’ll find the MLK Mural along the main drag, which is one of the largest murals in the country. The images and people in the mural are inspired by real people, stories and the history of the neighborhood, including in some not so pleasant times.
I was fortunate to take a stroll through MLK with a local musician who while not native to Chattanooga, is a wealth of information. Meet Shane Morrow, the co-founder and director of an initiative called Jazzanooga, which was founded in 2011 as a citywide celebration of jazz. Yes, it draws from the cultural relevance and history of Chattanooga, but it also provides a festive platform where diverse communities can gather and celebrate the city’s extraordinary jazz heritage. Their feeling is that Jazz transcends race, religion and national boundaries and unites all audiences. It speaks to the heart, mind and spirit, and is universal. They do regular performances in its downtown space and provide music education.
Truth be told, Shane has done so much more than change the face of Chattanooga’s music scene. By giving opportunities to youth who may have never had a chance to advance their talent or receive mentorship, new music talent is not just born here, but is thriving. Jazzanooga’s Youth Music Bootcamp offers great opportunity for students of all musical instruments and voice to take their existing knowledge of playing jazz/blues to the next level by learning to play at a higher level with their peers under the guidance of working local jazz/blues professionals.
In the same part of town sits the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, which features a variety of entertainment, from local jazz and gospel to soul and blues music. Two thumbs up for this vibrantly alive center whose mission is to promote cultural and artistic excellence and foster education of African and African American heritage. There are of course, larger programs and events, such as the annual Jazzanooga Music Festival held every April, and make Music Day Chattanooga, which was held on June 21 of this year, a day dedicated to the city’s local talent. Musicians of all ages and levels performed live on streets, sidewalks, rooftops, venues and parks throughout the city, a celebration that was started in France in 1982 and has grown to include more than 700 cities in 120 countries. In October of this year, Songbirds Timeless Guitars is slated to open with never-before-seen rare vintage guitars. The collection is an unparalleled storehouse of nearly 300 timeless historic guitars and exhibits will be refreshed periodically to celebrate new chapters in guitar history.
Be sure to read my article on Gruhn Guitar’s 45th anniversary – I had an opportunity to meet and interview legendary founder George Gruhn when we passed through Nashville last year. Almost nightly, there is something to experience in Chattanooga’s music scene. Below, Nick Lutsko plays a song on acoustic guitar as he sings to eight of us who lounge out on a school lawn on a hot sticky June evening. Nick Lutsko and his band of puppet players were named winners of the 2016 Road to Nightfall competition, edging out Athens, Tennessee-based Mendingwall for the victory.
JJ’s Bohemia is considered by some to be a music institution on 231 East MLK and is a popular place for live bands. They are huge fans of local bands and always have good line-ups. Upcoming performances include the likes of Dallas Hollow, Aeona, The Lion’s Daughter, The Ragbirds, Snarky, Aerolas, Star and Micey, Sunsap, Eureka California, Mythical Motors, Cautious Beverly, Big Kitty, Bohannons, James Wallace and the Naked Light, Eliot Eidelman, White Knight, Water Liars, Okinawa, Nomadic, Brothers Houck and others. It’s also pretty funky inside and in a fun part of town — not to be missed.
Photo credit: Nooga.com.
Barking Legs Theater
Also known as a great hang out and is popular among locals, Barking Legs hosts Songwriters in the Round and Wednesday Night Jazz among other things. Located on Dodd’s Avenue, this venue is a cozy theater that hosts concerts concerts as well as dance, performance and improv productions. Below, a shot of a performance at the theater.
Photo credit: www.louwamp.com.
Tivoli is tthe home of the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera and in addition to classical music and opera performances, national names have passed through such as Boz Scaggs, Jason Isbell and Ben Folds. The Tivoli Theatre, also known as “The Jewel of the South” has entertained Chattanoogans for over 90 years (it opened in 1921), offering everything from silent movies to Broadway shows. And, it’s absolutely gorgeous inside.
Photo credit: www.chattanoogaballet.net.
Other Spots for music lovers considering a trip to Chattanooga include:
- The Office at City Café, which hosts an Open Blues Jam.
- Flying Suirrel is a funky hangar-like space that emphasizes locally sourced food and handcrafted cocktails.
- Riverfront Nights Music Series is held on the riverfront on selected evenings in July, August and September.
- Night Fall Chattanooga Series is held at Miller Plaza in the heart of downtown, and brings 2,500-3,000 people every Friday night from May 6 through August 26. We saw Hope Country Music and Jesse Jung Kurth on the ground.
- The Revelry Room which has bands play fairly regularly, located on the Chattanooga Choo Choo premises. During our stay, among other performances, they had a Guns N Roses Tribute. With a capacity of 500 people, it always has something of interest and recent performers include Dale Watson, Brett Dennen and Surfer Blood. We heard from the ever so vibrant Velcro Pygmies who played everything from 80’s tunes and R&B to more classical rock – Two thumbs up for Chris Eddins on drums.
- The Foundry is known as a late night music venue and is a great weekend spot.
- Puckett’s – I had hoped to make it here before I left town. They apparently serve authentic comfort food with live performances on-site. It sounded oh so southern and like a boat loada fun! And, it’s by the water.
- Rock City holds summer music every weekend throughout the summer.
- RAW Nightclub Bar & Grill – I’d much rather hear live music, especially in Tennessee, however this nightclub is all about DJ mixing for the independent dancers among you.
- Regan’s Place is a new 1980’s dance bar that plays popular 80’s tunes to a series of three video screens behind the DJ.
- Clyde’s on Main, a fun-filled place that has live music – the Captain Midnight Band was performing in late June.
- Granfalloon is an event space that hosts everything from wild dance parties to acoustic performances.
- Track 29 is a local venue that has had featured artists like Jack White and Chris Stapleton.
- The Camp House is a coffee house by day and holds concerts by nights – a great venue for singer songwriter travelers.
- Honest Pint is one of those local local place that has live music and pool tables.
- St. John’s Meeting Place, where the James Crumble Trio was playing the week I was visiting.
- Feed Co Table and Tavern –yup, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a Bluegrass Scene. Head here on mid-week for Bluegrass Thursdays.
- Palms at Hamilton has both live entertainment and DJ’s depending on the night.
- Tremont Tavern – for the adventurous among you, head to the Tremont for open mic performances.
- Big Band Day is held in the Chattanooga Market every November – think Glen Miller Orchestra and swing tunes.
A great resource for events, shows, attractions, arts and music can be found at www.chattanoogafun.com. While it’s hard to imagine anyone with an interest in music who is reading this article hasn’t heard of the Chattanooga Choo Choo, in case that holds true for you, here’s a video of the song. Like it always does for me, I hope the song brings a bright wide smile to your face, makes your toes tap, your hands clap and offers you a window to go back in time to when Big Band was hip and swing dancing dictated your weekend nights.
What else did we miss? Leave your comments and suggestions below!