I’ve always been intrigued by the South and frankly, while I’ve lived in Florida, been to New Orleans, Austin and Atlanta dozens of times, my experience with Southern states has been minimal.
I first fell in love with Tennessee during a cross country trip last year so I was excited about the opportunity to go hang gliding and take in the music scene in Chattanooga this past June, a new city stop for me.
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.
Rewind the clock to the 1940’s and 1950’s at a time in Chattanooga’s Big 9 District when locals were making music. 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.
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 the fiddle and guitar.
There's 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. 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. 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 opportunities 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.
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.
A few places for music lovers considering a trip to Chattanooga include:
The Office at City Café, which hosts an Open Blues Jam.
Flying Squirrel 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.
Nightfall 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 boatloada 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.
Tivoli Theatre is the 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 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.
Barking Legs Theatre where they host Songwriters in the Round and Wednesday Night Jazz, among other things.
Big Band Day is held in the Chattanooga Market every November - think Glen Miller Orchestra and swing tunes.