The Lost Music Town of Tennessee

Charles J. Moss
Jan 9, 2015 · 7 min read

“Legends of Big Nine.” Courtesy of Mark Making.

Nashville and Memphis lay legitimate claim as Tennessee’s music cities, but we have forgotten that at one time Chattanooga was a destination for some of the best music in the South. And Ninth Street, or the Big Nine, was where you went to find it. From the early 20th century into the 1970s, the Big Nine was a mecca for black music and entertainment: Tennessee’s very own Harlem. Now, Ninth Street is called MLK Boulevard, and the few old buildings that still exist there are carcasses of the former stores and nightclubs.

At 76, William Price still plays with a few local bands in town at events like faculty parties at the local university and the small music festival Jazzanooga. But he remembers how it used to be forty years ago and before: “When I was playing with the Blues Shufflers, we would put a piano on a flatbed truck and go down the street playing music,” he told me. “And people would line up on the street, enjoying themselves. There was always an activity on Big Nine, see.”

Price is protective of Ninth Street’s legacy, as are most of the older folks from Chattanooga’s black community. And he should be. He’s one of the last surviving members of an elite, close-knit group of musicians who created and sustained the city’s thriving music scene for decades. In 2007, when I first met him, Price kept a large, bulky photo album stuffed with old pictures and newspaper clippings chronicling his career and Chattanooga’s vibrant musical past. Now he’s up to six. He holds an encyclopedic knowledge of the performers and clubs from back then and collects the albums for personal use — a record of family history he intends to pass on to his children and grandchildren.

William Price in 1960. Photo courtesy of William Price.

Price’s specialty is the upright bass. In addition to the Blues Shufflers, Price played with local greats the Papa Stubbs Band and the Rick Upshaw Trio — bands that rivaled almost any national act in talent and musicianship playing during the 1940s through the ’60s. And the big names knew it, too. After playing shows at the large Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium, famous musicians like Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Wilson Pickett would stroll the few blocks down to the clubs on the Big Nine to hear the local groups play.

William Price’s research on the Big Nine is one of the biggest collections of that era in Chattanooga, though he isn’t the only musician who’s documented its history. In the 1990s, Folklorist Douglas Turner Day spearheaded a massive oral history and documentary project called “Doin’ Fine on the Big Nine” for the local Allied Arts organization. Then he was approached by Thomas “Dope” Griffin — a former Ninth Street musician — about getting some of the old Big Nine musicians back together, and Day saw an opportunity to uncover and properly document Chattanooga’s entwined histories of blues and jazz music and segregation and urban renewal. With a grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, Day interviewed dozens of veteran musicians who helped make Chattanooga’s music scene so special and pulled off a series of reunion concerts.

“The audience, largely from the black community, interpreted the event as an exercise in nostalgia, of looking back,” Day said. “The nostalgia experienced during the Big Nine shows was undoubtedly quite complex and varied. Not without anger, resentment, humiliation, impotence, or plain personal rivalries and ancient slights.”

The history of the Big Nine is rooted in segregation. In 1870, a man named John Lovell, the son of white planter and an African-American woman, was one of the first men to set up business on Ninth Street when he pitched a tent and sold whiskey and prostitutes. He eventually built a block of buildings known as Mahogany Hall, which housed the biggest bar and dance club in Chattanooga. By the 1920s, many black lawyers, doctors, educators, and store owners resided on Ninth Street. When local entrepreneur Moses Lebovitz booked Cab Calloway to play his first concert in Chattanooga in 1934, he set the stage for the city became a destination for nationally recognized, touring musicians.

In 1937, the Works Progress Administration opened the largest segregated pool in the South at Chattanooga’s Lincoln Park, in an area that had been built after World War I for the city’s African-American population. It included a baseball field, a zoo, carnival rides, and a dance hall, bringing out-of-towners in for the day — and to nearby Big Nine at night. The groups who played in the Ninth Street clubs became local legends: the Brooks Brothers, the Cascades, the Coachmen, the Frazier Benefield Big Band.

In one of our many meetings, Price described how the music scene changed in Chattanooga, how when the 1950s came to an end the big band and R&B sounds gave way to jazz. As the 1960s continued, jazz turned into soul. And he talked about segregation, when he was unable to play with white musicians or go to their clubs. “You could deal with their most intimate details of family life — serve them, play music for them — but we couldn’t socialize with them. We couldn’t go to their clubs unless we played for them, but they could come to ours.”

Though many of Chattanooga’s white musicians were part of a union, the black musicians weren’t allowed to join prior to the 1960s. So they sought union membership elsewhere. This migration was the beginning of the end of the Big Nine.

Bassist Jimmy Blanton, who is credited with developing Bebop jazz, moved to St. Louis to join Duke Ellington’s band. Fred Cash and Sam Gooden, who started off in a band on Ninth Street called Four Roosters and a Chick, landed in Chicago where they formed the Impressions with Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield. Lenell Glass, part of Chattanooga’s Blues Shufflers, became a popular session musician and played bass for Miles Davis, Buddy Guy, and Aretha Franklin. Another Chattanooga bassist, Lucky Scott, joined the Impressions, eventually playing on Mayfield’s 1972 Superfly soundtrack. And of course there was Bessie Smith, the most famous of the musicians to have played — and then left — the Big Nine.

“She was not happy here because she grew up poor,” Smith’s grandniece, Joyce Russell Terrell, told me. “She had nothing, absolutely nothing. And from what I understand, she was treated really bad. She didn’t take any mess from anybody. And when she came back to Chattanooga, and she was to perform here, she went into a juke joint house, and a drunk man came in and was messing with one of her girls in her review and she cussed him out and made him look really bad in front of everybody. She used to drink moonshine. He stabbed her in her side when she was walking out and she chased him three blocks and left the knife sticking in him and then performed the next night.”

After Chattanooga’s desegregation in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Big Nine became a ghost town. Members of the black community scattered across the city, taking their businesses with them, and Lincoln Park was no longer a daytime destination since blacks could swim at any other pool in the city. Buildings were abandoned and left to rot, and crime became rampant in the district.

“The history of Ninth Street is both a classic case study of ethnic cleansing through urban renewal — or negro removal, as the saying goes — and a ‘cloth woven of local fibers,’” Day explained. “That is, it can stand for all the other Ninth Streets around the country, and at the same time, have its own particular, place-and-time specific variations on the general theme.”

What’s left of the Big Nine’s glory days are the decaying facades of former clubs like the Nightcap and The Whole Note. Colorful murals remind us of what once was — and what could be again. Every few years, community leaders and local media talk of reviving the area, of a comeback. But William Price knows that it’ll never be the way it was. “Don’t nobody care about the Big Nine,” he told me.

When Ninth Street became MLK Boulevard in the early ’80s, its new name was meant to convey hope that the street would again support a diverse community, not only for the area’s black residents, but for everyone, no matter their social or economic status. The dream was that music would again fill the street, grocery stores, and retail shops; that the theaters, clubs, and restaurants would attract not only Chattanoogans but people from all over the Southeast, as Ninth Street once had.

That was more than thirty years ago. Today, the businesses that were once so popular there struggle to survive. There is one music club on the Big Nine.


Originally published at www.oxfordamerican.org on July 31, 2014.

    Charles J. Moss

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    Charles Moss is a freelance writer based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He’s written for The Atlantic, Washington Post, Slate, Paste, Thrillist, Vice and Mojo.