It always surprises folks that Knoxville has a deep jazz history. A few remember the clubs of half a century ago, when jazz was breaking loose of its dance-band origins, and taking more chances. “I kept running into good musicians,” says saxophonist Bill Scarlett, who arrived from Louisiana in 1957. “It was a pretty fertile place.” Gordon’s Townhouse, at the southwest corner of Cumberland and 17th, held several hundred people, and sometimes had to, because besides popular local act the Jazz Giants, its guests sometimes included Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, and Count Basie. Adjacent to it was a much more intimate club called the Blue Note Lounge.
But Knoxville was segregated, and West Cumberland Avenue was mainly for whites.
Most black clubs, like the Waiters and Porters’ club downtown (it was open mainly on Monday nights, the one night of the week many black workers had free), hosted R&B dance bands, like Willie Gibbs and the Illusioneers. Some Illusioneers, like bassist William “Junebug” Ballenger, and saxophonist Rocky Wynder, flirted with jazz on the side.
The Workers Club was a third-floor speakeasy on Vine, one of several joints governed by barber, gambler, bootlegger, taxicab tycoon, and musical impresario Freddy Logan, a sometime performer himself who impressed locals with his national connections.
“Oh, man, it was beautiful,” says Wynder of the Workers Club. “All you did was go up to the third floor, and they had a nice stage. Wasn’t no shooting, wasn’t no cutting. For black people, it was the place to go.” Wynder recalls seeing Chicago trumpeter King Kolax at the Worker’s Club. Wynder himself sometimes played with much-admired trumpeter Sam Bivens. (See Mike Gibson’s profile of Wynder on page 19.)
Few black clubs specialized mainly in jazz, as opposed to R&B. “It was hard as hell to sell,” says Wynder. One exception was a place called Rudy’s.
A public library sponsoring a jazz festival, as is the case with this weekend’s events, might seem odd, but an abandoned public library was one of the clubs some fans talk about most fondly. The Carnegie Free Colored Library was a 1917 building with eye-catching brickwork on old East Vine. The library closed in 1961, already slated to be demolished as part of the sweeping urban-renewal project that erased most of that neighborhood. Entrepreneur Rudolph Netherland, proprietor of other East Vine joints like the Black Cat Billiard Parlor, saw some more use in the old place while it still stood. Rudy’s Lounge, his beer joint in the library’s old basement, nurtured a reputation as a jazz club. Patrons entered from the rear—its address was 500 1/2 Nelson Street. By most reckonings it was in the vicinity of what’s now the Weigel’s store on Summit Hill, near the highway connection. Back then, East Vine was an urban street, the commercial heart of black East Tennessee.
Theotis Robinson, who in 1960 became the first black undergraduate student ever enrolled at UT, was a regular. “It was a small lounge, but big enough to hold 50 people or so,” he recalls. “Big enough also to have a stage for a band. It seems to me that when I first heard about it, Thursday evenings were jazz, but its popularity grew so that there was a second night, maybe a third. It started with a cross-section of people, black and white. In the early ’60s, that was not exactly the normal procedure around here.”
Rudy’s sold beer, but many in the audience brought bottles of other beverages. The music was bebop, but maybe a little more in the driving, percussive hard-bop style of Cannonball Adderley. It sounds as if Knoxville had plenty of musicians to make up a fine bop combo. Sam Bivens played there, as well as another trumpeter, Sidney Young, who’s still in town, and the late “June” Ballenger on bass, and sometimes Bill Scarlett, one of the few white performers who ever played there.
“They could play,” says Robinson. “That was one hell of a group.”
He cites Bivens as “Knoxville’s own Miles Davis.” A sometime hotel bellman, sometime junior-high teacher, Bivens lived and worked in Knoxville for about 15 years but left, playing in larger cities with some big names like Sonny Stitt and James Moody. Still performing, he’s recently been prominently associated with the Denver Jazz Orchestra.
The musicians got along, but there were tensions between the two groups in the audience.
“Black people would dress up to go out,” recalls Robinson. “White people, who tended to be students, would dress very casually, some people in jeans, shorts, this kind of stuff. It was one of those cultural differences; blacks dressed in their Sunday best; whites dressed like they just came in from the golf course.” And a lot, he says, were more or less what were known as beatniks, and dressed the part.
That was part of it, but a bigger problem was that the sloppy white kids got there early. “The white kids would come early and get all the seats, wearing jeans and flip-flops. Black folks were in suits and ties and heels, but there was nowhere to sit. That created some tension.”
There was tension outside the club, too. “The KPD wasn’t happy seeing who was going in there, young white females and young black guys in the same place.”
Rudy was under pressure from the black community and from the KPD, to stop allowing whites in the club. Racial exclusion was not unusual, ca. 1962. Though some downtown lunch counters had desegregated, most movie theaters and several restaurants were still whites only.
“That pissed off the whites, and a number of the blacks who were involved in the civil-rights struggle wanted to be inclusive,” Robinson says. “Then, he let the whites back in, and by then everybody’s hacked off.”
Maybe Netherland had enough. His place didn’t even last as long as its doomed building; around 1964, Rudy’s was supplanted by a more soul-oriented place called the Ebony Lounge, before the building was torn down. The music moved to other places with unlikely names like the Doggie Patch and the LaCrosse Club, and survived.