King Bee: Michael Gill's Quest to Keep the Blues Alive in Knoxville

Profile Series: True Knoxvillians

It's a little past 6 p.m. on a Friday evening, and it's happy bedlam on the ground floor of the Knoxville Museum of Art. Three hundred people, give or take, are here, buzzing, milling, drinking, eating, dancing to the jumping beat of Nashville's Stacy Mitchhart Band—a four-piece unit in flat caps and fedoras and dapper suits, posted front and center and pumping out glossy uptown blues.

"Well I'm a king bee baby/Buzzing ‘round your hive/Yeah I can make honey baby/Let me come inside…"

The occasion is KMA's first Alive After Five Friday gathering of 2014, and it's a sprawlingly diverse crowd—many ethnicities, and many ages, gathered SRO, seniors placidly sipping wine, barefoot kids running through a forest of adult legs, tiny tots dandled on knees. And the impromptu dance floor at stage left, where post-collegiate hippie dudes cut a rug elbow to hip with well-dressed mothers and their children, diminishes not at all when Mitchhart's unit transitions from up-tempo Chicago strut to a low-down done-me-wrong slow blues.

"We're doing a request from the man that hired us," bandleader Mitchhart announces at the microphone. Then his band launches into "Homewrecker," an original from the band's 2006 release, I'm a Good Man.

"That's a cool song," says Michael Gill, the man to whom Mitchhart was referring. He has a near-encyclopedic knowledge of area bluesmen, and a penchant for frequent digression.

"It's kind of hilarious and kind of ridiculous in a way," he continues. "It's about this guy who thinks he's just out trying to be a good man, and he blames this hot babe that he meets for him getting in trouble."

Gill barely has time to enjoy his own request, though, as he is beset on a dozen sides by people vying for his attention, tugging like needy children at the corners of his blue silk button-down shirt: KMA visitors with questions, vendors with logistical problems, well-wishers and friends who just want to say hello.

"At least, when it gets this full, people usually stop complaining about not having enough seats," he laughs. "Around this time, I'm generally going insane. Because every year I always forget that a gazillion people will call with questions about the show.

"We were supposed to be outdoors this week, but the weather wouldn't cooperate," he adds, staring ruefully at forebodingly gray skies just outside KMA's cathedral-ceiling-high glass walls. "But I learned a long time ago that things are never going to go just the way you planned. You can make yourself crazy, or you can say, it's okay."

Michael Gill has had a goodly number of those not-the-way-I-planned-it days in his nearly 20-year career as a cheerleader for, planner and promoter of, and all-around best buddy to local music and local musicians. And though he is often recognized when he's in his element at KMA—he's been the museum's coordinator of the Alive After Five concert series for 13 years—he easily rates as one of the scene's truest yet least-heralded heroes.

"The music Michael loves, blues and jazz, is always waxing and waning. They're like the red-headed stepchildren of the music scene," says local blues singer Jenna Jefferson. "So he's often struggled to keep it alive. But he's a lot of the impetus that has kept our scene surviving. Every genre needs a champion, and Michael has been a relentless champion for our music."

And though he might sometimes wish for more recognition for his efforts—as longtime Alive After Five coordinator; as a sometime board member in the local blues and jazz societies; as author of the monthly Bluegill's Pond e-newsletter, with subscribers 5,000 strong; as a promoter of innumerable local shows, often putting his personal finances at hazard—recognition doesn't seem to be what keeps Gill going, week in and week out.

***

Michael Gill has a dream. And he'll tell you about it, if you have a little extra time on your hands, in his gentle, voluble way. It sounds mawkish, even corny, on the face of it, having to do with the power of music as a catalyst for bringing people together. Except that Gill, an unreconstructed hippie and former Peace Corps volunteer, with his graying ponytail and trademark thin-rim specs and chatty, genial ways, really means it. No joke.

"What keeps my fires burning is thinking that one day there will be a club in Knoxville where you can hear music that's all come out of the African-American experience," he says. He's holding forth this afternoon over a craft beer at Preservation Pub, on a day off from planning at KMA.

"And I'd like to be a catalyst for that, for having a place where the music brings black and white people together, and people of all ages."

The flip side of his utopian musical vision is that trying to promote this music in Knoxville—maybe anywhere, for that matter—is an often thankless task. Blues and jazz-friendly venues have materialized and then disappeared with even more suddenness—or so it seems—than have outlets for dance and rock. Fandom is often fickle. And when a particular promotion requires some in-kind support, or a few wheels greased, or, God forbid, a little extra cash, sometimes there just aren't that many volunteers.

"He often goes in the hole financially," Jefferson says of Gill's work outside of KMA. "He's been willing to take those risks and keep going."

But he's achieved his dream, at least in microcosm, through Alive After Five. The 21-year-old concert series has generally flourished with Gill at the helm—recessionary downturns notwithstanding—and is off to one of its best starts ever in 2014.

"In the heyday, we'd kick ass," Gill enthuses. "We'd average 240 to 250 people a week, back before the Great Recession. That knocked us for a loop, back to 175 or 180. But last year, we climbed back over 210."

The first two shows of '14, meanwhile, have drawn 350 and 275. "I don't think you'll see a more diverse audience anywhere else in Knoxville," he says. "Some people come in and see the number of gray heads and freak out. Like, whoa, I must be in the wrong place."

Gill has had a successful run at Alive After Five working with music he loves, and musicians with whom he loves to work—a smart mix of local and regional/national acts, names like Hector Qirko and Donald Brown and the Streamliners and Christabel and the Jons.

"It was more predominantly jazz when I came in," Gill says. "But what we figured out is that the music that really brings in the crowds is music you can dance to. I like to have jazz when I can now, but I try to make it a special thing. We gear it more toward the dance side now—blues, swing, R&B."

But Gill's love affair with those musics has been very much a journey, rather than an epiphany, or a matter of birthright. Born in "good ol' East Tennessee," in White Pine, Jefferson County (his family moved to Knoxville when he was still young), Gill grew up steeped in country and bluegrass, '50s rock 'n' roll. One of his earliest memories is of entertaining family members with a rendition of "Hound Dog" on a little plastic guitar.

He loved the Everly Brothers, and Marty Robbins, who planted early seeds in Gill's head with one of his country hit, "Singing the Blues."

Then he heard Ray Charles. And B.B. King's "The Thrill is Gone," which came "when I was breaking up with my first tongue-kissing girlfriend in high school. I got into that song, because I really felt like she done me wrong."

Then came college, and the blues-by-proxy of the Allman Brothers and John Mayal. Scholastically, though, he floundered, dabbling in architecture before settling, for a while, on a major in religious studies, and finally moving on.

"I thought, ‘I'll become enlightened,'" he laughs. "And I was all set to become enlightened, and it didn't happen. So I dropped out altogether."

The ensuing couple of decades were a long, strange ramble—"I got into sort of a Taoist floating period," Gill says. He quit the University of Tennessee, and a sideline job at a meat-packing plant, and embarked on a yoga retreat in the Bahamas. (Somehow, he ended up stranded in Key West, instead.) Then came wanderings in Texas, and California, and a sort of ‘70s-era hippie/commune/rustic-living retreat called the School of Country Living in Kendrick, Idaho. And finally back to Knoxville, where he settled on a degree in soil science from UT. "I took the scenic route through college," he chuckles.

And then he was off, degree in hand, to join the Peace Corps, and a two-year project in Lesotho, a mountainous, land-locked kingdom in southern Africa. When that ended in 1982, he found a job in soil science just outside Memphis, Tenn.; which led inevitably to another, better-paying position in nearby Mississippi.

Disillusioned with his government job, he found new work as a volunteer coordinator at a small church in Mississippi: "I was invited to a church service," he says. "I'm not usually a churchgoing guy, but I thought it would be interesting. And I was flabbergasted. It was this little bitty church, mostly black, but to my surprise, there were about 10 white people there. I dug being there, because there was a sense of community; and I was able to fit my Buddhist-Taoist viewpoint into it."

He also met Evelyn Delois Coleman, an African-American student at Tupelo College and sometime-fashion model who would become his wife less than five years later. When she moved to New Jersey for graduate school at Rutgers a couple years later, Gill followed.

While Evelyn studied, Gill worked for a couple of non-profits, a Quaker group, then the AIDS outreach MANNA. And his blues education—having already advanced during his years roaming through Memphis and Mississippi—took a quantum leap forward thanks to a Philadelphia disc jockey named Johnny Meister, whose show was broadcast on a local NPR station. "Evelyn and I both liked the blues, and that's where I really gained a much broader knowledge and appreciation; I used to tape the hell out of that show on cassette."

And so it was that he and Evelyn moved to Knoxville in the mid-1990s, newly married and looking to find their way in a new home, found an ad in a record store for the Knoxville Blues Society, and began attending monthly meetings at Sassy Ann's in Fourth and Gill.

There was another career tangent, in the meantime—Gill took classes in video production at Pellissippi State and, armed with some prior videographer experience from his work in Mississippi, landed a job at an all-night shopping network with Cinetel Productions.

But the deeper he burrowed into the local music community—Gill became a member, and then a board member, of the local jazz society, too—the more his avocation came to feel like a calling. He served as editor, chief writer, photographer, and sales rep for The Blues Groove, the blues society newsletter; he also took a couple of terms as president of the society, and began promoting local shows.

"It was like, at long last, I've found what I'm supposed to do in life," he says. "We had some successful shows. Things were falling into place."

Toward the end of his tenure as blues society president, though, Gill learned a hard lesson, and saw a glimpse of tougher times to come.

The society sponsored the Hard Knox Blues Festival around 2000, an outdoor blues festival in the Old City Courtyard featuring a mix of local and out-of-town acts. Gill worked to organize a pub crawl afterward, wherein several of the bands would play sets inside various Old City venues after the festival concluded in the early evening.

The festival headliner was Texas blues act Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets, featuring harmonica whiz Sam Myers. "They had this funky old tour bus," Gill says. "It was still near the formative part of my career, so I still felt like this soil scientist dude come back to my hometown. It felt pretty cool, hanging out with them in that old bus."

But there was a problem; Gill thought he had an understanding with the local venues that they would pay the festival bands who played their stages that night as part of the pub crawl, after the outdoor festival was finished. But the venue that agreed to host the Rockets told him, late in the day, that they had other ideas.

"They thought someone else was paying," Gill says. "They {the band members] were supposed to make $1,000 for playing after the festival. So I felt like, this is my responsibility. And I barely had $1,000 to my name, but I went and got the money.

"I was sitting there on the bus, and Sam Myers came up and asked me what was going on. I told him, well, they kind of left me holding the bag. And he says in this real deep, funky voice he has, something along the lines of, ‘Well, you're in deep doo-doo.'"

In the end, a serendipitous rain storm ended the outdoor festival just before the Rockets' closing set. And so the band agreed to play the club gig at no extra cost. "That kind of saved me; I had been sweating bullets," Gill says.

"And they played a great show that night, an absolutely dynamite set. And I still remember talking to those guys on that old bus, me a neophyte blues promoter guy. It had kind of a David Lynch movie feeling. But I learned a big lesson that day: You need to get it in writing."

***

When the Alive After Five coordinator position came open in 2001, Gill jumped at the opportunity. He had already gained experience organizing and promoting shows through the blues society, with the Hard Knox festival and the society's Blues Cruise riverboat series.

And he continued to organize shows independently, through his own Bluegill Productions. (One of his favorites now is a regular series he brings to Sweet P's Barbeque and Soul House off Maryville Pike, featuring touring blues acts who pass through town, "looking for somewhere to fill up and go.")

But his path to making Knoxville a better place for the musicians he most admires has often been fraught with difficulties not of his making: uncooperative venue owners; reticent or undependable fellow promoters; or group politics.

Gill is a sweet, soft-spoken fellow, not a man to cast aspersions or ruffle feathers. But some of his friends are more outspoken. "He's had to struggle to get where he's going," says local guitarist and bandleader Labron Lazenby. "There have always been people who've been against him, or else not standing with him.

"He'd have to struggle to get shows done, because someone else wanted to do it themselves, or because someone wished they had thought of it. Or because everyone else wanted their fingers in the pot, when it was Michael who would get the job done."

He says Gill was effectively pushed out of his association with one local music non-profit, for instance, in spite of his accomplishments.

He credits Gill, on the other hand, as one of the people that enabled his outfit, Labron Lazenby and the L.A. 3, to be a regional representative in the 2010 International Blues Challenge finals in Memphis. "There are some people who done him wrong. And I hated it," he says.

"Because he's independent, he hits some extra obstacles when he wants to get things done," says local blues harmonica player Michael Crawley. "He has to jump through a lot of hoops to make things happen."

His best ally, through it all, has been his wife, Evelyn; Gill notes in passing that the 25th anniversary of their first date is on the horizon. "I think at times he has wanted to give up; but she has been so supportive," Jefferson says. "She sometimes seems like the polar opposite of Michael, but she's really not. She's a Southern girl, and she loves music.

"And she's very defensive of him. She's his number-one advocate."

Says Lazenby, "If you love Michael, you gotta love Evelyn. She's the peanut butter to his jelly."

The support seems mutual; Evelyn ran for a state senate seat in 2012, and Gill booked musicians at a series of fund-raisers for her campaign. He also booked a musical event at Relix Variety Theatre, to promote her online retro clothing and jewelry venture, Vintage Threads.

"She volunteers at almost every Alive After Five; she's like the omni-volunteer," Gill says. "We've supported each other. People who know us know we can both be stubborn, and we've had our intra-marital squabbles. I guess it sounds corny, but we love each other. She's my wife and I'm her guy.

"We have complementary skill sets—which sounds more like something she would say than I would say," he laughs. "But we're on the same page on a lot of things. I guess I could have done it without her. But I'm not sure how."

There is another woman who loomed large in Gill's experience, local jazz singer Sharon Mosby, who died last year at age 70 after battling cancer.

A widely-traveled performer, Mosby lived and sang all over the country, and overseas, with various collaborators before settling in her hometown Knoxville during the last decades of her life.

"An incredible voice… and as an entertainer? Wow," says Gill.

"She kind of took me and Evelyn under her wing. She took us to the Magnolia Café every week on Wednesday night. She was the queen of the place, and whenever someone had a birthday—which seemed to happen every week—she'd lead everyone in this sort of Stevie Wonder version of the ‘Happy Birthday' song. It always ended with ‘I hope you get some tonight… some cake and ice cream.'

"It was my job to sing bass. She was the most…"

Gill stops; for the first time this afternoon, the words catch in his throat.

"She pulled people together, which is what I endeavor to do. I like to think she saw that in me."

Mosby was a guest at a festival Gill helped pull together in 2010, another Hard Knox Blues Bash through the Tennessee Valley Jazz and Blues Foundation (a group he co-founded in 2009.) The show featured a handful of contemporary performers, plus an impressive cast of past notables living in the region—several of whom, like Mosby, have since passed.

The late jazz and R&B saxophone player Rocky Wynder was there, as was ‘60s-era King of Carolina Beach Music, Clifford Curry. And doo-wop singer and Motown alumnus John Myers; and seminal Nashville soul artist Harold Hardy; and well-traveled R&B sideman Chico Crawford.

Gill says the show is at once arguably his greatest accomplishment, and his greatest ongoing source of regret.

Much of the event was filmed for posterity. And in addition to the performances, the TVJBF crew also captured a series of interviews in the months leading up to the show, including an afternoon-long summit featuring most of the artists. "When that group got together, the conversation was amazing, talking about the music scene in black Knoxville in the 1960s and ‘70s," Gill says. "We ended up with a colossal amount of footage, but we stalled out with that part of the project."

Gill has a working title for what he hopes will some day turn into a documentary: Rhythm ‘n' Blues Royalty of the Tennessee Valley. "People think of Knoxville as the cradle of country music," he says. "But the average Joe Meatball has no idea of the quality of blues and R&B here. There was a musical scene in black segregated Knoxville that young hillbilly punks like me never heard of. There was a circuit through town, and some big people who came through.

"That one is still on the back-burner. Maybe it needs to be a series, not just one film. But I really want to light a fire under myself and get moving on that. All the people we interviewed, I feel like we're letting them down. I feel like I've got to get this done. I owe it to them."

His other great regret is the general inconstancy and sometime-lack of cohesion in the local blues community, which he attributes in part to the early ‘00s, when the death (by heart attack) of local powerhouse singer Sara Jordan, followed by a couple of key venue shifts, rocked the scene in ways from which it never fully recovered. (The local blues scene's ostensible bricks-and-mortar hub, Sassy Ann's in the Fourth and Gill neighborhood, morphed from a blues bar to a dance club somewhere around the early to mid-‘00s.)

"The blues community had kind of coalesced around the society, and Sassy Ann's and Sara," Gill says. "Then she died, and things kind of fell apart. They called her the Queen of the Blues in Knoxville, and that was true."

There is some sense, though, that Gill takes much of that burden of inconstancy upon himself. "There are times I've thought, well, I hoped we could have done this or that better," he says. "And you learn. How could I have promoted this better? How could I reach more people. I'm still learning.

"The blues is about overcoming; it's about catharsis. You went to the juke joint and shook off all the hardship from all week long. I'm always hopeful."


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