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An Ode to Memphis: Sunset Jazz @ Court Square Park

“Memphus, Memphis Tennessee…Memphus, looks so good to me…” 

The inaugural Sunset Jazz @ Court Square Park concert, featuring the incomparable Joyce Cobb and her four-piece band, was ladened with memorable moments.

But this song, which seemed somewhat freestyled at first, but clearly had been carefully crafted before that day, stayed with me even after the sun set. 

On Mother’s Day (May 14) a diverse crowd of some 300 people created a natural amphitheater-like half-moon around the pavilion at 62. N. Main and Jefferson.

A diverse crowd reflected the unifying power of jazz and the sunset. (William Weeks/The New Tri-State Defender)

As a sweet breeze floated by, the band started performing starting at 6 p.m. 

Cobb, a Memphis music icon, the red glasses-wearing, white-haired featured artist for the show, had a poised, polished, and graceful style.

It’s not surprising since she’s a trained pianist, who has fronted bands since the 1970s.

Joyce Cobb being Joyce Cobb. (William Weeks/The New Tri-State Defender)

The lyrics to jazz, blues and other soul songs rolled off her lips like smooth silk. But it was more than words that she shared with the crowd.

Cobb also shared melodies and notes from her harmonica, shakes from her cabasa, beats from her tambourine and prayers from her heart.  

Joyce Cobb and her band groove with a guest performer (left). (Photo: William Weeks/The New Tri-State Defender)

Her band brought the rhythm of the night, complete with players who had mastered the fiddle, lead guitar, bass guitar, electric drums, and flute. And a guest harmonicist from Newcastle, England joined from time to time. 

Cobb started the free concert with “I Got Rhythm.” She belted out song after song, jazz standards, blues and more. She, the last artist to be signed to Stax Records before it folded, is known for playing an eclectic mix of music. Every song was enjoyable, from start to finish. 

Deb Swiney spearheads the Sunset Jazz series at Court Square. (Photo: William Weeks/The New Tri-State Defender)

About 45 minutes into the concert, series curator and fellow artist Deb Swiney hopped on stage to start the intermission. She provided a little history about the series, which started in 2018 as a pop-up situation, and shared how it grew into a real series in 2019.

And we know what happened in 2020-21 – the world shut down. The series returned in 2022 and funding from Fat Tuesday, a new downtown restaurant, ensured that it’d return in 2023. 

Swiney shared the Sunset Jazz @ Court Square program that outlined the rest of the second Sunday concerts from now through October. 

A special moment arrived when Chuck O’Bannon, Swiney’s “Riffin’ on Jazz” podcast co-host, joined her on stage, surprising Cobb with a beautiful, oversized, framed photograph from 1976.

“That’s back when I had teeth,” Cobb yelled out. 

Joyce Cobb is in full-surprise mode after Chuck O’Bannon unveiled a photo of her from 1976. (Courtesy photo)

O’Bannon photographed Cobb some 40-plus years ago when she was singing and swinging jazz on Beale Street and at Blues Alley.

O’Bannon said Memphians don’t celebrate her great contributions to our rich musical history enough. 

He added, “Let’s give it up for Deb Swiney. She’s keeping Jazz alive in Memphis.”

Joyce Cobb still is making contributions to Memphis’ rich musical history. (Photo: William Weeks/The New Tri-State Defender)

When the show resumed with this “Memphis” song that captivated me, Cobb invited the guest harmonicist back on stage and said, “People from England come to Memphis to play the blues.” 

Memphis is a magical and musical place. That’s why Mark Cohn wrote “Walking in Memphis,” which Ms. Cobb covered on one of her albums. 

“He won a Grammy for this – it should have been me!” Ms. Cobb said. The crowd roared in laughter.

As she sang “Walking in Memphis,” the electric drums went wild, and the fiddle wailed for those who find a home and prayer in Memphis. Then I heard it again…

“Memphus…Memphis, Tennessee…Memphus, looks so good to me.” Ms. Cobb loves Memphis, and her band.

She shared the lead mic with Kent Suggs, her guitar player. Her drummer joined her for a scat. And her bass player, Jimmy Arnold, did a bossa nova tune they play at Bosco’s, where they’ve played Sunday jazz brunch for 22-plus years.

“It pays the rent,” inserted Cobb. “They have good food and good beer!”

The remaining concerts in the Sunset Jazz @ Court Square series are June 11, July 9, Aug. 13, Sept. 9-10 and Oct. 8. (Photo: William Weeks/The New Tri-State Defender)

 

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