Sunday, February 22, 2009

Jazzer recalls Roanoke

Roanoke's Henry Street circa 1959 was a vibrant place, an entertainment haven, alive with mom and pop businesses and teeming with people.

Byron Morris was right in the middle of it. Morris, the son of a prominent local musician, got to sit and watch rehearsals and performances at Club Morocco. He worked at Kaiser's Record Shop, and could watch great musicians such as Count Basie and Lionel Hampton come and go from their overnight digs at the Dumas Hotel. The aspiring musician loved to pick players' minds.

It all inspired him to pursue his own music career -- eventually he formed his own band and began selling records internationally. Guided by his father, James "Jim Billy" Morris, he got his educational chops, too, and has had a career as an engineer and consultant.

But Morris, 68, had to leave Roanoke to make all that happen. That was not an uncommon problem for young, ambitious blacks in Roanoke.

Leaving "was the only option for the time I came up in, unless I was going to be an entrepreneur," Morris said.

And while his time in Roanoke is at the heart of everything he did later, he found himself saddened when he returned for a visit last year.

The buildings that housed the Dumas and Club Morocco were still there, even renovated. But they were no longer the social hubs of old. Everything else had been practically leveled in the years after the urban renewal program of the 1970s.

"I took my wife over there and tried to explain to her what it used to look like," Morris said by phone from his home in Bowie, Md. "It's pretty sad for me, because I have -- like most of us who grew up in that time and lived there -- we have a very great vision of what it was when we were growing up."

As long as the stories and memories stay alive, there is something of a sense of place. Morris is a font of stories and memories, both of his childhood and of the life that his surroundings inspired in him.

Hot spot

Morris was born in Philadelphia, but after his parents separated, his father brought him to his hometown, Roanoke. The young Morris lived on Loudon Avenue with his grandmother, Mattie V. Morris, but his father remained a key figure in his life.

Jim Billy Morris led, played saxophone and wrote arrangements for The Aristocrats, which was more or less the house band at Club Morocco (now the site of Virginia Western Community College Culinary Institute). They backed many of the entertainers who came through town, often breaking down an 18-piece band arrangement into something an eight- or nine-piece group could play.

"They became the prime, go-to band in Roanoke for all the great occasions ... on both the white side of Roanoke and the African-American side of Roanoke," Byron Morris said. "The Aristocrats were something else."

He was about 5 when he first saw the band perform.

"I mean, it was like a revelation, to see these gentlemen sitting up on the stage," he said. "It was one of my earliest memories, sitting at the old Club Morocco on Henry Street. ... The lights shining off of those golden horns ... green, blue, purple, gold ... that just accentuated the color of the instruments. I thought that was the greatest thing I ever saw in my whole life."

Many of the traveling performers stayed at the Dumas, or at people's houses. Morris remembered his father visiting a house to jam with Wardell Gray, a hot tenor sax player of the late 1940s and early '50s.

Young Byron Morris learned how to hold drumsticks from Aristocrats drummer Raphael Jackson, but at his father's urging, he took up clarinet, then saxophone. He became a devoted student.

Joe Finley, who in the segregation era directed band students at black schools, became a musical influence and later a great friend. Morris took private lessons from Bernard Whitman, at a studio on Kirk Avenue. He also played in the band at High Street Baptist Church.

When it was time to buy his own horn, Morris said, his father made the down payment, but told him to pay the rest with money he earned working at the record shop.

"'Use your money from there to pay for the horn,'" he remembered his father telling him. "'You'll appreciate it more.' And that was a great lesson to learn."

About 1959, he formed a group called The Junior Aristocrats, with Lucy Addison High School classmates including drummer Jimmy Lewis. They changed the band name to The Chevys later on, playing Club Morocco and the 323 Club, downtown. Roanoke piano legend Fats Wright played with The Chevys occasionally.

Lewis, who lives in Roanoke, remembers it as a time when all the older players were still around, and ideas were shared.

"We used to hang out on Henry Street to the wee hours of the morning," Lewis said. "It was a good musical thing, you know. All the younger guys could learn from the older guys at the time."

Lewis said he was impressed with Morris, remembering him as "a very motivated guy."

Morris wanted to go to a music college. Again, his father had other ideas -- so the young man went to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and got an engineering degree. He also met his wife, Betty, there. They have been married for 41 years.

His association with Tuskegee continues, and he is president of the East Coast Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. Morris was not an airman, but he and his group helped gather the 225 living, original airmen for President Obama's inauguration.

Morris said he grew to appreciate his father's advice. The elder Morris died in 1985.

"I miss him more and more as time goes by," Byron Morris said.

Taking flight

When Morris graduated from Tuskegee in 1964, there were still too few opportunities for black people in Roanoke. He got a job with IBM, first in Washington, then in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

At first, he thought it was going to be a boondocks situation, but then he learned how close he was to New York City. On weekends, he immersed himself in the Big Apple's legendary jazz scene, becoming a protege to Ornette Coleman and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He studied with Frank Foster, of Count Basie's band.

By the early 1970s, he had helped form the band Unity, which he continued after he moved back to the D.C. area in 1974. Among its recordings is the song "Kitty Bey," a funky number written by bandmate Gerald Wise. It pulsates with Latin percussion and features Morris' modal excursions. The Web site called it "twelve minutes of musical intensity, that sounds like nothing else ever recorded."

You can hear that song and others on the compilation CD "Variations in Time," which Morris said has been his most popular CD here and overseas. He issued it in 1994 through his own By-Mor Music.

Lewis, Morris' old Junior Aristocrats bandmate, said that Morris invited him up to Poughkeepsie, to sit in on a gig.

"I caught myself singing, and women were up on the stage," Lewis said. "We had a good time."

Four years ago, Morris had to set aside his playing to attend to family responsibilities. He recently began practicing again, trying to get his chops up to performance level.

"In terms of listening and ideas, that never ended," he said.

He is hoping to be ready to play at least a little this spring, when he leads what has become an annual jazz presentation to students at the University of Maryland's Nyumburu Cultural Center. This year's topic: Latin jazz, featuring a band of D.C.-area players.

His grandparents have died, so he has no immediate family left in Roanoke. But he keeps them, and the neighborhood where he grew up, in his thoughts. He wouldn't want a return to the Jim Crow era, but within that framework he saw guiding principles that he fears are lost.

"The community ... in the 1940s and '50s when I was growing up, it was a hermetically sealed community, in that it was not part of the mainstream of American life. ... Within the community, people policed themselves and they nurtured each other. There's nothing that exists like that in this country today. It's just kind of gone another way."