Monday, Monday

The blues make the first day of the week seem less so at Miss Ann's Playpen

More than 75 people are packed into a dimly lit room, drinking beer and wine coolers purchased on premises or mixing BYOB drinks from their large bottles and pocket flasks. Equal parts men and women sit and laugh together around 16 blue cloth-covered tables or survey the scene from swiveling stools along the L-shaped bar. A guy in a bus driver's uniform leans against the just-turned-silent jukebox near the front door. On the slightly raised corner stage, a guitarist plugs in his green Stratocaster and nods to a grinning drummer. The room-wide chatter dissolves to murmurs. The band's break is over. But someone is missing.

The designated bass player has been socializing on the sidewalk outside, where another dozen people stand, unable to find space indoors. As onstage musicians and patrons alike begin to yell his name, the bass player hurries into the smoke-filled room, straps on his instrument and makes eye contact with the guitarist, who calls out "shuffle in C," and the music ensues. The guitarist sings in a baritone growl: "I don't want no woman telling me how to live my life / Yes, I'm grown now darling / Lord, I'm over 21 twice."

During the next few hours a constantly rotating mix of musicians will emerge from the audience to perform. These players will reinterpret blues and R&B favorites, readily borrowing each other's instruments and improvising when a song is chosen that others don't know. Some of these players have recorded professionally, and most are veterans of many gigs, locally, regionally and, in a few cases, even nationally and internationally. But others are amateurs who play mainly at informal neighborhood showcases. What they, and most of the non-performers in the audience, have in common is a need for some kind of release on that day of the week when no one wants to get out of bed: Monday.

Some Blue Monday regulars (left to right): Sherman Robertson, Pops Stewart, Henry Brackins, Natica McHenry, Bobby Lewis and Ernie Haynes.
Some Blue Monday regulars (left to right): Sherman Robertson, Pops Stewart, Henry Brackins, Natica McHenry, Bobby Lewis and Ernie Haynes.

The first day after a weekend's freedoms can trigger a major case of the blues for anybody, regardless of occupation. T-Bone Walker famously referred to this phenomenon as "stormy Monday," but lots of people, inside and beyond the music community, call it blue. We all know the symptoms, dread and resignation. But folk at Miss Ann's Playpen, a Third Ward club, have rediscovered a time-tested antidote: the Blue Monday jam session.

It's a tradition almost as old as the blues, one that reportedly thrived in Houston (and elsewhere) earlier in the century at long-gone establishments such as Shady's Playhouse in the Third Ward. "Whoo! On Blue Mondays the place was jumping!" once said the late Teddy Reynolds, Shady's original house pianist. "You know, folks would go to work, or not, with a hangover on Monday morning, and then they just had to have a little drink and go listen at some blues after work, first thing."

Bassist and vocalist Bradford Reed, a regular these days at Miss Ann's, remembers similar weekly gatherings from his youth in Atlanta, Georgia. "My version of a Blue Monday is when you've had a full weekend and you're just trying to stay in the swing of things," he says. "You want to hear something and be with people to keep you in that mood. That's when all the musicians basically just get together, jam and unwind."

Though first-day-of-the-week jam sessions happened often in certain neighborhoods (immortalized in the 1963 single "Blue Monday" by James Davis on Houston's Duke Records), they had virtually disappeared from the Third Ward by the 1990s. But in August 1996 an enterprising singer known as Bobby Lewis decided to open a club in a Dowling Street brick-faced storefront. The tradition was reborn.

"My wife talked me into this here," says Lewis, who named the establishment after the couple's four-year-old daughter. Working with spouse Beverly Lewis to drum up business during that crucial first month of operations, Lewis hit upon the idea to promote Blue Monday gatherings "like they used to do in the old days at Nola's," a now-defunct area club.

Because of his years working the local R&B circuit (most recently as lead vocalist for his band the Invaders), Lewis already knew plenty of capable musicians to call on. And since Monday is not usually a gig day, many were available and eager to hang out.

But to sustain his plan Lewis also needed to draw regular customers. He distributed flyers around the neighborhood, concentrating on barber shops and beauty parlors. His logic: These employees normally had Mondays off (and might just be looking for some fun). Plus, if these workers began enjoying their time at Miss Ann's, they might pass the word on to their customers. The plan worked.

Within a few weeks Miss Ann's Playpen had established itself as the Monday afternoon and evening social center of choice for a core group of musicians and fans in the Third Ward. Some were old-timers who recalled the glory days of Shady's Playhouse and Nola's. Others were converts. Whatever their backgrounds, everyone bonded in common appreciation of live music, cold drinks, free food and the laid-back atmosphere the club provided.

"I've been here since the start, along with Russell Lamb [guitarist] and Ernie Haynes [drummer]," says Pops Stewart, the primary bass player at the weekly gatherings. "A Blue Monday is all about holding on to the fun, because it's after Sunday, and you just want to recap that weekend. People -- black and white -- come to listen, and they come to play. And Bobby serves good food, a free buffet every Monday, so they come for that, too."

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