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.
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."
In addition to savoring the likes of AudioQuest recording artist Sherman Robertson (who frequents the jams when he's not on tour), visitors usually get to sink their teeth into some flavorful home-cooking, from fried fish to red beans and rice, served midway through the night. No charge for the music, no charge for the food, and only $1.75 for a bottle of beer.
"It could be the best entertainment value in Houston," says blues fan Reg Burns. An administrative coordinator with the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County, Burns discovered the gatherings by word-of-mouth about two years ago. Since then he has been a regular.
Says Curtis Thompson, a supervisor with Phillips Petroleum and a Blue Monday attendee for the last several years: "I just enjoy the music, the chance to hear some of the old traditional blues, as well as more contemporary versions. Then once you begin to know the musicians personally, it more or less becomes a family-type atmosphere."
To the performers, Blue Monday is good experience. "It's freer, relaxed. You're sharing with your peers," says Natica McHenry, who started out merely as an appreciative patron before venturing on stage, where she has emerged as a regularly featured singer. Since then she has gone pro, billed simply as Tica (pronounced "tee-ka") at Miss Ann's and other venues.
"Before I was a vocalist, it was just exciting to be here watching everybody," she says. "But this is the proving ground. I did my very first thing right here. This is where I learned everything, my technique, how to present myself, the whole professional side of it, where I can now take it out to the other parts of the city and perform it."
On stage at the Blue Monday jams, McHenry especially seems to speak to and for the other females in the club. Drawing heavily from the Aretha Franklin canon, McHenry delivers intense, gospel-tinged treatments of songs such as "Dr. Feelgood" and "Do Right Woman." In the case of the latter, when she sings the line "They say it's a man's world," some women in the audience gruffly vocalize their understanding. Later they lift their arms and croon together on the chorus: "If you want a do-right all-day woman / You've got to be a do-right all-night man."
Then, as if in direct response to the gender-specific implications of McHenry's performance, proprietor Lewis steps forward and takes the microphone. At six feet four and 240 pounds, the former football player physically dominates the stage, but only for a moment. Following the instrumental intro, he steps out into the audience, lifts a large hand and sings in a surprisingly sweet voice, "If you're going to walk all over my love, baby / At least take off your shoes."
As onlookers cheer and applaud, the gold chain-wearing Lewis strolls among tables, shaking hands while earnestly continuing the song. By the time he hits the final note, he has traversed almost the entire area of the room, making some form of contact with most of the patrons. "I have my own style," Lewis says off-stage, "where I can get a crowd worked up into what I want to do."
And what is true for the singer in Lewis seems also to apply to his businessman side. After all, he's the guy who has put the Blue back into Mondays in the Third Ward.
Bobby Lewis and friends perform every Monday from about 6 p.m. till 10 p.m. at Miss Ann's Playpen, 3710 Dowling. Free admission. For information, call (713)520-9686. (A special gathering is planned for January 10 in honor of everyone who supported the recent benefit fund-raiser for Pops Stewart.)
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