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Mobile Finds Its "Mojo" With A Little Jazz And Jambalaya

When people think of jazz music, the streets of New Orleans and Mardi Gras may come to mind. Just to the east, the city of mobile claims to be the original home of Mardi Gras. And if you ask Carmen Brown, mobile’s jazz scene is strong, though somewhat overlooked…

“They know about Louis Armstrong; New Orleans Louis Armstrong, Al Hirt. Well Mobile, gave the world James Reese Europe and Donald Ashwander and Jabo Starks and Lil Greenwood and Cootie Williams,” says Brown. “So we have our folks who’ve made their mark.”

“It’s not the city for jazz that it used to be,” says native son and drummer Jabo Starks. The legendary drummer has played for more than fifty years, alongside the likes of James Brown, B.B. King and Fred Wesley. Starks admits those may have been the good old days.

“It used to be good music and jazz played almost every night here. At one time everybody was playing man,” Starks recalls.

“Even when people came to town the first thing they would do is look for a couple of places that had jazz and we had jazz musicians playing.” 

Growing the jazz appreciation scene in Alabama can be hard especially in today’s pop music environment. So along with a few heavy duty jazz supporters, Carmen Brown helped found the Mystic Order of the Jazz Obsessed or MOJO. It’s a jazz appreciation society. Brown has assumed the title of MOJO Muse. 

“When we first started out if there were 80 people who belonged to MOJO we were lucky. We have doubled that figure over the past few years,” says Brown." One of my personal goals as the muse is to cultivate and grow our audience meaning we’ve got to reach younger people.”

MOJO started out supporting jazz performances around town and eventually decided to hold monthly events called Jazz Jambalayas. The unassuming Gulf City Lodge houses MOJO’s monthly get -togethers. Inside, jazz music blares this Monday evening as guest Jabo Starks plays for the crowd. It’s MOJO’s birthday celebration, which for co-founder Kevin Lee serves as a reminder of the society’s first event.

“We decided if we were going to have any kind of impact it was gonna have to be with making club owners realize that there was some commercial benefit to having jazz programming in venues around town,” says Lee. “So we decided to come here and support it and we came up here that Sunday which was six days after the events of September 11th.”

Lee says there was a particularly poignant time in the evening where, after a moment of silence for the victims of 9/11, a bit of jazz managed to galvanize the American spirit in the room.

“The saxophone player stepped up and starting playing this version of America the Beautiful just by himself on the saxophone; very sonorous it was just really touching,” recalls Lee. “And then when he finished and came through and started again on the second time around spontaneously with no prompting from anybody everybody in the room just started singing.”

Out of that memorable start and some inspiration from Pensacola’s jazz society gumbo events—Mobile’s jazz jambalayas served as a way to spread the good word about Mobile’s jazz scene.

“Yeah jambalaya is a little spicier than gumbo is and I’ve noticed our gatherings tend to be a little more livelier than the ones in Pensacola so maybe it is the jambalaya,” says Lee.

Now over twelve years strong people come from all over to get some good music and a little taste of Mobile. MOJO’s is twelve years old, and its membership has grown over the years, but organizers worried if younger generations don’t pick up the torch, Mobile’s rich jazz history may play its final note.

Ryan Vasquez is a reporter and the former APR host of All Things Considered.
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