“Where’s Milton?” someone asks, raising his voice over the din within the small, smoke-filled bar that is Nancy Whiskey’s.
“He’s around here,” somebody shouts back. “Probably getting the food.”
The tumble of voices — a comfortable mix of conversation and easy laughter — swells and subsides like an ocean wave. Every so often a barbed comment or cutting joke will slice through the murmur, turning heads and prompting chuckles between relaxed sips. Then, just as quickly, the comment is swallowed back into the rumbling belly of bar chat from which it came. All the time a stream of patrons ambles through the front or side door, depending, perhaps, on whether someone prefers to be seen or just to slip in and out at their whim — or whether the number of musicians and instruments “on stage” is blocking the front door. Believe me, this happens a lot.
It’s Thursday night at Nancy’s, located on Harrison Street west of Trumbull in Corktown, which means it’s time for Milton “Heavyfoot” Austin’s weekly jam session. The weekly jam session just passed its one-year anniversary. It’s arguably one of the most successful blues jams — perhaps the most successful — in metro Detroit.
Nancy’s is one of the few remaining blues “joints” in Detroit aside from the Attic, which is really in Hamtramck. Before the night is through — and it will be a while before the end is in sight — there are likely to be so many people crowding the heaving insides of this little establishment that latecomers will set up chairs outside or just wait until a few more people depart.
It’s like this every week. Every Thursday Milton takes donations from the crowd, which he uses to purchase materials to cook whatever he feels like cooking for the following week’s shindig. Maybe it’ll be barbecued ribs. Maybe it’ll be a chef’s salad. Maybe it’ll be chicken wings. Maybe it’ll be a whole lotta things, but one thing is for damned sure; it’s gonna be good.
Anyone who knows Milton knows he ranks high on the list of Detroit’s drummers — and he ain’t called “Heavyfoot” for nothin’. The man’s foot stomps a sonic boom! out of the bass drum that could pulverize a concrete bunker.
Austin works most often on the blues circuit, where he has played with Priscilla Price, Alberta Adams, Thornetta Davis, Nikki James, Robert Jones and Robert Penn, just to name a few. (We play together in the Family, and in Luther “Badman” Keith’s band.) Austin’s nearly 30-year career has covered a wide range of musical genres, from blues to jazz to fusion to funk to pop to R&B. At this point, he feels like shifting gears a little bit.
“I just want to give people a place where they can come and eat something and not have to pay a dime,” says Milton. “I just love giving back to the people.”
Milton approached Nancy, the club owner, with the idea for the jam session in September 2002, because there weren’t too many jams around.
“The Soup Kitchen was closed, you know,” he said.
One of Rivertown’s many victims of casino development that never came to pass, the Soup Kitchen, at one time the city’s most renowned blues club, hosted regular weekly jam sessions for years. Back then there were also considerably more blues jam sessions around the metro area.
But of all the blues jam sessions I have ever been to (and I have been to plenty), I have never seen one as consistently jam-packed as Milton’s Thursday night affair. And I have never seen a jam session where the food was prepared and delivered every week by the drummer — or any other member of the band. I’m not talking about the little snacks and whatnot that some places offered, or may still offer. I’m talking about free food, man, as in what you want to see on the table when you get home from work in the evening.
Judging by the appetites that make a regular weekly appearance at the jam, I’m thinking there must be a lot of hungry people in Detroit.
But they’re not just hungry for vittles; they’re hungry for the music. The list of musicians who have appeared at the jam session is impressive, which testifies not only to its popularity but local musicians’ need for a place to relax and jam with their peers and friends. James Cloyd, Joc’lyn B, Darryl Lee, Cash McCall, LZ Bill of Detroit Underground, Johnny Budda, Paul “Big Daddy” Baker, Kathy Davis …
“After you left, Martha Reeves came!” says Milton, talking about a session I attended several months ago. “She was there last Thursday too!”
And that’s not to mention Martha’s brother, Benny Reeves, a strong vocalist in his own right who appears regularly at the jam. Oh, and don’t forget Sweet Claudette. The late DeVonne Jones, a phenomenal drummer and close friend of both Claudette and Austin, played one of her last sets at Milton’s jam session.
Oh, and then there’s …
So Rush Limbaugh leaves his job as an ESPN sports analyst under pressure because he made a racially offensive comment about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who happens to be black.
Gee. Such a shocker this is.
But hasn’t Limbaugh always made racially offensive comments on the air? Hasn’t Limbaugh always been a baiter? Isn’t his willingness to make frequently offensive, often idiotic and unfounded statements a large part of what has made him and his show so popular?
Since everybody knows this, why is everybody acting so appalled that he behaved like himself? Was being an ESPN sports analyst supposed to transform Limbaugh into a civil, sensitive human being? Was that the plan?
Look, it was a stupid move for ESPN to hire Limbaugh in the first place. If the sports station needed more entertainment, perhaps it should have checked to see if magician David Copperfield was available. If he was tied up, then maybe Elvira. Eddie Munster. Lassie. Hell, anybody.
Yes, Rush Limbaugh is a racially insensitive jerk, but that’s not news. I think ESPN hired him because they thought having a racially insensitive jerk on the air would boost ratings and add “flavor.”
Rush is Rush, so I don’t expect much. ESPN should have known better.
Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area musician and writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org