Now in its third year, the River Series at the Harbor Town Amphitheater behind the Maria Montessori School has quickly become one of the best places to see live music in Memphis. Featuring some of the best live bands the city has to offer (the Reigning Sound's original lineup, NOTS, Chickasaw Mound, etc.), River Series shows are fun for the whole family, drawing a diverse crowd made up of rock-and-roll enthusiasts of all ages.
This Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., the African Jazz Ensemble will take the waterfront stage. Made up of members who have toured with Michael Jackson, Al Green, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, the Dells, Luther Allison, and Rufus Thomas, the African Jazz Ensemble originally played as the soul group the Exotic Movement before changing their name to Galaxy. The 10-piece band rarely performs live, and this is their only scheduled 2016 show. I caught up with River Series founder Zac Ives to find out more about the outdoor concert series.
Memphis Flyer: How did the River Series start?
Zac Ives: I was trying to figure out a way to do something to give back to the school. We'd done these school events in that location on campus at the amphitheater behind the school, but they were always private. There are Memphis musicians who have students who go there, and the shows were always awesome. It's one of the best places to see a show, but it had never been open to the public.
After we decided to start having public shows there, I went to the Downtown Music Commission to find some funding for it, and I got them to give me a starter fund to pay bands. Then I went to Wiseacre, who agreed to sponsor the series, and so did Miss Cordelia's. After that, I got with Robby [Grant] and came up with a handful of bands we wanted to see play. It's grown organically from that into what it is now. The cool thing about it is that's how shows started there in the first place. The teachers [at the Maria Montessori School] are parents first, and they wanted to teach their kids in a different way. I think the River Series is a reflection of that.
How do you decide who's going to play? The longer the series has gone on, it seems like the more diverse the shows have gotten. Would you agree with that?
I think when we initially started there were enough interesting bands that it was cool, and there was a fee that made people want to play it. I didn't want it to just be a Goner set up. It was important to have other people's input on the lineup too. I wanted it to be more diverse and push boundaries — find different bands that people don't usually get to see. It's fun to throw those things out there, because we can count on different people showing up each time. We're curating it interestingly enough so that people can always get something out of it. I know what I'm going to like, but I want to think about it in terms of "What's my mom going to want to come out and watch? What are my kids going to want to watch? What are the parents going to want to watch?"
One of my favorite things about the River Series is it seems like you're constantly trying to outdo the last show. Do you think that's true?
Yeah, it probably is. The idea of having the African Jazz Ensemble play actually came to us from another parent. The band rarely plays live, and the members have musical ties that go back to the early '70s. They were all in soul bands, but at some point they wanted to work on more African-influenced music. They play a little bit of everything — taking the soul and R&B that they played in huge bands and mixing it with the stuff that they do now in African Jazz Ensemble. They are basically this cosmic jazz, 10-piece band with all different kinds of instruments. They don't play very often. Their first show was at the Stax Museum, and this is the first time the band has played this year.