Since the late 70s, veteran Chicago blues harpist Billy Branch has been leading workshops and student concerts with the Blues in the Schools program, teaching elementary and high school kids in Chicago and around the country. And he likes to start his classes with a call-and-response ritual:
“Why are we here?”
“To sing and play the blues!”
“What are the blues?”
“The blues are the facts of life!”
“Why are the blues so important?”
“They’re our history, our culture, and the roots of American music!”
Branch’s playing resonates with echoes of his mentors—Junior Wells, Big Walter Horton, Carey Bell, James Cotton, and other harmonica greats—but he doesn’t settle for regurgitating cliches in the name of “authenticity,” instead incorporating funk, rock, pop, and light jazz. And in his songwriting, arranging, and public speaking, as well as with Blues in the Schools, Branch makes it clear that for him, the determination to keep the blues alive means actively reinforcing its often overlooked connections to African-American history and culture.
Part of the history he hopes to honor is the legacy of fabled Bronzeville watering hole the Palm Tavern, which opened in 1933 and was shut down by the city in 2001. Next Friday and Saturday at Rosa’s Lounge, Branch and his band the Sons of Blues will pay tribute to the Palm Tavern and its final proprietor, Geraldine “Gerri” Oliver, with a show called “Going to See Miss Gerri One More Time.”
The Palm Tavern—or Gerri’s Palm Tavern, as the bar at 446 E. 47th Street became known—wasn’t a blues club. In fact, most of the time it didn’t book live music at all. But from the 30s through the mid-60s, during Bronzeville’s heyday as a nexus of African-American culture, aspiration, and achievement, the Palm Tavern was one of the neighborhood’s crown jewels. Its original owner was numbers kingpin and entrepreneur James “Genial Jim” Knight, a former Pullman porter who was held in such high esteem that the public voted him “Mayor of Bronzeville” in a hugely popular informal election organized in 1934 by the Chicago Defender. The Palm was where the community’s elite convened to relax, celebrate, or mix business with pleasure. Visiting celebrities such as Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, and Joe Louis (whose personal chef Knight hired for the club) rubbed shoulders with ward heelers, civic leaders, political aspirants, and everyday neighborhood people, sipping cocktails and chatting in the shadow of the potted palms that gave the establishment its name. Oliver, who’d moved to Chicago from her native Jackson, Mississippi, in the mid-40s, bought the business from Knight in 1956.
By the mid-60s, “urban renewal” had taken its toll—high-rise housing projects had been going up in the State Street Corridor for almost a decade—and the neighborhood was in decline. But for at least a few years, Gerri’s Palm Tavern remained a hub of south-side social and cultural life. And to her credit, Oliver kept the business afloat for decades.
Branch, 63, is a longtime friend of Oliver, who’s now in her mid-90s and living in a nursing home back in Jackson. “Going to See Miss Gerri One More Time” is also the title of a song he wrote as the centerpiece of his 2014 album Blues Shock (Blind Pig), and it casts her biography and the history of the Palm as a sort of parable—the 20th-century Great Migration of African-Americans, exemplified in the life trajectory of one remarkable woman.
By the time Billy Branch met Oliver in the early 80s, her club and 47th Street were both struggling—the Palm hosted Harold Washington’s victory party in 1983, in recognition of the work Oliver had done for his mayoral campaign, but its glory days were over. The Regal Theater had closed, most of the area’s major businesses were gone, and block after block had been ravaged by neglect. Driving around one day with multi-instrumentalist Mervyn “Harmonica” Hinds, Branch spotted the gaily painted facade of the Palm, which he’d somehow never noticed during all his years traversing the south side as a musician.
“The first thing we saw that was kind of unusual,” Branch says, “it had the Buddhist chant up there, ‘Nan-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.’ That’s kind of unique, you know, in the hood!” The first syllable is usually spelled “Nam” in English, but Oliver was indeed a practicing Buddhist. “The other sign said either three or four shots for a dollar,” he recalls. “I said, ‘All right—let’s go check it out.’ I think there was no one in there except for her, and she had a nice bright smile—’What can I do for you young men?’ ‘Well, we were wondering if the sign on the window was true—four shots for a dollar?’ And she said, ‘Well, yes.’ And I said, ‘Well, give us two dollars’ worth!’
“After that, I just kept coming back. I’d go see her, and people would on occasion bring her to my gigs, and I became endeared to her to the point where she would refer to me as her son; she was kind of like a godmother figure. When my mother would come in from the west coast, we’d always make it a point to take her down there, and they’d spend time together.”
The beginning of the end for the Palm probably came in 1989, when David Gray of the Midwest Real Estate Investment Company bought the building that housed it for $8,000 in a tax sale; over the next few years it deteriorated noticeably. Oliver eventually moved in, sleeping in a back room—and according to Jennifer Hoyle, spokesperson for the city’s law department, this represented yet another code violation. By the late 1990s, Alderman Dorothy Tillman’s proposed Tobacco Road project—a quixotic attempt to transform East 47th into a Disney-esque tourist-friendly blues-and-bistros promenade a la Beale Street in Memphis—was gathering momentum, and it became clear that powerful predators were circling.
Mayor Richard M. Daley proclaimed February 13, 2000, to be Gerri Oliver Day in Chicago (hence the date of Branch’s tribute), noting that the Palm “has been a landmark located at 447 East 47th Street [sic] for years in an area known as Bronzeville, which is now experiencing a renaissance.” But the Palm wasn’t part of Tillman’s grand plan, and in fact the city of Chicago had filed to have the building condemned in 1999. Only days after Daley’s announcement, according to Oliver, she received a letter advising her that the city had begun eminent domain procedures.
On July 3, 2001, looking frightened and confused, Oliver was hustled by police out of the building and into a car parked in front. The club was padlocked, and Oliver was never permitted to enter it again without a security guard present. In 2004, the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois placed the shuttered Palm Tavern on its list of the ten most endangered historic places in the state, but it was demolished a few years later. Today the Tobacco Road project is little more than a memory—the Harold Washington Cultural Center, at 47th and South King Drive, is the only significant development to stick—and the lot where the Palm stood remains vacant.
“It just felt so wrong,” Branch remembers. “It was just such a travesty. Not only was she closed, but there was no celebration of her legacy, there was no good-bye party; it was almost as if she just got whisked away. All that rich history was swept away.”
Oliver stayed in Chicago for a few years, living in a senior citizens’ complex on Cottage Grove. Eventually she could no longer safely live alone, and her family retrieved her and brought her to the nursing home in Jackson. The idea for a song to honor her was already germinating in Billy Branch’s mind.
“I was just thinking about her,” he remembers, “or we’d been talking about her, or I may have spoken to her. But I started singing this one line, ‘And I’m going to see Miss Gerri one more time.’ That’s all I had. I recorded it into a computer. Occasionally I would stumble across that file, and I’d play it and [think], ‘Yeah, I gotta write this song.'”
That creative germ lay dormant for years, though, until Branch began working in earnest on Blues Shock, his first album as a leader since 1999. When he decided to make the record, he discussed the project with his wife and manager, Rosa Enrico, and she agreed—he needed to finish the song so he could include it. “It took some time, and it took some work,” Branch says. “I wanted it to be historically accurate, and in an effort to ensure that, we had [historian and author] Timuel Black over to the house for lunch, and he agreed to give us a videotaped interview. I knew that he was very close with Gerri, and I know, of course, he knows the history. He told me that before Gerri had [the Palm], when Joe Louis won the heavyweight championship [on June 22, 1937], he went down there to celebrate. Sammy Davis Jr., even some of the white celebrities—Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra—would stop in. It was the place to be seen.
“So I sat down, and after weeks, or actually months, I finally had the whole thing. It was funny, because I don’t read music—to express the chord changes with Ariyo [Sumito Ariyoshi, keyboardist in the Sons of Blues], I’d say, ‘No, this! No, not that one! No, this one! Yeah! Yeah! That’s it!’ You can’t really hum a chord,” Branch says. “At the very end, there’s a musical figure that the strings do, violin and cello. I played it on my harp; I composed it specifically for that recording. I built the whole song around that one chorus refrain, ‘I’m going to see Miss Gerri one more time.'”
The song’s narrative follows Gerri Oliver from her childhood in Mississippi—home of Jim Crow and “strange fruit hanging from the southern leaves,” as Branch paraphrases the famous lyrics—to “the Promised Land” in the Windy City, where she had to face down the “Chicago style of northern segregation.” Branch evokes the vibrant community that buoyed the Palm in its heyday, describing it as a showcase for “Bronzeville’s black nobility” and listing some of the famous faces you could see there—among them Duke Ellington, Redd Fox, Quincy Jones, Dinah Washington, Nat “King” Cole, and Louis Armstrong. When he relates the tale of political opportunism and back-room dealing that led to the club’s demise (“The lady in the hat would not let her come back”), his voice toughens with rage. In this context, his vow to “see Miss Gerri one more time” widens into a promise to honor not only the woman herself but also the vision that impelled her (“Gerri’s burning fire”)—her determination to escape oppression and live as part of a thriving community with its own institutions becomes a symbol of the African-American struggle for freedom and justice.
At his first opportunity, in October 2013, Branch went to Jackson to play the song for Oliver. “I was determined for her to hear it,” he says. “It was kind of surreal, because imagine: We’re driving from Helena [in Arkansas]. I’m playing the King Biscuit [Blues Festival] that evening. Here we are, riding down the highway, and I’ve got it in the CD player in the van, and we’re actually going to see Miss Gerri one more time.
“When Rosa and I came in, I don’t think [Gerri] really recognized me. That was the first time that had happened; I’ve seen her four times down in Jackson, and every time I go down there, I’ll play for her. When we played it for her, we had printed out the lyrics in large type. She can still read without the use of glasses, and she followed it; she read it. Her speech is still very clear, but I don’t know to what degree it really registered. But she seemed to enjoy it, and her sister tells me that she’ll take [the album] to her and play it for her from time to time.”
Branch believes in venerating his elders, as his care for Oliver makes clear, but he also insists that the blues is alive and evolving. Though it’s often assumed that African-Americans have abandoned the music, he cites Hot City Cocktail Lounge on South Racine, the Odyssey at 99th and Torrence, Linda’s Lounge on 51st Street, and For the Good Times on South Damen as examples of neighborhood clubs—many of them frequented by young and old alike—where the blues still thrives in the community where it was born. And while many cultural critics would consign the music to the museum, in part because so few postwar Chicago blues legends remain active, Branch sees a modernist movement at hand in the city, represented by the likes of young harmonica player Omar Coleman and veterans Lurrie Bell, Melvin Taylor, and Carl Weathersby. “There’s a vanguard here in Chicago,” he says. “To this day, the power of the blues is manifesting itself.”