The City is Alive With Urban Music

Larry Fabian Vincent, Scott and Amy Simmerman, David Slack and Keith R Brown, Jazz on the Square, Market Square, Knoxville, May 2019

What is urban music? Consider the connections you make with various kinds of music. Country and bluegrass music make me think of rural hinterlands. I attached sixties folk and folk rock to cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Rap or Hip Hop is clearly urban, but before that there was an urban music and it was jazz.

Think  of jazz and think of New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis and coastal cities like New York, Charleston and Savannah. I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, less than three hours around the coast from New Orleans and jazz was a thing. Now, think of rural jazz and I come up empty. It’s urban.

Will Boyd, Bistro at the Bijou, Knoxville, November 2018

I’m not well versed in jazz. I’m not so good at identifying specific artists or songs beyond the most legendary. That said, my car radio is tuned into WUOT if I’m driving in the evening so I can listen to Improvisations. Particularly since my recent move across downtown, it’s been what I’ve played at home. I love going out for a walk after dark in the city with jazz playing in the headphones.

Knoxville in some respects is an unlikely place to find jazz. We are on a river, but it never saw much in the way of riverboat travel that was often associated with jazz. The surrounding area is full of rural folk, mountain music, bluegrass and country music. Still Jack Neely points out we do have some history with the genre. You can here him talk about it here.

Carla Bley with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, Big Ears, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2017

In modern times, no doubt, it’s the impact of the University of Tennessee’s jazz program that has Knoxville hopping to a different beat than many of our nearby neighbors. The steady stream of graduates from that program gives us a ready supply for the various jazz combos that play around town. It also helps fuel the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra which, in turn, also pumps jazz performances of their own, as well as a number of spinoff groups and artists.

I don’t generally engage misinformation on social media platforms, but when it’s about downtown Knoxville, I sometimes can’t help myself. That was the case about a year ago when a person declared there was no jazz to be found in the city. I shot back some of what was going on at the time. And it was a lot. Now there is so much jazz floating around it’s almost hard to believe.

Larry Fabian Vincent, Scott and Amy Simmerman, David Slack and Keith R Brown, Jazz on the Square, Market Square, Knoxville, May 2019

Larry Fabian Vincent, Scott and Amy Simmerman, David Slack and Keith R Brown, Jazz on the Square, Market Square, Knoxville, May 2019

As I look around my own 10 Day Planner and at various websites for downtown businesses, it appears to me there is live jazz available every single day of the week in downtown Knoxville with the exception of Mondays. Pretty amazing, isn’t it? Consider this: On three days each week, you have a choice of jazz at two different venues. On Sundays, you can currently find jazz at four different locations!

Tuesday nights are made for Jazz on the Square. Wednesday nights Frog and Toad plays at the Old City Wine Bar. Wednesday night is also the night that jazz starts each week at the Bistro at the Bijou which has to be considered the bedrock of jazz venues in the current era. They’ve been programming live jazz for years and currently feature jazz artists Wednesday through Sunday nights.

Keith Brown with Christina Watson, Women in Jazz Jam Festival, Scruffy City Hall, Knoxville, March 2016

Larry Fabian Vincent, Scott and Amy Simmerman, David Slack and Keith R Brown, Jazz on the Square, Market Square, Knoxville, May 2019

The Double S Wine Bar on the 100 block of Gay Street has jazz with your wine every Thursday night and you can always catch Frog and Toad Friday nights at Elkmont Exchange. Sunday is the biggest jazz day with jazz brunches at Downtown Grill and Brewery and Chesapeakes. Maple Hall is running a Latin Jazz series in June and Bistro at Bijou finishes the day with an early jazz show.

I’m all for lots of kinds of music and I think we could use more venues focusing on a range of genres that are under represented. That said, nothing says “urban” and “city” like jazz. At least in my head. And I’m glad we’ve got lots of it scattered around the city. I hope it remains as plentiful for a long time to come. And Monday nights? We’ll that’s an opening for hanging out at home and pulling out some vintage jazz vinyl or simply saying, “Alexa . . .”


  1. My friend Brian Clay contributes mightily to the Knoxville jazz scene with his monthly Jazzpirations Live performances. This season at Blue Slip Winery. Special guests perform with Brian and are always exceptional musicians and singers. Brian also performs regularly around town at various venues like Double S Wine Bar, Drink in Bearden and even Market Square. Check him out if you like smooth jazz. He is a wonderful talented dude.

  2. Leticia Flores says

    One of my favorite things about living downtown is the chance to hear amazing jazz music. I really used to look forward to the Wednesday jazz lunches at Cafe 4- do you know why they stopped doing that?

  3. Cicerone says

    It is great to see the first picture used to illustrate Urban Music in Knoxville today was taken in the Bistro at the Bijou, located in the historic Lamar House. First opened in 1817 and now all but forgotten, the Lamar House has been offering hospitality to Knoxvillians and visitors nearly all of its two centuries. Music was frequently offered and at times by the host himself.

    Archibald Rhea was the first Restaurateur of the Lamar House, what was then called Thomas Humes three story brick building. An experienced innkeeper, Rhea opened the first hotel in the space above the Bistro, where the Bijou Theatre offices are today. An Irish immigrant, Rhea apparently had one of those voices people mean when they say Irish Tenor and he used it to good purpose entertaining his guests. So much so, it became an attraction at Rhea’s Tavern, to hear Archibald sing songs of Ireland.

    In the late 19th century another immigrant, John Scherf took over the Lamar House. Scherf was a restaurateur of outstanding culinary skill. He was carterer to the feting of President Rutherford B. Hayes and 250 guests in 1877. Scherf was also an avid coronet player in the era when German Coronet Bands were suddenly the rage. Playing first coronet, Scherf was leader of a seventeen piece band. Scherf’s Coronet Band played picnics, concerts and marched in the Fourth of July 1876 parade celebrating the one hundredth birthday of the nation. Whether Scherf also performed solo in the bar has never been confirmed.

    In 1980, the Bistro at the Bijou opened. It was the creative reimagining of the neglected restaurant space by noted preservationist / real estate developer Kristopher Kendrick. While not a musician himself, Kendrick recognized the value of entertainment and include live performances at the Bistro from its inception. At forty years and counting the Bistro at the Bijou has the longest tenure of any establishment in the Lamar House. While Kendrick sold his interest to pursue other projects, his creative vision has been carried on by current owner Martha Boggs. Boggs who began as manager in 1993, is unique among Lamar House restaurateurs. At over twenty-five years, her time at the Bistro is twice as long as any other restaurateur before her and equally as memorable.

    Martha will not likely sing for you under any circumstance but she has the good sense to keep a tradition of live local Urban Music alive in the Lamar House for a third century. After all it’s been happening at the Lamar House since 1817.

    “On A Corner of Gay Street: A History of the Lamar House-Bijou Theatre, 1817-1985” is available as a FREE pdf download. Send a request for a copy of LH-BT to

  4. The group pictured here playing at Jazz on the Square on May 28th plays regularly at Peros on the Hill on Northshore Drive every Friday night 7:00-10:00.

  5. Thanks for this!!
    I would love to read a round-up of blues music in the city… once you have a free afternoon to write it up…
    All best, as aye,

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