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Photo by Ash Daniel
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Charles Hibbler has been “Doc” Ralph Branch’s drummer for the Keynotes since 2009. Photo by Ash Daniel
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Every Friday night, J.R. Reid is ready to twirl any girl around the floor. Photo by Ash Daniel
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Featured vocalist Lady E sings the blues every Friday after midnight at Emilio’s Photo by Ash Daniel
It's 9:30 on a Friday night, and in the club on the corner of Meadow and Broad streets, a white-haired jazzman decked out in a pinstriped suit is blowing an old baritone saxophone nearly as tall as he is. He flashes a smile as clear and deep as the notes he plays before madly kicking a skinny leg up to the sky. That's "Doc" Ralph Branch's signature welcome to the house, and for nearly 30 years, it's been a cosmic call to every jazz musician in town. It's Friday night at Emilio's. Welcome to the "House of Love."
Technically speaking, we're talking about the jazz jam session 73-year-old Doc Branch has hosted with his band the Keynotes every single week at the same location on the corner of Broad and Meadow for 29 years. It's old-school jazz and blues, and it's the longest-running jam session in Richmond. Doc will tell you it's probably the longest-running jam session in the whole wide world.
But this is not your typical jam session. Maybe that's because the veteran musicians putting down the bottom notes grew up with Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis tunes in their heads. Maybe it's because these old cats still remember the stories of the old Chicago "breakfast dances" of the 1920s when black and white musicians gathered after the clubs closed down at dawn and bucked the segregation laws to blow their hearts out together. It didn't matter what color you were. It was the music that mattered.
Doc picks up the microphone and looks out over the small tables filled with people. His smile widens. "First of all, we want you to know that we love you. You are in the House of Love. We love each of you individually." The audience claps. Starting with the first table "on the brick wall side," moving to the "Broad Street side," and ending up "at the back of the bar," Doc tells each guest, bartender, and chef how much he loves them individually. You gotta understand. This is not a preachy thing. It's just hip ol' Doc Branch throwing out the love. He's got nothing to sell. No sermon to make. He's just super glad you're here. For Doc, music is part of the art of healing. Doc has always been interested in holistic medicine, and in the 1980s after his wife passed away, he devoted himself to the study of nutritional medicine. As a strict vegetarian, Doc practices what he preaches. He doesn't smoke or drink. He doesn't get sick. He has never once missed his gig in 29 years. As a serious student of metaphysics, Doc fasts every Friday "to get rid of all negative thinking in order to be a clear vehicle of love. If I complete the love within myself, then the love will be out there." At Emilio's, you're welcomed to the heart of no-holds-barred jazz. Here, the boundaries dissolve in front of your eyes, and it's not because you've had too much to drink. Grab a seat and take a look around. This is no tourist joint, drifters' dive or VCU hangout. It's not black or white, hip or super cool. A couple in their 50s dressed to the nines scoots over to share a small table with you. A group of 40-something West Enders in polo shirts and jeans orders tapas and sangria. Tattooed urban kids pay the $5 cover to the bruiser at the door and then hang out at the bar with jazz divas twice their age. Musicians drift in and out with instrument cases or a pair of drumsticks sticking out of their back pockets. Calvin Farmer just walked in with his sax case. If you didn't know better, you'd think the 72-year-old was just some good ol' boy. Actually, he's a classically trained musician who spent nine years on the road crisscrossing the country with a 1960s rock-n-roll band. Here, it's his solo "Misty" that will make you weep. Rolando Jordan, a fiery trumpet player born in Panama and dressed in a three-piece suit, pulls out his horn. He's been holding up this gig with Doc since the beginning, and he'll either blow you out of your seat or serenade you at your table with his horn. He's no lightweight, having played professionally since he was a teenager in Kansas City backing up the likes of the Isley Brothers, Patti LaBelle and Stevie Wonder. While a kid from Charlottesville sets up his electric violin, Doug Bethel, a beatific, blue-eyed Buddhist trombone player with a heavenly sound, strolls over to bestow a gentle kiss on someone's forehead. When 42-year-old Charles Hibbler takes his seat at the drums and the band starts into "Take the A-Train," a decked-out old cat smelling faintly of aftershave and mothballs begins to sashay between the tables, holding out his hand to every girl in the house for a twirl. What the heck is going on here? Doc smiles. "When I first started this, everybody said, ‘Doc, you have gone crazy. It won't work. Jam sessions never work.' You see, for a jam session to work, you have to put yourself last and put everybody else in front, and most people don't want to do that. "Instead, they say, ‘This is my gig. I want to showcase. I want to shine.' My philosophy is that if you invite someone to your house, what would you do? You'd give them the best seats in the house and let them shine. But that's very hard to do for most people. They don't trust the love. It's very difficult. You have to work at it." For Doc, it's a labor of love he's been dreaming of ever since he received his undergraduate degree in classical music from Virginia State University. There he studied under Dr. F. Nathaniel Gatlin, the founder of the Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, who required his students to master every single instrument in the symphony orchestra — even though most of them were more interested in playing the tunes of Dizzy Gillespie than the strains of Mozart. Doc tells how Dr. Gatlin's solid classical training propelled his students into work with the Count Basie Orchestra, Lionel Hampton and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. But Doc himself chose not to pursue the precarious and difficult life of a musician on the road. Instead, he made a living as a mail carrier while never giving up his passion for music. Nevertheless, it wasn't easy to find a place to play in the city. Most gigs — even jam sessions — were band showcases and didn't welcome newcomers to their bandstands. In 1984, Doc was offered the job as bandleader at the club on Meadow and Broad. He was determined to lead a jam session open to all. The club owner was not convinced. "I'll give you one night," said the owner. "OK," said Doc. "But I have a mission here." "What is it?" "To spread love and bring people together." "You're crazy." "That's all right. Let's just give it a try." And so the House of Love was born. "Everybody said it would not work. It cannot work," says Doc. "But something phenomenal started happening. One by one, musicians started coming. And the word got out." "At one time, this place was like a mecca for musicians," says jazz vocalist Gloria Glasgow, who started singing with Doc in 1985. "We played Friday and Saturday nights back then, and people would come from all over — from California to New England — and stop here." Doc never dictates what will be played or who will play it. Doc has never written down a playlist in more than a thousand nights of jam sessions at Emilio's. There are no sign-up sheets, no call-ups to the stage to play. Everyone is welcome on his bandstand. Doc estimates that more than 300 different musicians over the years have taken him up on his offer. "I've played a lot of jam sessions here and in other places," says Farmer. "They are run and controlled by bandleaders who pretty much tell everyone what they're gonna do and let somebody sit in only when they feel like it. But you don't have those barriers with Doc. He doesn't have any axe to grind, and he's always made anyone who came in here and wanted to play and learn and listen feel welcome. He's just completely unselfish." There are some bandleaders and musicians who might call all this a recipe for a disaster — or at the very least a night of chaos and bad music. After all, it's risky business to sweep away all pretension and protocol, leaving only the music ready to ignite and a musician itching to light the fuse. Sometimes it can sound like a train wreck. But just as often it can sound sublime. You've got to remember, says Hibbler, "This is a jam session. It's a platform for experimentation, a place to try out ideas you've been working on. You get rid of that singular thought of how a song is supposed to sound." The seasoned musicians for the most part hold the spontaneous combustion at Emilio's in check. Doc ticks off some of the greats who have played the club: Saxophonists J. Plunky Branch, Steve Wilson, James Gates, and drummer Clarence Penn. Doc himself was offered a job three years ago to play with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He turned it down. The septuagenarian is happy where he is. Great musicians famous and not-so-famous still walk through the door on a regular basis. But it's all a low-key affair, and you never really know somebody special just arrived until you hear them blow. That's because this is not a weekly jazz performance. The musicians are not on the bandstand because of you — or for you. They're not getting paid to perform. So a kind of backroom ease envelops the place, transcending the often too-loud sound of too many horns or a less-than-perfect sound system mixing too many electronic instruments. You'll see musicians close their eyes to listen to a flute solo or a swinging sax. One night I watched as Myrish Spell, a high school student, shyly lifted up her trombone for her first solo. Her eyes never lifted from the music stand in front of her. An hour later, she had pushed the stand aside and was ripping through her solos and mouthing to her family in the audience "I don't want to leave!" The musicians couldn't stop patting her on the back. Doc tells me the young lady is now studying at the Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship. "When Doc says that he wants everybody to feel welcome here, the man means what he says," says Farmer. "Of course, the better the musicians are, the more we smile. But when you see the young musicians come in who are genuinely interested, it's a great feeling. We do see an awful lot of talent down here. Musicians come in that are way, way beyond their years." Forty-one-year-old Doug Bethel started playing with Doc 23 years ago as a first semester VCU music student. "When I first started coming, I was the young guy trying to figure out this whole music thing," he says. "It was a real learning tool for me, because they would go through periods where they would do the same tunes, and you could get into a tune and learn. It was like a study of a tune. Doc allows things to create and happen." Two decades later, with two CDs under his belt and regional musical stature as a bandleader, performer and composer, Doug still makes the drive from his home in Charlottesville for the Friday-night gig. He just loves the vibe. Doc will tell you that the best jam sessions happen when the egos are left at the door. But when you're in the spotlight and you're young and surrounded by strangers or intimidated by extraordinary musicians, it's not always the easiest thing to do. "First you've got the fear," says Doc. "And then you've got the anxiety and the pride and the ego. Basically, you can't get out of the way of yourself. You can't stand to see somebody get more applause than you do. But music doesn't care who listens to it or who plays it. Music is nothing but love." That's not to say that the sessions don't hit a few rough notes now and then. "We have had problems," Doc admits. "But as a student of metaphysics, I say, ‘Let the Universe take care of it.' People have come up to me and said, ‘Doc, things aren't going too well tonight.' I'll say, ‘Don't worry about it. It will take care of itself. Just focus on yourself. Don't worry about the other person. It will work out.' And it always has." For the past four years, Charles Hibbler has kept the session's heartbeat steady on his drums. A blues bandleader himself, he considers Doc his mentor. "I've learned to trust his way. I've learned that not doing anything or saying anything is often the answer." When the occasional sour notes strike, invariably it's the old cats who make sure they don't spoil the show. Farmer smiles. "I'm so damn old now, I don't much care what I say. If somebody gets out of line, I'll tell 'em about it pretty quick. The young kids and some of the older ones still need to know the etiquette of playing together. Some of them come in with the idea that they can play for five or 10 minutes at a time even though you've got other people who want to play. And that's not polite, that's not nice, that's not fun. So I'll tell them, ‘Everybody that's here comes to play, and they don't come in here to hear one person go on and on and on.' Doc will laugh about it and come over and pat me on the shoulder and say, ‘Thank you.' " The band wraps up "Take 5." It's midnight. Doc steps up to the microphone. "By the way of Chicago, Illinois. Yeah. "By the way of Pensacola, Florida. "By the way of Richmond, Virginia. "The one and only Lady E!" From the bar, a tall, wild-haired black woman dressed in a flashy, tight miniskirt with outrageously high heels and a body to match strides through the tables. She throws out a huge smile and raises her microphone. "How y'all feelin' tonight?" The crowd claps and hoots. "Are you ready for some blues? Let me hear you scream!" The 70-year-old Lady E stomps one of her high-heeled shoes and snaps her fingers at the rhythm section, laying down the beat to one of her favorites, "Route 66." Her deep-throated blues well up, transforming grief and hardship into something raucous and full of joy. Lady E has been singing with Doc at his jam sessions since 1990 and is now a fixture at the club. "I was just starting out when I came over here," she says. "And I asked Doc if I could sing one song. It was ‘Stormy Monday.' I didn't know all the words, but I got through it. Doc said, ‘Well, come back again.' Eventually, people came to respect me for my style and what I do. Doc has helped so many of us by allowing us to come on. It's such a blessing. I personally don't know if I'd be this far in my career without him." Settling in at the bar, the petite Gloria Glasgow, another regular and vocalist in the Richmond jazz scene for more than 30 years, waits her turn onstage. The 73-year-old artist who performed throughout the city in the 1980s with the guitarist Harold Harrison has the sweetest of voices, and her "God Bless the Child" can transport you back to the days of Billie Holiday. She's been singing with Doc since 1985. "This has always been a place where people can come and learn," she says. "This is the only place where anyone can come up and play." Lady E yells into the microphone, "Where's Chris?" The crowd picks up the call for the young bartender serving the customers. Taking the microphone from Lady E, Chris launches into a romp of "Summertime." OK, so it may not be Broadway, but it's polished and it's fun, and it can't help but make you smile. This is a place where the messy, creative stuff happens, exploding like life itself. "It's a living beast," says audience regular and Fan resident Rick Ramsey. Doc has planned it that way. "It's the art of freedom," he says. "What we may call chaos, Doc calls reality," Charles Hibbler explains. "Doc comes in expecting the unexpected. He's prepared for the unexpected. And when you expect the unexpected, you're never let down. You're always surprised." "Let's go home!" Lady E shouts as the drums and bass blast through the final chorus of Little Willie John's "Fever." Rick Ramsey looks around at the audience — black, white, young, old. He grins. "The whole city is here." In the House of Love.