Funk Jam was born on a whim by musician Derrick Lee Johnson, and ever since, it has fostered a sense of musical exploration and collaboration that’s key to understanding Asheville’s vibrant music scene.
“We were just sitting around on a Tuesday (with friends from Delta Nove, a Long Beach funk band) and wanted to make some music, so I called up Emerald Lounge,” Johnson (of Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, Asheville Horns) explains.
“They had a DJ booked that night but were like, ‘if you want to come play we will just pay the DJ to go away,’ and so, with two hours of promotion we planned the gig and sold the room out.”
Just like that, a local tradition was born.
“It was so much fun, and afterwards we were like, ‘let’s do it again next Tuesday,’” Johnson says. “We went through a few people trying to find the right house band and eventually settled in with guitarist Josh Blake (GFE, Josh Blake’s Jukebox), keyboardist Jeff Knorr (Secret B-Sides, Chalwa, Nuevo Montuno Salsa Orchestra), drummer Lee Allen (Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, Eymarel, Asheville Horns), and bassist Ben Bjorlie (David Zoll Trio, Asheville Horns). We stayed at the Emerald Lounge for something like five years then spent a little time at OneStop before moving upstairs to Asheville Music Hall.”
While the band has changed over the years, the vibe and the draw have not. Stroll down Patton Avenue on any given Tuesday night and what you will see is a full Asheville Music Hall. So full in fact that it is usually spilling into the street. Honestly, at this point, that street action has become part of the draw.
“Inside can get hectic, it’s so dark and crazy but then you go outside and it’s like the lost and found. Everyone you know in Asheville is out there smoking cigarettes,” long time funk jammer Marley Brushwood tells me.
And that is truly what this has become. A place for friends and family to meet up, to dance to some incredible music, and to catch up on what is going on in their lives. A typical funk jam crowd spans age groups, financial backgrounds and musical tastes.
This inclusiveness is what first drew five-year veteran funk jammer Heidi Dubuisson-Rowell. “I moved here from Austin and so many of my friends and my friend groups came from funk jam,” she tells me. “From the door guys to the bartenders to Micah Wheat (AMH GM) himself, it literally feels like family.”
Still, despite funk jam’s early success, it took a move to make it perfect. While Emerald Lounge was selling out every week for the party, they weren’t ready to commit the resources to keep it moving. That’s when Asheville Music Hall and its downstairs venue, The One Stop, stepped up. The event moved to The One Stop and, a few months later, when it was clear that it could not be contained downstairs, it moved upstairs.
“Now we have this great balance between us and AMH, Micah and Vicky and Mike T, and if there is a problem we talk about it and resolve our issues peacefully and everyone is happy,” Johnson says.
Not that folks don’t bitch from time to time about when funk jam starts. (11 p.m.) Josh Blake told me once that “the older I get the more I start to push for an earlier start time.”
But it’s the funk jam’s late nights that are part of it’s lore. For one, where the hell else are you going to go meet cool people at 1 a.m. on a Tuesday? And what’s more fun than a bunch of people partying after midnight on a weekday?
The jam spotlights an array of top talent, both local and from out of town. Everyone from Marcus King to Mike Gordon to members of Parliament Funkadelic, The Fritz, Travers Brothership, Galactic, Budos Band, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Snake Oil Medicine Show, Larry Keel & Natural Bridge, The Broadcast and many more have turned out to jam.
Local radio host (and friend) Chad Kimpel puts it like this: “It’s ridiculous just how many people are willing to get down on a Tuesday and act like its the weekend. I’s always a great time, and I have never been disappointed. If anything, it only consistently surprises.”
The 10-year anniversary party was no different. With Johnson and Mary Frances organizing things from the stage it was, like so many other funk jams, a night to remember.
The anniversary party this year was tinged with a sense of melancholy, as it included a wholehearted and sincere eulogy for Jeff Knorr. The keyboardist, who had been with Tuesday Night Funk Jam for more than nine years, died suddenly earlier this summer. When musicians raised a framed shirt with his name on it, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
In Asheville, funk jam equals family, happiness and love. Johnson sums it up:
“There are days that I’m tired and I don’t want to go to funk jam but those are my favorite days cause I see people get up and have fun and dance,” Johnson says.
“They dance with people they don’t know, drop all the BS and just enjoy each others company. There are a lot of things that the world tells you that you can’t do: blacks and whites don’t hang out, whatever your sexual preference is determines this or that, or yada yada… but if you come in to funk jam, all of that shit stays outside the doors.”