Jook Joint: Arts Council, others teaming up on musical art installation

By BETH BUNCH,

Although several pieces of sculptural artwork dot the landscape at the former Hattiesburg American building at 825 Main St. in downtown Hattiesburg, there’s a long way to go before the building can be renovated into a community arts center – a dream of many.

The 35,000-square-foot building has stood empty since the once-daily newspaper vacated the building in the summer of 2014 and moved to new offices in Lamar County. In December 2017, the Hattiesburg City Council voted unanimously to accept the donation of the building from Dr. David McKellar.

The plans are for the structure to be renovated into a public arts center with a theater, recording studio, pottery, painting and drawing studios and much more.

In the meantime, an old pavilion, located on the east side of the building, is getting ready to take life and will hopefully serve as a catalyst for the rest of the project.

With ‘No Trespassing’ signs and a roof in need of repairs, the structure may have once been used as a lunch spot or smoking area for former employees. 

Come the end of September, it’s going to become a Jook Joint – a place where members of the community can create music, much like those Bluesmen in the early 1930s. 

Criticized by many, jook joints affected the cultural structure of the southern United States, giving African Americans a place to get away from the pressures of society, and eventually giving them a voice.

Passing the pavilion several times a day as she makes her way in and out of the parking lot at the Hattiesburg Cultural Center, the idea for such a facility came to Rebekah Stark-Johnson, Hattiesburg Arts Council executive director, after visiting The Music Box Village in New Orleans. 

“You have to have your story and know what your story is,” she said, embracing the fact that Hattiesburg is known as the Birthplace of Rock and Roll, thanks to early music makers like Blind Roosevelt Graves, vocals and guitar and his brother, Uaroy, on tambourine and kazoo.

Two songs – Barbecue Bust and Dangerous Woman – recorded by the two Hub City natives are identified as possibly the earliest rock and roll recordings. The songs were recorded in Hattieburg in 1936 by the Graves brothers, also known as the Mississippi Jook Band.  

While not able to start making renovations to the building at this time, Stark-Johnson felt something needed to be happening on the property. The pavilion came to mind. 

A Jook Joint Jam Box, kind of an old rugged jook joint, was her original concept. Her goal was an interactive place where kids and adults could come, have a picnic, bring their instruments and plug in.

The structure will have a keyboard, as well as an amplification system. Plans on accessing the keyboard and amplifier are still in the works, but they will be available for everyone to enjoy.

The project is being spearheaded by the Hattiesburg Arts Council, The Hattiesburg Post/Signature Magazine and the city of HattiesbuFund. A donation has also been made by the Brian Blair Memorial Fund through the HAC.

Needing some shoring up, Julie White, associate professor and director of Dance Education at the University of Southern Mississippi and a member of the HAC Board of Directors, recommended that Stark-Johnson talk with Wes Hanson, stage designer for theater programs at the University of Southern Mississippi, as well as set designs for Hattiesburg Civic Light Opera, about the pavilion.

Hanson came back with a true concept and was ready to start work while he had some down time before fall classes started at the university.

“It just went from being a rustic jook joint to  doing something big with lights, signage and a really cool steampunk weather vane, a horse named Rusty,” said Stark-Johnson.

Hanson, with the help of recruit Chris Dixon, designed and built the side panels of the facility using weather-resistant materials – rebar and pieces of cedar. They depict a train, Hurricane Katrina, a musician playing an instrument and a tornado.

The panels, which are currently housed at USM, are almost complete and will be installed prior to Sept. 28 when activities are planned at the site. 

A Live @ Five concert on Sept. 28 will be followed by activities at the Jook Joint on Sept. 29. 

“For people who live in this ambient area here, just know that it’s a place to have a barbeque, a birthday party, whatever, but ideally to make music,” Stark-Johnson said. “I’d love to see additional instruments get put out there – like a steel drum and a marimba type instrument – but we’ll just add as we go.”

But she also wants those living in the neighborhood to know that the sounds coming from the jook joint will be controlled.

“We don’t want to disturb the neighbors or the church across the street,” she said. “There will be controlled amplification and the electrical connection will be on a timer.”

The whole idea is to encourage creativity.

 “The ideas for the facility are limitless – from piano lessons to drumming groups, dancers and jam sessions,” she said. “It will be a lot like our Little Free Libraries – something for the community.”

“I like the idea of telling our story from our past,” said Stark-Johnson. “But you’ve always got to see that there’s a present in front of you and a future ahead.”