Jamming on Dallas Music History's Doorsteps

If you read much about the history of downtown Dallas, an unsettling truth comes to light: Deep Ellum, for the most part, has long been destroyed.

The original neighborhood where blues legends Lead Belly, T-Bone Walker and Blind Lemon Jefferson made their names was specific — a stretch of Elm Street not far from the city's center, just across the rail line that ran where Central Expressway now hovers. It wasn't a huge area — just a few densely populated blocks of pawn shops, offices, theaters and cafes, but its spirit and fierce identity gave the neighborhood character. It was here where the city's outsiders banded together — immigrants, freed slaves, outcasts — and mingled, both during the day and at night. It was just far enough from the rest of the city, a place where these characters could thrive, their dialect giving the neighborhood its name. Deep Ellum's legacy was forged in much the same way, thanks to blues and folk songs like "Deep Ellum Blues" (just as often cited as "Deep Elm Blues" or "Deep Elem Blues") that highlighted and bemoaned the dangers and tricky ways of the area. The neighborhood's reputation was no doubt among the reasons the city didn't mind demolishing much of it — namely, Elm Street's 2300 and 2400 blocks — to make way for the Central Expressway, which had been planned in the early 1900s but wasn't erected downtown until the '40s.

Only one true Deep Ellum block remained in the wake of that construction: The 2500 block of Elm Street. And yet throughout much of recent memory, as Deep Ellum has endured various life cycles and expanded eastward toward Exposition Park, this vestige of turn-of-the-last-century Ellum has remained largely vacant. For the most part, there is but one exception: 2548 Elm St., the two-venue space once home to the Gypsy Ballroom and Tea Room, now the site of the Prophet Bar and The Door, as has been the case for past five years. As other venues have come and gone throughout the rest of Deep Ellum, this one has survived. But its history goes largely ignored.

There's a plaque bearing Blind Lemon Jefferson's name located on the wall outside the Prophet Bar's Elm Street entrance. Most nights, it goes unnoticed. When it's spotted, it almost always sparks surprise.

"Oh, wow," a pretty young brunette remarked on a recent Monday night. She ambled over to it, shooing away her skater-punk friends who crowded near the entrance of the venue to smoke cigarettes between sets from pop-punk bands imported from the suburbs. She stared at it for a moment, reading about Jefferson's "rare, two-octave vocal range" and the fact that he "often played dance songs for passersby in Deep Ellum."

"Huh," she exhaled, learnedly.

Had she been here just two nights later, her soul may have been cleansed. On Wednesdays, this room offers up the closest approximation of old Deep Ellum that exists.

The rest of Deep Ellum, though slowly awakening from the slumber it's been in since its punk-rock '80s and bohemian '90s revivals, is still mostly sleepy on Wednesday nights. The neon signs announcing recently reopened venues hum, but their indoor lights are off. And yet for the past five years, across Good-Latimer Expressway on the westernmost edge of the entertainment district and somewhat hidden from view, a quiet revolution has been underway one night each week. Cars line the parking spots along Elm Street; they pack in close among the free spots found in the lot surrounding the Knights of Pythias Temple, the first black professional building in the city, which still stands directly across from the Prophet Bar. Inside 2548 Elm, it's mostly young black professionals — friends, many of them. They come each week to watch a show, just as was the case in the 1920s. But it's not blues they're hearing; not even jazz, although that plays a role. Mostly, it's hip-hop and R&B, genres that play more to modern sensibilities. And yet it feels the same.

The event is the brainchild of R.C. Williams, a Dallas native, a Booker T. Washington High School graduate and, these days, both a touring musician for Snoop Dogg and the musical director for Erykah Badu's live shows. At its core, his weekly is nothing more than a jam session. But the performers it features make all the difference: On a given night the stage boasts acclaimed producers like Jah Born, virtuosic players like Shaun Martin and Shelley Carrol and heart-wrenching performers like Geno Young and Claudia Melton, not to mention handfuls of aspiring younger musicians looking to prove their mettle. They improvise songs on the fly, they hash out soon-to-be-recorded material, they provide tasteful backing play to other showcase performers' song requests. Their play is effortless and thrilling at once — enough to make an aspiring musician want to quit.

Conversely, it's proved plenty enough to force others to take notice: Last week, as has been the case with seemingly every black performer of note who comes to town for a gig on a Wednesday night, Williams' session served as the official after-party for the Black Star show held across town at the House of Blues. Shortly after their own performance concluded, hip-hop luminaries Mos Def and Talib Kweli stopped off here to wind down. They were joined, interestingly, by hip-hop fashion impresario Farnsworth Bentley and, not at all surprisingly, by Badu, who proceeded to take over resident DJ Jay Clipp's turntables for the remainder of the evening and spin soul, hip-hop and R&B tracks until well after the bar's closing time. Though neither Mos Def nor Kweli performed — nor did Badu, who, despite playing her own songs from time to time, refused to sing them — their arrival still felt like something of a coronation for the weekly, proof that someone is paying attention, that the Prophet Bar's Wednesday night weekly really is as invigorating a take as everyone involved with it knows it to be.

And, see, that's the thing: Williams' session doesn't need that kind of attention.

"Really, it's best when no one's here," Prophet Bar bartender Jon Lawson shared on a recent Wednesday night, as hands filled with wads of cash were thrust his way. His remark, however, had little to do with the crowd; just the players and their on-stage offerings. "Those nights are when they get their most experimental."

Those nights are when the players play for themselves, when they smile and shake their heads in awe at one another's solos and leads, when they congregate by the bar between sets to pat one another on the back. There are no stars on these nights; just players. There is no excessive audience here for the big names; just the music and the scene. It is on these nights when the music feels most sincere, when the offerings are as cathartic as they are entertaining, that the man whose name appears on the plaque just outside of the Prophet Bar's entrance might be most proud to see what has become of his Deep Ellum legacy.

It is on these nights Deep Ellum survives.