When neo-jazz singer Jamille "Jam" Hunter first arrived in Memphis back in 2004 after stints living in Nashville and Los Angeles, the Lansing, Mich., native was a stranger in a strange new creative land. Though she had family an hour away in Jackson, Tenn., she had no real connections in the Bluff City and no idea of how she would fit into the local music scene.
Then she ran into her old Tennessee State University classmate Ekundayo Bandele, who was then trying to scrape together money to start a black repertory theater in the Edge district between Downtown and the medical center.
"He didn't even have a floor at that time," Hunter recalls. "He asked me and this other guy to do these little play excerpts. He invited potential investors in, and we had dinner for them and they sat on this dirt floor and watched us perform and then pulled out their checkbooks. We did that like six, seven times that summer and raised a whole bunch of money so Hattiloo could open its doors the next year."
Now six years old, Hattiloo has its floor, one that supports not just local theater but also a whole range of the arts, including music. On Saturday, the theater will celebrate its strong connection with the local music community with its fourth annual Hattiloo Block Party.
The free afternoon festival, to be held in the back parking lot of Hattiloo's current location at 656 Marshall, features 11 local acts. The eclectic lineup includes Hunter, who released her album In the Sun in March and is also performing at 8 p.m. tonight at Opinions Restaurant & Lounge (5221 Summer); as well as rock band Black Rock Revival, spoken-word ensemble Inner City Youth, dance band The Glo, folk artist Michael Joyner, soul singer Tonya Dyson, and harmonica whizz Damion "Yella P" Pearson, Hunter's cousin through marriage whom she met for the first time through Hattiloo.
"None of us do the same thing," says Hunter, whose continued association with Hattiloo includes performing in the musical "Spunk" and her own sold-out Sarah Vaughan tribute last year as well as teaching in the theater's summer arts camp. "The one thing that binds us is Hattiloo and a love and appreciation for the arts."
Bandele says the block party, like Hatiloo's other non-theater events such as its film festival and children's programs, is just a continuation of his original goal of fostering a black creative class in Memphis.
"I am a fan of local music," says the New York native, who visited Memphis regularly in his youth. "We do a lot of musicals at Hattiloo, so we use a lot of these musicians, singers and what not. It's kind of our responsibility to make certain the community knows that these people are out there, and that's why we started the Hattiloo Block Party as a time for everybody in the city to come and see these bands for free."
Bandele stresses that the block party will remain part of the mix when Hattiloo makes its planned move to Overton Square. A new Hattiloo Theatre on Cooper Street is part of a planned $35 million redevelopment of Overton Square into a theater arts district. Plans call for the city to lease the land for the theater for $1 a year. Later this summer, Bandele plans to start the public phase of his campaign to raise $4 million to build the new theater.
"The block party will be one of the premier events at the new theater," he says. "It's all about making the arts that we showcase at Hattiloo accessible to the community at large and really letting people know what's out there."
Hattiloo Block Party
2-6 p.m. Saturday at Hattiloo Theatre, 656 Marshall. Admission: Free. For more information, call (901) 502-3486, or visit hattiloo.org.