The mid-1990s was a special time to be a lover of live music in Oxford. It was the heyday of 30 or 40 local bands—arguably the most prolific musical period in Oxford so far.
The Hoka was still going strong. Prohibition Jazz Band (PJB) was playing regularly at City Grocery, Forrester’s on West Jackson hosted bands, Opal’s farther West on Jackson had a lot of live music—the place was later known as Shotgun Willy’s (the building was a brothel in the 50s), and Blind Jim’s (where Burgundy Room now lives) was a popular venue as well. And, of course, there was Proud Larry’s.
We all know that Bill Perry, Jr. (also known as “B,” “Little Bill,” “Mysteryo”) has been a fixture of the Oxford music scene for a while—he’s been in over 20 bands in this city, but the first band he started in Oxford, when he was 23 years old, was Enigma Jazz Trio, arguably the best of Oxford’s jazz and hip hop efforts.
In 1996, Perry was playing off and on with Wobbity (Ted Gainey, Tom Queyja, Brian Walker), and making his own instrumental hip-hop tapes, which he was just calling Enigma Jazz. During a short stint when Lois Lovelady was running The Hoka (rather than Ron Shapiro, The Hoka’s longtime curator), Bill was hanging out on the front porch playing some of his instrumentals. Lois came out and heard his music, and told him he should get a band together and come play at The Hoka. Perry recalls this as the moment the idea for Enigma Jazz Trio was born: “When Lois told me I should have a live band to have in her venue to perform, that influenced me to make a live band project out of it,” says Bill Perry. And shortly after, Enigma Jazz Trio was born—Perry contacted bassist Slade Lewis and drummer Ted Gainey, who were both agreeable. Perry had met Gainey at a local studio called Nightwalk Entertainment where Gainey and Tom Queyja were employed as engineers. “Musicianship-wise,” says Perry, “Ted in his 20s was a beast. There wasn’t even an argument, he was the best f**king drummer in town, no one argued that.”
The next year, in 1997, Enigma Jazz Project (EJP) was born when they added Brandon “The Kid” Lewis (Slade’s brother) on trumpet—he was phenomenal. And Andrew “DJ Ginsu” Boston joined the band on turntables from the Memphis rave scene (this was before local DJs like Nick B and DJ Hush). “There was a time that Jeff Colburn played drums with us,” recalls Perry. But he says, “Ted’s the drummer on both albums. And he was the person who was featured when we were on B.E.T. And he was the drummer I tapped for the reunion in 2002.”
Among the Oxford bands popular at the time Enigma started was Jeff Callaway’s Prohibition Jazz Band. Callaway is one of the only honorary members of Enigma, and Perry respects him immensely as a musician, always has. But Enigma added a hip-hop element to Oxford’s jazz scene that just wasn’t there.
When I asked Perry how his 12 years spent growing up in L.A. influenced Enigma’s sound, he said, “The only thing that L.A. played a part in influencing Enigma would be the hip-hop element. The hip-hop kid in me that was determined to make hip-hop a viable thing in a live band, when it wasn’t conceptually developed like that on a broad basis yet.” We talked about that for a while, and he mentioned prominent getups like Medeski, Martin, & Wood who he says “were doing these backbeat hip-hop grooves but with these jazz elements that were reminiscent of the 70s—they were the one band I was hearing that got everything except a couple of elements that I’d like to add, which was a DJ and a rapper.” When I pressed Perry to list his influences at the time, he said, “Pete Rock, Seal Smooth, Gangstarr, Digable Planets, Tribe Called Quest. All the bands that were essentially doing that hip-hop/jazz blend before there was The Roots. These were guys that were, like, sampling Herbie Hancock, borrowing old jazz songs and sampling 4–8 seconds of it and developing backbeats to them. These particular types of artists were doing that, and that’s what I was influenced by.”
Enigma Jazz Project spanned from 1996 to about 2000—it was a short run, but remembered favorably by locals. They had a Monday residency at Proud Larry’s, known then as “Mostly Monday,” which ran “from March through damn near September,” says Perry—one of the longest-running residencies ever at Larry’s.
And EJP shows became a party scene. DJ Ginsu would bring folks down from Memphis, and there was a dance crowd. John “JoJo” Hermann (of Widespread Panic fame) was a fan and helped solidify EJP’s late-night gigs at The Hoka. Bill fondly remembers performing there while Fantasia or some kung-fu video was playing behind them. Enigma was featured on BET’s Jazz Discovery Showcase on a national platform in 1999, and that piece was run in syndication until 2001. They never went on tour, though they did perform some shows out of town.
Enigma Jazz Project was an Oxford staple in their time. They had a youthful sound and were the first band to introduce hip-hop in a way that people were able to take in hip-hop without it being “their thing.”
Since EJP broke up in 2000, I asked Perry if he was considering this their fifteen year reunion show, and he said, “Yeah. Damn, saying it aloud like that, yeah. As a matter of fact, we started in ’96, I mean, our band is as old as the freshmen class of Ole Miss, or even older.”
As far as the lineup you can expect for the show, it will just be the original core trio. Perry says, “Me and Slade Lewis had a little conversation about maybe just taking this back to the grass roots. We were a trio for quite some time before we added other pieces. We did a reunion back in 2002 at Larry’s, and that was two years after we broke up. We were like a four-piece then, but we felt like if we ever did a reunion again we’d want to take it back to grass roots. Because we did maybe six or eight months of gigs as a trio before we added anyone else.”
I asked Perry if we could expect the same raucousness from him on stage he exhibited in the 90s—the CD that’s going to be given away at the show contains this line: “We’re from Oxford. Not New York, Not Chicago, not New Orleans, but Oxford Missi-Motherf**kin-Sippi. The South baby, recognize.” And they’ve all matured in the many years since.
But Bill’s answer to the expectation of raucousness was, “Indeed. I played a character back then on stage and I anticipate playing that character again. With a lot more maturity under my belt. And the ideas that I wanted to reach for then that I was not educated or privy to know, I am now able to reach into that realm and grab ideas that I was not able to, you know, grab back then. And so musically, it will make for a better show, in my opinion… It’s going to be interesting—there are no predictions outside of assuming that we got a lot more to offer a show now than we did back then. We’re looking at twenty years later kind of thing.”
What else can we expect at the reunion? “Expect surprises,” says Perry. Expect a free CD giveaway, as long as supplies last, just for showing up. Copies of Live Vol. 2: Shades of Hip Hop Jazz will be given away until they’re all gone.
This article was printed in The Local Voice #232 (published June 25, 2015).
To download the PDF of this issue, click here.
The EJP reunion is the feature on the cover of issue #232 – check it out: