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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 73.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Race and R Place
The south-side music club deals with fear and stereotypes
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Credit:Jake Naughton

The key to making a jam work is to follow the harmonic progression.

Richard Hildner has his mouth at my ear, shouting this secret between sips of Korbel and Coke. It's Wednesday night at R Place on Park Street, neo-soul open jam night, and Hildner has brought his guitar.

I can feel his warm breath on the side of my face, but I can't hear all of his words. The band is playing a song by Erykah Badu. The way the sax and keys and drumbeats converge on us mutes some of his words and amplifies others.

"Basis of blues...loop the melody over and over...drop the melody and improvise...learn to recognize the different progressions...something that comes with time."

Tonight is the first time I've been to R Place, 1821 S. Park St., and right now, I'm conscious of being one of two white people in a crowded room. When Richard, the person I came here with tonight, finally joins the jam, I get self-conscious about being a stranger in R Place. This is the south side of Madison. It's after dark, and inside this space, I fret that I won't shake hands the right way.

I'm left with what Richard told me - follow the progression the keyboard player is laying down.

Everyone else around me seems to be in that groove. A big man with a wild look in his eyes dances alone and erratically by the stage.

Three women sit by themselves at three tables to my right, dressed as if they're ready for church. Later, they take turns singing soul songs onstage with powerful voices.

Between songs, sax player Harlan Jefferson introduces the rest of the band. Rick Flowers is on drums. He's the R in R Place, the person who opened this bar in 2008 and co-owns it with his wife, Annie Weatherby-Flowers.

Flowers has been running this jam for 16 months now. He's brought some national acts here, too. When he started R Place, he says, he wanted it to be a music place for all of Madison.

But all of Madison hasn't stopped by, maybe because many of them would confront the same awkward minority feeling I faced during my first moments at the club that night.

"I pay musicians better than most clubs in town, but it's kinda weird - nobody comes by and asks to play," says Flowers. "I thought more musicians would show up, especially from the jazz community.

"What is it?" he wonders. "Fear of a black situation? Because I know it's not the money."

R Place is the story of Flowers' tenacious quest to open a music club on the south side of Madison, a dream that took him years to realize. Now he wants to make it succeed.

It's the story of the ways race affects the experience of live entertainment in Madison.

And it's the story of a neighborhood and a community coming together every Wednesday night to, in the words of Flowers, "hear music that heals the soul."

'Finally got the damn club'

"I just remember Ricky always telling me 'I'm gonna get a club, man,'" says Jefferson. "He finally got the damn club; he wasn't lying."

Rick Flowers, 53, has been playing music since he was a kid. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles and started sax when he was 8.

"When I was like 12 or 13 I used to play gigs with my father, who was a piano player," recalls Flowers. "His band was Professor Flowers and His Thang Fixers. That was a cool band - it was a blues band, and he had the old cats."

Flowers moved to the Midwest when he was 15. "What brought me out here was my dad, because the streets of L.A. were rough. I was a kid running the streets, and he didn't want me to get shot by the cops or somebody. So he brought me to South Beloit, where my mother's side of the family lived."

Years later, in 1994, Flowers moved to Madison. He was working as an electrical contractor, and he got a pitch to buy a property on South Park Street through a friend. The property included a commercial building and a house. "I put in an offer and bought it," says Flowers. In the 1990s, he used the commercial building as an office for his contracting business.

He got active in the local music scene soon after arriving in town, joining the long-running Wonder's Pub Sunday blues jams at Schenk's Corners on the east side. Flowers says he got the idea to convert his building into a nightclub early last decade.

"There was nothing, there was a vacuum for people of color," says Flowers. "And so I thought, 'We need a bar.'" But the city of Madison declined his initial application for a liquor license, citing lack of parking nearby.

It's a memory that still brings emotion to Flowers' voice. "I was summarily refused and kicked to the curb," he says.

Flowers sued the city in 2003, alleging discrimination. His suit referenced a statement made by former Alcohol License Review Committee chair Tim Bruer supporting a license moratorium in the "fragile" neighborhoods south of Wingra Creek.

In 2006, the suit was dismissed, and the city granted the license."It took me over a year to build the club, and we opened in 2008," he says.

Flowers relied on an old friend, Rockford-based jazz saxophonist Harlan Jefferson, to help jumpstart music at R Place. The two met in 1992 when both played at the Rockford Waterfront Festival.

"When Ricky first got me here, I was excited about the Madison scene," says Jefferson. "I had always heard it was a nice little scene. I talked to Ricky about doing an open-stage, neo-soul night. That's what we do Wednesday nights. We play songs by artists like Jill Scott and D'Angelo. We do standard jazz stuff, too, and some classical R&B and Motown. The open-stage portion of it is all about the art - poets, comedians, singers."

The core band supporting the Wednesday open jam is Harlan Jefferson & SOSO Tight. The trio includes Jefferson on sax, Flowers on drums and Ray Buchanan, a gospel musician from Rockford, on keys.

Other local musicians regularly join the jam, including Rob Dz Experience backup singer Marcus Fleming, world/jazz guitarist Hildner and a hand percussionist named Rockameem.

"We're just trying to touch people with our music," says Jefferson. He adds, echoing Flowers: "I think a lot of people come down here to get their soul healed."

Dealing with perceptions

Race is another R word that shapes the story of R Place.

Since I moved to Madison in 1992, race has been a wedge in the music scene.

Hip-hop has been the flashpoint, but as the soul/jazz focus at R Place now reveals, it's not about genre. It's about police incidents at or near venues or events that primarily attract people of color.

Like the Paramount in 1994, Mass Appeal in 1998 and Club Majestic in 2006, R Place has already been linked to those kinds of incidents.

Police responded to reports of gunshots being fired from a parking lot behind the venue on Oct. 10, 2009 at 2:16 a.m. No one was reported injured, but the Madison Police Department incident report indicates "multiple .22 shell casings" were recovered from the lot.

Neighbors have complained about the noise. Last fall, the Madison Police Department asked Flowers to make lighting and surveillance changes, which he accommodated.

"Overall, I think Rick is cooperative and will work with the police," says Stephanie Bradley Wilson, lieutenant for the south district office of the Madison Police Department. "I've worked with other places that are reluctant to cooperate with police, but I think Rick understands the importance of his business to the community."

Are venues and events patronized mostly by people of color unfairly linked to illegal behavior in ways that a Badger football game never would be? Are these venues and events unfairly suppressed because of it?

"People get beat up outside of clubs downtown all the time," says Flowers. "Statistically, you're probably safer to come here." He suggests that race has affected R Place more than the venue's association with police incidents. It's limited the scope of who's willing to come to his club to see a show.

Says Hildner, "Because R Place is located on the south side, people just tend to have the attitude of not wanting to deal with their perceptions of that side of town. They would rather just avoid the hassle altogether."

When I queried UW-Madison music professor Richard Davis on this topic, he succinctly responded, "A simple answer is that many white people do not venture to the south side out of fear and stereotypes."

Flowers puts it in terms more personal and more pointed. "I mean, people from Canada, from Europe, they'll go into a black neighborhood and say, 'Here's the jazz, here's the blues.' But European Americans, they don't like that, so I chalk it up to that. They're very comfortable if they're in the majority, and if they're not in the majority, they pretty much stay away. This is a great place, and if they miss out because of their prejudices or whatever else it is that's holding them back, then shame on them."

But other local musicians say they haven't played or gone to R Place simply because they hadn't heard about it.

"I didn't know about it," says jazz singer Gerri DiMaggio. "But I would play there in a second."

"I haven't checked out R Place yet," says blues guitarist Robert J. Conaway. "But I will."

When I ask Flowers how widely he's tried to get word out about his club, he says, "How many clubs have to 'get word out'? Usually when there's a new club that has music, people come to the door and ask, 'Can I play here? How much do you pay?'"

He's still hopeful the community beyond the borders of the south side will come make R Place their place.

"There's still room. All those music majors out there should join us. This is a place to woodshed, to learn your chops."

A moment to levitate

Not long after Hildner leaves my side to partake in the R Place jam, Marcus Fleming comes over, sits next to me, and starts telling me about the band.

He doesn't care about the way I shake his hand. Before night's end, he has made plans to friend me on Facebook.

Fleming moved to Madison last July from Chicago, where he sang in a gospel choir. Now he's working part-time at R Place and singing there once a week. "I think it's as good an open mike that you'll find anywhere," he says.

"The whole background of this thing is soul, the spirit, Jesus Christ," Jefferson says.

"I really love how it's a place where people of all stripes just come to have a good time," says Hildner.

He says tolerance is the venue's main virtue. "It's a place that's very accepting of all cultures, and you can feel comfortable there no matter who you are," he says. "I think it's unique because it's one of the few venues in Madison that features soul, R&B, jazz, spoken-word and other genres of black music and culture. It's also a place where people really come to listen to the music, and they really get into what's going on onstage."

"People here know the blues," says Flowers. "They feel it. For me, it's the one night of the week for meditation. Sometimes we have those moments where we levitate, and those are the great moments, when you're above it all."

When I leave R Place, I walk through the back parking lot. I think of the gunfire that rang out months ago across this spot. When I look back over my shoulder, Marcus Fleming is there. He's come outside, and he waves goodbye.

For a few hours that night, R Place feels like my place, too.

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