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LEGENDS | Culture & Arts from the Cradle of American Music

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Dexter Allen

 

The Poser of Music

Photography by Melanie Thortis

 

The first night Dexter Allen took the stage at Frank Jones Corner in Jackson, Mississippi, co-owner Daniel Dillon made sure to pay special attention. Like most authentic blues joints, F. Jones is a small juke with close quarters that stays open late and keeps it loud. 

 

“His stage presence was consuming. He’s the genuine article, no joke,” Dillon said. “His performance is like a play—three hour-long sets with 20-minute breaks in between. Each ‘act’ crescendos more and more, so at 4 in the morning, people aren’t ready to leave.” 

The love was mutual. Dillon’s father, Sherman Lee Dillon of Sherman Lee Dillon and the Mississippi Sound, became pals with Allen during a gig in Canada. Dillon Sr. turned Allen on to F. Jones. 

 

“F. Jones is the last real thing on the block,” Allen said. “It’s authentic. You do what you feel, then you feed off the crowd and the crowd feeds off you. That’s how the Subway Lounge was.”

Opened in 2009, F. Jones is a new cornerstone for a community steeped in all kinds of history. 

The Summers Hotel, just down the road, was a segregation-era hotel built in 1944. In the mid 1960s, the hotel opened the famed Subway Lounge in its basement. It quickly became a favorite among artists like James Brown and Nat “King” Cole. Farish Street, where F. Jones sits, at one time was the largest economically independent black community in Mississippi, the “black mecca of Mississippi,” as it was called. After the Subway was demolished in 2004, F. Jones filled the music void. 

 

Most places in Jackson close at 2 a.m., but F. Jones stays open until 4 a.m., which means anyone in Jackson who’s still partying at 2 funnels into F. Jones.

 

“The Jackson music scene has always been a very diverse music scene and a very competitive music scene,” Allen said. “Crowds here are around great music all the time. To rock them, you really got to bring it. If you can rock a crowd in Jackson, Mississippi, you can rock one anywhere in the world.”

 

Allen would know. Born in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, Allen grew up playing bass for his father’s gospel quartet. He transitioned to blues music, not a far stretch, and became the guitarist for Grammy-winning blues legend Bobby Rush. Allen traveled with Rush and the Bobby Rush Experience for half a decade before branching off into a solo career. Allen has released six albums and has a seventh on the way.

 

“Out here in Mississippi, gospel and blues are brother and sister. The same people in the blues joint on Saturday night are the same people in church on Sunday,” Allen said. 

Like Rush, Allen said he only performs at one level—full out. However, he credits his gospel background for teaching him how to work the crowd. He credits his Mississippi upbringing for his natural songwriting ability.

 

“God blessed this part of America with the ability to create,” Allen said. “People here take a little bit and make a lot out of it, and they pass it down, like your grandmother passing on the recipe for plum jelly or something. It ain’t in no book. There ain’t no recipe. If you’re around good music all the time, you’re gonna be making good music.”

 

F. Jones is a good fit for Allen. On the books, he and his band play there about once per quarter. Other times, he might pop in and play a set between tour dates. If he’s just hanging out having a drink at F. Jones and the act for the night can’t make it, he calls the band. He and Dillon are practically family—Dillon takes his kids over to Allen's land to go fishing. In January of 2017, Dillon and Allen started F. Jones’ Thursday Night Blues and Music Challenge, which is essentially karaoke with a live band. Though it’s not always Allen’s band playing, the event still goes down every week.

 

“My agent doesn’t care for me playing down there because it doesn’t bring as much money as the other places. But F. Jones ain’t about the money. It ain’t about big cards and lights and all that type of stuff,” Allen said. “F. Jones is about the thrill. It’s about cutting loose.”

Dillon said F. Jones’ authenticity is undergirded by something bigger, by a vision for Mississippi characterized by equality and good times. He sees it almost every night, after 2 in the morning, folks from every walk of life come down to the only spot in town that’s still jumping. 

“Every night I see folks come together and revel in good music and good food together,” Dillon said. That motivates me. My business partner and I feel like nobody else could do the job we do at Frank Jones. We stay focused on providing a common ground for people.”

Allen agrees.

 

“The truth is, nobody likes being unequal, even the ones who have the upper hand. It’s a burden either way,” Allen said. “That’s the power of music, of the blues. You get to shrug all that off and be yourself and just have fun with people. There’s no place that facilitates that better than F. Jones Corner.”

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