Jamie Katz on “The Soul of Memphis”

Jamie Katz
Jamie Katz is a longtime magazine editor and writer. His interest in music landed him his latest assignment, a travel story about Memphis. Joanna Katz

Jamie Katz is a longtime magazine editor and writer. In the fall of 2007, he served as a consulting editor to Smithsonian’s special issue, 37 under 36: America’s Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences, and he continues to write for the magazine, both print and online. His interest in music, particularly jazz and blues, landed him his latest assignment, a travel story about Memphis. I recently spoke with Katz about his experience reporting “The Soul of Memphis.”

What drew you to this particular story, about Memphis? Can you describe how it came about?

My father was a jazz musician from Baltimore, and I’ve always been fond of those proud, older, historic cities that have had to fight for their lives in the last half century. Memphis is one of them, and a particularly interesting one to me because of its rich, musical history. Of course, it’s right there on the Mississippi, which is the central nervous system of American music, especially if you’re into blues and jazz, as I am. And then when it was assigned we were coming up on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, which added another layer of focus—racial matters, something that people are often uncomfortable discussing but that has always fascinated me. I love Memphis, but I know a lot of people who are puzzled by that because they think it’s a wasteland or something, which it certainly is not.

What was your favorite moment during your trip to Memphis?

Outside of the Mississippi River Museum, on Mud Island just off into the Mississippi from Memphis, there is a five-block long scale model of the Mississippi River. It has every bend of the river, its terraced banks, its towns, its flood plains and its levee systems all faithfully rendered. There’s a cool stream of water running through. It was a very scorching day when I was there, so I kicked off my shoes and walked the five-block length of the Mississippi River, wading down to what they called the “Gulf of Mexico,” which was a large pool where you can rent a paddle boat. I just jumped in and cooled off, and then walked over to a grassy slope facing west, away from the city, where there’s nothing but pristine woodland. You can take yourself back. I just dried off and laid down under a shade tree, and I let my spirit roam free like Huckleberry Finn, while Old Man River, the real one, rushed by in its inexorable, muddy course. That was a great moment. When you’re traveling, sometimes you need that moment, when you stop running and just relax. Those are probably the most creative moments, actually.

Then, of course, there’s the music. Beale Street is a proper shrine to something that took place in Memphis and continues to take place, which is just really good, down-home music with a great beat and some real feeling. That was one of America’s great gifts to the world. So it’s nice to be right there in the cradle.

How do you describe Memphis or its vibe to people who have never been before?

Fascinating. Deep. Real. The most singular thing about Memphis in a word, I think, is its realness. We have a tendency to make places into theme parks and to sanitize everything. That sort of leaches out a lot of the history and humanity out of places. But Memphis is somewhat untouched by that tendency, and that is a great treasure.

What do you hope readers take away from this story?

I hope that they’ll get the feeling of loving the underdog cities of America and rooting for them a little bit more. I hope people won’t feel that they have to distance themselves from places that have had troubles. We can embrace those cities as part of our society that needs to be cherished.

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