29 February 2020

[Ellis Millsaps] - Three Musicians: Remembering Jazz Pianist & Friend, Paul Mitchell

For some reason, or maybe no reason, serendipity perhaps, I've been good friends with three outstanding musicians. Faithful readers know about Bruce Hampton and Marshall McCart. Today I am moved to write about the third.

 Paul Mitchell was a brilliant jazz pianist. I worked for years alongside the Paul Mitchell Trio at Dante's Down the Hatch in Underground Atlanta. Paul died in 2000-- he graduated from Morehouse College with a degree in music when I was 6 months old-- but if he were alive today and met me on the street I'm sure he would peer deeply into my eyes and say ”Is that you Ellis?” He wouldn't mean he wasn't sure who I was; He’d mean as he always did when he put that question to me,” Are you in there Ellis? Is this who you want to be? I believe you have gifts you haven't yet displayed.”

Often he’d ask me this question when he, Bo Newton, John Thacker (managers at Dante’s) and I would be smoking marijuana after hours (and Dante gone home) at Dante's or sometimes in the parking lot while it was crazy busy inside. How did the pretty boy hillbilly from Jacks River and the black genius from Decatur find themselves so situated?

After college Paul enlisted in the Army where he played trumpet in the US Army Band for three years. After the Army he taught himself to play the piano. In the 1950s Pascal’s, the famous gathering place for civil rights leaders, opened a nightclub, The Carousel, where Paul played. Dante first heard Paul’s trio at the Playboy club in the sixties and when he opened the Hatch in 1970 he hired that trio as his house band, a gig they held for decades.

 I came to Dante's in 1971 because my then roommate, Owen Meislin, who worked there, told another of my housemates, Tom Gallo, ( now a partner in an Atlanta law firm) that Dante had an opening for a busboy. Tom made $35 a week cleaning his father's office supply store. He asked if he could make that much at Dante’s. Owen told him he would make more than that in one night. Tom, a cautious individual, declined but I, a financially strapped Emory student, said I’d take it. Pretty soon I was rolling in money, buying a half dozen rock and roll albums at a time,( I still have a vast collection from that era) taking beautiful young women to expensive restaurants and giving away money and drugs to my friends in need.

 Dante Stephensen, a former Navy SEAL, somehow after a divorce found himself in the restaurant business as a maitre d at a busy Atlanta restaurant where he charmed guests into investing in his envisioned Dante's Down the Hatch. That done, he enlisted Paul Mitchell and his trio as the house band and set upon a remarkable run of success.

 Dante had a genius concept. He installed the city's finest wine list with a variety of cheese trays and fondue in a brilliantly conceived and executed setting, this at a time when Underground Atlanta was entering its heyday as a tourist attraction.

 Dante's would have been a success in those early days in underground regardless. but when other venues developed comparable wine lists and underground became known as too dangerous for tourists, Dante's not only survived but was able to rebuild  the ship in prestigious Buckhead digs. He would not have been able to do that without Paul Mitchell. It was Paul who established Dante's as an Atlanta institution with a faithful following, tourists be damned.

 Paul wrote successful original compositions (not only for himself but others) which drummer Alan Murphy sang in a beautiful rich baritone, but it’s the covers I most often remember, particularly the Eagles’ “Desperado”. Paul told me that the first time he heard that song he cried because those California boys so poignantly described the state of his life at the time.

(Years later I saw Alan Murphy playing drums and singing with a lesser band on the square in Covington at one of those Thursday lunch concerts. We warmly acknowledged each other but with an undertone of embarrassment. We both knew our glory days were behind us. Being a busboy at Dante's was a much richer life than being a successful small town lawyer.)

 I know very little of Paul's private life. He was a proud and dignified man but in many ways very private. I do know  obliquely that at one time he thought his life a prison where he was” walking through this world all alone.” For most if not all the time I knew him Paul taught music in the Atlanta school system, this in addition to playing jazz six nights a week until the morning hours. He was later adjunct professor of music at both Emory and Morehouse.

 He rubbed shoulders with leaders of the civil rights movement. I once heard him say,( and although I intuitively already knew it  I had never heard anyone say it ) that things began to really change for the better in the civil rights movement when young white people started smoking marijuana.