by Cesca Janece Waterfield
At the corner of Broad and Meadow Streets in Richmond, ambulance passersby can often smell spices roasting at C.F. Sauer’s Company. But even at Emilio’s, a Spanish restaurant and live music venue across the street, there’s always something cooking. On Friday nights, it reaches multi-faceted excellence, when Doc Branch and the Keynotes open the stage to musicians from every corner of the Richmond area. It’s a musical stew that Emilio’s has served for almost 25 years.
Doc Branch has been here from its beginning. “It started by accident,” he says. “I was playing with this group. It wasn’t a jam session. The original band leader decided to go back home. The club owner asked me if I would take over. It was very scary because I really didn’t know what to do. But I told him that I had a mission: to spread love and bring people together. He said, ‘You’re crazy. I’ll give you one night.’ One night has lasted approximately 25 years.”
From the original three piece band, the jam frequently included 20 musicians with instrumentation of all types. “What’s amazing is that after we started it, the jam session took a life of its own,” Doc remembers. “All of the local musicians started coming in on Friday nights.” He says supporting members of the Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Wynton Marsalis, Auturo Sandoval and Ray Charles Bands have all stopped in.
Musicians who take the stage are accompanied by the house band, the Keynotes. Today’s lineup features Doc on baritone saxophone; William Saul on bass; Gerrard Johnson on drums; Rahim Amin on guitar; Woody Thompson on piano; Terry Brooks on Congas, Calvin Farmer on alto and tenor saxophones; Scott Hagin on vibraphone; Bill Bethel on trombone and Rolando Jordan on trumpet, with vocalists Lady E, Gloria Glasgow, and Reginald Charity. “We accommodate everybody,” Doc says. “We do blues, Latin, even some country.”
Friday nights remain a cross-section of Richmond’s population, and seem suffused with a spirit Doc says dropped in on day one. “We were one of the first to have integration of the musicians,” he says with pride. “In fact, we called it the United Nations, because we had people of every ethnic group way back when it wasn’t very popular, when you didn’t see that.”
Along the way, Doc says Emilio’s has served as a venue for rap during that art form’s earliest days. “Long before rap became popular, we had people who used to do poems and rap and do lyrics,” he recalls. “This was unheard of. We were doing that in the late 70s. As I look back on it, we were way ahead of our time in many different areas.”
Emilio’s has been a training ground for musicians who went on to play with, for example, Miles Davis and Terence Blanchard. It’s also created local celebrities, like vocalist Lady E, who’s been a well-known performer at Emilio’s for almost 17 years.
“It’s a mixture of flavor there,” she says. “I’m doing blues with a touch of jazz. You have some more artists there doing their thing. There’s a mixture, so that you’re able to meet your audience. I like Friday nights because it offers that to the audience.
Naturally, building this tradition has relied on many people. “The Richmond Jazz Society has helped us a lot,” Doc says. “They’ve helped me personally and helped the club a lot and everything here in Richmond. They really don’t get the credit that they should.”
Still, no one could deny that band leader Branch deserves plenty of credit. Born in Chesterfield to mother Jessie Jones Branch and father Percy, Ralph, as he was known then, went to Carver High School. Although his family sang in church, neither his parents nor his two brothers were musicians. But he grew up listening to Charlie Parker and Lester Young, and embraced the saxophone. In 1957, he graduated from Virginia State University with a music degree. He makes clear that what many take for a nickname today, is in fact, an abbreviated academic title: “I have a Ph.D. in Nutritional Science and Medicine,” he says. “That ‘Doc’ is real.”
Doc places Emilio’s in a larger context of Richmond history. “When entertainers like Bill Cosby and James Brown and Nat King Cole came to town, all of them hung out on 2nd Street. We used to call it the Deuce. It was segregation at that time. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, all of them used to hang out. Richmond has so much history. Emilio’s is really the mecca, I would say, because regardless of where all of the musicians play, all of them still come here.”
Chad Stambaugh has been co-owner of Emilio’s for six years. “Friday nights are fantastic,” he says. “People that come usually continue to come. For the longest time, I wondered why [Doc] didn’t eat or drink while he was here. He fasts every Friday. It’s part of his spiritual thing. He’s amazing.”
Doc frames his spiritual philosophy simply: “I believe in love. That’s the whole idea. My goal was to try and bring everybody together under one roof. My feeling is if you’re happy, you’re not going to have a problem with [other] people. Even now with the economic times bad, we still have a packed house.”
So if a jam session can unite a community and inspire good music, why aren’t more venues doing it?
“I’ll tell you the reason people don’t do jam sessions,” Doc offers. “[Musicians] have got to have the patience of Job. You’ve got to take the ego hat off. You’ve got to believe in sharing. Fourth, you’ve got to believe in total unadulterated love for your fellow man.”
For the audience, the payoff is grand: “They see the core band, but before the night is over, they may see 15 or 20 musicians rotate all night long.”
Looking to the future, Doc maintains his original goal, made 25 years ago. “To keep it going, that’s the main objective, and I would like to see all of the people of the arts come together.”